Despite pandemic, gaming is well-positioned to withstand recession

Efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 have led to a global economic downturn, but the gaming industry is booming.

With hundreds of millions of people sequestered in their homes, game usage has spiked. And while the economic repercussions will persist after people cease physical distancing, gaming is positioned to fare well during a recession.

Video game usage increased 75% during peak hours

Video game usage during peak hours increased 75% in the first week many Americans began staying home, according to Verizon data. Game distribution platform Steam set a record for peak concurrent users (more than 20 million) on March 16 without any notable new releases driving demand. Gaming chat platform Discord saw its servers go down briefly last week even after the company increased capacity by more than 20% to handle surging usage.

According to Siamc Kamalie, manager of hedge fund Skycatcher, “average time spent per user on mobile games grew 41% during Chinese New Year in 2020 versus 2019, and was up 18% versus the week prior to Chinese New Year in 2020.” (Chinese New Year is when widespread stay-at-home orders began in China.)

All of the gaming industry professionals I’ve spoken to over the last week noted increased popularity of their games, though most were wary of sharing their strong performance publicly, given the unfortunate circumstances.

People don’t just turn to games for entertainment; especially when in-person interactions are restricted and most of the most popular games are multiplayer in one form or another — games also serve as social hangout spots.

Niantic is updating Pokémon GO and other titles to support indoor gaming

Niantic, the development company behind popular AR mobile games Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, is adapting its titles to support at-home gaming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, Niantic’s games have encouraged people to go outdoors, explore their world and connect with others in real life as they played. But with government lockdowns and home quarantines under way, it’s no longer safe to play these games as originally intended. 

The company says it will now prioritize making changes to its AR titles to allow people to play inside and around their own homes.

For example, Niantic’s Adventure Sync function will now track your indoor steps as you do things like run on a treadmill, clean your house or make other indoor movements and activities. It’s also enhancing the games’ social features to allow friends to stay in touch virtually, and soon take on Raid Battles together while staying at home.

Instead of discouraging virtual movement inside the game, as Niantic has in the past, players will be able to virtually visit and share memories about their favorite real-world places. And this summer, Niantic will re-imagine its plans for live events to allow players to participate without having to leave home.

These updates aren’t just those made for the consideration of players’ needs during this time of crisis — they’re also necessary changes to ensure Niantic continues to operate both during the pandemic and beyond.

Niantic’s live events have driven big business to the cities that hosted them — nearly $250 million in tourism revenue in 2019, it once said. It also served as a mechanism to drive its own revenues and keep players engaged over time. The plan had worked — Pokémon GO has continued to grow, even though it’s not the hyped-up global phenomenon it was at launch. Last year was its highest-grossing year ever, a report from Sensor Tower found, as the game pulled in nearly $900 million in player spending in 2019. Much of the revenue was due to the game’s significant updates and real-world events, the report noted.

These latest updates aren’t the first changes Niantic has made in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. It had already modified gameplay in Pokémon GO to encourage users to stay inside — including by rewarding players who caught their Pokémon while inside, for example. It also just launched a new form of gameplay called the GO Battle League, which can be played from home, with reduced walking requirements and discounted select items so players wouldn’t have to walk as far to catch Pokémon, among other things.

In Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, the company increased the amount of content that’s near players on the map, so they could progress in the game without traveling far. Potions were also tuned to support people playing from home.

And in both titles, gifts were adjusted to include more helpful content throughout each day.

In Niantic’s first game, Ingress, it has made a few changes, too. Ingress Portals are now tuned to encourage at-home play and it has reduced the need to interact with multiple Portals. Several other changes make it easier to play the game without having to walk around as much.

Niantic has not yet gone so far as to fully eliminate the use of outdoor walks as a means of gameplay, however. Instead, it still encourages people to get outside — in areas where it’s permitted by local authorities to go for walks.

Though Niantic had made earlier changes to its games due to the outbreak, today’s announcement represents a more formal strategy for its business. It also lays out a detailed roadmap of what Niantic has in store. Not all its new features are live. Instead, Niantic says they’ll roll out in the “coming days and weeks,” without committing to an exact time frame.

“We created Niantic with a mission to help people get outside, exercise, and explore the world, with the ultimate goal of helping people connect with others. Today we support a global community of hundreds of millions of people who look to our games for regular entertainment and an opportunity to get outside and connect with friends,” said Niantic founder and CEO John Hanke, on the company blog.

“We have always believed that our games can include elements of indoor play that complement the outdoor, exercise and explore DNA of what we build. Now is the time for us to prioritize this work, with the key challenge of making playing indoors as exciting and innovative as our outdoor gameplay,” he added.

This Week in Apps: Apple launches a COVID-19 app, the outbreak’s impact on social and video apps and more

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry saw a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we’re continuing our special coverage of how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting apps and the wider mobile app industry as more COVID-19 apps appear — including one from Apple built in partnership with the CDC, among others. We also take a look at the gains made by social and video apps in recent weeks as people struggle to stay connected while stuck at home in quarantine. In other headlines, we dig into Instagram’s co-watching feature, the Google for Games conference news, Apple’s latest releases and updates, Epic Games expansion into publishing and more.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Social video apps are exploding due to the COVID-19 pandemic

The future of collectibles is digital

The estimated size of the global collectibles market is $370 billion.

People have an innate propensity to collect, which drives purchases of collectible goods like art, games, sports memorabilia, toys and more. But given that the world is rapidly adopting digital each day, how likely is it that this market can continue to grow as is?

Won’t this primarily physical market have little choice but to evolve with the times?

With an increase in digital adoption, a step-function innovation is emerging; digital collectibles. The new medium is gaining in popularity and its influence is spreading relatively quickly.

The potential impact on the cryptocurrency landscape, while seemingly unrelated, is quite profound. Businesses already present in the collectibles market have new offerings, demographics and economic impacts to take into account. Even household brands are acknowledging their significance and building strategies around them.

Image by Christian Braun via hobbyDB

Digital collectibles have taken a foothold and are well on their way to increase their presence in our daily lives.

What is a digital collectible?

Second Life-maker calls it quits on their VR follow-up

The game developer behind Second Life has abandoned its grand efforts for a virtual reality follow-up to its early 2000s hit.

SF-based Linden Lab announced today that they’ve sold off assets related to Sansar to a small, little-known company called Wookey Search Technologies, which will take over development of the title. Linden Lab will continue developing and maintaining Second Life and it sounds like some of its employees will be joining Wookey. The deal was reported by Protocol.

The game studio had already announced layoffs last month.

Second Life has remained in the limelight of popular culture, and the studio claimed to still be hauling in substantial revenues from the game in recent years. That said, the failure of Sansar is a disaster for Linden Lab, which has focused considerable resources on the effort since it first teased the platform back in 2014.

When the title was announced, VR was at the peak of its hype following Facebook’s Oculus VR acquisition. Though Sansar launched in beta with support for both VR and desktop usage, the slow adoption of VR certainly didn’t help the title’s popularity. The studio’s leadership has detailed in interviews that the majority of Sansar’s users are desktop-based.

Given the evident turmoil at the studio, Sansar’s user base will likely be relieved to hear that the studio did their best to give the title a soft landing, though it’s unclear what resources its new acquirer has access to.

Game downloads will be throttled to manage internet congestion

For the billions stuck at home during the global effort to flatten the curve, gaming is a welcome escape. But it’s also a bandwidth-heavy one, and Microsoft, Sony and others are working to make sure that millions of people downloading enormous games don’t suck up all the bandwidth. Don’t worry, though, it won’t affect your ping.

A blog post by content delivery network Akamai explained a few things it is doing to help mitigate the tidal wave of traffic that the internet’s infrastructure is experiencing. Although streaming video is of course a major contributor, games are a huge, if more intermittent, burden on the network.

Akamai is “working with leading distributors of software, particularly for the gaming industry, including Microsoft and Sony, to help manage congestion during peak usage periods. This is very important for gaming software downloads, which account for large amounts of internet traffic when an update is released,” the post reads.

Take the new “Call of Duty: Warzone” battle royale game, released last week for free and seeing major engagement. If you didn’t already own the latest CoD title, Warzone was a more than 80-gigabyte download, equivalent to dozens of movies on Netflix . And what’s more, that 80 gigs was likely downloaded at the maximum bandwidth home connections provided; streaming video is limited to a handful of megabits over the duration of the media, nowhere close to saturating your connection.

And Warzone isn’t alone — there are tons of high-profile games being released at a time when many people have nothing to do but sit at home and play games — PC game platform Steam posted a record 20 million concurrent players the other day, and one analysis saw a 400% increase in gaming traffic. So gaming is bigger than ever, while games are bigger than ever themselves.

As a result, gaming downloads will be throttled for the foreseeable future, at least in some markets. “Players may experience somewhat slower or delayed game downloads,” wrote Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan in a brief blog post. I’ve asked Microsoft, Nintendo and Valve for comment on their approach as well.

It’s important to note that this should not apply to the rest of the gaming experience. Unlike downloading games, playing games is a remarkably low-bandwidth task — it’s important for packets to be traded quickly so players are in sync, but there aren’t a lot of them compared with even a low-resolution streaming video.

The best thing to do is to set your games to be downloaded overnight, as local infrastructure will be less taxed while everyone in your region is asleep. If you have downloads or updates coming during the day, don’t be surprised if they take longer than usual or are queued elsewhere.

Half-Life: Alyx delivers the watershed moment VR gaming needs

If you weren’t playing games when Half-Life came out, it’s hard to drive home just how shocking a departure it was from what had come before. Though some familiar mechanics served as a base to build off of, the injection of elaborately scripted sequences that put you into the action, mature humor and genuinely engaging set piece-driven plot put Half-Life into its own special section of the stratosphere.

It’s not often that you can say that a product changes everything in its category from that moment on. Half-Life did that.

And then when Half-Life 2 debuted, it did it again with its method of delivery, incredible building tools and yes, inventive-as-hell gameplay.

Half-Life: Alyx does that again for VR, making such a direct impact that this will be a demarcation line forever in the way we craft immersive virtual experiences.

Alyx begins in the period of time between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, taking place mostly just before the action in the latter. The world is familiar, as are most of the cast of characters (along with some bespoke new additions). Given their high-fidelity look and carefully stepped variety, even newbies to the Half-Life universe should be kept entertained as they encounter new threats.

Those of you returning will find a large part of the new experience in inhabiting the same virtually physical space as headcrabs, barnacles and combined forces. Let me tell you, seeing the underbelly mouth of a ‘crab flying toward your face in VR versus on your monitor definitely hits different.

That sense of presence that is so pivotal to VR is something Valve leaned into hard with Alyx. You are rewarded for treating environments and encounters as a place to pretend to be rather than progressing through. There are a variety of tricks that Alyx uses to make you comfortable existing in this world, not the least of which is the presence of a voice in your ear in the form of an engineer named Russell.

Played hilariously by Rhys Darby, Russell’s voice serves to mitigate issues that many VR aficionados may recognize. One of VR’s primary powers is that of embodiment — making the experience of being there so convincing that you generate real memories of presence. Along with that, though, comes isolation. Long VR sessions can make you feel cut off from reality, and horror experiences, especially, can become overwhelming. Having Russell there offering humanity and humor to punctuate the darkness of this supremely dystopian environment is a fantastic choice. You’re a solo operator, but you’re not alone.

The environmental intensity of Alyx is well paced, too. An intermix of heart pounding horror with moments of harsh beauty and humor can often be a difficult cocktail.

“There’s a lot of different things that we give you the opportunity to do that give, I would argue, different types of players, different things to go deep on,” says Half-Life:Alyx character animator Christine Phelan. “With intentionality, we definitely spent a bunch of time trying to figure out what is that line?”

Phelan notes that when there are horror elements, VR is well known to be an intense experience, and modulating that was key to not alienating players. Rather than a relentless onslaught, you are brought up and down.

I checked my Apple Watch heart rate data over the past week that I’ve been playing Alyx and, sure enough, there were the spikes in rate during my play sessions to prove the impact of those choices. Some of the more intense segments play like the best horror action movies you’ve seen — Aliens comes to mind, as well as more recent fare like A Quiet Place.

Keeping you engaged in that environment, of course, means that control schemes are incredibly critical. Valve’s choices on Alyx reflect a desire to make sure that the widest array of people can experience the game. They offer all of the accepted travel modes including teleporting, a continuous travel mode like walking and my favorite, shift — a sort of zooming snap that keeps a sense of context to your movement.

Personally, I am unable to walk continuously in VR without wanting to toss my cookies, and Alyx is no different here. In fact, the game takes a lot of pains to make sure it moves the character involuntarily as little as possible, even offering a ‘toggle barnacle lift’ setting to avoid the motion sickness some people may feel being virtually hoisted in the air. A wise choice as there’s a lot going on in Alyx already, with some encounters forcing you to move rapidly through the environment to combat enemies or solve puzzles.

The sheer accessibility of Alyx’s options speaks to the desire by the team to make sure it accommodated as many people as possible. Standing, seated, either hand, choice of dominant eye, room-scale or not — if there’s a way to play a VR game, Valve has you covered.

One of the biggest effective bits is the presence of Alyx’s hands in the game world. Because most people interact with the world via their hands (though not all), Phelan notes that you get a lot ‘for free’ when you make those the primary interaction method. People already know what to expect when they do things with their hands and at that point your job just becomes to make them act exactly as you’d expect in as many situations as possible.

And they do. Your hands realistically grasp, tap, push and poke the environment (and there is a lot of environment with the most interactive objects I’ve ever seen in a VR game).

The hands even adapt to the contours of things, curving or turning corners as you slide them across objects. The fingers are used to tell you that you really can’t interact with this, but you can feel it — this is not an action point for you. But then, when there is an action point, the hand naturally curves around something, and you get the message “Oh, yeah, I can grab this.”

A lot has been said about the Knuckles controllers that come with the Valve Index headset, and they’re great. But the marquee feature for me is the soft hand strap that keeps them attached to you. This frees you up to make grabbing and grasping motions with your whole hand, as you would normally.

I have the Vive controllers, the Oculus controllers, and the Knuckles. Certainly, the Knuckles, with the individual finger control, absolutely locks it in, I think, for people on the hand interaction. If every company doesn’t dupe the work that Valve has done with these, they’re dumb.

“I think the Knuckles and the Index broadly is essentially Valve’s attempt to say, “This is pointing towards a heightened VR experience. This is what we think of as a really great direction for this hardware to go,” says Valve’s Chris Remo, who also added that they did a lot of work to make sure all the compatible VR hardware turned out a great play experience. “It was obviously pretty important that this wasn’t a Valve Index game. It’s a VR game. We genuinely tried our best to support those features, [including] all the finger tracking the Index does on the Knuckles controllers and everything else.”

A lot of the work on interactions mirrors what other creatives have done in VR, but polishes it up a level. And a lot of that work is hidden unless you look very hard for it. Doors open in the direction of your hand’s travel, for instance. Magically outwardly opening doors that open inward is a perfect affordance. Most people will never notice. The people that care will, and that’s fine, but most people will just have a better time of going through this way versus that way without fussing too much.

The gravity gloves shown off prominently in the gameplay trailers are another such affordance. They neatly avoid the VR problem of people constantly inching out or down and ramming into things outside of their play area while trying to grab objects on the ground or inside containers. They also give the player the ability to quickly utilize the environment to fend off enemies or distract them with a speed and agility that you’d never be able to realize otherwise.

Call it fate or design that Half-Life 2’s gravity gun offered the perfect in-world explanation, but it works incredibly here. Grabbing a gas mask off the ground and attaching it to your face, fending off a headcrab with a trash can lid, throwing a brick to stagger a zombie, it’s all possible with the Russells.

“You can move through a space just as quickly physically, but people do end up taking longer, because you’re naturally invited to do so,” says Remo. “You can look around something in a physical way that just, there’s no equivalent to that in a non VR game. It also meant that you can get up close to props in a way that isn’t really possible or feasible as much in a non VR game, which meant that all that stuff has to actually hold up and be worthwhile.”

I can vouch for the time put in. At one point I grabbed a random half-crushed water bottle laying in a corner and looked inside the mouth to find the interior dimples of the bottom lovingly rendered. One person’s trash, etc.

There’s so many other things that I could talk about here. The use of spatial audio anchored in what seem to be gaussian spheres that attach sound and (incredible) music to environments, with nested encounter scores inside. The dynamic loot system that keeps the balance of the resources you have available to you tuned so that the game remains fun. The encounters that take those early scripted scenes in Half-Life and plus them to create a symphony that taxes and rewards the player for creative and thoughtful gameplay.

It’s not so much that Valve has executed One Weird Trick for making VR good. Many of these major ideas has been tried by one team or another over the past few years. But the execution has never been more precise and thoughtful. One after another the good choices keep coming — and the whole adds up to something truly special and bar-setting.

Inventive, clever and completely engaging, Half-Life: Alyx is the first masterwork of VR gaming.

But that could actually be understating its eventual impact on VR, if that’s possible. Though the template for what a truly A-list title looks like has now been truly sketched, it has always been Valve’s willingness to share its tools that has made the most impact on the gaming scene at large.

That’s why I’m looking forward to an eventual SDK. Hammer 2 is easily one of the best game building tools ever created. Valve is already going to ship Source 2 tools for building new VR levels in Alyx, but as fans of history will remember, the level building scene really took off once the deeper tools to craft a game became available. The ripple effect on the industry will be felt long after people have dissected every sliver of what makes this game so fun. You can trace a major portion of the $1B e-sports industry directly back to mods enabled by Valve being generous with their internal tools.

Imagine what that kind of impact looks like for VR, a field that has been experimenting like mad but has no real coda of best practices for building. It could be massive and though members of the team have said that they’re not currently planning to release an SDK, my hopes are high.

Until then, we have Alyx, and it is good.

With kids and adults staying at home, are virtual worlds ready for primetime?

We’ve been diligently following the development of virtual worlds, also known as the “metaverse,” on TechCrunch.

Hanging out within the virtual worlds of games has become more popular in recent years with the growth of platforms like Roblox and open-world games like Fortnite, but it still isn’t a mainstream way to socialize outside of the young-adult demographic.

Three weeks ago, TechCrunch media columnist Eric Peckham published an in-depth report that positioned virtual worlds as the next era of social media. In an eight-part series, he looked at the history of virtual worlds and why games are already social networkswhy social networks want more gamingwhat the next few years looks like for the industry and why isn’t it mainstream alreadyhow these virtual worlds will lead to healthier social relationswhat the future of virtual economies will be and which companies are poised for success in this new market.

Given all that has changed in just the last three weeks — who would have thought that large swaths of the knowledge economy would suddenly find themselves entirely interacting virtually? — I wanted to get a sense of what the rising popularity of virtual worlds looks like in the midst of the outbreak of novel coronavirus. Eric and I had a call to discuss this and decided to share our conversation publicly.

Danny Crichton: So let’s talk about timing a bit. You wrote this eight-article series around virtual worlds and then all of a sudden post-publication there is this massive event — the novel coronavirus pandemic — causing a large portion of the human population to stay at home and interact only online. What’s happening now in the space?

Eric Peckham: I wrote my series on the multiverse because I was already seeing a surge of interest, both in terms of consumer demand for open-world MMO games and in terms of social media giants like Facebook and Snap trying to incorporate virtual worlds and social games into their platforms. Large companies are planning for virtual worlds in a way that is actionable and not just a futuristic vision. Over the last couple of years there has also been a lot of VC investment into a handful of startups focused on building next-generation virtual worlds for people to spend time in, virtual worlds with complex societies shaped by users’ contributions.

Talking to founders and investors in the gaming space, there has been a huge increase in usage over the last few weeks as more people hang out at home playing games, whether it’s on the adult side or the kid side.

Most of these next-generation virtual worlds are still in private beta but already popular platforms like Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite are getting substantially more use than normal. A large portion of people stuck at home are escaping via the virtual worlds of games.

You wrote this whole analysis before you knew the extent of the pandemic — how has the outlook changed for this industry?

This accelerates the timeline of virtual worlds being a mainstream place to hang out and socialize in daily life. I think people will be at home for multiple months, not just a couple of weeks, and it’s going to change people’s perspectives on socializing and working from home.

That’s a really powerful cultural shift. It’s getting more people beyond the core gaming community excited about spending time in virtual worlds and hanging out with their friends there.

We have seen this most heavily with the youngest generation of internet users. The majority of kids 9-12 years old are users of Minecraft and Roblox who hang out there with friends after school. We’ll see that expand to older demographics more quickly than it was going to before.

One of the complaints that I’ve seen on Twitter is that even though we have one of the largest global human lockdowns of all time, all the VR headsets are basically gone. Is VR a key component of virtual worlds?

Well, you don’t need VR headsets in order to spend meaningful time with others in a virtual space. Hundreds of millions of people already do it through their mobile phones and through PCs and consoles.

This is at the heart of the gaming industry: creating virtual worlds for people to spend time in, both pursuing the mission of whatever a game is designed for but also interacting with others. Among the most popular mobile and PC games last year were massively multiplayer online (MMO) games.

Talking about gaming, one facet of the story that I thought was particularly interesting was the fact that gaming was still not that high in terms of market penetration in the population.

More than two billion people play video games in the context of a year. There’s incredible market penetration in that sense. But, at least for the data I’ve seen for the U.S., the percent of the population who play games on a given day is still much lower than the percent of the population who use social media on a given day.

The more that games become virtual worlds for socializing and hanging out beyond just the mission of the gameplay, the more who will turn to virtual worlds as a social and entertainment outlet when they have five minutes free to do something on their phone. Social media fills these small moments in life. MMO games right now don’t because they are so oriented around the gameplay, which takes time and uninterrupted focus. Virtual worlds in the vein of those on Roblox where you just hang out and explore with friends compete for that time with Instagram more directly.

Theater chains like Regal and AMC announced this week that they are entirely shutting down to wait out the pandemic. Is that going to affect these virtual world companies?

I think they are separate parts of media. Cinema attendance has been declining quite substantially for years, and the way the industry has made up for that is trying to turn cinemas into these premium experiences and increasing ticket prices. Kids are just as likely, if not more likely, to play a game together on a Friday night as they are to go to the cinema. Cinemas are less culturally relevant to young people than they once were.

We’ve seen a massive experiment in work from home, which is a form of virtual world, or at least, a virtual workplace. When it comes to popularizing virtual worlds, is it going to come from the entertainment side or the more productivity-oriented platforms?

It will come from the entertainment side, and from younger people using it to socialize, in part because there’s less fear around cultural etiquette compared to people meeting in a business setting who are worried about a virtual world context not feeling as professional. Over time, as virtual worlds become pervasive in our social lives they will become more natural places to chat with people about business as well.

As more and more people are working online and interacting virtually, a big question is how you get beyond Zoom calls or the technology that’s currently in the market for virtual conferences to something that feels more like walking around and chatting with people in person. It’s tough to do without the ability to walk around a virtual space. You can’t have those unplanned small group or one-on-one interactions with people you don’t know if you’re just boxes within a Zoom call or some other broadcast. It will be interesting to see what develops around virtual business conferences that stems from virtual world technology. I’ve seen a few teams exploring this.

Last question here, but we are looking at a major recession in the economy, and so how does the landscape of people earning money from virtual worlds change with coronavirus?

The second-to-last article in my series is about the virtual economies around virtual worlds. Any virtual world inherently has commerce and people have already been making real-world money from games and from early virtual worlds like Second Life.

Both people staying home amid the coronavirus and the recession that we seem to be entering are pressures that will push more people to look online for ways to make money. That will only increase the activity of virtual economies around some of these worlds, whether those are formally built into the game or they’re happening in a gray or black market around the games (which is more common).

Thanks, Eric.

Here’s how TechCrunch is keeping our brains busy while we’re stuck at home

This is a difficult time. Whoever and wherever you are, your life is likely already changing in ways you never could have anticipated as the world grapples with the fast-spreading global outbreak of a virus we don’t yet fully understand.

It’s weird and hard and we’re feeling it too. Now more than ever, diving into new skills, old interests and even — perhaps especially — totally fluffy mindless entertainment can keep our minds refreshed and our days full. From at-home workouts and soothing virtual farming simulators to Catherine’s honestly uncannily good drawings of our staff pets, here’s what’s working for us.

Natasha Mascarenhas, Reporter

Bon Appétit YouTube videos

While this is not at all a revolutionary concept, Bon Appétit’s YouTube videos are the calming distraction I’ve been using after work. I give double points to Priya Krishna, their in-house Indian American chef, for inspiring me to go back to some old classics with confidence. If you like New Jersey, watch any of Brad’s videos. And If you like watching a gourmet cook try to recreate niche food items like Hot Pockets, watch Claire’s videos.

Overcooked

This is the perfect video game for people who don’t like video games but enjoy high-intensity conversations about flipping burgers with their housemates. You act like a chef with other users and try to complete recipes. And yes, things do catch on fire if you aren’t on top of your game.

Catherine Shu, Writer

Procreate app + Apple Pencil

I was skeptical about digital art because my favorite part of sketching is messing around with different mediums, but the combination of Procreate (I use it on an iPad Air) and my Apple Pencil have been a very welcome distraction. I do a combination of freehand sketching and tracing photos to make my own versions of coloring sheets. I’ve been keeping a sketch journal and drawing pet portraits for my friends: this one is of TechCrunch’s hardware editor Brian’s rabbit, Lucy.

Keeping a journal 

….or you can try sketching with pen and paper, too! If you don’t own an iPad or drawing is not your thing, then journal. Seriously. This is a very strange time and things keep changing and escalating. I live in Taiwan, where COVID-19 has impacted daily life for months already, but I find it very hard to remember the details of what happened or how I felt from week to week. Keep a regular record, even if it’s just a couple sentences. It will keep you centered when the days start to blend together.

Brian Heater, Hardware Editor

High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies

A thick tome that deconstructs the roles Philip K Dick, Terence McKenna and Robert Anton Wilson played in developing the psychedelic subculture of the 70s. Heavy, man.

On cinema

The lore runs deep with Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s On Cinemaverse. There’s the podcast, the series, a motion picture, another series (Dekker), a multi-hour mock trial and seven live-streamed Oscar specials — all of it is deeply hilarious.

Kettlebells

I dusted my old kettlebell off. This and morning yoga (see: Natasha L’s) have been the extent of most of my exercising, but the number of things you can do with the dumb piece of cast iron is mind-boggling.

“The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place” by Explosions in the Sky

I can’t say why for certain, but I’ve only been able to listen to largely instrumental music since this whole thing went into overdrive here in the U.S. My playlist at the moment mostly consists of jazz piano like Monk and Bill Evans, guitarists like John Fahey, Jim O’Rourke and Khaki King and more noise-oriented work like Can and Boris. But post-rock has been my real rock, including Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mowai and this absolute classic.

Devin Coldeway, Writer

Ring Fit Adventure

This Switch fitness game with its ring controller has helped me exercise regularly even after I finished my review. It’s even more helpful now that the actual gym is not an option.

Stardew Valley

This peaceful farming game is a great one to play with friends who might not be interested in more “serious” gaming. Download Discord, start a farm and have fun. Make sure you’re all on the same platform!

Generative.fm

People who haven’t worked from home much likely don’t have a big selection of ambient music that’s easy to work through. This site has dozens of pleasant but not distracting procedurally generated streams that go forever.

Korean and Chinese historical dramas

Tired of the same old U.S. prestige TV and sitcom reruns? Korea and China have been making AMAZING historical dramas like “Nirvana in Fire” and “Mr Sunshine” that are very different from what you’re used to.

Darrell Etherington, Science Editor

RimWorld

A great resource-gathering and crafting sim with a fun style and very light system requirements that’s available on both PC and Mac. A recent expansion provides even more fun.

Zooniverse

You might have a lot of extra time on your hands, and Zooniverse turns that time into crowdsourced contributions to ongoing scientific research. Verify lab results! Identify raccoons! Do all kinds of fun stuff, easily and from the comfort of home.

Hello from the Magic Tavern

This is a long-running podcast with the simple premise that a normal guy from Chicago finds himself trapped in a high-fantasy, Tolkien-esque world. All improv on-the-spot storytelling, and plenty of archives to catch up on.

Josh Constine, Editor-at-Large

Cowboy Bebop

If you were ever curious about anime, or thought it was too childish or ridiculous, you need to try Cowboy Bebop, the 1997 animated series. It’s about a group of bounty hunters in the near future navigating the gig economy as they try to find where they fit in the universe after an accident nearly destroys earth. Cowboy Bebop offers gorgeous noir-ish illustration, stylish fashion, thrilling action and suspenseful romance, all set to hip jazz soundtrack. You can binge the two seasons, but most episodes are relatively self-contained for a satisfying quick hit of entertainment.

Overwatch

Most first-person shooter games are pure tests of reflexes and experience, making them daunting to those who end up getting pwned by long-time players. Overwatch is different. Instead of everyone having similar weapons or skills, in this 6-on-6 battle you pick one of 21 different characters with unique attack, shield and healing abilities. Be a ghostly dual-wielding assassin, a viking knight with a giant hammer or angelic doctor who can revive teammates. It’s more about the interplay of your squad’s characters than individual effort, which is perfect for those feeling lonely amidst quarantine.

Greg Kumparak, Editor

Apex Legends

If you’re into the concept of battle royale games but aren’t into the building aspects of Fortnite, check out Apex. You pick one of 12 “Legends” (each with their own strengths and abilities) and team up with two other players to try to be the last squad standing. Like most battle royale games, it’s easy to keep saying “OK, OK, one more game,” until you look up and realize you’ve been playing for eight hours straight. It’s available for Windows, Xbox One and PS4… and it’s freeeeeee!

Ask the StoryBots

Working with a young kid at home and need to give them a bit of TV time for everyone’s sanity? Can’t stand to watch any more Daniel Tiger? Ask the StoryBots. Kids ask questions (Where do planets come from? How do ears hear?), and the StoryBots go and find the answer. Created by the brothers behind JibJab (a viral internet thing before viral internet things were a thing) and acquired by Netflix, it’s somehow perfectly tuned for us to watch when everyone just needs some down time… and, I admit, I’ve totally learned a thing or two from it. Bonus: A lot of the music in the show is by Parry Gripp, the unreasonably clever songwriter behind Nerf Herder. The songs will get stuck in your head forever… but hey, better than Baby Shark.

MasterClass

It’s the best kind of “distance learning.” No one is going to complain about getting schooled by Steph Curry and the many other greats who appear on the platform.

Lucas Matney, Reporter

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

My hype had already been building for Animal Crossing’s release Friday, but after being under government-enforced shelter-in-place in San Francisco, I’ve been yearning for the relaxation of repaying predatory home loans to Tom Nook. We have little idea how this will compare to past versions, but given its been eight years since a major release in the series, I have sky-high hopes.

Natasha Lomas, Senior Reporter

YouTube’s fitness community is going to be essential to stay sane and healthy during this lockdown — whether you need specialised training or just want to keep (or obtain!) a general level of fitness. If I had to pick one longtime favorite channel I’d probably go for Yoga with Kassandra. The channel offers a mix of vinyasa and yin yoga classes, including some hour-long classes. The content caters to various levels and interests. For the more advanced she offers some minimal cues classes, which can be especially great if you’re sharing a living space and don’t want to take over too much of the general ambiance with yogi chatter. Namaste.

Matt Burns, Managing Editor

Gundam Models

I’ve never watched Gundam nor read the books. I don’t know anything about these robot guys. But they’re great fun to construct. The best part is there’s no glue involved. Everything snaps together in a satisfying way and the only tool required is a pair of snippers. A couple hours later, bam, robot dude with a giant gun. Things can get even more involved. Some builders take ultra-fine pens and line the panels, which gives the models more depth. Others add weathering marks and battle damage. I’ve taken to painting a few panels. There are no rules.

Anthony Ha, Senior Writer

Star Trek: Picard

The latest Star Trek spin-off on CBS All Access (and Amazon Prime Video outside the United States) is a bit of a slog in its early episodes, wallowing in a future that has gotten considerably bleaker since the days of “Next Generation.” But the pace is quickening, and the darkness increasingly feels like a reminder that an enlightened Star Trek future is something that has to be continually fought for and earned — and that we will always need compassion, curiosity and optimism.

The park

While the rules around going outside differ from location to location, it’s worth emphasizing that for many of us, walking and exercising at a safe social distance are still encouraged. Here in New York, with bars and restaurants and theaters closed, it looks like plenty of city dwellers are rediscovering the joy of green space. (Just remember to stay six feet apart!)

Ingrid Lunden, Editor

Pandemic (and other table-top games)

Not wallowing in coronavirus pity here! Pandemic is a group game, away from the screen, where everyone has to work together to cover the globe with research centers. Wonderful lesson to be had here: There is no single “winner.” You have to collaborate to reach the objective, which is to find a cure. Other table-top games my family likes include Catan, Ticket to Ride, Istanbul and Perudo.

Kirsten Korosec, Senior reporter and editor

Jump rope

I rediscovered a jump rope hanging on the back of my door and thought, hmm this is something i can do. In moments of frustration or when I feel like I’ve been sitting too long I just jump rope for a few minutes.

Organize!

In such a chaotic world, organizing and cleaning has been a go-to for me. That’s how I found that jump rope. ^^

Photo journal

I’ve been playing around with my Pixel 3 camera, digging into some of features and stuff I never bothered to learn. I have started taking macro and more artistic (in my mind) pictures of stuff in my immediate world. There are a number of cat photos too of course. But each day’s photo seems to perfectly capture my mood.

Taylor Hatmaker, Writer

Pokémon Sword/Shield

The world may feel upside down, but the latest Pokémon game is as relaxing and formulaic as ever. And there’s something about catching virtual animals and relegating them to tiny spherical prisons that makes home quarantine feel not so bad.

Duolingo/Memrise

I get bored when I don’t feel like I’m learning anything, so language apps are perfect. I got started with learning beginner Japanese in a classroom, so now I use apps to refresh my (very rusty) knowledge. And happily, the language has enough memorization to keep me busy from now until the end of time.

Fortnite

Against all odds I somehow got my non-gamer wife into Fortnite and we play it when we absolutely can’t otherwise turn our brains off. Fortnite is a 180 from relaxing games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley, but it’s addictive and absorbing if you’d like to teleport forward in time a few hours. Also the new season has a really buff calico cat named Meowscles, so don’t sleep on that.

Cooking e-books

It’s the perfect time to hit the virtual library and check out e-books that embody the skills you’d like your very impressive aspirational self to have. In my case, I’m trying to learn the principles of Japanese and Thai cooking so I never need to eat out again, pretty much. Lately, I cook every day and it’s gone a long way toward keeping me sane. Cook something and waste a bunch of time taking artsy photos of what you made. You’ll feel accomplished, even if you won’t be winning any Michelin stars. If all else fails, make pancakes and don’t stop until you feel better.

Gaming company Scopely adds $200 million more to its M&A stockpile

Scopely, the mobile gaming publisher behind titles including Marvel Strike Force, Scrabble Go, Yahtzee with Buddies and Star Trek Fleet Command, has added another $200 million to its hoard of cash for mergers and acquisitions.

While some startups are fearing a cash crunch, other businesses seem to be preparing to go on a shopping spree. The economic slowdown has many businesses reconsidering their prospects, and it’s a good time for startups and established businesses with lots of cash to consider going on a shopping trip.

With $650 million in venture dollars raised so far, Scopely can certainly consider making some bids. The latest $200 million doubles the amount of money the company closed on for its Series D round. Investors included Advance (the privately held media and publishing company behind Conde Naste and a slew of local news [online and print] publications), and the consumer-focused investment firm, The Chernin Group.

“The FoxNext Games acquisition reinforced our commitment to M&A, and the opportunity to partner with Advance and TCG was a welcome addition to further support our strategy,” said Javier Ferreira, the co-chief executive officer of Scopely, in a statement.

Advance’s investment comes as the company experiments with various new media, entertainment and publishing formats of its own and looks to invest in more digital media companies, according to a statement.

Chernin, a longtime investor in Scopely (since the company’s earliest rounds), said that its investment in Scopely on the heels of closing a $700 million new investment fund was a no-brainer.

“As the traditional media industry continues to go through unprecedented change, we believe that Scopely has all the ingredients for tremendous success — exposure to games (the fastest-growing sector in media), a scalable and durable technology platform, a diversified set of well-known IP, an attractive economic profile, and a team hyper-focused on execution and long-term success,” said Jesse Jacobs, a co-founder and partner at The Chernin Group .