Balance and Pokémon UNITE top Google Play’s ‘Best of 2021’ Awards

Google today announced the winners of its “Best of 2021” app awards, which highlight both the company’s and users’ picks for the best apps and games from the past year. This year, Google is expanding its awards lineup to include apps and games on tablets, Wear OS and Google TV, it says. Its U.S. winners included meditation app Balance as its app of the year and top game Pokémon UNITE. Meanwhile, Paramount+ and Garena Free Fire MAX won the user’s choice awards.

In 2020, the award winners had reflected a world undergoing a pandemic, where stressed users had turned to apps and soothing games to relax — like top sleep app Loóna, which was last year’s “Best App,” or escapist games like winner Genshin Impact.

With the early days of the pandemic now behind us, some of this year’s award winners are apps that now focus on personal growth and creativity, instead of just relaxing or escaping. This, too, seems to reflect where we are as a society. Over this past year, we saw the “great resignation” where U.S. employees voluntarily quit their unfulfilling, underpaid jobs in search of something better, and the creator economy began to boom as people pursued their passions.

In addition to Best of 2021 app Balance, which offers personalized meditation, other personal development-styled winners include Moonly, an app for “harmonizing your life” with the lunar calendar; a “comedic relaxation” app, Laughscape; a hypnotherapy app for women, Clementine; better sleep app Sleep Cycle; mentorship community Mentor Spaces; habit tracker and planner Rabit; and an app for navigating grief from loss, Empathy.

Other winners showcased how we adapted to pandemic life, as with audio chatroom Clubhouse, tools for reducing screen time, like Speechify, or those for reconnecting with nature, like Blossom.

In addition to winner Balance, the full lineup of app winners includes the following:

Best Apps for Good 

Best Everyday Essentials 

Best for Fun 

Best Hidden Gems

Best for Personal Growth 

Best for Tablets  

Best for Wear 

Popular on Google TV

The year’s best games were led by top game Pokémon UNITE, which focused on cross-platform gaming.

“Pokémon Unite is Pokémon’s first strategic team battle game, co-developed by The Pokémon Company and TiMi Studio Group. We tried to distill the best parts of the MOBA genre to create a new kind of game, but I must admit that I was unsure if it would be well received by players around the world,” noted Masaaki Hoshino, Producer, Pokémon UNITE, in a statement. T”his award shows that our game has been positively received by fans and the media, and while this is a great relief, at the same time it reaffirms our determination to continue doing our best to make Pokémon UNITE an even more exciting experience that meets our players’ expectations,” he added.

The larger lineup also included indie experiences like the introspective Bird Alone, which challenges you to become friends with the “loneliest bird in the world.” Annapurna Interactive’s Donut County won for its physics-based puzzle game, among others.

The full list of game winners included:

Best Competitive 

Best Game Changers

Best Indies 

Best Pick Up & Play

Best for Tablets

Each country will have its own list of winning apps and games which can be found in the new Best of 2021 section of the Play Store. The above are Google Play’s U.S. winners.

Report shows accessibility in gaming is both challenge and opportunity

The gaming community, developers, and publishers are beginning to embrace accessibility as a core part of the business and hobby, but there’s a long way to go. A report on the needs and habits of disabled gamers in the UK suggests that millions worldwide face difficulties regularly in how they play, buy, or otherwise enjoy games.

Performed by disability advocacy organization Scope and compellingly contextualized by Eurogamer contributor Vivek Gohil, the study polled 1,326 people (812 disabled, 514 not disabled) on the problems they face in the gaming world.

Two thirds said they face barriers in gaming, most commonly the availability or affordability of assistive technology. Many say they’ve avoided buying games because of a lack of accessibility options, or have been unable to play (or return) games they bought which lacked such options.

Interestingly, disabled gamers are considerably more likely to buy in-game items, watch esports, and otherwise engage with various platforms. As Gohil points out, just within the UK there are some 14 million people commanding billions in disposable income; a large proportion of whom are active gamers, valuable ones at that; yet they are seldom considered a demographic worth advertising to or including in-game.

That does seem to be changing as more big developers realize that accessibility options make their games better for everyone. Major titles like the new Ratchet & Clank, The Last of Us: Part II, and Forza Horizon 5 include a wide variety of accommodations for everything from colorblindness to gameplay slowdown and granular difficulty options.

Better hardware is also on the way as small companies produce assistive devices for lots of different needs, and of course Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller has been a huge hit for people who can’t use traditional controllers.

The company also recently hosted an inclusion-focused esports tournament in collaboration with the Special Olympics.

But they’ll be the first to admit that more needs to be done, and it’s not all engineering and development. In-game chat, notoriously toxic at the best of times, is positively horrific when people with disabilities join in, the Scope study found. In fact “doing more to tackle negative attitudes about disability online” was the most common priority cited by the respondents. More and better representation of people with disabilities in games, and more affordable assistive tech were also rated as important.

The need for better accessibility in the gaming world is clear, but difficult to quantify — so studies like this one are particularly valuable. You can read the full report here.

Netflix’s gaming service adds two more titles, including the return of Gameloft’s ‘Asphalt Xtreme’

Earlier this month, Netflix’s new gaming service became globally available across both iOS and Android with a debut lineup that included two “Stranger Things”-themed games and a few more casual gaming titles. In the days since its launch, Netflix has expanded its lineup with two more games, including another casual game “Bowling Ballers,” and now, a reboot of Gameloft’s “Asphalt Xtreme,” which officially shut down this September.

“Bowling Ballers” is another title from existing Netflix gaming partner Frosty Pop, which already offers two other games for the streamer’s new service, “Shooting Hoops” and “Teeter Up.” Like the others, this latest addition is a simple game that’s described as an “endless runner” for bowling, which also includes a level-based mode. And like all Netflix games, “Bowling Ballers” is ad-free and doesn’t offer any in-app purchases.

The other new addition is a bit more interesting. “Asphalt Xtreme” was a fairly popular Gameloft title for a few years. It was the second spinoff from Gameloft’s “Asphalt” series of action racing games, and allowed players to go off-roads to explore exotic locales while controlling a variety of vehicles, including rally cars and monster trucks. The gameplay would see the cars having to traverse difficult elements like water, rocks, sand, mud, and snow.

The game was developed from August 2015 to September 2017, but was shut down entirely on September 30, 2021. By Oct. 1, 2021, it was no longer available on the app stores for download. Netflix then licensed the title from Gameloft to add to its mobile gaming collection.

Larger gaming publishers like Gameloft tend to shut down titles that have passed their prime, and no longer generate the revenue needed to keep the game active. But a service like Netflix, it seems, could be an interesting new home for such IP, as its goal is not to develop a profit from the games directly.

This format of an all-access “gaming subscription” is already used by the various cloud gaming services, like Xbox Cloud Gaming or Stadia, as well as the retro gaming service GameClub, and even Apple’s own Apple Arcade.

But Netflix doesn’t need the game subscription to stand on its own. Instead, Netflix sees these mobile games as a means of maintaining and growing its paying subscriber base by offering consumers a different type of entertainment beyond its TV shows and movies. Netflix subscribers can browse the available games inside Netflix’s streaming app, but the titles themselves are listed on the respective app stores as free downloads. When users are ready to play, the games require your Netflix credentials to log in — making them exclusive to Netflix members.

“Bowling Ballers,” which launched earlier this month, is available to global users. Netflix confirmed “Asphalt Xtreme,” which launched just this week, is now slowly rolling out to users worldwide. It will become available to U.S. users in the weeks ahead.

Riot Games’ new esports president on NBA collaboration, its hit Netflix series, and NFTs

Amid a spectacle staged during the Golden State Warriors versus Toronto Raptors game on November 21, Riot Games’ new esports president John Needham sent League of Legends T-shirts parachuting down onto a packed stadium of sports fans while a cinematic trailer announced the return of one of the world’s largest esports tournaments to North America.

It was the culmination of a day when dozens of the global press were gathered to tour the state-of-the-art Chase Center in San Francisco, the venue where the 2022 League of Legends World Championship finals will be held next November.

“We haven’t been in North America with major international events since 2016 and haven’t been able to come back the past few years due to travel restrictions around COVID,” Needham told TechCrunch. “We’re just very excited to be doing live events again and want fans to know that they can expect a thrilling production the likes of the Super Bowl halftime show.”

It’s been more than a decade since Riot held its first World Championships in 2011, known as Worlds. The multiplayer online battle game boasts more than 180 million monthly active players and 10 franchise League of Legends teams, each with NBA ownership ties. NBA all stars like Steph Curry, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are team investors, along with others from the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets.

With 73.8 million fans watching the Worlds finals in 2021, up from 46 million in 2020, according to Needham, League of Legends esports tournaments have become big business, drawing in major brands like Louis Vuitton, AXE by Unilever, Spotify, Bose, Mercedes-Benz, Red Bull, Coca-Cola and Fenty by Rihanna.

“We partner with brands to bring value to our fans and have found that when we do there is a joint brand lifting that often occurs. Brands get access to our valuable, hard to reach Gen Z demographic while we gain credibility being partnered with them,” said Needham. “When Louis Vuitton created its first digital fashion line for us, it added to our fans’ game experience. These types of skins are so popular that they are the foundation of our business model and generate, by far, the most revenue for us.”

Riot’s massive fan base has also proven to be an asset in the company’s pursuit to become a global entertainment powerhouse.

On November 6, the trailer for Riot’s first Netflix series, Arcane, was played during the Worlds finals as nearly 74 million fans tuned in. It also did a promotion for Arcane in Fortnite, a game with more than 350 million registered players, partially owned by Riot’s parent company, Tencent. Within days, Arcane shot to the top of Netflix charts, hitting the No. 2 spot for the week of November 8, with more than 34 million viewers.

Having a bigger presence in Europe and Asia than in North America, Needham sees the 2022 Worlds tour as a way to create renewed interest in the game.

“We’ve had over 600 million players around the world who have enjoyed the League of Legends universe since inception. For those who have churned and are not currently playing the game, we hope to reactivate them as we canvas across North America, from Mexico City for the play-ins, to New York City for the quarter finals, to Toronto for the semifinals, to San Francisco for the finals.”

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Despite Riot’s interest in venturing onto new platforms, Needham says there are no plans to jump into the metaverse.

“We have a lot of partners who want to do NFTs with us that we’re analyzing right now, but there isn’t an NFT or blockchain strategy for us to talk about yet. Collectibles just haven’t been a big part of esports, not like traditional sports,” he said. “I want to see the NFT market mature a bit more before we dive in from an esports perspective.”

He added that Riot has no plans to partner with Netflix Gaming or Roblox, either.

Analogue’s Pocket retro gaming handheld console ships on December 13

Analogue, the retro gaming hardware company behind the excellent Nt Mini, Super Nt, Mega Sg and more, has announced a shipping date for its much-anticipate Analogue Pocket handheld: December 13. The portable console, which has support for Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance cartridges out of the box, has been delayed due to COVID and supply constraints, but the company says all pre-orders will now ship out on December 13, with anticipated delivery dates between December 14 and December 30.

The Analogue Pocket looks to be a fantastic retro gaming experience, with a 3.5″ LCD display that operates at a resolution of 1600×1440, for a total display density of 615 PPI. In addition to supporting the range of Game Boy titles, it also works with adapters to support Game Gear, Neo Geo Pocket Color, and Atari Lynx cartridges, too. On top of its gaming chops, the console has a built-in digital audio workstation called Nanoloop that acts as both synthesizer and sequencer for music creation.

Analogue’s major technical achievement, besides the hardware design, is the creation of FPGA chips that allow it to run the game cartridges it supports natively, just as they were originally intended – crucially not in emulation mode. This means it’s a reference quality gaming experience for purists, with screen modes to support replication of original hardware experience for hardcore gamers.

On top of everything else, the $199.99 Analogue Pocket also supports accessories like the Analogue Dock, which provides 1080p output to a connected TV, as well as support for connecting up to 4 8BitDo controllers for local multiplayer via wired or wireless connections. The console itself also offers up to 10 hours of gameplay via its internal battery, and USB-C charging.

Streamlabs changes its name after backlash from Twitch stars and open source software maker

One of the most popular streaming software makers is in hot water after being called out by top Twitch personalities and the open source project that served as a backbone for the company’s success.

Streamlabs, formerly Streamlabs OBS, changed its name Wednesday after backlash spread on Twitter against the company over alleged sketchy business practices. The OBS Project, short for Open Broadcaster Software, provided the open source technical framework for Streamlabs. But in spite of Streamlabs’ decision to include “OBS” in its name, the company and the open source project were apparently never on good terms.

According to a tweet from the OBS Project, the open source group previously asked Streamlabs not to include “OBS” in its name at launch. Streamlabs ignored the request, a choice that likely led many of the software’s users to assume the two products were closely affiliated. To make matters even more confusing, Logitech actually owns Streamlabs, after buying the company for $89 million back in 2019.

On Tuesday, Streamlabs launched a new console Twitch streaming tool called Streamlabs Studio for Xbox. Lightstream, a rival livestreaming software maker, stirred up the current controversy on Twitter when its CEO pointed out the striking similarities between Streamlabs’ webpage for the console streaming tool and its own, right down to the word-for-word identical user testimonials. Capture card maker Elgato also chimed in on Twitter, suggesting that the company had its own experience with Streamlabs copying a product.

A few huge Twitch names quickly jumped into the controversy, including political streamer Hasan Piker and Pokimane, one of the most followed streamers in the world. “Streamlabs better resolve this entire thread of issues or i’ll be asking them to take my face off the platform [and] look to use another donation service,” Pokimane (Imane Anys) tweeted. Less than a day later, Streamlabs announced that it would “[take] immediate action to remove OBS from our name.”

Nintendo’s Zelda Game & Watch is another worthwhile stocking stuffer for retro collectors

I have in my hands the Legend of Zelda Game & Watch, the second in Nintendo’s line of whimsical throwback handhelds clearly meant as stocking stuffers for those who already have (or can’t find) a Switch. It does a fine job, and the three old-school Zelda games included are great options for Nintendo-hard adventure that actually fits in a pocket.

Announced a couple months back, this $50 gadget is very similar physically to last year’s Mario Game & Watch, the first in the series based on Nintendo’s pre-Game Boy line of handhelds. The only difference is the addition of the start and select buttons, which are actually used in the Zelda games.

The games themselves are the inimitable original, The Legend of Zelda; its brutally hard side-scrolling sequel The Adventure of Link; and cherished puzzle box classic Link’s Awakening, recently remade in style. There’s also a recreation of a classic monochrome Game & Watch from the ’80s, though its entertainment value is, frankly, limited.

You can play each straight through, or hit the Game button to switch to another, saving your progress. There are no save states beyond that, though, so get ready to die a gazillion times in Zelda II.

The display is nothing fancy but matches the game resolution well, looking as clear as can be expected at that size. It’s definitely harder to play on this handheld than on a TV but very doable. For the record, these close-up pictures show more pixelation than you notice when playing, there’s definitely no screen door effect as you see in the shot below. In a nice little bit of attention to detail, Link’s Awakening has an aspect ratio adjustment option; the original Game Boy screen was narrower than 4:3, so you can switch between them on the fly. Notably this is the original monochrome version, not colorized.

Nintendo's Zelda Game & Watch game selection screen.

The screen actually looks very clear, the grid effect is an effect of the camera.Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The “watch” portion consists of a clock and now also a timer app. The clock is quite fun, actually: At midnight and noon Link begins his quest in the original game, starting out by collecting his sword and progressing rather haphazardly through the game, repeatedly killing the endlessly spawning monsters on a screen for a minute at a time — and sometimes dying himself, only to likewise be revived — before moving on to the next one. It’s not recorded by a simple AI playing the game, so you won’t see the exact same thing happen over and over.

At 7:59, for instance, he is clearing a green dungeon room of Stalfos, and as the clock strikes 8 he always advances into the boss room, where he plays the flute to reduce Digdogger, slaughters the poor shrunken thing, and collects his 5th piece of the Triforce. At 11:30 he enters the final dungeon and at midnight effortlessly dispatches Ganon in a bit of an anticlimax — and the cycle repeats, albeit with a different color scheme. The dungeons and overworld are not exactly as in the original game but have been modified in various ways to allow for the clock. Still, you get a sense of progression as this Sisyphean Link progresses through the game, collecting the various tools and treasures over and over.

Nintendo's Zelda Game & Watch in its combination box and stand, showing the time..

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The timer is a limited but helpful little item which does exactly what you might expect, counting down from any full minute increment under an hour. Link battles waves of enemies in Zelda II style, and seems to have as much trouble as I do killing those stupid blue knights. It tracks his highest “score” for a given time, so you can set it to three minute rounds and take bets on how he does.

Nintendo's Zelda Game & Watch showing a timer with Link fighting monsters.

You can do it, Link! (Again, the moire effect here is exaggerated, to the eye the display looks very clean)

The hardware, as I said, is largely unchanged, but the addition of the start and select buttons means that A and B, already rather far down the device, are even lower. I think it has graduated from “not ideal” to “uncomfortable” if you plan to play for longer than a few minutes and have average-size hands or larger. Nintendo, we can shift those up half an inch, can’t we? Fortunately the device is very light.

On the rear of the Zelda Game & Watch is a little Triforce that, for no reason at all, lights up very dimly. It’s a sweet little totally unnecessary detail and indicative of someone over there really loving this thing.

Battery life will likely depend on how bright you make the screen, but it’s at least 5 or 6 hours and likely more. I’m testing it right now and will update this post later.

Another fun detail, and perhaps I missed this on the Mario one, is that the box it comes in doubles as a little stand; you fold out cut-out legs and it holds the device at the proper angle to be seen — the viewing angle isn’t great, so leaving it flat or propped straight up isn’t ideal.

All in all the Zelda Game & Watch is a fun little gadget that any lover of the NES and Game Boy classics will appreciate. The only question is whether you’ll be able to get hold of one.

Now you can watch Twitch on your Nintendo Switch

Have you ever had the itch to watch Twitch on Nintendo Switch? Available now as a free download on the Nintendo eShop, the Twitch app lets users watch both live and VOD content on the go in handheld mode, or on the big screen when the Switch is docked.

Since Twitch is best known for gaming livestreams, it makes sense that a lot of people who play Nintendo Switch are probably also Twitch viewers. You can’t stream your games through the Twitch app (streaming setups are complex and bandwidth-intensive!), but it’s easy to browse and search for streams. You can sign into your Twitch account to easily keep up with your favorite streamers, but you can’t use the chat function in the app. It would be difficult to keep up with a Twitch chat while trying to type with your joycons, so it’s not a huge loss. Plus, you can scan a QR code on your phone to join the chat. At that point, if you’re not docked to a TV screen, you might as well just use the iOS app, though.

The Nintendo Switch has some popular entertainment apps available to download, like Hulu and YouTube. But fans are eager for the option to watch Netflix, which had an app on older Nintendo consoles like the Wii U and 3DS. Nintendo stopped supporting the Netflix app on those systems in January, though, and hasn’t shared plans for a Netflix on the Switch. Other popular streaming services like Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ are also absent from the Switch.

Panic’s Playdate handheld won’t ship until early 2022 due to battery issues

When Panic first launched pre-orders of its adorable little retro-inspired handheld gaming device, Playdate, it expected the first 20,000 units to ship by the end of 2021 — just in time, they hoped, for the holidays. That first batch sold out in under 20 minutes.

Sadly, due to last-minute battery component issues, even those first orders have now slipped back to 2022.

In an update email sent to impacted pre-orderers, Panic writes:

As our first 5,000 finished Playdate units arrived at our warehouse in California for 2021, we began to test a few of them. We quickly became concerned that some of them weren’t giving us the battery life we expected. Playdate’s battery is designed to last a very long time, and always be ready for you, even if not used for a while. But that was not the case: in fact, we found a number of units with batteries so drained, Playdate wouldn’t power on at all — and couldn’t be charged. That’s a battery worst-case scenario.

This quickly turned into a months-long, all-hands-on-deck research stress-ball, and we halted production at the factory.

The conclusion?

We made the difficult, expensive decision to replace all of our existing batteries with brand new ones, from a totally different battery supplier.

Panic goes on to note that they’ve received new batteries and they’re now working as hoped … but shipping everything back to Malaysia, swapping out the batteries and getting them back across the ocean is going to take a while.

Meanwhile, the company also discovered that the CPU it planned to use for all Playdate units shipped in 2022 is now backordered for literal years.

With lots of pre-orders in place, we immediately placed an order at our factory for all the parts needed for 2022 units and beyond. The response was … sobering. Many of our parts have been delayed significantly. In fact, we can’t get any more of Playdate’s current CPU for — you’re not going to believe this — two years. Like, 730 days.

Maybe you’ve heard about the “global chip shortage” everyone’s talking about? We’re here to say it is very real. Covid-19 caused an ever-cascading set of worldwide supply chain failures that are leading to many, many electronic parts being simply … gone.

To work around this, the company has redesigned Playdate’s boards to support a different CPU — one they say is more readily available, but that they don’t expect to impact the way the handheld works in any way that the user might notice.

The full text of Panic’s delay announcement is available here.

The company says that although units one through 20,000 have slipped into 2022, they don’t currently expect orders placed thus far to slip into 2023.

As always, hardware is hard. Add a pandemic to the mix, and, well….

Sandbox VR expands to new locations globally with $37M Series B led by Andreessen Horowitz

After a challenging year for location-based virtual reality startups due to COVID-19, Sandbox VR, a location-based VR startup, is making a comeback with a plan to expand its operations further across the globe.

Sandbox VR aims to be an immersive social experience through a combination of full-body motion capture and VR technologies. It allows players to step into another world and go anywhere with their friends. 

The San Francisco and Hong Kong-headquartered company announced it has raised $37 million in a Series B led by Andreessen Horowitz through its Growth Fund, which serves new companies at an inflection point, along with Alibaba and Craft. 

The latest funding, which brings its total raised to approximately $122 million, comes on the heels of three new locations launched in July in Austin, Las Vegas and Shanghai. 

Sandbox VR will use the proceeds to open 10 new retail locations across the globe, including Paramus, London and Toronto in 2022, as well as two corporate and two franchise locations. 

It will scale its internal studio to increase content cadence and develop a software development kit (SDK) to open up the Sandbox platform for third-party development, CEO and co-founder Steve Zhao told TechCrunch. He also said that the company plans to build a wireless technology to remove the VR hardware backpack that weighs down the players.

Sandbox VR uses hardware like head-mounted VR headsets, backpack computers, motion capture sensors and haptic vests for players.

Sandbox VR

Image Credits: Sandbox VR

“With more stores on the way, we’ll be ramping up our internal studios as well as developing our SDK (software development kit) to open up publishing soon,” Zhao said.

Sandbox VR develops its own games and technology, unlike other competitors that operate with licensed games, Zhao noted. The company offers five VR games: Curse of Davy Jones, Amber Sky 2088, Star Trek Discovery: Away Mission, Deadwood Mansion and Unbound Fighting League (UFL).

The pandemic broke out right before closing the company’s planned Series B funding in early 2020, Zhao said. About 80% of its employees had to leave the company, which was forced to file bankruptcy during the COVID crisis, he added. Sandbox VR has emerged from COVID stronger than ever. Its revenue is now up 20x compared to the beginning of this year (after reopening the global offices in April of this year).

“The grit and determination exemplified by Steve and his team at the height of the pandemic was more than admirable — it’s led them to become what we believe to be the strongest, most technologically advanced location-based VR offering available today,” said Andrew Chen, a16z general partner and Sandbox VR board member.

The company has 35 employees globally as of October, Zhao said. Sandbox VR currently operates 12 retail locations in the U.S., Canada and Asia. 

The global location-based virtual reality market is projected to reach $26.3 billion by 2028, exhibiting a CAGR of 32.9% from 2021 to 2028, based on a report by Verified Market Research

Sandbox VR started with an idea of how it can create the most immersive experience possible, like things people see in science fiction. The VR is just a component, he said, adding that the company doesn’t want to limit its business in the VR sector. 

With a mission to expand human interaction by using technology, Sandbox VR has an ambition to enter the metaverse industry down the road, which could take about 3-5 years more to get there, according to Zhao. 

“As we continue to innovate in the VR industry, we’ll move towards the virtualization of our physical spaces. One day, it’ll be like stepping into a portal where players can embody their persistent virtual avatars,” Zhao said.