Microsoft announces its xCloud streaming service and a truckload of new games are coming in 2020

Microsoft has announced a vague intention to launch its xCloud game streaming service sometime in 2020, and dropped a double handful of new titles that will arrive on it and the existing Game Pass subscription. It seems that next year will indeed be the opening battle in the streaming wars to come.

The announcements came at XO19, the company’s Xbox-focused event, which is taking place in London. They seem calculated to take the wind out of Google’s sails; the opening lineup of Stadia, Google’s entry in the game streaming world, was finalized earlier this week and is rather barebones. Microsoft is hoping Google’s first-mover advantage will be nullified by the expected confusion around payments, features, titles, and other issues Stadia is still working out.

Game Pass is currently in a preview period on PC. Although Microsoft did not supply a hard release date, saying only that 2020 is the plan. That year will also bring Windows 10 support, PC game streaming, and potentially an expansion beyond Android for mobile streaming.

The price too is TBA — Google’s proposition is remarkably complicated, and it will take time for consumers to figure out what they’re willing to pay for, what the real costs are, and so on. So Microsoft is probably going to wait and see here.

But what is known about xCloud is that gamers will get access to all the games currently available on Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription — well over a hundred PC and console titles right now, with more being added regularly. That makes it easier to commit to for a lot of gamers.

New controllers will be supported soon, including Sony’s DualShock 4, which comes with the PlayStation 4; that’s a real olive branch to Microsoft’s arch-rival. And new countries will be brought into the fold soon as well: Canada, India, Japan, and “Western Europe.”

Game Pass will also be receiving dozens of titles old and new throughout 2020, including Final Fantasy 7 through 15, Darksiders 3, Flight Simulator, and a bunch of newly announced games as well, such as Obsidian’s new “Honey, I Shrunk the Survival Game” title, “Grounded.”

Several brand new properties and gameplay for known but unreleased games were also teased at XO19. Check them out below:

Everwild is a new IP from Rare that appears to involve a lot of sneaking around a lush forest and either avoiding or interacting with fantastical animals. It’s still early days, but the team wants to create “new ways to play in a natural and magical world.” I’m just here for the solar-powered dino-deer.

Tell Me Why is a new one from Dontnod, makers of Life is Strange starring a pair of twins with some kind of paranormal connection. Notably one of the twins is transgender, not common among game protagonists, and the company worked with GLAAD to make sure the representation of the character is genuine.

Age of Empires 4 got an only slightly satisfying gameplay reveal. Real-time strategy buffs will want more than this, but no doubt they’re excited to see this venerable franchise getting a modern sequel.

You can catch up on the rest over at the Xbox official blog post.

Minecraft Earth is live, so get tapping

Microsoft’s big experiment in real-world augmented reality gaming, Minecraft Earth, is live now for players in North America, the U.K., and a number of other areas. The pocket-size AR game lets you collect blocks and critters wherever you go, undertake little adventures with friends, and of course build sweet castles.

I played an early version of Minecraft Earth earlier this year, and found it entertaining and the AR aspect surprisingly seamless. The gameplay many were first introduced to in Pokemon GO is adapted here in a more creative and collaborative way.

You still walk around your neighborhood, rendered in this case charmingly like a Minecraft world, and tap little icons that pop up around your character. These may be blocks you can use to build, animals you can collect, or events like combat encounters that you can do alone or with friends for rewards.

Ultimately all this is in service of building stuff, which you do on “build plates” of various sizes. These you place in AR mode on a flat surface, which they lock onto, letting you move around freely to edit and play with them. This sounded like it could be fussy or buggy when I first heard about it, but actually doing it was smooth and easy. It’s easy to “zoom in” to edit a structure by just moving your phone closer, and multiple people can play with the same blocks and plate at the same time.

Once you’ve put together something fun, you can take it to an outdoors location and have it represented at essentially “real” size, so you can walk around the interior of your castle or dungeon. Of course you can’t climb steps, since they’re not real, but the other aspects work as expected: you can manipulate doors and other items, breed cave chickens, and generally enjoy yourself.

The game is definitely more open-ended than the collection-focused Pokemon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Whether that proves to be to its benefit or detriment when it comes to appeal and lasting power remains to be seen — but one thing is for sure: People love Minecraft and they’re going to want to at least try this out.

And now they can, if they’re in one of the following countries — with others coming throughout the holiday season.

 

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • South Korea
  • Philippines
  • Sweden
  • Mexico
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Iceland

You can download Minecraft Earth for iOS here and for Android here.

 

‘Death Stranding’ brings back appointment gaming

Game launches these days are frequently the very worst time to play them. Plagued by bugs, server issues, balance problems and a lack of content, many “games as a service” titles are best consumed after a month or two. Not so with Hideo Kojima’s long-awaited Death Stranding, which, if you’re going to play at all… you should probably play now.

This type of game comes out once every year or two: A title where the gradual discovery of mechanics and ideas by the players is part of the adventure. Being part of that vanguard of players who go in unsure of what to expect, learning by doing and sharing that information with others has a special feeling, not of exclusivity exactly, but of a collective experience.

Sure, playing the new Call of Duty on day one can be thrilling, but it’s not exactly a journey of discovery. Furthermore, games like those tend to get better after the first few months as content is added, gameplay is tweaked and so on.

But just as some TV and movies are best seen with friends on the day they’re released, some games beg to be played before they become over-amply documented, their mysteries vivisected and wikified.

The most frequent entries on this list are From Software’s Dark Souls type games, the esoteric workings of which are sometimes never fully revealed even years later. Bloodborne is still yielding up its secrets even now, for instance.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was another one, in which it wasn’t exactly that people were finding hidden things or speculating on lore, but rather finding how open-ended the world really was and demonstrating that in ingenious ways. When someone figured out you can trick an enemy into being struck by lightning by slipping them a metal weapon in a thunderstorm, it was like a million gamers worldwide squinted, said “wait, what?” and ran to their Switch to try it.

Death Stranding is likewise “appointment gaming,” because… well, it’s so weird. But it definitely belongs in the company of those games that are best experienced while steaming hot, like the frequent showers you’ll see Norman Reedus take in it. I’m glad I let a friend of mine convince me to jump in right away.

Don’t worry, I won’t be spoiling anything you don’t learn in the first couple of hours. But there is a mechanic where items like ladders or climbing ropes you lay down to help navigate the terrain get shared with other people for their own use. Just as there is glory in being the first to call down lightning in Zelda, there’s a glory (slightly more obscure admittedly) in being the first to go a certain way and let others follow in your footsteps.

Lay down a bridge to reach a shelter more easily while carrying lots of cargo, and you may find that a day or two later, thousands of people have used it, given it “likes,” and maybe even upgraded or expanded it with their own resources.

The thing about this is that in a year or two, the locations of these bridges will have been optimized and documented for all to know, as if they were part of the game’s landscape to begin with. Where’s the fun in that? It’s a pleasure knowing that the environment around you is being improvised by players all over the world.

Similarly, there are “aha” moments already occurring. You’re told directly that your character’s bodily fluids seem anathema to the ghostly “BTs” that are your most serious enemies. You’re also given the option, once you’ve drunk sufficient quantities from your canteen, to have a wee. Someone made that connection and decided to wee on the horrible ghostly BTs — and it repels them!

And a million gamers squint, say “wait, what?” and run to their PS4 to try it.

That collective experience that we shared when we sat in the same room to watch the Game of Thrones finale or, before that, Lost’s ultimately regrettable but thrilling perambulations, is present here in Death Stranding, as it has been for other games before it.

Is Death Stranding a game for everyone? Hell no. But nor was Dark Souls. Death Stranding is a game that is frequently original and odd and surprising, while also occasionally being heavy-handed, tedious and obtuse. We need more of that in the increasingly cynical and predictable world of AAA gaming.

By its nature Death Stranding is something that, if you don’t give it a hard pass (and I definitely get that), you should be playing today — not next year or even next month. Get it, then be patient, be weird, have fun and send likes.

Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure is a silly, gentle way to shape up

Nintendo has a long history when it comes to exercise-driven games. I’m dating myself, but I can say I remember playing Track & Field on NES with the Power Pad. How far we’ve come! Ring Fit Adventure is a full-body workout for grown-ups, but fun, gentle, and ridiculous enough to forget it’s exercise.

The game and accessories were announced in September, coming as a complete surprise even considering Nintendo’s constant but hit-and-miss attempts at keeping its players healthy. What really threw people off was that this game actually looked like… a game. And so it is!

Ring Fit Adventure has you, the unnamed and (naturally) mute protagonist, journeying through a series of worlds and levels chasing after Dragaux, a swole dragon who’s infecting the land with… something. Maybe he’s not wiping down the equipment afterwards. Come on, man.

Playing with these virtual versions of the controllers gives you a real feel for how solid the motion detection is.

Anyway, you do this by using the Joy-Cons in a new and strange form: the Ring-Con and leg strap. The latter is pretty self-explanatory, but the ring must be explained. It’s a thick plastic resistance ring that you squeeze from the edges or pull apart. It detects how hard you’re squeezing it through the other Joy-Con, which slots into the top. (The strap and ring grips are washable, by the way.)

The two controllers combined can detect all kinds of movements, from squats and leg lifts to rotations, presses, balancing, and yoga poses. You’ll need them all if you’re going to progress in the game.

Each level is a path that you travel down by actually jogging in real life (or high stepping if you’re in goo), while using the Ring-Con to interact with the environment. Aim and squeeze to send out a puff of air that opens a door or propels you over an obstacle, or pull it apart to suck in distant coins. Press it against your abs to crush rocks, do squats to open chests — you get the idea.

ringfit1

I haven’t gotten this one yet, but it looks handy. I could use a stronger arm-based multi-monster attack.

Of course you encounter enemies as well, which you dispatch with a variety of exercises targeting different muscle groups. Do a few arm presses over your head for some basic damage, or hit multiple enemies with some hip rotations. Each exercise has you do a number of reps, which turn into damage, before defending against enemy attacks with an “Ab Guard.”

The ring and leg strap seem almost magical in their ability to track your motion in all kinds of ways, though some are no doubt only inferred or fudged (as when you lift the leg without the strap). A missed motion happened so rarely over thousands of them that I ceased to think at all about it, which is about the highest compliment you can give a control method like this. Yet it’s also forgiving enough that you won’t feel the need to get everything right down the millimeter. You can even check your pulse by putting your thumb on the IR sensor of the right Joy-Con. Who knew?

As you progress, you unlock new exercises with different uses or colors — and you soon are able to fight more strategically by matching muscle group coloring (red is arms, purple legs, etc) with enemies of the same type. It’s hardly Fire Emblem, but it’s also a lot more than anyone has every really expected from a fitness game.

The red guys are like, “yeah… do him first.”

In fact, so much care and polish has clearly gone into this whole operation that’s it’s frequently surprising; there are so many things that could have been phoned in an not a single one is. The exercises are thoughtfully selected and explained in a friendly manner; the monsters and environments show great attention to detail. There’s no punishment for failure except restarting a level — the first time I “died,” I expected a little sass from my chatty companion, Ring, but it just popped me back to the map with nary a word.

Throughout is a feeling of acceptance and opportunity rather than pressure to perform. You can quit at any time and it doesn’t chide you for abandoning your quest or not burning enough calories. If you decide not to do the warm-up stretch, Tabb just says “OK!” and moves on. When you perform a move, it’s either “good” or “great,” or it reminds you of the form and you can try again. Whenever you start, you can change the difficulty, which I believe is reps, damage, and other soft counts, since it can’t increase the resistance of the Ring-Con.

dragaux

Seems familiar…

There’s no pressure to change your body and no gendered expectations; Your exercise demonstration model/avatar, Tabb, is conspicuously androgynous. Your character is a pretty cut specimen of your preferred gender, to be sure. And Dragaux himself is a sort of parody of oblivious, musclebound gym bunnies (“He’s working out while planning his next workout,” the game announced one time as he skipped an attack to do some bicep curls). But even he, Ring mentions at one point, used to be very insecure about his body. Importantly, there’s nothing about the game that feels targeted to getting a certain type of person a certain type of fit.

I’m not a trainer or fitness expert, but so far the variety of exercises also feels solid. It’s all very low-impact stuff, and because it’s resistance ring and body weight only, there’s a sort of core-strengthening yoga style to it all. This isn’t about getting ripped, but you’ll be surprised how sore you are after taking down a few enemies with a proper-form chair pose.

If you don’t want to play the adventure mode, there are minigames to collect and short workouts you can customize. Honestly some of these would make better party games than half the stuff on 1-2-Switch.

As I’ve been playing the game and discussing it with friends, I found myself wanting more out of the game side. I’m hoping Ring Fit Adventure will be a success so that Nintendo will green light a new, deeper version with more complex RPG elements. Sure, you can change your outfit here for a little extra defense or whatnot, but I want to take this concept further — I know the fundamentals are sound, so I’d like to see them built on.

[gallery ids="1907223,1907228,1907230,1907231,1907227,1907232,1907234"]

It feels like until now there have been few ways to really gamify fitness, except the most elementary, like step tracking. The two separate motion controllers and the smart ways they’re used to track a variety of exercises really feel like an opportunity to do something bigger. Plus once people have bought the accessories, they’re much more likely to buy matching software.

My main criticisms would be that it’s a bit limiting at the beginning. There’s no choice to, for example, prioritize or deprioritize a certain type of exercise. I could probably stand to jog more and do arm stuff less, and I dreaded having to resort to squats for the first few worlds. And the constant instruction on how and when to do everything can be wearing — it would be nice to be able to set some things to “expert mode” and skip the tutorials.

The game and accessories will set you back $80. If you consider it simply as buying a game, it’s an expensive gimmick. But I don’t think that’s the way to think about it. The target audience here is people who likely don’t have a gym membership, something that can cost $50-$100 a month. As a fun and effective fitness tool that does what it sets out to do and does so in a praiseworthy way, I think $80 is a very reasonable asking price.

Mario Kart Tour will test real-time multiplayer in December

The mobile version of Nintendo’s iconic racing franchise, Mario Kart Tour, will soon support multiplayer races, bringing the game closer to its competitive roots. A limited multiplayer beta test is planned for December, just in time for holiday laziness, but only for paying subscribers — the rest of us will have to wait.

Mario Kart has had a focus on multiplayer since its first (and best, in my opinion) appearance on the SNES, with multiple modes available pitting players together in real time. So despite Mario Kart Tour’s general excellence as far as gameplay and variety, players have been disappointed by the lack of that core aspect of the game.

Sure, you can post high scores and best times, but that’s nothing compared with the feeling of coming from behind in a hard-fought race and beating out half a dozen tough competitors.

mario kart tour ios

Well, players will soon have that opportunity — if they happen to be Gold Pass subscribers. That’s the subscription tier that gives access to extra content in the “free to start” game, and will be a requirement to join the beta.

Naturally this will provoke ire among players who feel they are owed not just a free game, but a free game that gives them everything they want for free. And in fact they may eventually get that, but it’s probably smart for Nintendo to limit this experience at first to paying customers so they can stress-test, balance gameplay and so on. A subpar multiplayer experience is a good way to turn off otherwise interested players.

Still, this feeds into a larger dissatisfaction among gamers with Nintendo’s online and multiplayer strategy. The subscription service required for many popular games on the Switch comes with a selection of Nintendo and Super Nintendo Games, but beyond that the benefits are minimal, and features standard on other platforms for years — voice chat, for instance — are absent or long in coming.

At only $20 a year it’s hardly a big investment, but subscription fatigue is growing among tech-savvy consumers and they are cutting things out where they can. Hopefully Nintendo’s offering will solidify and survive.

Razer targets gamers with low latency wireless earbuds

Everyone’s in the wireless earbuds these days. Razer, never one to be left out of a trend, is entering the category this week with Hammerhead True Wireless, a pair of fully wireless earbuds targeting its core demographic of gamers.

Where the headphones set to distinguish themselves from the chattering masses of competitors is a focus on low latency. Anyone who’s ever attempted to use earbuds for gaming purposes knows that lag is an issue with a majority of the products on the market. Understandably so, as most are far more focused on music playback and therefore prioritize other features instead.

nkcHbuRg

To achieve this, the company has tweaked Bluetooth 5.0 to offer a Gaming Mode with 60ms, according to the company’s numbers. What’s more, the Razer’s offering them up at an extremely reasonable $100, less than even Amazon’s new Echo Buds — not to mention Apple’s pricey AirPods Pro, which were announced earlier this week.

On paper, at least, the specs are solid for the price point, including a decent (but far from exceptional) three hours of battery life on the buds, for 15 total hours with the charging case factored in. The headphones also feature the standard array of touch controls for playing and pausing music. Honestly, aside from gaming mode, they’re an otherwise pretty standard pair of earbuds from the looks of it. 

The Hammerheads are available now through Razer’s site.

Shadow announces new plans for its cloud gaming platform

Blade, the French startup behind Shadow, held a press conference this morning to announce some product news as well as some corporate changes.

Shadow is a cloud computing service for gamers. For a monthly subscription fee, you can access a gaming PC in a data center near you. Compared to other cloud gaming services, Shadow provides a full Windows 10 instance. You can install anything you want, Steam, Photoshop or Word.

Right now, the company offers a single configuration for $35 per month with eight threads on an Intel Xeon 2620 processor, an Nvidia Quadro P5000 GPU that performs more or less as well as an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.

The startup is moving away from a single configuration to offer three different plans. On February 2020, customers will be able to chose between three plans — Boost, Ultra or Infinite.

  • Boost: Nvidia GTX 1080 GPU, 3.4GHz with 4 cores CPU, 12GB of RAM, 256GB of storage
  • Ultra: Nvidia RTX 2080 GPU, 4GHz with 4 cores CPU, 16GB of RAM , 512GB of storage
  • Infinite: Nvidia Titan RTX GPU, 4 GHz with 6 cores CPU, 32GB of RAM, 1TB of storage

In the U.K., Boost costs £12.99/£14.99 per month, Ultra costs £24.99/£29.99 and Infinite costs £39.99/£49.99 per month. You get the lower price with yearly subscriptions.

In France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, plans cost €12.99/€14.99, €24.99/€29.99 and €39.99/€49.99 respectively. Plans will become more expensive after the first 50,000 customers — pre-orders start today. New plans aren’t available in the U.S. for now.

It’s worth noting that you’ll be able to add an option to get more storage with any plan. Storage plans include 256GB of SSD performance — anything above that will perform like a more traditional HDD. Shadow is using Intel Xeon W3200 CPUs on the new configurations.

cQHGO38N.jpg large

OVH founder and chairman Octave Klaba also announced a new partnership with Shadow. OVH is going to take care of Shadow’s infrastructure and become the cloud hosting partner going forward. The new servers will be rolled out in OVH data centers.

In other news, Shadow is launching a new interface specifically designed for TVs and mobile devices. The launcher now lists all your games. You can tap on a game to launch the game directly without going through the regular Windows interface. The update is available on Android TV, iOS and Android. The tvOS update should land next week.

IMG 0206

Competition is heating up

Google is about to launch Stadia on November 19th. Microsoft is working on Project xCloud. Nvidia has its own cloud gaming service. In other words, cloud gaming has become an incredibly crowded market.

Shadow has been around for a few years now. In addition to refining its streaming technology, the company emphasizes everything you can do with Shadow that you can’t do with a more limited cloud gaming service.

“We’re the only one to offer a full PC. You can stream, work, do some Photoshop, do some SolidWorks,” Shadow co-founder Emmanuel Freund said. “We’re the only one to offer 244Hz monitor support, we’re the only one to adapt to all screens.”

As a pure cloud gaming company, Shadow wants to be available on any platform. You don’t have to buy a Google Pixel phone or a PlayStation to access the service. You can launch your Shadow instance on Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS, tvOS and Android TV.

And now, you can even imagine using Shadow with a mobile VR headset. After installing the Android app, you can launch VR games on your Shadow instance and access demanding games without a gaming PC.

Some corporate news

Shadow has raised another $33 million in October (€30 million) — it’s unclear who invested in this round. The company also raised some money from Western Digital and Charter Communications earlier this year. Overall, the startup has now raised $111 million since launch (€100 million).

There are now 70,000 Shadow customers across 8 countries. At $35 per month, the company is generation some significant monthly recurring revenue.

And Shadow has a new CEO. Co-founder Emmanuel Freund is stepping aside as CEO — he’s now in charge of strategy. Jérôme Arnaud is taking over as CEO. The company was probably looking for a more senior business profile for the next step of the company.

Here’s where top gaming VCs are looking for startup opportunities

With cross-platform experiences like Fortnite and PUBG, in-game socializing environments, and subscription-based cloud gaming services from Playstation, Google, Amazon, and others, the gaming industry is entering a new era beyond mobile.

These days, the industry is at the center of social media and entertainment trends; gaming is expected to earn $152 billion in global revenue this year, up 9.6% year over year. 

Given my recent writing on Unity, the most-used game engine, and ongoing research into interactive media trends, I wanted to find out how top gaming-focused VCs are assessing the market right now. I asked ten of them to share which trends they are most excited about when it comes to finding investment opportunities:

  • David Gardner, Partner at London Venture Partners
  • Henric Suuronen, Partner at Play Ventures
  • Samuli Syvähuoko, Partner at Sisu Game Ventures
  • Jay Chi, Partner at Makers Fund
  • Peter Levin, Managing Director at Griffin Gaming Partners
  • Gigi Levy-Weiss, Partner at NFX
  • Ethan Kurzweil, Partner at Bessemer Venture Partners
  • Jonathan Lai, Partner at Andreessen Horowitz
  • Blake Robbins, Partner at Ludlow Ventures
  • Jon Goldman, General Partner at GC Tracker & Board Partner at Greycroft Partners

Amid the mix of predictions, there were several common threads, such as optimism about the rise of games as broader social platforms, opportunities to invest directly in new studios, and skepticism about near-term investments in augmented or virtual reality and blockchain.

Here are their responses.

David Gardner, Partner at London Venture Partners

“PC Games are back. Great place to start new IP to then migrate a success to multiple platforms. There is more innovation in business models and more open distribution on PC to facilitate audience growth without the punishment of mobile CPIs.

VR & AR remain out. We stood away from VR in the beginning and extend that to AR while the user experience for games remains a disappointment. Let’s hope those new Apple glasses do the trick!

Crypto remain a theological war zone, but honestly everything on offer has been available in the cloud world, but the real consumer benefit isn’t showing up.

We love games that are expanding audience demographics and are sensitive to less hardcore audiences.  For example, women players are estimated to account for 1 billion gamers.”

Henric Suuronen, Partner at Play Ventures

“At Play Ventures, we believe we have just entered the golden era of mobile gaming. Who would have believed 10 years ago that Nintendo and games like Fortnite and Call of Duty would all be on mobile. Mobile is not just a games platform anymore, it is THE games platform of choice for casual and core players alike. Consequently, in the next 2-3 years we will invest in 30-40 mobile games studios across the globe.”

Samuli Syvähuoko, Partner at Sisu Game Ventures

“We at Sisu Game Ventures have been investing in many sectors since 2015 including free-to-play mobile games (especially big here in Finland), VR, AR, PC, console, instant messenger, hypercasual, audio and most recently cloud-native games as well. In addition to game studios, around a third of our investments are into games related tech/infrastructure. 

We’ve so far not dipped our toes into blockchain or eSports and our appetite for doing more investments in VR and AR is nil. To me, the most interesting mega trends lie with the promise of cloud gaming when utilized to its full potential. Another term that encapsulates my excitement is games-as-a-social-hobby. Put this and the extreme accessibility of the cloud together and you’ll have a game with revolutionary potential.”

Jay Chi, Partner at Makers Fund

“We are looking closely at ‘Gaming as Media’ related content and platforms — the emergence of new interactive experience centered on ‘viewers as participants.’ Gaming as social media falls under this thesis. We are also looking for MMO and Metaverse enablers given increased demand for specialized, scalable and affordable technologies that empower lean startup teams to create and operate large-scale worlds and novel gameplays. 

We also see potential for new start-ups to emerge in hypercasual games with midcore/social meta — no one has truly cracked this genre yet.”

GameClub offers mobile gaming’s greatest hits for $5 per month

Apple Arcade introduced the idea of all-you-can-eat subscription-based mobile gaming to the mainstream. Google Play Pass soon followed as a way to subscribe to a sizable collection of both apps and games on Android devices. Today, a startup called GameClub is launching in the U.S. to offer an alternative. For $4.99 per month, mobile consumers will be able to access a library that includes some of the best games to have ever hit the App Store.

To be clear, GameClub is not a cloud gaming platform, like Google Stadia. It’s a way to subscribe to actual App Store games, similar to Arcade. In GameClub’s case, however, the focus is not on new releases but on quality games that already have proven track records and high ratings.

In fact, many GameClub games have made Apple’s own editorially selected “Game of the Year” lists in years past. And like the games offered on Apple Arcade, they don’t have ads or any in-app purchases.

LegendaryWars2

At launch, GameClub’s library includes more than 100 titles, with around half that available for play today. More titles will roll out on a weekly basis in the months ahead. Combined, the games have over 100 million collective downloads, the company says.

On GameClub, you’ll find games like: Super Crate Box, Hook Champ, Mage Gauntlet, Space Miner, Forget-Me-Not, MiniSquadron, Plunderland, Pocket RPG, Sword of Fargoal, Incoboto, Tales of the Adventure Company, Hook Worlds, Orc: Vengeance, Mr. Particle-Man, Legendary Wars, Deathbat, The Path to Luma, Grimm, Zombie Match, Faif, iBlast Moki 2, Kano, Baby Lava Bounce, Run Roo Run, Gears and many others.

It’s a selection that extends across gaming categories, like Action, Arcade, Puzzle, Adventure, Platformer, Retro, Role Playing, Simulation, Strategy and more.

To use the service, you first download the main GameClub app, which becomes the hub for your GameClub activities. You then sign up for the $4.99 per month subscription, which includes a 30-day free trial. Within the main app, you can browse the available titles as well as read editorial content like in-depth overviews and histories, get tips and learn about gaming strategies.

MiniSquadron2

The startup was founded last year by game industry vets Dan Sherman and Oliver Pedersen.

Sherman, GameClub CEO, has worked in the gaming industry for around 17 years, including time spent at EA and his own startup, Tilting Point. His experience has involved, predominantly, signing content partnerships with game creators. Pedersen, meanwhile, built backend systems and platforms for games, including at Yahoo Games.

Though GameClub is seemingly arriving after Apple Arcade’s debut, it actually began before that. The startup was founded in 2018, ahead of any Apple Arcade rumors. It went live on iOS outside the U.S. before Arcade launched.

HookWorlds2W

The founders say they were inspired to address the issues caused by the free-to-play model that has infiltrated the gaming industry. In addition, they had witnessed a decline in consumers’ willingness to purchase content upfront, which was impacting the industry.

“I was seeing all these amazing game developers leave mobile because the types of games they make are not the types of games that monetize through in-app purchases and ads,” Sherman tells TechCrunch. “The free-to-play model actually only works for a handful of genres,” he explains. “A lot of companies make a lot of money through a very small number of genres and game experiences — to the exclusion of a lot of other types of genres that GameClub is bringing back — action, adventures, arcade, tower defense — anything that can be completed.”

With free-to-play, games are built around perpetual retention loops. “And the freemium model comes out of the casino industry, not the premium game industry,” Sherman points out.

But because this is how games could make money, it led to homogeneity in the marketplace, he says.

SuperQuickHook1

GameClub aims to offer a subscription to the premium games that got left behind.

They are meant to be wholesome and fun, not overly addictive. They’re not designed to manipulate you into spending money. You simply pay your subscription fee every month to access the catalog, then play unencumbered.

Thanks to Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass, consumers are now comfortable with the idea of the subscription model for mobile games. And other services — like Spotify Netflix, and Xbox Game Pass, for example — have pushed the idea of subscription access to content across platforms and genres.

SleepingPrince1W

GameClub is different from Arcade, however, because it’s not funding the development of content upfront — at least, not yet. Instead, it’s forging agreements with largely indie developers to release their existing IP as a GameClub exclusive.

This may include bringing an older game into the 64-bit era — something GameClub handles on their behalf.

“Many of [the GameClub titles] have been gone for many years,” says Sherman. “It’s with our team, our technology and our developers that they’ve been brought back. And they’ve been brought back in a way that is 100% using the original code and the exact same design…but making them look and feel new, with higher resolution, Retina Display assets and by optimizing for the latest screen sizes and configurations,” he adds.

The company doesn’t discuss the business model for GameClub, but it’s not the same as Apple Arcade’s pay-upfront model.

BreachAndClear2W

What Sherman could say is that the more important the game is to the GameClub service, the more money the creator makes. Additionally, GameClub says it’s transparent with developers about its subscription revenue, so there’s no question about which games are earning or why.

The same can’t be said for Apple Arcade, which is a total black box to the point that consumers don’t know which Arcade games are most popular, developers can’t see how they’re doing compared with others and third-party measurement firms have no data.

Of course, there could be concerns that GameClub exists in a gray area, with regard to App Store policy. Those with longer memories may recall that Apple banned app-stores-within-a-store starting back in 2012. The company had kicked out apps that recommended other apps like AppHero, FreeAppADay, Daily App Dream, AppShopper and more. It also banned the more popular app recommendation service AppGratis the following year.

But Apple’s concern was that these apps were leveraging their power to manipulate App Store charts and rankings, often charging for that service. GameClub, on the other hand, plays fairly. Its service also benefits Apple, by offering subscription access to quality games that couldn’t thrive as free-to-play titles.

CursedTreasure2W

Longer-term, GameClub wants to produce its own original content and offer its service across platforms, starting with Google Play, but eventually tackling PC and console gaming.

The startup is headquartered in New York City, with offices in Copenhagen. In addition to the founders, it includes Eli Hodapp, the former editor-in-chief of the popular game news and review site TouchArcade, and COO Britt Myers, the former chief product officer of subscription-based edtech apps platform Homer.

With the close of a seed round last week, GameClub is backed by $4.6 million in funding.

Investors from a round that closed last year include GC VR Gaming Tracker Fund, CRCM Ventures, Watertower Ventures, Ride Ventures, BreakawayGrowth Fund and others. New investors include GFR Fund, Gramercy Fund, Century Gold and others.

GameClub is available on the App Store.

Caffeine signs streaming deal with rapper Offset

Caffeine, the live streaming service founded by former Apple designers Ben Keighran and Sam Roberts, has signed an exclusive streaming deal with Offset.

The startup has been relatively quiet since raising nearly $150 million in funding last year, but Keighran (who previously co-founded Chomp and then served as Product Design Lead for Apple TV) told me that’s going to start changing as the company prepares to leave beta testing.

Keighran also pointed to the Offset deal as exemplifying several aspects of his vision for how Caffeine can become “the future of live TV.”

As part of the deal, Offset will host two exclusive shows on his Caffeine channel — a weekly stream at 6pm Pacific on Sundays where he’ll play his favorite games and try out new games suggested by fans, plus a second show called “Bet with Set,” where he’ll compete with celebrity guests on a variety of a challenges.

“With Caffeine, I can create my content in an organic way that lets me make real connections with my community,” Offset said in a statement. “They have created new technology that takes the lag out of online interactions and it makes me reachable in a way that other platforms simply can’t. Caffeine allows me to be myself so I’m trying to reach these kids to show them that everybody is a part of a team and we’re all one.”

Other Caffeine streamers include basketball player LaMelo Ball, rapper The Game and rapper Lil Xan, as well as game streamers Cartoonz, Ohmwreckwer and Cranier. The streams are then monetized by allowing fans to purchase and send virtual gifts.

Keighran said that game streaming will be a key part of Caffeine’s appeal, but he suggested that compared the currently dominant Twitch (owned by Amazon), Caffeine will have an easier time expanding beyond gaming.

He added that not only is Caffeine designed for a wide range of live streaming content, but it also has the advantage of backing from 21st Century Fox and its new owner Disney, which was presumably a big part of how it acquired the streaming rights to sports content from Fox Sports and Disney-owned ESPN.

“We’re getting content rights from Fox and Disney that Google and Amazon would love to have,” Keighran said. “That’s part of the secret sauce that attracts athletes and hip hop artists — they can stream sports content and video games with a better community filter, chat, new monetization with no ads. I think Offset is the perfect example.”