Facebook is aiming to build on its VR hardware launches of 2019 with an investment in virtual reality software.
Facebook announced today that it has acquired Bay Area VR studio Sanzaru Games, the developer of “Asgard’s Wrath,” considered by many enthusiasts to be one of the Oculus Rift’s best games. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but the studio will continue to operate its offices in the U.S. and Canada with “the vast majority” of employees coming aboard following the acquisition, Facebook says.
The 13-year-old game studio has created a total of four titles for the Oculus Rift, including “Asgard’s Wrath” and “Marvel Powers United VR,” both of which were at least partially funded by Oculus Studios. Sanzaru has also made a number of titles on console and mobile systems, releasing games structured around their own IP alongside licensed titles for properties like Sonic and Spyro.
Following Facebook’s acquisition of Beat Games in November, the Sanzaru Games purchase showcases Facebook’s continued interest in propping up VR game studios and aligning them around their interests while allowing them to operate independently. While Beat Games’ “Beat Saber” was considered a more mass market title, Sanzaru’s “Asgard’s Wrath” represented a play toward courting serious gamers with a lengthier first-person adventure title.
Facebook has already injected billions of dollars into its VR ambitions and, as the company hopes to build out the content ecosystems of hardware it released last year (including the Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S), there is little to suggest that their rate of investment will slow in the near future.
The new season of Fortnite’s second chapter finally landed last week, shaking up a reimagined map that burst dramatically out of a black hole in the game last year. Over the weekend, we scoped out what’s changed in a game now sprinkled with secret agents, laser beams and all manner of things dipped in gold. Happily, we can report that Epic returns the game to its true colors in season 2, with some innovative ideas that deepen the game for casual players.
The black hole event and subsequent total map makeover were exciting at the time, but as the months ticked by, Epic’s decision to pare down the game’s excesses left the game feeling bare. In season 2, Epic piles a lot of new ideas onto the game’s foundation, and the game feels weirder and more chaotic with a map that’s much more alive as a result. And bananas in suits. Did we mention bananas in suits?
The Island has been taken over by covert operatives – members of Ghost and Shadow. Will you join the fight? pic.twitter.com/dmUiUyxWM2
In season 2, Fortnite takes its most committed stab yet at a coherent theme, with spies, secret societies, dapper bananas, bulky henchmen and… a really swole cat for some reason. It’s a fun vibe and well-executed so far. That theme plays out everywhere, from a revamped battle pass menu designed as a spy headquarters to some very dynamic new high-risk/high-reward map hotspots chock full of special new weapons, locked vaults and laser beams.
Even better, the new locations are stocked with NPC versions of the boss-like characters the season introduces us to right off the bat, making for a fun and reasonably challenging way to mix up gameplay when you need a break from the sometimes lonely intensity of battle royale play.
Suit up, it’s time to drop in, secure intel and take back the Island. The Agency is calling, whose side are you on? pic.twitter.com/kHw6LcDSnT
The new season keeps the old map mostly intact while adding five main new locations, all heavily guarded, loot-rich fortresses. That means a new point of interest near each corner of the map, and one right on the central island (a spot inevitably destined for something more interesting than a suburban home). The rest of the map doesn’t have many visual changes, but a handful of smaller, old locations scattered around the map have been co-opted by spy organizations and staffed with henchmen, which makes for a chaotic surprise when you come across them in the heat of gameplay. Even Pleasant Park has its own underground spy hub now.
Down the line, the new season will also introduce two competing factions for players to join, Ghost and Shadow. Depending on which faction you choose, players can unlock some pretty cool variants on battle pass skins, including Meowscles, a shirtless, muscle-bound catman with a pec-flexing animation that might be the best thing to ever happen to Fortnite. Well, except for the new teleporting port-a-potties. You’ll find those soon enough.
Attention Operatives: Your choices will impact each Chapter 2 – Season 2 Battle Pass Agent’s future… permanently.
No matter what side you turn them to – GHOST or SHADOW, their allegiance cannot be reversed. Choose wisely! pic.twitter.com/k88IXZAEjl
As far as changes that will affect gameplay, there are many, many unvaulted weapons mixing things up relative to last season’s stripped-down arsenal. Traps are gone, chests no longer shower you with fishing rods (thankfully) and heavy assault rifles and all manner of silenced guns have made a comeback. And if you really want to be treated to the best weapons in the game, you can raid one of the five new spy headquarters to take down bosses, including an explosive-happy rocker named TNTina, a sharply dressed guy calling himself Midas and Meowscles (oh Meowscles!), who hangs out on his own gigantic, laser-guarded yacht.
As you work through the battle pass, you’ll also unlock these boss characters as skins. It’s a fun way to drape some light narrative over a game loved mostly for its incoherent total cartoon chaos rather than a character-centric light and fluffy multiplayer shooter like Overwatch. And because Epic is tasked with the impossible — maintaining momentum on a game with such historic success it basically became a mainstream social network at its peak — carving out a deeper game under Fortnite’s candy-colored shell can’t hurt.
Voodoo Games is one of the most interesting startups alive today. In mid-2018, it had 150 million MAUs and raised $200 million from Goldman Sachs, yet I’ve never heard anyone mention the company. That might be normal for an obscure enterprise SaaS play, but Voodoo is consumer-facing through and through.
Quantitative success aside, Voodoo upends much of the conventional thinking about product design and gaming. If it can do it, how can similar strategies apply to other products?
But first, some background: What is Voodoo Games?
Voodoo is best described as a product conglomerate. Take a look at its App Store page. It has dozens of generic-looking apps. The basic playbook is:
Quickly build a relatively low-quality, single-purpose game.
Make sure one mechanic is really fun. It doesn’t matter if users churn 20 minutes after downloading it.
“Not gonna lie. This f*cking sucks. This is the last HQ ever” yelled host Matt Richards . And it just got crazier from there.The farewell game of HQ Trivia before it shut down last night was a beautiful disaster. The hosts cursed, sprayed champagne, threatened to defecate on the homes of trolls in the chat window, and begged for new jobs. Imagine Jeopardy but Trebek is blacked-out.
Yesterday HQ Trivia ran out of money, laid off its 25 employees, and shut down. It was in talks to be acquired, but the buyer pulled out last minute and investors weren’t willing to pour any money into the sagging game show. It had paid out $6 million in prizes from its $15 million-plus in venture capital.
But HQ was in steady decline since February 2018 when it peaked at over 2.3 million concurrent players to just tens of thousands. The games grew repetitive, prize money was split between too many winners, original host and quiz daddy Scott Rogowski was let go, and the startup’s staff failed in an attempt to mutiny and oust the CEO. You can read how it all went down here.
But rather than wither away, the momentary cultural phenemenon went out with a bang. “Should HQ trivia shut down? No? Yes? Or f*ck no!” Richards cackled.
You can watch the final show here, and we’ve laid out some of Richards and co-host Anna Roisman’s choicest quotes from HQ’s last game:
“If you just got here, this is HQ Trivia. It’s a live mobile gameshow. We’re gonna read about 34 questions and then you’re gonna win about 2 cents and you’re gonna fucking loooooove it” -Roisman
“This $5 prize is coming out of my own pocket. We ran out of money. we just kept giving it away. We gave it all to the players to you, you loyal HQties” -Richards
“Take this time now to buy some extra lives, you never know when you’re going to need them. I wish we had an extra life for the company. I’m sorry. I fucking can’t. I’m gonna cry. My dogs eat $200 worth offood a day. My dogs are gonna starve” -Richards
“Why are we shutting down? I don’t know. Ask our investors. What am I going to do with my fish tank? I think our investors ran out of money” -Richards
“Who likes healthy snacks! That’s why the investors stopped giving us money, because there wasn’t any fucking snacks in this bitch. We were snackless. Who the fuck can work in a place without snacks!” -Richards
“I met a couple who told me HQ is part of their foreplay” -Richards
“Who’s going to miss the HQ chat? I’m going to miss all those people telling me I don’t have eyebrows or to do the Carlton” -Richards
“Maybe we should close every night. These are the nicest f*cking comments I’ve ever seen. Wow, you’re finally telling me I look hot. I tried for a year and ahalf -Roisman
[Reading comments] “‘won’t miss you at all, good riddance'” -Roisman. “Who said that? Let’s find that mothefucker and sh*t on his porch” -Richards
“Hire everyone! All the people who don’t have jobs they fucking rock!” -Richards
[While doing a headtand] “Someone hire me! I’m fucking talented” -Roisman
“We should have unionized a long time ago” -Richards
[To his girlfriend] “Hello baby! I don’t got a job, you still love me?” -Richards
“We bought this giant bottle of champagne for when we hit 3 million players” -Richards (HQ never got there)
[Shakening it up and opening to a disappointing trickle] “It wasn’t as big as I thought it was gonna be” -Richards. “That’s what she said. It was anti-climactic” -Roisman. “Much like this episode” -Richards. “Much like this app” -Roisman
“They gave me like two double shots of tequila” -Richards, on why he was drunk
Then things really went off the rails at 41 minutes in, cued up here:
[Upon a bunch of people getting a question wrong] “Y’all fucking fucked up!You are dumb! I’m kidding, you’re not dumb. You fucked up. It happens” -Richards
[Reading the final question together] “What does Subway call it’s employees? Ham hands, sandwich artists, or beef sculptors?”
“520 people are splitting $5. Send me your Venmo requests and I’ll send you your fraction of a penny” -Richards
HQ Trivia is dead. Today the company laid off its full staff of 25 and will cease operation of its trivia, sports and word guessing games, a source close to the company confirmed.
HQ Trivia had a deal in the works to be acquired, but the buyer pulled out yesterday and investors aren’t willing to fund it any longer, CEO and co-founder Rus Yusupov said in a statement attained by CNN Business’Kerry Flynn:
“We received an offer from an established business to acquire HQ and continue building our vision, had definitive agreements and legal docs, and a projected closing date of tomorrow, and for reasons we are still investigating, they suddenly changed their position and despite our best efforts, we were unable to reach an agreement,” Yusupov writes. “Unfortunately, our lead investors are no longer willing to fund the company, and so effective today, HQ will cease operations and move to dissolution. All employees and contractors will be terminated as of today.”
With HQ we showed the world the future of TV. We didn’t get to where we hoped but we did stretch the world’s imagination for what’s possible on our smartphones. Thanks to everyone who helped build this and thanks for playing.
Launched in October 2017, TechCrunch wrote the first coverage of the 12-question live video trivia game started by two of the former Vine founders. Users could win real money by answering all the questions and not being eliminated in multiple daily games. HQ Trivia had raised more than $15 million, including a Series A led by Founders Fund. At one point it had more than 2.3 million concurrent players.
But eventually the novelty began to wear off. Cheaters came in, splitting the prize money down to just a few dollars or cents per winner. Copycats emerged internationally. Engineering issues led users to get kicked out of the game.
Then tragedy struck. Co-founder Colin Kroll passed away. That exacerbated internal problems at HQ Trivia. Product development was slow, leading users to grow tired of the game. New game types and viral features materialized too late.
A failed internal mutiny saw staffers prepare to petition the board to remove Yusupov from the CEO position. When he caught wind of the plot, organizers of the revolt were fired. Morale sunk. By July 2019, downloads were just 8% of their previous year’s, and 20% of the staff was laid off. HQ managed about 15 million all-time installs, peaking at 2 million in February 2018, while last month it had just 67,000, according to Sensor Tower.
The demise of HQ Trivia demonstrates the fickle nature of the gaming industry, and the startup scene as a whole. Momentary traction is no guarantee of future success. Products must continually evolve and adapt to their audience to stay relevant. And executives must forge ahead while communicating clearly with their teams, even amongst uncertainty, or find their companies withered by the rapid passing of time.
When Ubisoft first approached “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” stars Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day about creating a new show set in the video game industry, McElhenney said they weren’t interested — at least, not initially.
“Anything that we had ever seen in the past, from a movie or television show perspective, the industry was always presented in such a negative light,” he told me. “It was the butt of the joke. The characters themselves were derided, and it was very specific to geek culture … We just had no interest in that.”
And yet McElhenney, Day and “It’s Always Sunny” writer Megan Ganz ended up creating “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet,” which premieres on Apple TV+ this weekend. McElhenney explained that a visit to the Montreal offices of Ubisoft — publisher of “Assassin’s Creed”, “Prince of Persia” and other major game franchises — changed his mind.
“Once we went to Montreal and met all of the devs that worked at Ubisoft, that all work in communion to make these games, [we realized] how many different, disparate personalities there really were and how much they were all all united by their love of games,” he said.
So McElhenney decided that “this just seemed like a really interesting and new place to set those kinds of stories.” And just as he assumes most “Sunny” viewers aren’t tuning in to learn the fate of Paddy’s Pub (the Philadelphia bar run by the show’s main characters), “The approach we took was, the general audience is not going to care about the success or failure of a video game, they’re going to care about the interpersonal dynamics of the characters themselves.”
Ganz also said she didn’t know much about video game development when McElhenney first approached her about collaborating on the show, but she started to see parallels between that world and a TV writers’ room.
“Except that instead of everyone being a writer, they all have very specialized jobs that they care about, like just the writing or just the design or just the money that’s being made,” she said. “And I thought, well, that’s really fun because that presents something that’s even more complex than your typical writers’ room — you have all these sort of Greek gods that all control their very specific part of the world.”
Of course, “Mythic Quest” had a writers’ room of its own, which Ganz said was divided evenly between people with deep knowledge of the industry (like Ashly Burch, who’s done extensive voiceover work on games like “Team Fortress 2” and “Fortnite,” and who also plays a game tester on the show), and those like Ganz herself, “who maybe played casually when they were younger” but ultimately didn’t know much about that world.
“We did that because ultimately, if you come up with a script or a joke that satisfies both of those people, then you’re going to satisfy as much of the audience as you possibly can,” she said.
The goal, she added, was not “pandering to the video game community,” but rather “to be authentic and not make fun of them, but also be authentic in terms of talking about some of the toxicity that happens in the video game space, the gender dynamics that are at play.”
It wasn’t just a learning process for the writers. F. Murray Abraham (who won an Oscar for playing Salieri in “Amadeus”) plays an eccentric science fiction writer who works on the game, and he told me that when it came to video games, “I had no idea. I knew something, I was aware of it, but not the size of it, the success of it, the reach of it, my God.”
All the “Mythic Quest” writers and actors I spoke to said that their approach has evolved significantly from the original pilot script. For example, there’s McElhenney’s character Ian Grimm, the creative director of the massively multiplayer online roleplaying game that gives the show its name.
“In the first draft of the script, we made Ian a little bit more of just a straight buffoon,” McElhenney said. “We read through it and we realized it just felt false. It was missing something, that if we didn’t want this to feel like a live action cartoon — like ‘Sunny’ often does, which is by design — and we wanted these people to feel real and authentic, that we needed to believe that he really should have that position.”
The question, then was how to make him competent, but in a funny way. They went with a pilot episode where Ian and lead engineer Poppy (played by Charlotte Nicdao) end up in a passionate debate about the properties of the game’s brand new shovel. While that debate will probably seem silly to most viewers, McElhenney said it also conveys “that thing that so many people in the creative arts have, or don’t have — the ability to see the most minor detail, the reason why something is going to work, or why it might not work.”
Throughout that process, the writers also tapped Ubisoft for advice. Jason Altman, Ubisoft’s head of film and television, is an executive producer on the show, and he recalled bringing in different team members to help the writers understand everything that goes into the development process.
In addition, Ubisoft Red Storm (the studio behind the Tom Clancy game franchise) pitched in by building the game segments that we actually see on the show.
“What they created were actually small gameplay sandboxes that we could bring to set, and the actors could sit and play with them and it would actually inform their performances,” Altman said.
He acknowledged that there were challenges, like helping the “Mythic Quest” writers realize that the developers needed time to do their work — but ultimately, he said the Red Storm team had “a great time” creating something that gave the show “a real sense of authenticity.”
Ganz and McElhenney also had plenty of praise for the developers, particularly for their openness to adding silly comedic elements like ridiculous gouts of blood. McElhenney pointed to one episode that required them to create “a really believable Sieg Heil Nazi salute.”
“There’s no way they’re going to go for that, it’s going to take a follow-up phone call,” he recalled thinking. “And they were like, ‘Okay great.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what do you mean, okay great?’ They said, ‘No, we do Nazis all the time’ — and we put this in the show — ‘because Nazis make the best villains, everybody hates Nazis.”
I was also curious about why the show focuses on the development of an ongoing MMORPG, rather than launching a new game. Altman had an answer for me: “I think it represents what’s happening within the game industry. You don’t just launch a game and forget it, the development team lives with it, you’ve got live services and live events. It’s the way games are operated right now.”
Plus, he said it reflects another aspect of development, the fact that teams “don’t just spend six months together, they spend years together, and the success that they create together binds them together.”
David Hornsby — who, like McElhenney, is both a writer, executive producer and actor on the show — told me that the writers’ understanding of show’s distribution also evolved, since Apple TV+ hadn’t launched (or even been officially announced) when “Mythic Quest” first got picked up.
“We weren’t sure if it wasn’t going to be binge-able from the start, we heard incrementally,” Hornsby said. “Apple is good at keeping secrets.”
Ultimately, they did find out that all nine episodes would drop at once, which Hornsby said led them to structure the season “like a movie — we know where we are going to be in the middle of the season, the story arcs for each of our characters.”
I also brought up Apple TV+ with McElhenney, who said the team had offers from a number of studios.
“It was scary,” he said. “And I remember we were discussing it, we were like, do we go with a known quantity? Or do we jump into the waters of mystery, because even though it’s the biggest company in the world, you don’t know if it’s going to work.”
So why choose Apple? “We just felt like, if you’re gonna bet on somebody, why not bet on a trillion dollars? They seem to have the resources and something figured out.”
ShareChat’s fantasy sports app, called Jeet11, allows betting on cricket and football matches and has already amassed more than 120,000 registered users, the sources said. The app, or its website, does not disclose its association with ShareChat.
A ShareChat spokesperson confirmed the existence of the app and said the startup was testing the product.
Jeet11 is not available for download on the Google Play Store due to the Android maker’s guidelines on betting apps, so ShareChat has been distributing it through Xiaomi’s GetApps app store and the Jeet11 website, and has been promoting it on Instagram. It is also available as a web app.
Fantasy sports, a quite popular business in many markets, has gained some traction in India in recent years. Dream11, backed by gaming giant Tencent, claimed to have more than 65 million users early last year. It has raised about $100 million to date and is already valued north of $1 billion.
Bangalore-based MPL, which counts Sequoia Capital India as an investor and has raised more than $40 million, appointed Virat Kohli, the captain of the Indian cricket team, as its brand ambassador last year.
In the last two years, scores of startups have emerged to grab a slice of the market, and the vast majority of them are focused on cricket. Cricket is the most popular sport in India, just ask Disney’s Hotstar, which claimed to have more than 100 million daily active users during the cricket season last year.
So it comes as no surprise that many sports betting apps have signed cricketers as their brand ambassador. Hala-Play has roped in Hardik Pandya and Krunal Pandya, while Chennai-based Fantain Sports has appointed Suresh Raina.
But despite the growing popularity of fantasy sports apps, where users pick players and bet real money on their performances, the niche is still sketchy in many markets that consider it betting. In fact, Twitter itself restricts promotion of fantasy sports services in many markets across the world.
In India, too, several states, including Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Sikkim and Telangana, have banned fantasy sports betting. Jeet11 currently requires users to confirm that they don’t live in any of the restricted states before signing up for the service.
“It doesn’t help matters either that the fantasy sports business’ attempts at legitimacy involve trying to be seen as video games — a cursory glance at a speakers panel for any Indian video game developer event is evidence of this — rather than riding on its own merits,” said Rishi Alwani, a long-time analyst of Indian gaming market and publisher of news outlet the Mako Reactor.
An executive who works at one of the top fantasy sports startups in India, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that despite handing out cash rewards to thousands of users each day, it is still challenging to retain customers after the conclusion of any popular cricket tournament. “And that’s after you have somehow convinced them to visit your website or download the app,” he said.
For ShareChat, which has been exploring ways to monetize its 60 million-plus users and posted a loss of about $58 million on no revenue in the financial year ending March 31, that’s anything but music to the ears. In recent months, the startup, which serves users in more than a dozen local languages, has been experimenting with ads.
There are billions of gamers on the planet, and even as gaming consoles and devices grow more powerful, there’s a good deal of investor attention being paid to so-called “hyper-casual” games that likely could have shipped on decades-old hardware.
Simplicity has never been something to take advantage of in game design, but as design tools have gotten easier to use, a larger group of game creators has entered the fray. Many popular games have introduced “creator modes” to whet user appetites, but there’s also been movement among platforms to create tools that enable amateur game developers to become miniature studios.
This past week, I chatted with David Lau-Kee, general partner at London Venture Partners, about opportunities in the game development industry for less-experienced game creators to build titles that find an audience. His firm closed an $80 million fund last September to invest in early-stage gaming startups.
“[Hyper-casual] is a very elegant trend in the demographics of getting games into the hands of people who weren’t traditional gamers who want very low on-boarding so they can get straight into the game,” Lau-Kee says. “The challenge with that for us is that, you know, as a developer in hyper-casual games, you can have a great business, but it might not be a VC-investable opportunity.”
Google Glass was ahead of its time. That’s not to say that the people who wore it out in public didn’t look like giant dorks, of course, but in hindsight it seems safe to say that the world just wasn’t ready for wearable augmented reality. The phenomenon has, however, seen a resurgence among enterprise applications, courtesy of companies like Epson and Microsoft.
Google’s ready to ride that wave. In May, the company announced the arrival of the second version of its Enterprise Edition of Glass. Today, the headset is available for developers as a direct purchase from a handful of resellers. The Android-based device, which graduated from Google X mid last year, looks remarkably like the earliest versions of Glass, albeit with a slightly refined design.
Seven years after the arrival of the original model, the Glass Enterprise 2 isn’t cheap, either. It runs $1,000 from partner sites. There are a few suggestions for potential applications, including card text, imaging samples and QR scanning.
As Lucas noted in his initial write-up, the Glass system is much more limited than the likes of the latest HoloLens, which is focused on a more XR experience. Google, instead, is focused on lightweight usability — which could certainly serve as an advantage in certain settings. Key applications for the product include settings like construction sites, where contextual environmental information can otherwise be difficult to access.
WndrCo, the parent company for Quibi, is keeping the production in its family of portfolio companies, as the show is being produced by the WndrCo-backed entertainment and sports media company, Whistle Sports.
“We have had an incredible partnership with FaZe and couldn’t be more excited to take it to new heights with this show, especially on a unique platform like Quibi,” said Michael Cohen, president of Whistle. “Whistle is all about incorporating our fans into our content and so the fact that the Quibi audience gets the ability to participate and immerse themselves in this experience is a truly perfect fit.”
Quibi describes the show as part contest, part competition show “and 100% FaZe.” Six contestants, chosen from Quibi’s audience of subscribers, will get the chance to win money and a slot in the FaZe Clan roster.
Directed by William Silva Reddington and produced by FaZe Clan, Nathan Gaines, Dennis Lisberger and Mike Basone, with showrunner Harrison Nalévansky, the new show will use voting tools from Quibi and FaZe Clan’s key members to select contestants for eligible slots to compete and eventually join FaZe Clan.
The six winners will then be flown to the FaZe Clan mansion to live at the house and compete in gaming and reality show-style events to determine who deserves a slot on the team.
“Over the past 10 years, FaZe Clan has not only contributed to the growth of the gaming lifestyle and the esports community, but we have broken barriers and are not afraid to disrupt the status quo,” said FaZe Clan Head of Content Oluwafemi Okusanya. “In 2020, we plan to do the same with content creation and media distribution. The ‘FaZe Up’ show represents our next chapter in content creation with our first premium production effort and in collaboration with innovative partners like Whistle and Quibi.”
The addition of FaZe to the roster of creative talent that Quibi has amassed puts a different spin on the company’s pitch of high-end, short-form content. The company has already attracted Jennifer Lopez, Liam Hemsworth, Catherine Hardwicke and Antoine Fuqua, who are all attached to projects slated to debut on the platform.
Quibi doesn’t debut until April, but it’s teasing updates and information about what’s to come — including more news about “FaZe Up” at Quibi Insider, its newsletter about all things Quibi.