Krafton announces PUBG India return under Battlegrounds Mobile title

Krafton, the South Korean video game developer of PUBG Mobile, said on Thursday that it is bringing back the popular gaming title to India under the brand name Battlegrounds Mobile India. The new title, which uses the color scheme of the Indian flag, will offer “a world class AAA multiplayer” and free-to-play gaming experience on mobile devices, it said.

The developer said it will open pre-registration for Battlegrounds Mobile India ahead of its launch in the country, but didn’t share a specific date. The title has been exclusively developed for the world’s second largest internet market, Krafton said.

“Krafton will collaborate with partners to build an esports ecosystem while bringing in-game content regularly, starting with a series of India specific in-game events at launch, to be announced later,” it said.

Thursday’s announcement comes months after India banned PUBG Mobile alongside 200 other apps with links to China citing national security concerns. In the months since Krafton has taken several steps — including cutting ties with its publishing partner Tencent, inking a global cloud deal with Microsoft, pledging a $100 million investment in India’s mobile gaming ecosystem, and earlier this year backing local startup Nodwin — to ally New Delhi’s concerns.

“With privacy and data security being a top priority, Krafton will be working with partners, to ensure data protection and security, at each stage. This will ensure privacy rights are respected, and all data collection and storage will be in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations in India and for players here,” it said in a statement.

The firm didn’t say whether it had any conversation with New Delhi and if it had received the approval to launch the new title.

Prior to being banned in India, PUBG Mobile was the most popular mobile game in the country. The app had amassed over 50 million monthly active users in the country. PUBG Mobile still had over 10 million users in India last month, according to a popular mobile insight firm. (Many have been using VPN tools and other workarounds to bypass the geo-restriction.)

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Riot Games and Konvoy Ventures back games publisher Carry1st in $6M Series A

Africa is the last frontier for basically anything. Mobile gaming is no exception. For a continent that is home to more than 1 billion millennials and Gen Zers, mobile gaming has never really picked up, despite the continent witnessing rapid economic growth and smartphone adoption.

Two issues have proved detrimental to this growth: distribution and payments. With fragmented and unresolved distribution and digital payments ecosystems, game studios have found it difficult to serve African consumers and make a ton of money doing so. Carry1st is a mobile games publishing platform fixing this problem, and today it is announcing the close of its $6 million Series A round.

This month last year, we reported that the company had just raised a $2.5 million seed investment. CRE Ventures led that round, but this time, the company, which has offices in Cape Town and New York, brought in a blue-chip group of investors spanning gaming, media and fintech.

U.S. VC firm Konvoy Ventures led the Series A round. The firm is known for its investment in the video gaming industry’s infrastructure, technology, tools and platforms. Riot Games (developer of League of Legends), Tokyo’s Akatsuki Entertainment Technology Fund (the company behind Dragon Ball Z), Raine Ventures and fintech VC TTV Capital participated.

Carry1st was founded by Cordel Robbin-Coker, Lucy Hoffman and Tinotenda Mundangefupfu in 2018. The company started as a game studio, developing and launching its own mobile games. But a projection on what it could be in the long run made the company switch tactics.

Instead of the studio model (quite popular among gaming companies in Africa), Carry1st sought to become a regional publisher, thereby opening the continent to international studios. Also, the company helps local studios that find it difficult to create games with a global appeal by pairing them with strong operators.

“We learned that African users don’t need their own games; they want to play the best games in the world,” CEO Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch.

COO Hoffman said that the company provides a full-stack publishing platform for its partners. It also handles localization, distribution, user acquisition, monetization, customer experience for studios and licenses their games on exclusive, long-term contracts.

“We fund user acquisition so that the games are played by as many users as possible, and then send our partners a royalty in return for the ability to leverage their IP,” Hoffman said.  

Carry1st

L-R: Cordel Robbin-Coker (CEO), Lucy Hoffman (COO) and Tinotenda Mundangefupfu (CTO)

This is somewhat akin to how Tencent-backed Sea Limited (parent company of Garena) took off. The company was the publisher of League of Legends across Southeast Asia but launched its own game, Free Fire. Now, the company has built out the largest consumer payments and e-commerce platform in the region, which is now worth over $130 billion. Carry1st aspires to do the same for Africa.

Although there aren’t many details about its e-commerce activity, Carry1st is tackling payments and difficult monetization issues by partnering with some fintechs like Paystack, Safaricom, and Cellulant. These partnerships have been pivotal to developing its in-house payments platform Pay1st, which allows customers to pay in their preferred way. “For global studios, this is the difference between making money and not,” Robbin-Coker added

Demand for Carry1st has grown rapidly. Since its seed round last year, the company has signed seven games with well-known mobile gaming studios. They include Sweden’s Raketspel (the company has more than 120 million downloads across its portfolio), Cosi Games and Ethiopia’s Qene Games.

All these signups happened in 2020 and the catalyst for this growth has pandemic-induced lockdowns written all over it. The African mobile gaming market has always pointed toward a strong growth market, but being forced indoors surely skyrocketed mobile usage and gaming.

People who might not have previously needed a mobile phone have now come to rely on them to keep in touch with family and friends. For the average user using a smartphone for the first time, there’s a natural tendency to explore the fun things available on their device.

Typically, the first things people do when they get their first smartphone is to chat with friends and play games. This is the same all over the world — Africa is no different. For that reason, we are seeing more and more mobile gamers across Africa,” remarked Robbin-Coker.

The company has also grown its team from 18 to 26 across 11 countries with recruits from Carlyle, King, Jumia, Rovio, Socialpoint, Ubisoft and Wargaming — a testament to the company’s global ambitions to be a top gaming publisher. 

Expanding the team, which cuts across product, engineering and growth departments, is one way Carry1st will put the new investment to use. The company also plans to secure new partnerships with global gaming studios while launching and scaling its existing games like Carry1st Trivia and All-Star Soccer.

Carry1st

User playing a Carry1st game

With this investment, Carry1st has raised a total of $9.5 million. On the caliber of investors brought on, Robbin-Coker said their investment in the company would put them in a place to “delight millions of users across Africa and the globe.”

Carry1st is Konvoy Ventures first foray into the African gaming market (same can be said for Riot Games), and representatives from both teams (Konvoy managing partner Jackson Vaughan and Riot Games head of corporate development Brendan Mulligan) believe the company is unequivocally solving the continent’s distribution and gaming experience problems. Vaughan will also join the company’s board.

Africa’s gaming industry has lacked innovation in times past. While we’ve seen companies try to change the narrative, most have operated as studios. Carry1st is one of the few companies to operate a hybrid model, but the endgame for the company really is to be one of the region’s dominant consumer internet companies. 

We think social games and payments is the best first step to doing so, but we have very large ambitions. If we execute this, we will catalyze massive growth in the digital ecosystem across the region, creating tons of high-quality jobs in the process. We think all of the ingredients are in place — we want to be the catalyst,” Hoffman said. 

Sony announces investment and partnership with Discord to bring the chat app to PlayStation

Sony and Discord have announced a partnership that will integrate the latter’s popular gaming-focused chat app with PlayStation’s own built-in social tools. It’s a big move and a fairly surprising one given how recently acquisition talks were in the air — Sony appears to have offered a better deal than Microsoft, taking an undisclosed minority stake in the company ahead of a rumored IPO.

The exact nature of the partnership is not expressed in the brief announcement post. The closest we come to hearing what will actually happen is that the two companies plan to “bring the Discord and PlayStation experiences closer together on console and mobile starting early next year,” which at least is easy enough to imagine.

Discord has partnered with console platforms before, though its deal with Microsoft was not a particularly deep integration. This is almost certainly more than a “friends can see what you’re playing on PS5” and more of a “this is an alternative chat infrastructure for anyone on a Sony system.” Chances are it’ll be a deep, system-wide but clearly Discord-branded option — such as “Start a voice chat with Discord” option when you invite a friend to your game or join theirs.

The timeline of early 2022 also suggests that this is a major product change, probably coinciding with a big platform update on Sony’s long-term PS5 roadmap.

While the new PlayStation is better than the old one when it comes to voice chat, the old one wasn’t great to begin with, and Discord is not just easier to use but something millions of gamers already do use daily. And these days, if a game isn’t an exclusive, being robustly cross-platform is the next best option — so PS5 players being able to seamlessly join and chat with PC players will reduce a pain point there.

Of course Microsoft has its own advantages, running both the Xbox and Windows ecosystems, but it has repeatedly fumbled this opportunity and the acquisition of Discord might have been the missing piece that tied it all together. That bird has flown, of course, and while Microsoft’s acquisition talks reportedly valued Discord at some $10 billion, it seems the growing chat app decided it would rather fly free with an IPO and attempt to become the dominant voice platform everywhere rather than become a prized pet.

Sony has done its part, financially speaking, by taking part in Discord’s recent $100 million H round. The amount they contributed is unknown, but perforce it can’t be more than a small minority stake given how much the company has taken on and its total valuation.

Avatar startup Genies scores $65 million in funding round led by Mary Meeker’s Bond

Over the past several years, I’ve covered my fair share of upstart avatar companies that were all chasing the same dream — building out a customizable platform for a digital persona that gained wide adoption across games and digital spaces. Few of those startups I’ve covered in the past are still around. But by netting a string of successful partnerships with celebrity musicians, LA-based Genies has come closer than any startup before it to realizing the full vision of a wide-reaching avatar platform.

The company announced today that they’ve closed a $65 million Series B led by Mark Meeker’s firm Bond. NEA, Breyer Capital, Tull Investment Group, NetEase, Dapper Labs and Coinbase Ventures also participated in the deal. Mark Meeker will be joining the Genies board. The company didn’t disclose the Genies’ most recent valuation.

This funding comes at an inflection point for the eight-year-old company, evidenced by the investments from NBA Top Shot-maker Dapper Labs and crypto giant Coinbase. As announced last week, the company is rolling out an NFT platform on Dapper Labs’ Flow blockchain, partnering closely with the startup who will be building out the backend for a Genies avatar accessories storefront. Like Dapper Labs has leveraged its exclusive deals with sports leagues to ship NFTs with official backing, Genies is planning to capitalize on its partnerships with celebrities in its roster including Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Cardi B and others to create a platform for buying and trading avatar accessories en masse.

In October, the company announced a brand partnerships with Gucci, opening up the startup to another big market opportunity.

Genies’ business has largely focused on leveraging high-profile partnerships to give its entertainer clients a digital presence that can spice up what they’re sharing on social media and beyond. As they’ve rolled out avatar creation to all users through beta mobile apps, Genies has been focusing on one of the more explicit dreams of the avatar companies before it; building out a broad network of avatar users and a broad network of compatible platforms through its SDK.

“An avatar is a vehicle to be able to showcase more of your authentic self,” Genies CEO Akash Nigam tells TechCrunch. “It’s not limited by real world constraints, it’s an alter-ego personality.”

Trends in the NFT world have provided new realms of exploration for Genies, but so have broader pandemic era trends that have pushed more users to wholly digital spaces where they socialize and connect. “The pandemic accelerated everything,” Nigam says.

Nigam emphasizes that despite the major opportunity its upcoming NFT platform will present, Genies is still an avatar company first-and-foremost, not an NFT startup, though he does say he is believes crypto-backed digital goods are going to be around for a long time. He has few doubts that the current environment around digital goods helped juice Genies’ funding round which he says was “6-8X oversubscribed” and was an opportunistic play for the startup, which “could have gone years without having to raise.”

The company says their crypto marketplace will launch in the coming months, as early as this summer.

Epic Games buys artist community ArtStation, drops commissions to 12%

One the same day as Fortnite maker Epic Games goes to trial with one of the biggest legal challenges to the App Store’s business model to date, it has simultaneously announced the acquisition of the artist portfolio community ArtStation — and immediately lowered the commissions on sales. Now standard creators on ArtStation will see the same 12% commission rate found in Epic’s own Games Store for PCs, instead of the 30% it was before. This reduced rate is meant to serve as an example the wider community as to what a “reasonable” commission should look like. This could become a point of comparison with the Apple App Store’s 30% commission for larger developers like Epic as the court case proceeds.

ArtStation today offers a place for creators across gaming, media, and entertainment to showcase their work and find new jobs. The company has had a long relationship with Epic Games, as many ArtStation creators work with Epic’s Unreal Engine. However, ArtStation has also been a home to 2D and 3D creators across verticals, including those who don’t work with Unreal Engine.

The acquisition won’t change that, the team says in its announcement. Instead, the deal will expand the opportunities for creators to monetize their work. Most notably, that involves the commission drop. For standard creators, the fees will drop from 30% to 12%. For Pro members (who pay $9.95/mo for a subscription), the commission goes even lower — from 20% to 8%. And for self-promoted sales, the fees will be just 5%. ArtEngine’s streaming video service, ArtStation Learning, will also be free for the rest of 2021, the company notes.

The slashed commission, however, is perhaps the most important change Epic is making to ArtStation because it gives Epic a specific example as to how it treats its own creator communities. It will likely reference the acquisition and the commission changes during its trial with Apple, along with its own Epic Games Store and its similarly low rate. Already, Epic’s move had prompted Microsoft to lower its cut on game sales, too, having recently announced a similar 30% to 12% drop.

In the trial, Epic Games will try to argue that Apple has a monopoly on the iOS app ecosystem and it abuses its market power to force developers to use Apple’s payment systems and pay it commissions on the sales and in-app purchases that flow through those systems. Epic Games, like several other larger app makers, would rather use its own payment systems to avoid the commission — or at the very least, be able to point users to a website where they can pay directly. But Apple doesn’t allow this, per its App Store guidelines.

Last year, Epic Games triggered Fortnite’s App Store expulsion by introducing a new direct way to pay on mobile devices which offered a steep discount. It was a calculated move. Both Apple and Google immediately banned the game for violating their respective app store policies, as a result. And then Epic sued.

While Epic’s fight is technically with both Apple and Google, it has focused more of its energy on the former because Android devices allow sideloading of apps (a means of installing apps directly), and Apple does not.

Meanwhile, Apple’s argument is that Epic Games agreed to Apple’s terms and guidelines and then purposefully violated them in an effort to get a special deal. But Apple says the guidelines apply to all developers equally, and Epic doesn’t get an exception here.

However, throughout the course of the U.S. antitrust investigations into big tech, it was discovered that Apple did, in fact, make special deals in the past. Emails shared by the House Judiciary Committee as a part of an investigation revealed that Apple had agreed to a 15% commission for Amazon’s Prime Video app at the start, when typically subscription video apps are 30% in year one, then 15% in year two and beyond. (Apple says Amazon simply qualified for a new program.) Plus, other older emails revealed Apple had several discussions about raising commissions even higher than 30%, indicating that Apple believed its commission rate had some flex.

Ahead of today’s acquisition by Epic Games, ArtStation received a “Megagrant” from Epic during the height of the pandemic to help it through an uncertain period. This could may have pushed the two companies to further discuss deeper ties going forward.

“Over the last seven years, we’ve worked hard to enable creators to showcase their work, connect with opportunities and make a living doing what they love,” said Leonard Teo, CEO and co-founder of ArtStation, in a statement. “As part of Epic, we will be able to advance this mission and give back to the community in ways that we weren’t able to on our own, while retaining the ArtStation name and spirit.”

Cloud gaming service Shadow taken over by OVHcloud founder

Blade, the French startup behind cloud gaming service Shadow, has been acquired by Octave Klaba’s fund following a commercial court order. Klaba is better known as the founder of OVHcloud, a French cloud hosting company. He’s acquiring Blade (and Shadow) through his investment fund Jezby Ventures — not OVHcloud.

Shadow is a cloud computing service for gamers. People can pay a monthly subscription fee and gain access to a gaming PC in a data center. You can connect to this PC from your computer, a smartphone, a tablet or a smart TV. You can see a video stream of what’s happening on the screen and your actions are relayed to the server.

Unlike Google Stadia, Amazon Luna or even Nvidia GeForce Now, you can install whatever you want on your server. You get a full Windows 10 instance so it supports anything from Steam to Photoshop and Excel.

While the French startup has raised over $100 million across multiple funding rounds, the company couldn’t keep up with pre-orders, didn’t generate enough revenue to be self-sustainable and couldn’t find cash to expand its service. Despite attracting 100,000 paid users, Next INpact reported that the company had no choice but to go into administration with the commercial court.

Several companies and group of people submitted takeover bids. In particular, Blade CTO Jean-Baptiste Kempf teamed up with other employees, while Octave Klaba submitted his own offer. Klaba plans to keep all employees except Jean-Baptiste Kempf.

Now, it’s going to be interesting to see how the service changes over the coming weeks. Subscriptions currently start at €12.99 per month in Europe or $11.99 per month in the U.S. It’s unclear whether Shadow will remain available at this price point, how specifications are going to evolve and if the company is going to spin up more servers to attract new clients.

PortalOne raises $15M from Atari and more for a new hybrid gaming/TV show app

Gaming and streamed video have been two of the biggest pastime winners during the last year+ of pandemic living. Today a startup that has created an app that brings those two entertainment formats together is announcing a notable seed round of funding as it prepares to come out of closed beta.

PortalOne, a hybrid gaming startup, is announcing a $15 million seed round of funding as it prepares to come out of closed beta with an app that lets people play on-demand games and also watch live shows in which users can play against a special guest.

The startup and its funding are notable in part because of who is doing the investing.

It includes Atari and camera maker ARRI, Founders Fund, TQ Ventures (the firm led by Scooter Braun and financiers Schuster Tanger and Andrew Marks), Coatue Management (specifically Arielle Zuckerberg), Rogue Capital Partners (Alice Lloyd George’s new fund), Signia Venture Partners (via Sunny Dhillon); Seedcamp, Talis Capital and SNÖ Ventures out of Europe.

Other investors included Kevin Lin, the co-founder of Twitch; Mike Morhaime, co-founder of Blizzard and Dreamhaven; Amy Morhaime, co-founder of Dreamhaven; Marc Merrill, co-founder of Riot Games; Xen Lategan, former CTO and executive advisor at various companies such as Hulu; and Eugene Wei, former Head of Video at Oculus and Head of Product at Hulu.

PortalOne is part tech startup, and part media company. On the one hand, it has spent the last three years building a full stack of hardware and software that can be used to build games, record live shows, and integrate the two into an experience that blends both on-demand and real-time gaming and entertainment.

“One of the benefits of building first is that what we are doing is extremely hard to do on a technical level,” said co-founder and CEO Bård Anders Kasin. “The way we do it is the key. It is our secret sauce.”

On the other, it is using that tech to create a gaming and live events platform and brand — providing a place for itself and third parties to build games and bigger live experiences around them. It believes that it’s managed to do something here that has eluded others for years.

“We come from the entertainment industry and have also been in games many years,” said Stig Olav Kasin, Bård’s brother, CXO, and the other co-founder. “We’ve talked to all the big companies and know that hybrid gaming combining games and TV is difficult,” not least because of the silos in companies where different groups “own” TV and gaming.

The Oslo-based company has so far been running a pared-down, early version of its service in the US and Norway — two games in so far, one called Blockbuster that, well, involves you throwing a massive ball and knocking over blocks, and another a reimagined version of Centipede — with corresponding talk shows set out of a living room that’s actually all computer-generated on a green screen.

Users can play and watch all this either through a VR headset or over a phone, and they win “prizes” for placing well in gaming competitions. Alongside that PortalOne will sell virtual goods much as companies like Fortnite do today.

The plan is to more widely launch the first iteration of its service — PortalOne Arcade, a selection of 80s-themed, old-school arcade games reimagined as multiplayer, immersive experiences combined with interactive talk shows — in the US and Norway later this year before extending to other markets.

Bård Anders Kasin — who previously built a VR company and worked as a technical director at Warner Brothers, making movies such as the Matrix trilogy — and Stig Olav Kasin — who worked with his brother on VR and before that was a media exec on shows like The Voice and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — founded PortalOne back in 2018.

Between then and June 2020, when PortalOne launched its closed beta, the startup’s focus was on building out its technology and its content strategy and early partners.

From the sounds of it, it was no small task. Its tech stack incorporates virtual reality, computer vision, gaming technology, and software and hardware to capture and stream video that drastically reduces the resources required for both, among other IP. Some of it PortalOne built itself; other areas it worked with Arri, a major player in motion picture camera equipment, which built a new kind of 3D camera for PortalOne.

Part of the challenge that PortalOne has been tackling has been the very process of creating content for a hybrid platform like the one it envisioned.

Typically, recording immersive experiences is complex and expensive because of the volumetric equipment that is used, the set-up of studios necessary to capture the experiences, and more, which involve Hollywood-movie-studio size, staffing and costs.

PortalOne’s breakthrough has been to turn that process into something that can be produced more easily and at a much lower cost, necessary “since we have daily shows and we want to scale and mass produce more daily shows for each game,” said Bård.

In the PortalOne setup, in addition to the host — an affable Norwegian with a mostly American English accent called Markus Bailey — and his guest, there are only two other people involved, technician-producers triggering effects and controlling when the action switches from talk to game and back again.

From previously needing large sets and dozens of people, “now we can do all of this in a YouTube-sized studio,” said Bård.

On the content front, PortalOne is building its own games, but it is also tapping into an old-school gaming aesthetic, it said.

Atari is not only investing, but has inked a seven-year deal with PortalOne, giving the latter exclusive global distribution rights to some of its most popular arcade game franchises, which PortalOne is reimagining and rebuilding for its hybrid platform.

Bård said that the company wants to work with brands in music, sport, travel and education to build other games, too. (Braun’s reach here might not extend to Taylor Swift, but he’s pulled in Justin Bieber for the promo video, and possibly more.)

“Massive opportunities continue to emerge in the interactive entertainment space as distribution and business models evolve,” said Kirill Tasilov, a principal at Talis Capital, in a statement. “PortalOne is redefining mobile by unlocking new hybrid experiences at the intersection of games and video, and we are thrilled to be a part of their journey.”

Blurring the lines

In some ways, what PortalOne is doing is not completely new, since the lines between what is a game, what is interactive, and what is linear entertainment have been getting blurred for decades.

You could argue that even game shows, one of the earliest TV formats, was an early stage in hybrid interactivity, although more modern programs like the ones that Stig helped build out, with interactive voting from at-home audiences using phones, definitely pushed the concept in new ways.

The coronavirus pandemic and the fact that so many in-person live events were cancelled, meanwhile, definitely paved the way for content players to think outside the box when it came to building new kinds of “live” shows. With Marshmello getting a huge response to his Fortnite “show” in 2019, the game saw 12 million people flock to its Travis Scott concert last year; and Roblox said in December said its show with Lil Nas will pave the way for future events.

“When we see virtual concerts inside of TikTok, Roblox, and Fortnite, it’s great but PortalOne offers an evolution of interactive metaverse entertainment — true real-time, one-to-many interaction between gamers around the world, all in a mobile-native hybrid game format,” said Dhillon, a partner at Signia Venture Partners.

Yet if well-established platforms really pick up on this trend, that’s an endorsement of what PortalOne has built. But they could also feasibly build their own live game shows, too, and blow PortalOne out of the water just as it’s dipping its toes in.

This is also where its time spent building tech could prove either to be a boost or a bust. Gaming is a notoriously tough one to call when it comes to resonating and taking off with audiences, and so too will presumably the experiences that are built around those games.

“The next big social platform will likely be a convergence of media with gaming at its core – a truly new immersive interactive experience – and PortalOne is a major contender for becoming such a platform,” said Kevin Lin.

Indeed, if PortalOne finds an audience for what it’s making, it will have the tools to serve them more content efficiently and and cheaply. But if it doesn’t strike the right note, the question will be how and if that tech will otherwise be used.

For investors right now, it’s more about the opportunity.

“As PortalOne continues to grow, it is seamlessly integrating the gaming and entertainment worlds to create a single interactive experience and endless opportunities for content creation,” said Braun. “Creators and performers alike want new and innovative ways to bring their craft to life, and PortalOne is meeting that demand in a way that no other business has done. I’m excited to work with the entire team to realize their trailblazing vision. I have never seen anything like this before.”

Delian Asparouhov, a principal at Founders Fund — in the news today for another reason, his role in bringing a lot of attention to Miami as a new tech hot spot — also thinks that the building of infrastructure and tech combined with the media element will give the startup a lot of runway.

“We back companies that we believe have strong potential to become global category leaders,” he said in a statement. “PortalOne creates a new category and simultaneously the platform that is clearly set to dominate that new category. The market is ripe, the opportunity is clear, and the potential is unlimited. PortalOne is poised to create a before and after in the industry.”

US video game spending increased 30% in Q1

Even as signs of life after the pandemic have begun to emerge here in the U.S., increases in video game spending continue. There’s no doubt that much of last year’s big numbers were driven by stay-at-home requirements in much of the country and the world. All said, U.S. spending on the industry increased 27% for 2020.

There remains a broader question, however, around whether this momentum can maintain, as people start to, you know, leave the house more. For now, at least, things are continuing to look rosy for the industry. NPD noted this morning that U.S. spending on the category jumped 30% y-o-y for Q1 2021, to $14.92 billion.

When we break the number down a bit, however, it becomes clear that the driver goes beyond mere pandemic entertainment. Content was up 25% for the quarter, accessories jumped 42% and hardware went up 82%.

The motivator behind that last figure should be immediately obvious to anyone who follows the industry with any amount of interest. Where Nintendo’s Switch dominated the conversation for most of 2020, Sony and Microsoft both launched their next-gen consoles late last year.

“While we are still seeing elevated rates of both engagement and spending resulting from changes in consumer behavior driven by the pandemic, we are also seeing cyclical gains from the November launches of both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles,” analyst Mat Piscatella said in a release The growth driven by these new platforms, combined with gains experienced in mobile, PC and VR content spending, as well as the continued strength of Nintendo Switch, have pushed the market to new highs.”

 

‘Returnal’ is a frantic, familiar pleasure — but spurns mainstream appeal to its peril

Returnal, released today for the PlayStation 5, is an action adventure that has you exploring an alien world that reconfigures itself whenever you die, bringing you back for another shot at escaping. It’s exciting, frustrating, and beautiful, though it isn’t particularly original. But while it is arguably the first game to be released that was designed and built for next generation consoles, it’s not the mainstream hit many gamers are waiting for.

First I should probably justify my “arguably.” The PS5 debuted with the impressive remake of Demon’s Souls, and while I enjoyed that greatly, it was only next-gen in its presentation; many dated aspects faithfully carried over from the original mean it can’t really be considered a fully next generation title. The pack-in Astro’s Playroom is a delight but doesn’t compare with full-scale games. Destruction All-Stars was something of a damp squib. And excellent games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla span the generations, playing best but by no means exclusively on PS5.

So Returnal really is, in a non-trivial way, the first really “next-gen” PS5 game — and it carries the “next-gen” PS5 price tag of $70, more in many regions. Can it justify this premium? In some ways yes, but like Demon’s Souls this is a difficult game that involves a potentially off-putting amount of repetition and failure for mainstream audiences.

The game starts with your character, a sci-fi space explorer working for a mysterious company called Astra (there are clear nods to Weyland-Yutani from Alien), crashing on a forbidden planet and finding herself — literally — stuck in a sort of time loop. (You’ll see what I mean by literally.)

The developers have obviously seen Prometheus.

Without getting into the specifics of the plot, which is slowly revealed through found recordings, exploration of ancient ruins, and decoding alien symbols, Selene is seemingly trapped on the planet until she can figure out what’s going on, and whenever she dies the world shifts around to provide new challenges and opportunities.

Each loop or “cycle” involves the player starting from the crash site and progressing through the world, different but familiar every time. You encounter enemies, collect power-ups like new weapons or artifacts that affect your abilities, and occasionally an item that will permanently augment your suit or open new paths to take.

To call any individual aspect of the game original would be inaccurate — it takes with a free hand from its august predecessors in both gameplay and presentation. Without spoiling too much I’d say its progression and design share the most with indie breakout hit Dead Cells, with a dose of Risk of Rain 2, and a setting lifted wholesale from elaborating on Alien and Prometheus. That said, the story and backstory owe more to Solaris. It wears its influences on its sleeve to be sure, but they come together as something cohesive, not a sloppy pastiche.

Run, gun, rinse, repeat

Returnal starts out almost frustratingly simple, but this is soon remedied as new abilities and layers of complexity are added to the mix; expect the “tutorial” to be meted out over a few hours as things are discovered organically.

You make your way through what amounts to arena after arena, sometimes large and multi-layered, sometimes confined, and fight whatever appears. Combat is frantic and high risk — monsters don’t telegraph ponderous swipes at you but rather spew dozens or hundreds of bullets in your direction, making you rely on smart anticipatory movement and the cluttered landscape to stay alive. As you defeat them you accrue increasingly powerful boons that only last until you get hit, at which point they all disappear, adding a layer of urgency to every encounter: you could gain a crucial edge for the next miniboss — or lose what you’ve built up over minutes of careful play. You can’t take any enemy lightly — those that don’t kill you will make you weaker.

The player moves forward by exploring and eventually defeating an area boss, encounters that are more than a little taxing and generally take a few tries. Then it’s on to a new, different “biome” to do it all again with a different color scheme (and new enemies, hazards and so on).

The look and feel of Returnal is what you might call “early next-gen.” It’s detailed, interesting looking and realistic in a sci-fi way, and it uses lighting and color well to create both a sense of place and gameplay objectives. It’s better in some ways than what you’d expect from a PS4 or Xbox One game but ultimately the advances here seem to be more on the side of “fewer limitations” rather than “new capabilities.” Load times are practically non-existent — a second or two at most — and in places where sightlines are farther than a room or two, the scale of what’s being drawn is impressive. The framerate is a steady 60, making combat fluid no matter how crowded and chaotic it gets.

As for the claim of a “living world” that’s truly different every time, you can pretty much ignore that. You’ll encounter the same rooms and structures repeatedly, maybe with different enemies or items, but don’t expect a wildly different experience every loop. Just enough that the repetition isn’t too repetitious.

Image Credits: Sony/Housemarque

Sound is solid and I’d definitely recommend headphones. Your number one issue is going to be getting blasted in the back and positional audio will help a lot with that, as each enemy has characteristic noises for its actions.

The PS5 controller’s advanced haptics are put to good use with two-stage virtual triggers and a lot of contextual vibrations. I do wish there was a way to control these with a bit more granularity, as the constant patter of rain in the first area was numbing my hands, but the other haptic cues were useful and quickly became second nature.

Games in the “roguelite” (i.e. you start from scratch every life like a roguelike, but occasionally gain permanent upgrades) genre can fall flat if your progression, either within a loop or over many of them, involves little more than “+4% pistol damage” or a few more hit points. Fortunately Returnal is well aware of this and its weapons, artifacts, perks and so on often confer interesting bonuses or risk/reward mechanics. And you only have one weapon at a time, meaning the choice between, say, an assault rifle with special ability A and a shotgun with special ability B is a complex and risky one.

Eventually you’ll be able to skip past certain areas, but you may not want to, preferring to scour side paths for resources so you’re not going into the next boss room naked and afraid. In general the game manages to keep a lot of interesting tensions going on with the player that make every decision consequential, not to say agonizing.

Next-gen price tag

Is Returnal worth its premium $70 asking price? For some people, yes. But this isn’t the kind of mainstream blockbuster that would ordinarily justify the increased cost.

So far I’ve played about 20 hours, done 30-odd runs, and based on what I know I’m about halfway through the game. Most of my progress was made on what I think of “prestige” runs, the handful where everything goes right and I get much further than before, making them tense and exciting. (Many ended within five minutes due to poor momentum or rage quits.) The game promises replay value past the credits, though, so a guess of 40 hours of content is more of a floor than a ceiling.

One of several trips to your house, inexplicably replicated on the alien planet…

The difficulty may present a barrier to many players. A dialogue at the start of the game warns you that the game is meant to be challenging and that death is part of the journey. Great, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you get ambushed by a dozen enemies, wiping out half an hour of of progress in an instant. While generally the game falls into the “tough but fair” category, there are spikes here and there that feel gratuitous, and loops where you feel unlucky or underpowered and have to fight the urge to reset.

I don’t mind personally — compared to the Dark Souls series it’s a cakewalk. I almost beat the first boss on my first encounter; good luck doing that with Ornstein and Smough or Father Gascoigne! But like those games it takes a certain type of player to want to power through the early hours and access the huge amount of value essentially locked behind repeated failure. Similar to how many Demon’s Souls players never progress past that game’s punishing first area, players not ready for the acrobatics and perseverance necessary to traverse the unforgiving bullet hell of Returnal may never escape its gloomy, restrictive first biome for the bright, open second one or glimpse its intriguing backstory. (I’ve included some tips below to help people get through the first hours.)

Compared with the steady progression and traditional storytelling of something like AC: Valhalla or Miles Morales this may put off less masochistic gamers or prompt more than a few controller-throwing, refund-requesting moments. After all, paying $70 for a game that slaps you in the face while you try to access the latter $50 worth of it can be justifiably frustrating.

With all that said, it is nice to see a AAA next-generation game that isn’t a sequel or franchise, and seeing the “roguelite” formula embraced seriously beyond the indie world. Returnal may not be for everyone, but for the subset of gamers who have embraced this genre for years, it’s an easy one to recommend.


Tips for playing:

If you do decide to dive in, here are a handful of non-spoilery “wish I’d known that” tips to get you on the right track.

  • There are lots of hidden rooms and items, so check your mini-map frequently for things you’ve missed in the chaos and peek in every nook and cranny.
  • When you’re undamaged, healing pickups contribute towards adding crucial max health — one more reason to not get hit.
  • New abilities create new opportunities in old areas — there’s a reason so much of the first biome is inaccessible at first.
  • You can get to those treasures behind bars. Look around carefully (and shoot everything).
  • “Malignant” treasure is usually more trouble than it’s worth and the debuffs can sink a run. Only do if desperate or you have a cure handy. (Parasites on the other hand can be very useful.)
  • There’s always a healing item for sale at the biome’s “shop,” so there’s no excuse for going into a boss room without one. (And self-healing artifacts will save your life five times over.)

Zynga and Rollic acquire the hyper-casual game studio behind High Heels

Last year, Zynga bought hyper-casual game maker Rollic. Today, Rollic is a Zynga subsidiary, and it’s announcing the acquisition of another game studio called Uncosoft.

Like Rollic, Uncosoft develops hyper-casual games and is based in Turkey (Istanbul in Rollic’s case, Izmir in Uncosoft’s). In fact, Rollic has already published a couple of Uncosoft games, most notably High Heels, in which the player navigates an obstacle course in increasingly ridiculous high heels — the company said High Heels (or, if you insist, High Heels!) has been downloaded more than 60 million times since it launched in January, and it’s even been praised for bringing “queer joy to the top of the App Store charts.”

Rollic co-founder and CEO Burak Vardal told me that when you’re in the hyper-casual gaming business, you’re “always looking for product-oriented teams.” And it sounds like Vardal is impressed by what he’s seen of the Uncosoft team, making him confident that it can successfully build “new titles like High Heels.”

“Producing a game together as development studio and publisher, you already start working like a merged company,” he said. “You argue about game design all day, you share strategies […] and you — not on purpose — start learning about how that company operates, how are the founders, how is the art team.”

Meanwhile, Uncosoft CEO Edip Enes Çakır said in a statement that there has been “unprecedented harmony” between the two teams as they’ve worked together in recent years, and that “our culture and vision of making global games will be augmented with the expertise of Rollic and Zynga.”

Rollic was actually Zynga’s fourth acquisition in Istanbul, so it’s clear that the city and country are becoming a bit of a hub. Vardal said Rollic does have partners outside of Turkey, but he suggested that the country has been particularly successful with hyper-casual games because of its huge student population.

Verdal also suggested that High Heels points to a path that other hyper-casual games might follow to success: namely, TikTok.

“The animations of the game and the character mechanic are what we call TikTok-able,” he said. “It had a huge impact in Gen Z and huge organic reach in TikTok […] The new generation wants content that feeds that ecosystem.”

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.