Fortnite is just a black hole right now – TechCrunch

Fortnite just blew up its entire map and all that’s left is a black hole.

Some are speculating that this is simply a teaser for a new Fortnite map, but it’s unclear when that new map will arrive. On Epic Games’ status page, it says Fortnite is currently experiencing a minor service outage, noting “anomaly detected.”

As Kotaku reports, players this morning were only able to access a team fight mode called “The End.” That led to a massive explosion that resulted in a black hole.

Fortnite’s website is currently just a Twitch stream featuring a black hole.

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Steam will soon let you play local-only multiplayer games with far off friends – TechCrunch

Co-op video games are wonderful.

Alas, it’s not always possible to get everyone in front of the same TV — and not all co-op games have online play, so playing across the internet is out.

With that in mind, Valve has been working on something it calls “Remote Play Together” that it’s planning on rolling into its Steam game launcher later this month. By more or less tricking the game into thinking all players are in the same room, it’ll let you remotely play with your friends generally local-only multiplayer games.

Valve published on its developers-only Steamworks site a note about the upcoming feature, first noticed by PCGamer. The note quickly made its way to the Unity developer forums.

“Your local multiplayer games will soon be improved with automatic support for Remote Play Together on Steam,” it reads. “All local multiplayer, local co-op, and split-screen games will be automatically included in the Remote Play Together beta, which we plan to launch the week of October 21.”

The pending launch was later confirmed by Valve’s Alden Kroll:

So how does it work? If you’ve ever used PS4’s remote play (which lets you push PS4 games to your smartphone) or cast a game from your PC to an Nvidia SHIELD, it’s a bit like that… just tweaked for multiplayer. One player hosts the game on their computer; Steam sends a stream of the visuals to everyone else, capturing controller/keyboard input and sending it back to player one. As far as the game knows, everyone is sitting around the same screen.

It’s important to note, of course, that some games will almost certainly fare better than others here. While streaming tech is only getting better, it inherently introduces latency — and in plenty of games, latency kills. Hopefully Valve makes it clear to players that this is all pretty unofficial; if a game isn’t playable because of latency or anything else remote play brings into the mix, it’s not really the developer’s fault. Valve says developers can opt out of the beta feature if they see fit.

Valve says Remote Play Together will officially support up to four players in one game, and notes that the experience will only be as good as the connections of everyone involved.



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Sony’s next console is… the PlayStation 5, arriving holidays 2020 – TechCrunch

Part of me wishes Sony had gone for something a little flashier. The PlayStation Unicorn or PlayStation Trebuchet or something. But there’s something to be said for consistency. Simplicity. The next version of Sony’s perennial favorite gaming console will be, drum roll… the PlayStation 5.

The company notes that nothing is particularly revelatory in this morning’s reveal. That information, it seems, is still coming. And there’s still plenty of time and lots of gaming-centric shows in which the company can spill more about the system. “These updates may not be a huge surprise,” SIE President and CEO Jim Ryan writes, “but we wanted to confirm them for our PlayStation fans, as we start to reveal additional details about our vision for the next generation.”

There’s a smattering of additional details. Ryan highlights the upcoming system’s controllers, for one thing. There’s new haptic feedback on board, in place of the more traditional rumble technology that’s been around for some time. That should give a better approximation of the simulated experiences during game play.

Also new is “adaptive triggers,” which are being added to the L2 and R2 buttons. Ryan again:

Developers can program the resistance of the triggers so that you feel the tactile sensation of drawing a bow and arrow or accelerating an off-road vehicle through rocky terrain. In combination with the haptics, this can produce a powerful experience that better simulates various actions. Game creators have started to receive early versions of the new controller, and we can’t wait to see where their imagination goes with these new features at their disposal.

The PlayStation 5 will be available in time for the 2020 holiday season. More information soon, one assumes. 

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Microsoft adds per-app time limits to its parental controls – TechCrunch

Microsoft is following Apple and Google’s lead with today’s launch of per-app and per-game time limits in its parental control software. Already, the company allows parents to limit screen time across Windows 10, Xbox One and Android via the Microsoft Launcher. However, it hadn’t yet allowed parents to limit the amount of time a child could spend in a specific app or game, as its competitors do.

Instead, its existing controls allowed parents only to dole out a set amount of hours of screen time. Parents could choose to either leave the time up to the kids to manage, or limit it at the device level — like, only allowing one hour of Xbox time but permitting more screen time on the PC, for example.

However, the current trend in screen time management is not to approach all screen time as unproductive and unhealthy. Instead, it’s about configuring limits on the more addictive apps and games that eat up increasing amounts of children’s time, while permitting educational tools to have fewer limits.

For older kids and teens, social media apps like TikTok or Instagram could be the culprit, while younger kids may just be spending too much time “hanging out” in virtual worlds like Roblox and Fortnite. Problems on this front have gotten pretty bad. Mobile games are under fire for using gambling tactics like loot boxes to engage children. And Fortnite is now the subject of a lawsuit that claims that, in part, the game’s addictive nature is due to its use slot machine-like mechanics and variable reward systems, which manipulate children’s brains.

Without being able to limit these apps directly, kids may end up using all of their allotted screen time on just the one app or game they’re obsessed with at the moment.

Apple had already allowed per-app time limits with the launch of its screen time controls in iOS 12. And Google more recently updated its own Family Link software, now preinstalled on new Android devices, to include a similar feature.

With today’s update, Microsoft is now on board, too.

microsoft per app time limits

The new app and game limits parents set will apply across Windows 10, Xbox and Android devices running Microsoft Launcher. In other words, kids can’t get more game time just by switching devices.

The controls also allow parents to offer more screen time on certain days — like weekends, for instance — than others.

To use this feature, parents will need to create a family group and make Microsoft accounts for all the kids.

Once enabled, kids will get a warning about their screen time 15 minutes before the limit is reached, and then again at five minutes. Because kids will often beg for a few more minutes, Microsoft made it easy for parents to grant or deny more time via email or via a Microsoft Launcher notification on their own Android phone.

The per-app time limits are launching today in preview within Microsoft’s existing family settings.

“Ultimately, our goal is for the app and game limits feature to provide flexible and customizable tools to meet each family’s unique needs,” the company explains in an announcement. “You as parents know what’s best for your children — no technology can ever replace that — but we’re hoping these tools can help you to strike the right balance,” it says.

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Amid AR/VR experiments, Apple buys UK visual effects studio – TechCrunch

Apple has reportedly acquired U.K. special effects studio IKinema, a startup that may be useful in Apple’s quest to bolster its mobile devices with AR special effects and in its more far-flung attempts to enter the AR/VR headset market.

The company issued its standard confirmation for the deal to TechCrunch “Apple buys smaller companies from time to time, and we generally don’t discuss our purpose or plans.” The news was first reported by FT after rumors were floated by MacRumors. .

IKenema has used motion-tracking work to live-animate the bodily movements of digital characters, but the team has also stockpiled this information to create realistic models of movements of digital characters in digital environments, specifically in the context of games and virtual reality titles.

These models were highlighted in the startup’s RunTime product that integrated into game engines like Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. RunTime was powering avatar interactions in experiences like The Void’s “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” a virtual reality experience at Disney resorts, as well as in works by studios like Capcom Linden Lab, Microsoft Studios, Nvidia, Respawn and Square Enix.

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RunTime being used in Impulse Gears’ PSVR game, Farpoint

The company’s Orion product allowed motion capture with lower-cost input, essentially syncing limited input like head and hand movement with motion models that could allow for a hybrid solution that still looked realistic. The technology was being used for visualizations by teams at NASA, Tencent and others.

What does Apple want with this company?

There are a handful of spots that this tech could prove helpful, the most obvious of which would be bringing special AR effects to the iOS camera, juxtaposing the spatial data that the camera can gather from a real-world space with digital AR models. This could theoretically allow something like an AR figure to walk up your stairs or sit on a chair. The issue iKenema doesn’t solve in these scenarios is computer vision segmentation to be able to tell what surface is a table versus a floor versus a couch cushion, but enabling digital models to interact with these spaces is a big advance.

Where else?

Well, a little bit more of a reach for Apple would be using this tech in the context of a VR or AR avatar system. And although iKenema worked a lot with motion capture, they did so with the explicit purpose of designing models for digital humans to interact with digital environments in real time. Their solution was already being used by virtual reality developers to give VR gamers a way to visualize how their own bodies moved in VR given limited inputs.

Facebook Horizon World Builder

Facebook Horizon’s legless avatars

Virtual reality systems typically only know the location of your head and hands, given trackers are on the controllers and headset, but IKinema’s solution allowed developers to make the rest of users’ in-game bodies look more natural inside games. This is a pretty difficult challenge, and it’s the reason plenty of VR titles have made avatar systems that are missing legs, necks, arms and shoulders, because everything looks awful if the movements are off.

Apple’s computer vision needs are only heightening as they bowl forward on AR and VR devices while also aiming to bolster the camera on the iPhone as a point of differentiation from Google and Samsung devices.

 

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Rune raises $2M to help you find new friends in mobile games, starting with Brawl Stars – TechCrunch

Multiplayer games are more fun when you get to play with the same crew regularly. Playing with the same people means better cooperation, deeper strategies and, if all goes well, more wins.

But what if none of your friends play the game you want to play?

Rune, a company out of Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 class, wants to use AI to help you find the right people to play with, connecting you via voice chat. And they’ve just closed a $2 million seed round to get it done.

The round was led by the gaming-focused firm Makers Fund, and backed by byFounders, E14 Fund, VentureSouq and Gmail creator Paul Buchheit.

The first game they’re supporting is Brawl Stars, the popular free-to-play mobile game built by Clash of Clans creator Supercell. It’s a pretty perfect game for something like this — it’s a game where strategic teams have a solid advantage, but where building such a team from scratch can be tough. Brawl Stars will automatically match you with teammates if you’re playing alone, but in-game communication is limited and random players tend to only hang around for a game or two.

brawl stars

Supercell’s Brawl Stars

When you first sign up, Rune asks you a handful of questions to start tuning their matchmaking algorithm. Which language(s) do you speak? How much Brawl Stars have you played (how many “trophies” have you earned)? What sort of gameplay are you looking for right now — are you just messing around, or are you looking for nothing but wins? Push a button, and the matchmaking system starts its search.

The more you play, the better the algorithm is tuned. If you seem to have longer play sessions with certain players, for example, it can prioritize matchmaking you with players their algorithms see as similar. (For the curious: While they will tune the matchmaking algorithms based on metadata, like who you’re chatting with and for how long, Rune co-founder Sanjay Guruprasad tells me that they don’t store or analyze the actual voice communication in any way.)

The company says that players have collectively spent around 50,000 hours chatting through the app since launching in March of 2019.

Rune’s matchmaking and voice chat systems are currently limited to two players. Since Brawl Stars (and plenty of other Battle Royale/arena style games) have game modes that support up to three players per team, Sanjay tells me that three-player matchmaking and voice chat are “both in the pipeline and will come out soon.”

Rune plans to support other games beyond Brawl Stars in the future — in fact, driving traffic to other games is part of their plan to monetize the free app. Once you’ve befriended someone, you’re free to use Rune for voice chat with whatever game you want; it just runs in the background, so what you’re playing doesn’t matter too much.

Rune is available for free on iOS here, and on Android here.

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Tencent to take 29% stake in multiplayer games maker Funcom – TechCrunch

Chinese social media and gaming giant Tencent is taking a 29% stake to become the largest shareholder in Oslo-based Funcom.

The indie games developer is responsible for multiple adaptations involving the “Conan the Barbarian” franchise, such as “Age of Conan” and “Conan Exiles,” as well as a number of other multiplayer titles — including a forthcoming open world sandbox game that will be set in the “Dune” sci-fi universe.

The news that Tencent has entered into a share purchase agreement to acquire almost a third of the company was announced in a press release today. The Chinese giant has agreed to acquire all the shares belonging to the Norway-based KGJ Capital AS, which is currently the largest shareholder in Funcom.

Commenting in a statement, Funcom CEO Rui Casais said: “Tencent has a reputation for being a responsible long-term investor, and for its renowned operational capabilities in online games. The insight, experience, and knowledge that Tencent will bring is of great value to us and we look forward to working closely with them as we continue to develop great games and build a successful future for Funcom.”

Tencent, which has a substantial games operation of its own, also holds stakes in a number of other major games makers — including Riot Games, Epic, Supercell, Ubisoft, Paradox, Frontier and Miniclip.

A prolonged games licensing freeze in China dented Tencent’s profits last year. And earlier this year, while it reported record profits in its Q1, it also recorded its slowest revenue growth since going public.

Regulatory risk at home is one reason for Tencent to expand its stakes in overseas games developers and tap into a global audience to stoke growth.

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Nintendo’s ‘Mario Kart Tour’ is out now for iPhone, iPad and Android – TechCrunch

Mario Kart Tour, Nintendo’s latest mobile game, is now available on iOS for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, as well as on Android devices. The game, like Nintendo’s other mobile releases, is free to play, with in-app purchases (in-game currency called “rubies”) that you use for upgrades and unlocks.

Players immediately unlock one rider and get a tutorial to start, which introduces them to the Mario Kart Tour driving mechanics, which are slightly different than the ones you’re probably used to if you’ve played Mario Kart games for Nintendo’s various consoles. Specifically, your kart will always be moving forward, so there’s no acceleration to press; instead, you slide your finger side to side on the screen to steer left and right, with a tap firing off any items or weapons you might pick up.

High scores earn you points that can be redeemed for in-game unlocks, and the game also features other new mechanics, like “frenzy mode,” which gives you a timed period of unlimited item use whenever you pick up three of the same. Special challenges are also new in this mobile iteration, which introduce new ways to win instead of just placing first in a race with other kart drivers. Mario Kart Tour also features online ranking with other mobile players worldwide.

The “Tour” component of the game is also a new twist: Nintendo is mixing courses inspired by real-world cities in with levels that are taken from classic Mario Kart games, and these will be cycling every two weeks for a fresh global tour on a regular basis. In-game characters will also get costume variants that are inspired by these globe-trotting destinations.

Based on Nintendo’s track record, Mario Kart Tour should be perfectly playable without any in-game purchases, but players may feel that they hit a progression wall pretty quickly without picking up some currency. It’ll be interesting to see how this one fares, given that Apple has just introduced its own Arcade subscription service focused on games that eschew in-app purchase mechanics — including cart racer Sonic Racing, which looks very much like it was once intended to offer similar in-app mechanics before Arcade came along.

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Apple’s iOS and iPadOS 13 support multiple PS4 or Xbox One controllers, which could be huge for Arcade – TechCrunch

Apple’s iOS 13 update (and the newly renamed iPadOS for iPad hardware) both support multiple simultaneous Bluetooth game controller connections. Apple added Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controller support in the updates, and after doing some digging, I can confirm that you can use multiple of either type of controller on one iOS device running the update, with each controlling a different player character.

That’s the good news: The bad news is that not many games take advantage of this right now. I wasn’t able to find a game in Apple’s new Arcade subscription service to try this out, for instance — and even finding a non-Arcade iOS game took a bit of digging. I finally was able to try local multi-controller multiplayer with “Horde,” a free-to-play two-player co-op brawler, and found that it worked exactly as you’d expect.

With Arcade, Apple has done more to re-invigorate the App Store, and gaming on iOS in particular, than it has since the original launch of the iPhone. The all-you-can-game subscription offering, which delivers extremely high-quality gaming experiences without ads or in-app purchases, has already impressed me immensely with the breadth and depth of its launch slate, which includes fantastic titles like “Where Cards Fall,” “Skate,” “Sayonara: Wild Hearts” and “What the Golf,” to name just a few.

Combine the quality and value of the library with cross-play on iOS, iPadOS, Apple TV and eventually Mac devices, and you have a killer combo that’s well-positioned to eat up a lot of the gaming market currently owned by Nintendo’s Switch and other home consoles.

Local multiplayer, especially on iPads, is another potential killer feature here. Already, iPad owners are likely to be using their tablets both at home and on the road, and providing quality local gaming experiences on that big display, with just the added requirement that you pack a couple of PS4 or Xbox controllers in your suitcase or carry-on, opens up a lot of potential value for device owners.

As I said above, there’s not much in the way of games that support this right now, but it’s refreshing to know that the features are there for when game developers want to take advantage.

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Nintendo’s more portable Switch gets matching 8BitDo controllers – TechCrunch

In a way, these new wireless controllers from 8BitDo kind of defeat the purpose of the Switch Lite. So, why do I kind of want them? Honestly, I’m pretty enamored with the new, more portable version of Nintendo’s wildly successful console. As I noted in a recent review, it’s exactly the take on the Switch I was looking for as a TV-less frequent traveler.

The idea of an accessory that’s roughly half the size of the Lite kind of goes against the whole bit about “built-in” Joy-Cons. Also, the Lite doesn’t have a built-in kickstand, so you’re either finding a way to prop it up or playing it flat on a table. Neither scenario is ideal, and yet here I am, thinking about shelling out $25 to augment my setup with a matching turquoise version.

Life comes at you fast.

The controller actually sports two D-pads, rather than sticks, which is nice for all of those NES and SNES titles that have been added to Switch Online. Honestly, my Switch playing has been like 95% A Link to the Past since I started testing the Lite. The controller is up for pre-order now through Amazon and set to start shipping at the end of October — plenty of time for me to come to my senses.

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