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Bunch scores $3.8M to turn mobile games into video chat LAN parties – TechCrunch



The best parts of gaming are the jokes and trash talk with friends. Whether it was four-player Goldeneye or linking up PCs for Quake battles in the basement, the social element keeps video games exciting. Yet on mobile we’ve lost a lot of that, playing silently by ourselves even if we’re in a squad with friends somewhere else. Bunch wants to bring the laughter back to mobile gaming by letting you sync up with friends and video chat while you play. It already works with hits like Fortnite and Roblox, and developers of titles like Spaceteam are integrating Bunch’s SDK to inspire longer game sessions.

Bunch is like Discord for mobile, and the chance to challenge that gaming social network unicorn has attracted a $3.8 million seed round led by London Venture Partners and joined by Founders Fund, Betaworks, Shrug Capital, North Zone, Streamlined Ventures, 500 Startups and more. With Bunch already cracking the top 100 social iOS app chart, it’s planning a launch on Android. The cash will go to adding features like meeting new people to game with or sharing replays, plus ramping up user acquisition and developer partnerships.

“I and my co-founders grew up with LAN parties, playing games like Starcraft and Counter Strike — where a lot of the fun is the live banter you have with friends,” Bunch co-founder and CEO Selcuk Atli tells me. “We wanted to bring this kind of experience to mobile; where players could play with friends anytime, anywhere.” 

Bunch team

Atli was a venture partner at 500 Startups after co-founding and selling two adtech companies: Manifest Commerce to Rakuten, and Boostable to Metric Collective. But before he got into startups, he co-founded a gaming magazine called Aftercala in Turkey at age 12, editing writers twice his age because “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” he tells me. Atli teamed up with Google senior mobile developer Jason Liang and a senior developer from startups like MUSE and Mox named Jordan Howlett to create Bunch.

Over a year ago, we built our first prototype. The moment we tried it ourselves, we saw it was nothing like what we’ve experienced on our phones before,” Atli tells me. The team raised a $500,000 pre-seed round and launched its app in March. “Popular mobile games are becoming live, and live games are coming to mobile devices,” says David Lau-Kee, general partner at London Venture Partners. “With this massive shift happening, players need better experiences to connect with friends and play together.”

When you log on to Bunch’s iOS app you’ll see which friends are online and what they’re playing, plus a selection of games you can fire up. Bunch overlays group voice or video chat on the screen so you can strategize or satirize with up to eight pals. And if developers build in Bunch’s SDK, they can do more advanced things with video chat, like pinning friends’ faces to their in-game characters. It’s a bit like OpenFeint or iOS Game Center mixed with Houseparty.

For now, Bunch isn’t monetizing, as it hopes to reach massive scale first, but Atli thinks they could sell expression tools like emotes, voice and video filters, and more. Growing large will require beating Discord at its own game. The social giant now has over 130 million users across PCs, consoles and mobile. But it’s also a bit too hardcore for some of today’s casual mobile gamers, requiring you to configure your own servers. “I find that execution speed will be most critical for our success or failure,” Atli says. Bunch’s sole focus on making mobile game chat as easy as possible could win it a mainstream audience seduced by Fortnite, HQ Trivia and other phenomena.

Research increasingly shows that online experiences can be isolating, and gaming is a big culprit. Hours spent playing alone can leave you feeling more exhausted than fulfilled. But through video chat, gaming can transcend the digital and become a new way to make memories with friends — no matter where they are.

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Microsoft set to purchase Activision Blizzard in $68.7 billion deal



Microsoft this morning announced plans to purchase gaming mega-publisher Activision Blizzard for a record-setting $68.7 billion. The move, when finalized, would bring franchises like Call of Duty, Overwatch, Diablo, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and many more under the umbrella of the Xbox maker.

Today’s announcement follows on Microsoft’s $7.8 billion acquisition of Bethesda, announced just 15 months ago. After some initial confusion about what that meant for Bethesda’s multiplatform titles, it has since become clear that most of Bethesda’s biggest franchises, such as Elder Scrolls, will not be appearing on competing consoles such as the PlayStation 5.

The same could definitely happen for Activision Blizzard’s big-name games. Microsoft notes in its announcement that Activision Blizzard games would become a part of its Game Pass program, which currently enjoys 25 million subscribers. “With Activision Blizzard’s nearly 400 million monthly active players in 190 countries and three billion-dollar franchises, this acquisition will make Game Pass one of the most compelling and diverse lineups of gaming content in the industry,” the company said. “Upon close, Microsoft will have 30 internal game development studios, along with additional publishing and esports production capabilities.”

In addition to new console exclusives, the acquisition includes Candy Crush maker King, giving Microsoft a new way in to the massive mobile gaming market. “Through great teams and great technology, Microsoft and Activision Blizzard will empower players to enjoy the most-immersive franchises, like Halo and Warcraft, virtually anywhere they want,” Microsoft said in a statement.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s similar to what Take-Two said about its recent $12.7 billion acquisition of mobile gaming powerhouse Zynga. “Take-Two has an extensive catalog of commercially and critically successful console and PC titles with engaged and loyal communities of players, and there is a meaningful opportunity to create mobile games and new cross-platform experiences for many of these properties,” the company said.

Buy the dip?

The all-cash transaction values Activsion Blizzard at $95 a share, a significant premium on Friday’s closing stock price of $65.39. But that stock price is down significantly from its 2021 peak of $103.81, which it hit in February.

That stock decline reflects a fraught time for Activision Blizzard, which has faced months of controversy after the state of California brought a lawsuit against the company alleging widespread sexual discrimination and harassment. CEO Bobby Kotick has come under particular fire after further reporting suggesting he withheld information about some of the allegations within the company from the board of directors.

While Kotick reportedly told colleagues he would consider stepping down in November, Microsoft said in a statement today that “Bobby Kotick will continue to serve as CEO of Activision Blizzard, and he and his team will maintain their focus on driving efforts to further strengthen the company’s culture and accelerate business growth. Once the deal closes, the Activision Blizzard business will report to Phil Spencer, CEO, Microsoft Gaming.”

The publisher is also facing an open-ended strike among a group of workers protesting the treatment of testers at its Raven Software subsidiary.

The allegations surrounding Activision Blizzard have drawn vague statements of concern from all three major console makers. Microsoft’s Phil Spencer told employees in November that the company was “evaluating all aspects of our relationship with Activision Blizzard and making ongoing proactive adjustments… This type of behavior has no place in our industry.”

And just last week, Spencer was quoted in The New York Times saying the company has “changed how we do certain things with [Activision], and they’re aware of that.” At the same time, Spencer said he “would rather help other companies than try to get into punishing” and that “it’s not obviously our position to judge who the CEOs are” at other companies.

“Any of the partners that are out there, if I can learn from them or I can help with the journey that we’ve been on on Xbox by sharing what we’ve done and what we’ve built, I’d much rather do that than get into any kind of finger-wagging at other companies that are out there,” he added.

Not a done deal

While the deal has been approved by the boards of both Microsoft and Activision, the deal is still “subject to customary closing conditions and completion of regulatory review,” as Microsoft puts it. The sheer size of the merger might also merit review by the Federal Trade Commission, which could raise antitrust concerns over the proposed merger. That said, Microsoft said in an investor call Tuesday morning that the merger would only make it the No. 3 gaming company worldwide by revenue, behind both Tencent and Sony.

The deal isn’t expected to close until Microsoft’s 2023 fiscal year, which starts on July 1. The two companies will continue to operate separately until then.

This is a breaking story that will be updated as developments warrant.

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Oscar Isaac finally enters the MCU with official Moon Knight trailer



Oscar Isaac plays Steven Grant/Marc Spector, who becomes the conduit for an Egyptian god in Moon Knight.

Fans finally get to welcome Oscar Isaac to the MCU. As promised, Marvel Studios dropped the official trailer for its forthcoming series, Moon Knight, during the NFL Super Wild Card matchup, along with a new poster. Isaac plays the title role: a former mercenary with multiple personalities who becomes the avatar of an Egyptian moon god.

Moon Knight is one of the lesser known characters in the Marvel Comics pantheon. The son of a rabbi, Marc Spector is marked at a young age by the Egyptian moon god Khonshu to be the god’s avatar on Earth. But Khonsu is a supernatural entity with many aspects to his nature—and also exists out of phase with normal time and space—so forging a psychic connection with the human Marc has a bad effect on the young man’s mental health.

Marc develops dissociative identity disorder (DID), eventually becoming a mercenary with his buddy, Jean-Paul “Frenchie” DuChamp. He is hired by the ruthlessly amoral Raoul Bushman for a job, in which the latter kills an archaeologist who has uncovered an Egyptian tomb. Marc saves the archaeologist’s daughter, Marlene, leading to a major fight with Bushman. Marc loses the fight and is left for dead, but the locals carry him into the tomb and leave him in front of a statue of Khonshu. Khonshu revives and heals the dying Marc.

Enlarge / Steven Grant—or is it Marc Spector?—mid-transformation.

YouTube/Marvel Studios

When Marc returns to the US, he channels all the money he made from being a mercenary into fighting crime as Moon Knight, recognizable by his silver cape. He has four distinct identities in the comics: a billionaire businessman named Steven Grant, a taxi driver named Jake Lockley, a suited consultant named Mr. Knight, and a little red-haired girl simply called Inner Child.

That’s the basic origin story according to the comics, at least, and chances are the new series will incorporate a good chunk of it, while also taking a few liberties (as it should). Plans to introduce the character of Moon Knight into film and TV adaptations have been around since at least 2006, when Blade: The Series aired. The intent was to introduce the character then. Instead, the series was cancelled, and a potential spinoff series never transpired. James Gunn admitted in 2017 that he’d pitched a Moon Knight film to Marvel, but ended up not having the time to develop it further.

Meet Moon Knight.
Enlarge / Meet Moon Knight.

YouTube/Marvel Studios

It wasn’t until the 2019 D23 conference that Marvel announced there was a Moon Knight series in development for Disney+, created by Jeremy Slater. Isaac was cast in October 2020, and last February we learned that unlike the standalone WandaVision (a one shot miniseries intended to lead into the MCU Phase Four feature films), Moon Knight was among the Marvel series that might get additional seasons on the streaming platform.

Marvel debuted the first footage from the six-episode series last November during its Disney+ Day, briefly showing Isaac in character, musing about how he couldn’t tell the difference between his waking life and dreams. There wasn’t much in the way of detail, but we did catch a glimpse of what looked like a golden statue of Khonshu reflected in a mirror.  And on Monday we got a brief teaser with much of the same footage.

Ethan Hawke said he found inspiration for his character in cult leader David Koresh.
Enlarge / Ethan Hawke said he found inspiration for his character in cult leader David Koresh.

YouTube/Marvel Studios

We know that the series will share continuity with all the films in the MCU. May Calamawy and Ethan Hawke play as-yet-undisclosed roles, although Hawke has said he found inspiration for his character in cult leader David Koresh. Also, Marvel CEO Kevin Feige (the executive producer) has compared the series to the Indiana Jones franchise, with a focus on Egyptology (so, like 1999’s The Mummy.) And we now have an official synopsis:

The series follows Steven Grant, a mild-mannered gift-shop employee, who becomes plagued with blackouts and memories of another life. Steven discovers he has dissociative identity disorder and shares a body with mercenary Marc Spector. As Steven/Marc’s enemies converge upon them, they must navigate their complex identities while thrust into a deadly mystery among the powerful gods of Egypt.

The new trailer opens, again, with Steven (Isaac) lying awake in bed tossing a Rubik cube into the air as he muses on his “sleep disorder”—before waking up suddenly from that “dream” in a panic. We see him disoriented and barely staying awake on the subway and at his museum job. Then he finds a cell phone and some keys in a cubbyhole; when the phone rings and he answers, a woman’s voice calls him “Marc.”

“The voices in your head—there’s chaos in you,” Hawke’s character (who does indeed resemble Koresh) tells Marc/Steven. “Embrace the chaos.” That seems to be the secret to merging all those disorienting personalities into Moon Knight, as we see the telltale cape and body armor cover his body—followed by one brief shot of the caped figure leaping, Batman-like, across two rooftops.

Moon Knight will premiere on Disney+ on March 30, 2022.

Moon Knight poster art.
Enlarge / Moon Knight poster art.

Marvel Studios

Listing image by YouTube/Marvel Studios

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Fan does Blizzard’s job, releases remastered WarCraft III campaign files



Enlarge / A cinematic intro to the WC3 human campaign? That’s cool. Too bad fans had to step in to create this, since Blizzard doesn’t appear poised to add anything substantial to WC3R ever again.

WarCraft III: Reforged has not received a patch or official announcement since April 2021, and the game’s handlers at Blizzard have remained eerily quiet about anything previously announced for this so-called “remaster” of an RTS classic. Official matchmaking ladders, leaderboards, and user profiles never came to pass, prompting the game’s remaining community to cobble together its own solution—and that’s on top of the re-release’s utter lack of single-player updates. (To date, custom WC3 campaign files still aren’t formally supported.)

Thus, just as fans previously built their own online gameplay updates in the form of WC3Champions, so too has the game’s remaining community stepped up to make the single-player campaign better resemble Blizzard’s initial pitch for the project.

WarCraft III: Re-Reforged 2022 update.

WarCraft III: Re-Reforged is a fan-made project apparently led by a single designer who goes by the handle InsaneMonster. It received its second substantial update on Saturday, following its original January 2021 launch as a downloadable pack of WC3R campaign files. The project is now up to 10 in-game chapters: the five chapters of WC3‘s Horde-specific prologue, which already launched last year, and the first five chapters of its human-focused first act. You can now access both parts of Re-Reforged as free downloads at Hive Workshop (part one, part two).

Like the prologue portion, this week’s fan-made patch includes custom camera angles for cinematic in-game content, not only between missions but also for important mid-campaign conversations. These shots much better resemble the originally teased version of WC3R, and they include pauses and careful camera framing to better showcase Blizzard’s original campaign content. Additionally, InsaneMonster has remixed the affected campaign maps without changing their primary objectives or flow. Some changes emphasize a cinematic moment, while others reflect lessons learned from the campaigns in Blizzard’s StarCraft II and guide brand-new players more nimbly through how the game works.

The patches also add instructions and lore as new, front-and-center on-screen text between objectives. These popups are handy, especially since WC3 laid the groundwork for years of lore and character-based plotlines in World of WarCraft. If you’re a WC3 novice who wants to see how this game connects to the WarCraft universe at large, InsaneMonster’s patches take considerable steps toward delivering that information.

In a 2021 interview, InsaneMonster expressed his surprise and dismay at discovering how much proper lip sync was applied to WC3R‘s full cast of characters—yet, for some reason, it was hidden from obvious player view. He didn’t have to rig any brand-new animations with his patch; instead, he simply coded custom camera angles and timings. InsaneMonster does add custom visual files to his patches, to be clear, though these revolve around colors and textures that better resemble the clearer paths and battlefields found in the original game than in the retouched WC3R versions.

The project may very well continue beyond these 10 campaign levels, though its creator says that future progress is contingent on Patreon support. You’ll need to mind InsaneMonster’s instructions to get the patched campaign to load properly—and make your peace with prerendered cut scenes not playing at their expected times, since Re-Reforged is working outside of the game’s intended mod ecosystem.

Today’s news follows a Twitter outcry over Blizzard Classic’s other recent major release, Diablo II: Resurrected, as more users are running into one of its more curious restrictions. The game’s console versions require an online check-in with Activision’s service every 30 days, even if you play the game exclusively offline.

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