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.

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?

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 percent 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, since 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.

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, Writer

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 31 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.

Despite canceled trade shows, gaming startups can still win an extra life

As organizers cancel events with massive attendance, like SXSW (400,000 attendees), E3 (66,000), GDC (65,000) and Mobile World Congress (100,000), mobile game developers have felt the crunch. At a show like SXSW, larger developers can spend more than $135,000 just to secure some real estate.

Despite the steep cost, if you’re a developer, these events can prove worthwhile for building awareness, buzz and customer downloads. Real-time feedback from attendees, the ability to sign up users for beta campaigns, opportunities for bolstering subsequent email marketing and the prestige of having your app live side-by-side with games produced by larger studios are unique qualities.

It remains unclear if and how developers that made investments will recover costs such as those for onsite promotion, print advertising, staff for booths and restaurant reservations. Equally, if not more important though, is the added layer of opportunity cost for developers, especially those who sought to use these events to launch something new.

How important are launch moments for game developers? During the Game Developers Conference 2019, a new port of Cuphead for Nintendo Switch was announced. Per Google Trends, web searches for the game reached their second-highest point of the year during the event (March 20th), only behind search volume of the game’s release a month later, in April 2019.

Large developers can come out unscathed from a trade show cancellation and simply kick the launch moment to their next big tentpole event. But for smaller app or game developers that can’t wait another six months for their launch moment, they need to do something.

Here are five ways to salvage a launch lost to a trade show cancellation.

‘Cloud-first’ game studio Mainframe raises $8.1M led by Andreessen Horowitz

With most new social media startups seeming to dial in on specific communities to thrive in a still Facebook-dominated sphere, some of the more broadly focused social investments from top VCs are going into online gaming.

The latest is Mainframe Industries, a Nordic game studio building a massively multiplayer online title. The team doesn’t have much to share of what their title will actually look like gameplay-wise, they’re just saying its a sandbox MMO designed for cloud streaming built on Epic Games’ Unreal Engine.

The startup, which has offices in Helsinki and Reykjavik, isn’t building cloud gaming tech but is instead building an MMO title that’s designed from the get-go for streaming platforms like Google Stadia or Microsoft xCloud that beam a title to a user’s device from a cloud-hosted GPU. What does being a cloud-native game entail? Mainly, it seems to mean that they’re creating a social title that is as fully playable on mobile as it is on PC/console.

Building a robust mobile game that meets console/PC gamers expectations has been one of the more tenuous pursuit of the past decade, and one that has more often than not led to watered-down experiences. Mainframe CEO Thor Gunnarsson acknowledges that titles have sometimes catered to the “lowest common denominator,” but he believes that as game-streaming advances lower technical barriers, his team can focus wholly on solving the user experience challenges.

A big focus seems to be leveraging cross-play with more consistent experiences on differently powered devices thanks to cloud streaming. Gunnarsson believes his company’s approach to what occurs on the “social layer” of the title will be what differentiates them the most, though he is mum on details regarding what that will look like in their eventual release.

The startup has some big names supporting them in their quest. The startup announced today that they’ve closed an $8.1 million (€7.6M) Series A round led by Andreessen Horowitz. Riot Games, Maki.vc, Play Ventures, Sisu Game Ventures and Crowberry Capital also participated in the round.

Andreessen Horowitz, already having bet big on Roblox’s $150 million Series G last month, has been quite active in placing bets on smaller gaming startups in the past year or so, most of which have been made by GP Andrew Chen.

Early last year, Chen directed a16z’s investment in Sandbox VR’s $68 million Series A, a startup aiming to make shared virtual reality experiences more common by building out physical retail locations in malls and shopping areas across the globe. This past August, Chen was also behind the firm’s investment in Singularity 6, another MMO gaming startup that’s looking to build a “virtual society.” Chen was also behind the investment in Mainframe Industries.

“We believe that cloud-native games are poised to revolutionize the entertainment industry in the coming years, yielding entirely new gameplay experiences and business models,” said Chen in a press release announcing the startup’s raise.

In some part, these investments highlight the belief of venture capitalists that online games like Fortnite may represent the future of social networks. They are also, however, platform bets that are rooted in early content plays, which can be notoriously difficult to pick winners in.

While Gunnarsson was quick to discuss how important he believed their title’s social platform would become, he was also just as quick to admit that building a great game was the most critical, “All of the platform stuff is ancillary to the prospect of creating a fun game, but we have really strong game design team.”

Games these days, particularly MMOs, are far from “finished” by launch. Gunnarsson plans to use this round of funding to reach a closed alpha of their title. He didn’t offer any timelines for launch as they’re only in pre-production now, but did say it certainly won’t be coming out this year.

Venture investment in esports looks light as Q1 races to a close

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Today we’re taking a look at the world of esports venture capital investment, largely through the lens of preliminary data that we’ll caveat given how reported VC data lags reality. That phenomenon is likely doubly true in the current moment, as COVID-19 absorbs all news cycles and some venture rounds’ announcements are delayed even more than usual.

All the same, the data we do have paints a picture of a change in esports venture investment, one sufficient in size to indicate that an esports VC slowdown could be afoot. As with all early looks, we’re extending ourselves to reach a conclusion. But… no risk, no reward.

We’ll start by looking at Q1 2020 esports venture totals to date, compare them to year-ago results, and then peek at Q4 2019’s results and its year-ago comparison to get a handle on what else has happened lately in the niche. The picture that the quarters draw will help us understand how esports investing is starting a year that isn’t going as anyone expected.

Venture results

Today we’re using Crunchbase data, looking at both global and U.S.-specific venture totals in both round and dollar volume. To get a picture of the competitive gaming world, we’re examining investments into companies that are tagged as “esports” related in the Crunchbase database. Given that this is a somewhat wide cut, the data below is more directional than precise and should be treated as such.

Female-led Robin Games raises $7 million to combine lifestyle content with fantasy gaming

As a former Jam City executive, Jill Wilson led teams behind some of the top-grossing gaming franchises, like Cookie Jam and Panda Pop. Now she’s running her own startup, Robin Games, where a team of mostly women is working to create a new niche in mobile entertainment they’re calling “lifestyle gaming.” As the name implies, the idea is to create a mobile gaming experience — in this case, fantasy gaming — that’s more like the sophisticated and stylish lifestyle content that’s popular today.

Robin Games is backed by $7 million in seed funding, the company announced on Thursday, as it made its public debut. The round was led by early-stage fund LVP, which has invested in other to game companies including Supercell, Playfish, and NaturalMotion. Additional investors in the oversubscribed round include 1Up Ventures, Alpha Edison, Everblue Management, firstminute Capital, Greycroft Tracker Fund, Hearst Ventures, and Third Kind Venture Capital.

“Traditionally in gaming, when you say ‘fantasy,’ you mean dragons and other mythical creatures, disproportionately built women, armies and battles and explosions and glory,” explained Wilson, Robin Games’ sole founder and CEO. “As a lifelong gamer, I love (most) of these themes, but traditional gamers are no longer in the majority. Thanks to the smartphone, everyone now has access to a gaming console in their pockets. We are expanding the definition of ‘fantasy’ for this modern wave of gamers, whose fantasies are just as diverse as they are,” she added.

Wilson clarified that she’s not meaning to stereotype women as not enjoying fantasy games about things like warriors and dragons. Instead, Robin Games aims to expand the types of fantasies being explored through gaming — including those mobile gaming has yet to include.

While the company isn’t yet announcing its first titles or specific details, like launch dates, the games are said to cover content you’d typically find in a lifestyle magazine, on an Instagram influencer’s profile, or on a lifestyle blog, for example.

“We are focused on developing games that are deeply sophisticated under the hood, with an elevated, real-world, approachable style that reflects more of the lifestyle content you’d previously see outside of gaming,” Wilson told TechCrunch.

All this will be wrapped up in the free-to-play business model that powers most top-grossing games. In addition, Robin Games’ strategy will allow it to expand to include a partnership strategy, which will diversify its revenue streams further down the road.

 

Wilson said the idea for Robin Games was something she had in mind for some time, as she was personally looking for games to like this to play herself — only to find they didn’t exist.

“I’ve always designed products for myself first and foremost, which allows me to deeply connect with what the end-user really wants — since the end-user is me,” said Wilson. “Recently, I realized that not only did we have a unique answer to a pretty major gap in the market, but also that the timing was right and, most importantly, that we could pull together the exact right team to execute this vision.”

The startup is currently a team of nine based in Venice Beach. Management is 80% women and everyone had worked together to make hit games in years prior. In terms of hiring, the company is focused on building out a diverse team in order to better realize its vision, Wilson said, and, more broadly, change the face of the gaming industry as it stands today.

“Our mission goes beyond filling a gap in the market. We’re really looking to shake up the games industry, not only redefining what a modern game team looks like, but also changing the definition itself of what it means to be a gamer,” noted Wilson.

In previous studies, female players have been shown to prefer match-3 and social farming games, among others, with fantasy and MMOs further down the list, and sports and shooting games last. But the types of games Robin Games is proposing don’t really fit into any one category that exists today, so it’s still unknown how female gamers will respond.

However, it makes sense to target this underserved market, given that women account for 46% of all U.S. game enthusiasts.  

“Jill Wilson and her incredible team are already further along than most developers starting out,” added Are Mack Growen, partner at LVP and member of Robin Games’ Board of Directors, about the firm’s investment. “This team has developed and operated some of the world’s most successful games for a decade, and now they have assembled to bring premium experiences to the massively underserved audience of women. In addition to their industry expertise, they fundamentally understand their audience and the ingredients for powerful entertainment. We are proud to have led their seed round and look forward to helping them redefine what it means to be a gamer.”