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

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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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Review: Synchronic is a time-bending slow burn of a sci-fi thriller

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Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan star as New Orleans paramedics who encounter a series of bizarre, gruesome accidents in the sci-fi thriller Synchronic.

Chances are you missed Synchronic, the latest sci-fi film written and directed by indie filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, when it was released in limited theaters and drive-ins last month. Not only were many theaters still shut down because of the pandemic, the filmmakers themselves made the unusual move of warning potential viewers (via Instagram) of the health risks associated with indoor movie theaters. (“We personally wouldn’t go to an indoor theater, so we can’t encourage you to,” they wrote.)

It was admirably responsible of them, but it did severely limit the audience, especially since the film’s distributor inexplicably opted not to release it simultaneously on VOD—now a common practice in these pandemic times. And that’s a shame, because Synchronic is a smart, inventive, thought-provoking film, featuring standout performances from co-stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan.

(Mostly mild spoilers below, with a couple of significant plot twists below the gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)

Benson and Moorhead are well-known around the film festival circuit, co-directing the 2017 sci-fi cult hit, The Endless, as well as 2014’s Spring (which made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival that year) and 2012’s Resolution (which takes place in the same fictional universe as The Endless). Over coffee one day, they came up with the idea for Synchronic. “It was brand-new, completely insane, and made an odd sort of real-world sense,” the directors have said, where the past would be the main antagonist—a very different kind of movie monster. “We could also express how we tend to always be looking forward or backward for happiness, rather than right here in the moment.”

Per the official premise:

When New Orleans paramedics and longtime best friends Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are called to a series of bizarre, gruesome accidents, they chalk it up to the mysterious new party drug found at the scene. But after Dennis’s oldest daughter suddenly disappears, Steve stumbles upon a terrifying truth about the supposed psychedelic that will challenge everything he knows about reality—and the flow of time itself.

The film opens with the duo responding to a call concerning a couple in a motel. The couple’s drug-induced hallucinations resulted in the male partner somehow plunging several floors down the elevator shaft, while the woman is in shock and unresponsive, staring in horror at something only she can see. She also has a mysterious snake bite. Steve and Dennis also respond to a call involving a burned body in an amusement park and a drug user who has been stabbed by a vintage sword.

The common factor in all these bizarre calls is a new designer drug called “synchronic.” We learn that it’s similar to DMT (the hallucinogen in ayahuasca), with a molecular structure just sufficiently different for it to be technically legal. But this particular batch was rushed to market amid rumors of a pending FDA crackdown and has some pretty severe side effects. Steve manages to buy up the remaining supply at the local Big Chief smoke shop to get the drug off the local market, but not before Dennis’ 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), goes missing after attending a fraternity party that left one young man dead.

In the midst of all this, we learn the results of Steve’s recent MRI, and the news is not good. He’s got an inoperable brain tumor on or near the pineal gland, a tiny pea-shaped region near the center of the brain that secretes the hormone melatonin, which is tied to sleep/wake cycles, among other functions. (Fun fact: the 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes believed the pineal gland was the seat of the soul.) That turns out to be significant, since synchronic messes with the pineal gland—hence its unusual effects with regard to how users experience time.

(WARNING: a couple of significant spoilers below.)

Both Benson and Moorhead describe themselves as “armchair enthusiasts of astrophysics, philosophy, and futurism,” among other interests, and they particularly liked the idea of a designer drug that causes people to experience past, present, and future simultaneously (or all jumbled up), rather than in a neat linear progression. When Steve encounters the chemist who created synchronic, the chemist draws an analogy to a vinyl record: you drop the needle on whatever track you wish to play, but all those other tracks are still always there. “These tracks are like time, and synchronic is the needle,” the chemist explains. Steve is also something of an armchair physicist, citing a letter by Albert Einstein to a friend whose wife had died: “the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Synchronic temporarily shatters that temporal illusion.

But there’s a twist: it’s not just one’s perception of the flow of time that is affected. The drug actually makes you physically experience different time periods. And if that happens to involve a Spanish conquistador attacking you because you just appeared out of nowhere in a swamp, you will suffer a very real death if he succeeds in skewering you with his sword. And teenagers whose pineal glands haven’t yet calcified can actually travel to another time period and get stuck there, which Steve realizes is what has happened to Brianna.

Because of his cancer, Steve has the uncalcified pineal gland of a teenager rather than an adult. So he thinks he can rescue Brianna with his limited supply of the remaining synchronic. One of my favorite elements of the film is how Steve conducts a series of videotaped experiments, gradually figuring out the “rules” at play. For instance, where you are standing turns out to determine which time period you end up in (for some reason, it’s always the past, never the future), and you have to return within a short window of time.

But Steve screws up when he decides to take his trusty doggo, Hawking, back in time with him for one experimental run. Suffice to say that dogs will be dogs, and Hawking doesn’t make it back to the present in time. Instead, Steve gets one final glimpse of Hawking whimpering sadly at his beloved master before the vision fades. And Steve only has enough synchronic left to either rescue Hawking or rescue Brianna. He makes the right call (Brianna), but that doesn’t make Hawking’s fate any less heartbreaking.

It’s the most upsetting scene in the film; I’m still kinda mad at Steve for risking Hawking instead of running that experiment with an animal that was not a beloved loyal canine companion. Yet there’s no denying its power. That moment is permanently seared onto my brain, and it’s critical in terms of raising the emotional stakes. So objectively, I have to applaud Benson and Moorhead for not blinking on that score. I can always console myself by imagining Hawking being befriended by a young boy, and they go on to share all kinds of fun adventures. Hawking still gets to live his best life, albeit in a distant past.

The entire structure of this movie is admirably tight, as Benson and Moorhead continuously add extra constraints to further heighten the tension and build genuine suspense. Synchronic is a smoldering slow burn that pays off with a surprisingly moving, bittersweet conclusion. But I still maintain that Hawking was a Very Good Boi who deserved better.

Synchronic should be coming to VOD in the next few months.

Listing image by Well Go USA

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Xbox Series X/S vs. PlayStation 5: Our launch-month verdict

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Enlarge / L-R: Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S.

Sam Machkovech

Though this year’s newest consoles have only been on store shelves for less than two weeks, we’ve already published tens of thousands of words about the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5. Between months of tech previews, picture-filled unboxings, comprehensive reviews, coverage of some of the biggest launch games, and more, you could spend all day doing nothing but reading our detailed thoughts about Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles.
If you don’t have the time for all that, we understand. That’s why we’ve put together this handy, head-to-head summary comparing the most important features of both systems directly. By the end, we hope you’ll know if it’s time for you to upgrade your console, and which path you should take if it is.

Hardware design

Both the PS5 ($499 with disc drive, $399 without) and the Xbox Series X ($499) are really big. The Series X astounds as a chunky, minimalist cuboid, with a minimum 6″ clearance on any of its sides—making it a nightmare for an average entertainment center’s shelves. The PS5 gets its minimum clearance down to 4.25″, but that comes at the cost of being 50 percent bigger than Series X in total volume. Once you find a place to put either, the other differences boil down to your aesthetic preferences: black monolith with mild green accents, or a curvy popped-collar tower?

Both are quiet (excepting discs spinning in the disc drives) but the PS5 has a slight discernible fan noise, whereas Xbox Series X is literally whisper quiet. While we’ve seen reports about “coil whine” affecting certain PS5 customers, we haven’t been able to duplicate that noise issue.

While those two consoles’ cooling systems are not identical, their silicon makeup is similar enough to explain why they draw very similar amounts of power. Each maxes out at roughly 205W at next-gen games, though they run closer to 190W on average.

Xbox Series S ($299), meanwhile, is as quiet as its Series X sibling (owing to, among other things, an identical 12″ fan system), while shrinking to a form factor on par with 2017’s Xbox One X. The longer we’ve sat with it, the more we’ve grown to like its “Bluetooth speaker” design of a black ring on an otherwise white box—especially as slotted into a crowded entertainment center. Its power draw is also phenomenal, never exceeding 90W on the console’s highest-drawing games.

Hardware power

Put aside all the talk of GCN compute units, RDNA 2 cores, Zen 2 Jaguar cores, and the like. When it comes to running actual games, the Xbox Series X and the PS5 are practically indistinguishable. Third-party titles available on both systems look and run almost identically, and you’d be hard pressed to pick one from the other in blind tests.

Series X power usage
Rest mode 16-30.5W
Rest mode (w/ download) 33-55W
Idle on menu 62W
Netflix 64W
Playing 4K Blu-ray 64-76W
Gameplay (Spelunky X360) 101-104W
Gameplay (Gears 5 XSX) 170-198W
Installing Dark Souls II from disc 70 – 71.5W
Playing Dark Souls II (w/ disc in drive) 103-105W
Series S power usage
Rest mode 8.6-17.5W
Rest mode (w/ download) 16-18W
Idle on menu 31W
Netflix 40W
Playing 4K Blu-ray n/a
Gameplay (Spelunky X360) 53W
Gameplay (Gears 5 XSS) 50-85W
Installing Dark Souls II from disc n/a

Only one title proves an exception at this point: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. While both PS5 and Xbox Series X target identical graphical settings and not-quite-4K resolutions (and they look good doing so), its Series X version currently struggles to lock to 60fps as well as PlayStation 5 does. That’s not enough data to declare PS5 the “stronger” console, and we’ll be coming back to that question as we compare more third-party games in the coming months.

Compared to their predecessors, games on the new consoles do look better, taking advantage of higher resolutions and graphical techniques like ray tracing (which is especially noticeable in reflections). But depending on the game, the increase in fidelity is more marginal than you might expect for a $500 upgrade. The seven-year-old hardware Sony and Microsoft are looking to replace has aged better than you might have expected, and the mid-generation upgrades that came out in 2016 and 2017 continue to hold up quite well.

Where you’ll see a huge jump in 2020’s consoles is in frame rates. Games like Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla look quite similar when comparing screenshots across “last-gen” and “next-gen” systems. But the bump from 30 fps on older consoles to 60 fps on newer consoles makes a huge difference when seeing these games in motion.

PS5 power usage
Rest mode 28-32W
Rest mode (w/ download) 42-45W
Idle on menu 67W
Netflix 71-73W
Playing 4K Blu-ray 76-79W
Gameplay (Downwell PS4) 70-76W
Gameplay (Tony Hawk 1+2 PS4) 116-130W
Gameplay (Miles Morales PS5) 156-205W
Installing Knack from disc 124 – 134W
Playing Knack (w/ disc in drive) 116-127W

In the case of some games, like the PS5-exclusive adventure of Demon’s Souls, that extra 60 fps fluidity contributes to atmosphere in incredible ways. But even that game is mechanically identical to its source material, which dates back to PS3. And another Sony exclusive, the surprisingly charming Sackboy: A Big Adventure, is so similar between its PS4 and PS5 versions that we recommend anyone missing out on new consoles rush to play that family-friendly game on their last-gen machines.

All of the new consoles enjoy blistering fast loading times, thanks to the now-standard PCIe 4.0-rated NVMe storage. It’s not quite a return to the “hit power and start playing instantly” days of cartridge gaming, but it’s close.

The PS5 appears to have the loading time edge in some cases (like the aforementioned Assassin’s Creed Valhalla), but the differences across next-gen consoles are minor at this point. Meanwhile, Xbox Series enjoys the benefits of Xbox Quick Resume, allowing near-instant swapping from game to game. on the PS5, you have to endure a (quick) load from the main menu when swapping to a new title, rather than resuming directly from where you left off.

As of press time, though, some Series X/S games choke on this Quick Resume feature. We hope Xbox fixes these edge cases soon, because even with faster storage, PS5 feels sluggish in comparison without its own version of Quick Resume.

One important note: Xbox Series S has been advertised as able to play Series X’s up-to-4K games, only pared down to resolutions ranging from 1080p to 1440p. In action, that sales pitch is mildly misleading, as visual downgrades from X to S also include reductions in shadow resolution, level-of-detail (LoD) scaling, ambient occlusion, and other features, depending on the game. For the most part, we’ve seen identical frame rates between Series X and Series S, which is arguably a bigger deal, but Assassin’s Creed Valhalla remains a striking exception: only 30fps on Series S, compared to 60fps on Series X. Until we compare more next-gen Series X/S games, this issue remains a huge asterisk for the $299 Series S.

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One hell of a send-off: Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 wraps a stylish board game series

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Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

When Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 was released in 2015, it was met with a rave reaction from players. A campaign-based take on the original Pandemic, it dropped fans into the familiar role of medics battling to eradicate deadly viral strains before they spread around the globe and destroy humanity.

The game’s biggest draw was a storyline which unfolded over multiple play sessions, with diseases mutating and cities falling into chaos as a sinister conspiracy spread its tendrils across the world. Along the way, players put stickers on the board, destroyed cards, and opened sealed compartments to reveal hidden components, permanently changing the game in response to their own actions. A sequel, Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, took the action decades into the future, exploring a world wracked by the events of the first game. Now, there’s a third and final installment, taking players back to the dangerous days of 1962 and the height of simmering tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 revolves around CIA agents tasked with uncovering plans for a powerful new bio-weapon being developed by rogue elements of the Soviet intelligence services. Where the established Pandemic formula saw players zipping from city to city to get rid of plastic cubes representing diseases, here you and your companions aim to clear the board of miniature plastic spies. Let them spread too freely, and they’ll overthrow the capitalist system. More importantly, they will hand you an embarrassing loss.

It’s mostly a superficial change, but it’s far from the only way that Season 0 evokes its Cold War atmosphere. Different locations on its board come with different alignments: Allied, Soviet, and neutral. As enemy agents, you won’t be able to fly freely into Soviet territory, and getting around these restrictions requires setting up teams of local agents, represented by plastic miniatures that look like VW vans. You’ll be able to dispatch them to do your dirty work, assassinating Soviet spooks with ruthless efficiency.

Your objectives for each playthrough also feel suitably CIA-esque. You’ll need to find the locations of enemy assets and infiltrate secret Soviet facilities. Best of all, though, are the high-stakes manhunt missions which see a target such as a defector or double agent start in one city and frantically make their way towards Soviet strongholds while you try to cut off all of their possible escape routes. It makes for a thrilling chase with some genuinely gut-wrenching moments where your quarry slips through your fingers just as you close in to grab them.

What really makes the game shine, though, is what happens between missions. As with previous games in the series, you’ll run through a deck of cards introducing dramatic new plot elements. You’ll add stickers to the board representing ever-tightening Soviet surveillance, making certain cities more dangerous to visit. But what’s most interesting is the ability to upgrade your characters over time. Each comes with a passport booklet with pages for three different identities, all with their own abilities. Over time you’ll add new powers, letting you fine-tune each agent for tasks like hunting down enemies, sharing information with teammates, or recruiting local operatives.

You’ll be able to switch between identities as you play to adapt to the changing situation on the board, and in an inspired touch the game lets you customize your characters’ appearance using layers of stickers. It has no effect on gameplay, but the idea of slapping on a wig and a false mustache to sneak behind the Iron Curtain is undeniably fun.

As you delve deeper into the campaign, the game ramps up its difficulty, and while it’s impossible to go into detail without giving away some important surprises, you can expect to deal with ever-intensifying Soviet schemes and pencil-pushing superiors who seem intent on getting in your way. What begins as a moderately more complicated version of Pandemic morphs into something far meatier and more demanding.

The incremental process of change means you never feel overwhelmed. There are some occasions, though, where it becomes clear midway through a session that you aren’t going to win, and it’s here that Season 0 feels flat, with players aimlessly wandering around the board chasing unobtainable objectives. It feels like going into the second half of a soccer match with your team losing 8-0, although in our campaign it only happened once.

Even when you lose, you’ll progress through the plot. This might mean missing out on some vital intelligence, however, and obtaining and interpreting information can be just as important as what actually occurs on the board. There are smuggled documents, secret plans, eyewitness testimonies, and other clues which you’ll aim to piece together to form a complete picture of what your adversaries are up to.

What might be most impressive, though, is the way the game digs into the interior conflict of its protagonists. There are multiple points throughout the campaign where players’ opinions on different issues have a direct, mechanical effect on the game. And while the plot runs largely on rails, there are a handful of key decisions which lead to a selection of different endings.

If there’s one narrative shortfall, it’s that Season 0 never really addresses the deeper question of whether the ends of all this shady spycraft justify the means. It’s not that the game presents a simplistic good-vs-evil view of the Cold War; its depiction of the CIA is far from heroic, and there are some terrible people on both sides. But the idea of vans prowling Latin America to bump off leftists is distinctly uncomfortable given the real-world history of CIA involvement in the region, even if you manage to assume that the people you’re wiping off the map are in fact secret agents in the pay of Moscow.

Spy fiction of all forms exists on a spectrum. On one side is escapist fantasy like James Bond, on the other are deeper stories exploring a world of mistrust and duplicity, and what happens when we allow people to step outside of legality and accepted norms. Season 0 falls mostly into the former category, and I would have liked to have seen how its blend of narrative and mechanical wizardry handled some deeper, more reflective issues.

Is this enough to negate everything that Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 does well? No. The game is a fitting culmination to a series which has given players a succession of tough decisions, hard-won victories, and agonizingly close defeats. For newcomers, Season 1 is a better place to start in terms of complexity and storyline. But if you’ve been along for the ride from the start, this is one hell of a send-off.

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