The quest to create a social auditorium in virtual reality has eaten many VC dollars over the years. While plenty of contenders have emerged, it’s likely Against Gravity’s Rec Room has been the most creative in its approach to capturing a niche market while plotting how to build a sustainable business based on users in VR headsets talking to one another.
The Seattle startup has told TechCrunch exclusively that it has bagged $24 million over two rounds of funding. The studio’s Series A was led by Sequoia and their Series B, which just recently closed, was led by Index Ventures . Against Gravity has a bevy of top investors that also participated in the rounds, including First Round Capital, Maveron, Anorak Ventures, Acequia Capital, Betaworks and DAG Ventures.
The company didn’t break down the specific details of the rounds. Against Gravity was authorized to raise up to $15.4 in its Series B at up to a $126 million post-money valuation, according to Delaware stock authorization docs we got from PitchBook. The company didn’t comment on the valuation.
Rec Room is hardly a household name compared to some major console titles, but among virtual reality users, the title has been a standby known for the diversity of gameplay available inside its walls and its wide support for hardware. Users are able to create experiences or “rooms” that can be accessed by other users. They don’t need any coding knowledge to build these spaces, as creation all happens within the game and can be done by multiple users simultaneously.
Rec Room is also about to surpass one million rooms created by users on the platform. The company says these environments include “sports games, shooters, adventure quests, nightclubs, club houses, and escape rooms.”
While companies like Linden Labs, the creator of Second Life, have focused their VR efforts on realistic but unvarying user-created environments, Against Gravity has seemingly one-upped their strategy by focusing on dynamic gameplay modes where the emphasis is on user interactions as opposed to graphic fidelity.
The Seattle startup, which was founded in 2016, now has 35 employees building out and maintaining Rec Room. The company is playable on a variety of platforms, and is about to add iOS support to its roster, an expansion that could bring a lot more users onto the VR-centric platform.
Rec Room’s content isn’t monetized too aggressively at the moment. CEO Nick Fajt thinks some of the user-generated experiences are going to offer an interesting opportunity down the road, prompting users to spend in-game tokens on more than just upgrades to the platform’s Playmobil-like avatars.
“I think a direction that we’re actually excited about is that we want to let the users creating some of this content charge tokens to play them,” Fajt tells TechCrunch. “I think that’s one that we’re kind of on the cusp of doing and we’re hoping to get that out later this year.”
For Against Gravity, timing has always been a key consideration for expansion, especially inside the slow-growing VR market, which has only recently seemed to hit a stride. I chatted with Fajt back in 2017, and he told me that the key for VR startups surviving was staying lean and biding their time until standalone mobile headsets with positional tracking and motion controllers were released. Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset, which came out less than a month ago, is perhaps the first clear device to fit that vision.
One of Facebook’s head AR/VR executives shared earlier this week that more than $5 million in Quest content had been sold in the company’s store in the first two weeks after the device’s launch. That’s a major development for an industry that hasn’t seen many smash hits, but for free-to-play game makers like Against Gravity, which has now raised $29 million to date, there’s plenty of maturation in the VR market that still needs to happen.
In the first week of GameStop’s recently launched NFT marketplace, the NiFTy Arcade collection stood out from the pack. Instead of offering basic JPEGs, the collection provided “interactive NFTs” linked to HTML5 games that were fully playable from an owner’s crypto wallet (or from the GameStop Marketplace page itself).
There was only one problem: Many of those NFT games were being minted and sold without their creators’ permission, much less any arrangement for the creators to share in any crypto profits.
While the man behind NiFTy Arcade has since been suspended from GameStop’s NFT marketplace, he’s still holding on to the tens of thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency he made by selling those NFTs before the suspension. And while the NFTs in question are no longer listed on the GameStop NFT marketplace, the unlicensed games themselves can still be accessed on GameStop’s servers and across a blockchain-based file storage system, where they may now be functionally impossible to remove.
What if an arcade, but with NFTs?
NiFTy Arcade creator Nathan Ello told Ars his collection grew out of a desire “to highlight potential use cases for NFTs beyond static images.” But Ello got a bit abstract when asked to explain the utility of freshly minted NFT versions of games that were already freely playable elsewhere on the web.
“If people find value in these NFTs, that’s a bonus, but my intent is to create and showcase games that are playable within NFT marketplaces and within NFT wallets,” he told Ars. “Should someone want the convenience of playing the game directly from their wallet or their own profile page on the marketplace without having to navigate to mine, then they’re welcome to buy a copy.”
Ello ended up selling hundreds of NFTs based on the NiFTy Arcade collection’s first three games, making at least 46.7 ETH (worth about $55,000 at the time) from those sales as of July 15. But for at least two of those games—Worm Nom Nom and Galactic Wars—Ello admitted he never sought the necessary permission from the original creators before selling them. There’s also evidence that Ello minted and distributed a number of other games through NFT marketplaces without the creators’ permission, including Breakout Hero, Super Disc Box, and Invader Overload, according to Joseph “Lexaloffle” White, the creator of the PICO-8 pixel game engine.
After a two-year pandemic-induced break the Evolution Championship Series (better known as just Evo), the annual celebration of all things fighting games, is back in Las Vegas this weekend. Thousands of fighting game players and fans will fill the halls and arena at the Mandalay Bay casino to make their attempts at a top 8 finish, get in casual games with people from around the globe, watch panels, browse Artist Alley, and just generally soak up a chance to be offline with the fighting game community again.
In a more normal year, I’d be there myself, maybe not trying for that top 8 finish, more like just trying not to go 0-2 in Street Fighter V or Third Strike. But despite a robust mask and vaccine policy I’m just not feeling like traveling or being in Vegas with the current state of the world. So I’m going to spend my weekend cozy at home streaming a ridiculous amount of content and trying not to feel like I’m missing out too much. If you’d like to join me here’s a quick guide to what the weekend has to offer.
An Evo overview
You may have heard of Evo before, perhaps from the infamous Evo Moment 37 video or from Sony’s acquisition of the tournament series in 2021. If you’re not already a fighting game tournament watcher, here are the basics of how Evo works. There are eight main games featured, which I’ll list below, as well as a huge amount of less official side tournaments. Each game has the same basic structure, you start in a pool of players, everyone on equal footing. Tournaments are double-elimination, meaning you have to lose twice to be out. If you can win several matches in your pool without being eliminated, you move up to the next one, eventually leading to a top 24 bracket, then a top 8, which leads to the grand finals.
Part of the excitement of watching pools is the upsets. The previous champion has to start the same as anyone else, and there’s no guarantee an unknown won’t hand them their first loss, putting them in the loser’s bracket and one game away from losing that top 8 repeat dream.
As you advance deeper into the matches, the level of play becomes more high level and tense, so if you’re less inclined to spend hours watching the safe bet is to catch a top 24 or wait for the top 8 to see the real high-stakes matches play out.
Every game will feature commentary by people who are experts in understanding and explaining the on-screen action. With a few basics under your belt and their patterns, you should be able to keep up even with games you’re not familiar with.
The key to understanding the double-elimination format is everyone starts out in the winner’s bracket. If you lose once you go to the loser’s bracket. Lose from there and you can sit and watch the rest, you’re done. Mathematically this means that when you get to top 8, half will be in the loser’s bracket, half in the winner’s bracket, and the grand finals match will have a winner’s side and a loser’s side.
To win the entire tournament from the loser’s side you need to beat the other player twice, once to send them to loser’s (known as resetting the bracket). Making a loser’s run is no easy task, but a bracket reset always gets the crowd hyped up. They love an underdog, but it also means another set to watch.
If you see an L or a W next to someone’s name on the stream overlay that’s indicating if they’re playing from the winner’s or loser’s bracket. The last thing that’s handy to know is most games are run as first to two, so you have to win two games to beat someone. This generally becomes the first to three wins in top 8.
This year the main featured games at Evo are:
Street Fighter V: Champion Edition
Guilty Gear Strive
Mortal Kombat 11: Ultimate
The King Of Fighters XV
Melty Blood: Type Lumina
Dragon Ball FighterZ
Granblue Fantasy: Versus
Skullgirls: 2nd Encore
All games will be streamed on Twitch starting Friday, August 5 at 10 am Pacific Time. A complete interactive schedule of all the games can be found here. Half the games will have top 8s from the main hall on Saturday. The other four (King of Fighters, Tekken, Street Fighter, and Guilty Gear) will have their top 8 on Sunday in the Mandalay Bay arena.
There are also community-run tournaments for an additional 52 titles, everything from the alternate World War II title Akatsuki Blitzkampf, to barely-a-fighting-game-kinda-like-frisbee-air-hockey Neo Geo classic Windjammers. A list of all 52 games as well as a viewer’s guide summary for each one can be found here, so check that out if you want to dig into the wider range of titles you might not be familiar with.
The latest update to the Microsoft Game Development Kit (GDK), an official API that targets game development on Xbox consoles and Windows PCs, seemed to be set in stone when it was announced in June. Two months later, however, that update has gone live with a surprise bonus that’s so new it hasn’t yet been detailed on the company’s Github repository.
The news instead comes from an official unlisted Microsoft video, first spotted by XboxERA reporter Jesse Norris, which included a tantalizing proclamation. The June GDK is currently live two months after its named month, and it now includes an increased memory allocation exclusively for the lower-priced $299 Xbox Series S console.
This video does not link to specific patch notes or announcements, and as of press time, searches through the publicly shared GDK do not clarify how this memory allocation boost was achieved. Microsoft representatives did not immediately answer Ars’ questions on this update’s technical breakdown.
Getting devs closer to Series S’ 10GB memory total
In the meantime, it’s reasonable to assume that this newly available pool of RAM, which the video’s narrator describes as “hundreds of megabytes,” had been allocated elsewhere on Series S systems up until today’s update—perhaps tied up by OS-level processes (which previously sucked up roughly 2GB of Series S’ total 10GB pool) that the company has since been able to slash.
Ars’ sources have confirmed what has largely been known by testers and researchers of current-gen consoles: The gap in available RAM between the $499 Xbox Series X (16GB total) and the cheaper Series S (10GB total) has made cross-platform development between the two systems trickier than Microsoft originally advertised. In Microsoft’s best-case scenarios, a Series X game that targets 4K resolutions and incredibly high-resolution textures can downscale all textures for the sake of a 1080p TV screen and otherwise get away with an identical rendering load, mostly thanks to a lot of other architecture being identical between the consoles (particularly the CPU and storage specs).
As more third-party devs have found since getting familiar with the two-year-old consoles, that’s not how development environment transposal always works. Some developers are still finding that their virtual environments, effects budgets, and lighting scenarios get bottlenecked not only by less total GDDR 6 RAM but also a shrink in its bandwidth, down from the 320-bit bus of Series X to the 128-bit bus of Series S.
Thus, even a tiny jump of, say, 200MB in RAM, or 2.5 percent, could make a significant difference for a developer trying to transpose a certain fidelity level of shadows or ambient occlusion from Series X to Series S. The “hundreds of megabytes” count could be even higher, anywhere between 512MB and 768MB, though we’re still waiting to hear exactly how much.
Few modern games are a Rift Apart from past-gen consoles
The move comes while both current-gen consoles continue to fall short on some of their biggest technical sales pitches, at least on a software level. Many of the biggest games of the past two years have failed to illustrate truly game-changing features, particularly the near-infinite virtual worlds that might be enabled by a combination of PCI-E 4.0-graded storage and supercharged memory pipelines.
This was exacerbated by a few highly anticipated Sony games rolling back their previous “current-gen exclusive” statuses in favor of cross-gen launches on PS4 and PS5, seemingly to keep game sales while current-gen systems were largely sold out and behind production schedule. Thus far, we’re largely left with last year’s Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart as a gorgeous demonstration of power exclusive to current-gen consoles.
At least in the case of the Xbox ecosystem, as more current-gen exclusives gear up for their launches, more memory parity between Series X and Series S could help development efforts for 2023 games like Forza Motorsport and Starfield. By the time those games launch, Series S’ default, scant built-in storage count of 512GB could grow, or its proprietary storage expansion cards could come down in price. Either move would boost the weaker, cheaper system’s sales pitch if newer games indeed fulfill the Series S promise of “as powerful as Series X, but for 1080p TVs.”