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Gaming chat startup Discord raises $150M, surpassing $2B valuation – TechCrunch

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Chatty gamers are apparently worth billions.

Discord, the gaming chat startup with more than 200 million active users, announced Friday that it had secured $150 million in funding at a $2.05 billion valuation. The round was led by Greenoaks Capital with participation from Firstmark, Tencent, IVP, Index Ventures and Technology Opportunity Partners.

The company announced this past April that they had raised $50 million in funding at a $1.65 billion valuation. With this latest bout of cash, Discord has now pulled in more than $280 million in funding.

The influx of new money comes as the chat startup goes full speed ahead on one of its most ambitious offshoots to date, taking on games giant Valve with a gaming store meant to rival the ubiquitous Steam store. The company launched a global beta of the Discord Store in October; they recently announced that starting in 2019, they will be establishing a revenue split of 90/10 for developers that are self-publishing titles on the store, a margin much friendlier to indie devs than the 70/30 split on Steam.

The company’s bread-and-butter remains its chat service, which brings voice and text communications to gamers looking to talk with teammates and fellow enthusiasts during and outside of gameplay. Discord isn’t the only service that offers this capability, but it is definitely one of the most popular with hundreds of millions of users coming to the app every month.

We chatted with CEO Jason Citron at our most recent Disrupt SF event, where he talked about the opportunities available in the online games sales market and what challenges the company had up ahead.

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Maggie Lane is a writer and producer of virtual reality experiences and covers the industry …

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Mario Party Superstars is the “Greatest Hits album” the series deserves

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Enlarge / “Yeah, Waliuigi time!”

Since the Mario Party series launched in 1998 on the N64, it has played host to over 1,000 mini-games spread across 15 titles (depending on how you count). The question behind Mario Party Superstars on the Switch is whether you can find 100 of those mini-games that are actually good.

The answer is a resounding yes. By focusing on the best and most enduring mini-game design from over two decades, Superstars is probably the most consistently enjoyable game in the series’ long run. But if you’re not already on board with Mario Party‘s slow pace and heavy reliance on luck, there’s nothing here that will change your mind.

Better to be lucky than to be good

Mario Party Superstars is a game dripping with nostalgia, from the music and sound effects to the menu screen drawn straight from the first game. The structure of the main game is completely unchanged as well. Four human or computer-controlled players take turns rolling a 10-sided die to move around a board, trying to pass spots where they can buy the stars needed to win the game. After everyone has rolled, all four players face off in a mini-game where they can earn coins that can be used to buy stars or items that can help them or hinder others.

The Switch's graphical power means this level looks more scrumptious than ever.
Enlarge / The Switch’s graphical power means this level looks more scrumptious than ever.

Nintendo has made some strong choices for the five available classic boards, which come from the N64 editions of the game. The options offer a full range of complexity, from the basic “walk in a circle” of Yoshi’s Tropical Island to the constantly branching paths of Woody Woods to the complicated day-night cycle of Horror Land. Series fans will get a kick out of seeing these classic boards fully upgraded for the HD era, too—Peach’s birthday cake, in particular, is a mouth-watering visual splendor compared to the unappetizing low-res polygons of the N64 original.

Nintendo has thrown in some small quality-of-life improvements to help the slow pace of moving around these boards, too. You can now fast-forward through cut-scene animations, for instance, and you don’t have to watch as computer players compete in mini-games and item games without any human intervention. “Fast” options for movement speed and text mean you can also blow through a lot of the tedious waiting for your turn to come around, especially when playing against multiple computer opponents (you can also throw some emoji-style Mario-themed stickers on the screen to pass the time in between turns).

But none of these improvements changes the core gameplay of Mario Party, which, for good or ill, is still heavily dependent on luck. Sure, there is some basic strategy involved in navigating the boards skillfully, especially when it comes to deciding when to buy and use items to their best effect. And yes, winning more coins from mini-games still has a decent correlation with doing well in the overall match.

Still, a huge portion of the outcome of a Mario Party Superstars match depends on nothing more than rolls of the dice and the huge swings that can come from landing on certain spaces. No matter how skillfully you play, there’s often nothing you can do to prevent a lucky player from reaching a star before you. You can’t always avoid landing on a coin-sapping Bowser space or encountering a Chance Time space that transfers your hard-earned stars to another player in one fell swoop.

Horror Land is one of the more skill-based boards in the game, but in the end, it still comes down to luck.
Enlarge / Horror Land is one of the more skill-based boards in the game, but in the end, it still comes down to luck.

With the right group of friends (and possibly the right beverages), it’s possible to let go and accept this chaos, laughing and cringing along with your playmates as the whims of chance affect your fates. If you want a game that directly rewards skillful play relative to your opponents, though, Mario Party is still the last place you should look.

Maximum mini-games

In most Mario Party titles, every random mini-game selection meant waiting to see if you would end up with a fun, well-designed option or a tedious time-waster. Mario Party Superstars largely avoids this problem, removing most of the tedium by picking the cream of the crop for a veritable Greatest Hits album of previous games’ mini-game selections.

There are still a small handful of mini-games that are completely dependent on luck, amounting to a coin flip drawn out over a couple of minutes. And there are a few more that measure nothing but how fast you can mash a button or two, a tedious exercise in the best of circumstances.

Jumping up this vine might be simple, but it still rewards skill and focus.
Enlarge / Jumping up this vine might be simple, but it still rewards skill and focus.
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We test GeForce Now’s new “3080” upgrade, discover unmatched cloud-gaming power

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Enlarge / GeForce Now works on all of these devices. But you’ll want to double check whether your ideal combination of hardware, screen, and Ethernet connection will get you up to either 1440p resolution and 120 fps, or 2160p resolution and 60 fps. If so, GeForce Now’s new 3080 subscription tier might be perfect for you.

Nvidia

The prospect of buying a reasonable new GPU in 2021 remains a crapshoot, and that says nothing about your hopes of buying a higher-end option anywhere near MSRP values. In a chip-shortage universe, there’s not a ton we can do to change this unfortunate reality, outside of asking greedy cryptominers to please donate their high-end GPUs to people who want to play games with the things.

For some people, cloud gaming might be a good alternative. This concept lets gamers connect their much weaker hardware (netbooks, set-top boxes) to supercomputer farms. So long as they can maintain a decent broadband connection and endure hits to button-tap latency (and bandwidth overages), they can, on paper, expect higher-end gaming. But so far, we haven’t seen impressive computing power in that marketplace. Stadia in particular launched as a woefully underpowered service, while the biggest PC-centric cloud option, Nvidia GeForce Now, has a mix of power limitations and usability frustrations.

This week, Nvidia moves forward with its most intriguing cloud-gaming service upgrade yet: GeForce Now 3080, named after its powerful RTX 3080 GPUs. Preorders for that service are now officially live, and depending on your willingness to compromise, you might want to look into it.

We’ve tested its pre-release version for the past week, and the results have, quite frankly, been dreamy. This $198/year service tier works on two fronts: it opens up connections to more powerful Nvidia servers, and it unlocks more options on the local end for anyone using the service. The result is a white-hot stunner that rivals the computing power you can muster with a locally owned RTX 3080 Ti.

How GeForce Now fits into the stream-iverse

The catch, of course, is that GeForce Now is still the most unwieldy cloud-gaming option on the market. To its credit, the service is also the most flexible and storefront-agnostic.

Thus, before I get to the best parts of Nvidia’s new “GeForce Now 3080” option—its faster performance, its higher maximum resolution, and its higher maximum frame rate—I should set the stage for how the service works and compares to its contemporaries, so bear with me.

Most cloud-gaming services demand that you rely on their store ecosystems in one way or another. You can only play games on Google Stadia if you buy those games’ Stadia-exclusive versions (or access freebies via the paid Stadia Pro subscription service). If you want to stream games within Xbox Game Streaming, you have to pay for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, and you can only stream that service’s selection of approximately 200 games—as opposed to additional Xbox games you individually purchase. And Amazon Luna offers a variety of “channels,” each with individual costs and unique content, that you can pick and stack the same way you might do with video-streaming subscription services.

The cost of GeForce Now, conversely, has nothing to do with games you might buy or borrow and everything to do with the Nvidia hardware you’re leasing in the cloud. In some ways, GeForce Now is just a cloud computer that you can use as you see fit. When you use GeForce Now, you log into other storefronts on its server farm, load games you’ve already purchased, and play them using their profiles and save files. Nvidia’s cloud-gaming service doesn’t care where or how you buy games. It just wants to power them.

One big catch, however, is that some game publishers do not allow Nvidia to stream their games. (Remember: when you buy a game via an online storefront, you’re only paying for access to a license. This, among other things, means publishers can yank your access around in exactly this way.) Upon the service’s 2019 launch, Nvidia was forced to remove games that it originally supported after certain publishers cried foul—particularly games from Activision Blizzard’s Battle.net service. In good news, over time, many more games have been added to the service from the following storefronts, now totaling a little over 1,100 games:

  • Steam
  • Epic Games Store
  • Ubisoft Connect
  • EA Origin

Up until this week, GeForce Now only had two tiers: $98/year or free. The latter includes performance downgrades and required waits in server queues, so if too many people are using the service, you have to wait behind paying customers. That free option is a decent way to basically confirm that your ideal streaming device—a smartphone, a set-top box, or a weak netbook—can connect to the service and translate your gamepad taps or keyboard-and-mouse frenzies to cloud-streamed video games. But it’s not great for image quality or computing power.

RTX 3080 tier wins, even at a higher resolution

The paid version, meanwhile, includes rudimentary “Nvidia RTX” support. Its server instances include Nvidia’s proprietary GPU cores that are dedicated to ray tracing and Deep Learning Super-Sampling (DLSS), but only a few per instance, as powered by an RTX-upgraded variant of Nvidia’s Tesla T10 server-grade GPU. The results are generally powerful enough to get average, modern PC games up to a steady 1080p, 60 fps refresh, usually with a number of graphical bells and whistles enabled.

As I’ve previously attested, if you’re within the right geographic range of Nvidia’s servers and have a low-ping wired Ethernet connection, you can expect all-but-unflinching performance while playing with mouse-and-keyboard on a variety of shooters on the service. But 1080p resolution at 60 fps and medium settings is basically what the rest of the streaming fray offers. How much more juice can the same Nvidia app ecosystem muster, especially if Nvidia itself, manufacturer of so many high-end GPUs, applies its own hardware upgrade?

The best way to answer that is to let a few of its compatible games do the talking. These are the exact same PC versions of games that you might install on your own computer, after all, and some come with built-in benchmark sequences. Thus, I ran a few tests on the existing $98/year service, dubbed the “founders” tier, before Nvidia invited me to a pre-release test of the $198/year “3080” tier so I could compare the sheer power of both server options.

The above benchmarks for the computationally brutal Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (no ray tracing) and Watch Dogs Legion (substantial ray tracing) are explained in their captions. To summarize: all tests from the newer 3080 service tier are run at a higher 1440p resolution, yet they still soundly outpace the same tests run at a lower 1080p resolution on the service’s founders tier. Sadly, we couldn’t run these tests with a frame time chart attached, so we’re left with Ubisoft’s vague, squiggly line charts. Still, all of those benchmarks do come with crucial “lowest 1 percent” counts, and when those are higher (which they are, by a large margin, in the 3080 tier), you can expect fewer frame time stutters and refresh rate dips.

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Pixar’s Lightyear turns Buzz into a non-toy astronaut—with new voice—in 2022

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Enlarge / Coming in June 2022 to “theaters.”

While nobody was necessarily asking for an origin story film about Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear, the combined powers of Disney and Pixar sure seem intent on making such a concept look as appealing and epic as possible. Seriously: if you think the concept sounds like a straight-to-VHS cash-in on paper, we strongly encourage that you watch Wednesday’s dramatic reveal of Lightyear, coming “to theaters” (and no mention of Disney+ thus far) on June 17, 2022.

The film’s debut 90-second trailer, embedded below, skips over the important context found in its “read more” crawl on YouTube, which suggests that the toy version of Buzz Lightyear, who was embraced by Toy Story‘s Andy as a toy, an animated series character, a video game star, and more, was based on someone else entirely. As Disney Pixar explains:

The sci-fi action-adventure presents the definitive origin story of Buzz Lightyear—the hero who inspired the toy—introducing the legendary Space Ranger who would win generations of fans.

However, this description doesn’t clarify whether the more realistic-looking version of Lightyear in next year’s film is as real in the Toy Story version of Earth as characters like Andy (and that this version of our planet is patrolled by “Space Ranger” astronauts) or if this is another fictional story inside that world, from which more cartoonish Buzz Lightyear versions eventually followed. While waiting for Al “Chicken Man” McWhiggin to return our emails on the question, we instead found a definitive answer at Entertainment Weekly, whose reporter Nick Romano interviewed film director Angus MacLane on the matter.

“In the Toy Story universe, [Lightyear] would be like a movie that maybe Andy would have seen, that would have made him want a Buzz Lightyear figure,” MacLane explains to EW. In other words: it’s as if the Michael Keaton version of Batman came before the campier Adam West turn. (Also, if supersonic, interstellar space travel exists on Andy’s Earth, it has yet to be chronicled with definitive logic and science by Disney Pixar. We’ll keep waiting for that spinoff.)

Lightyear‘s premiere teaser emphasizes exploration and a variety of interstellar locales, since it’s otherwise mostly devoid of any dialogue—with the massive exception of new character voice actor Chris Evans (Captain America) offering an abbreviated blurt of “and…” at its conclusion. He says this to his apparent crewmate, a new character named Alicia Hawthorne, who begins the sentence with the familiar call-out of “to infinity.” As of press time, Hawthorne’s voice actor is uncredited—though throughout the trailer, we see this new character in both full Space Ranger regalia and in more subdued control-room garb, so she’s likely to figure largely in the final film.

If you’re looking for an epic sci-fi universe worthy of Andy’s childhood adoration, this trailer has it in spades. A swampy, Dagobah-like planet, which Lightyear examines with a rusty, bipedal droid at his side. A NASA-grade preparation, countdown, and launch sequence, punctuated by a mysterious power source being loaded into a spaceship. A hyperspeed blast of a one-man spacecraft toward and past an apparent version of Earth’s Sun. Lightyear’s eerie, lonely stare-down of a colonized, Mars-like planet while dressed in sweats. A harrowing dive through inky-black space, with the only light coming from his own deteriorating spaceship. And a creepy, talking robo-cat that Lightyear apparently befriends at some point but is clearly reluctant about.

The trailer is punctuated by arguably the 18 quadrillionth use of David Bowie’s “Starman” in a film trailer, albeit with its traditional guitars and percussion replaced by a full string section and thunderous drums. Today’s reveal caps off a vague mention that sneaked past a lot of fans in March of this year, when Disney’s massive slate of internal, Marvel, Pixar, Fox, and other studios’ films included a text-only blurb on something called “Lightyear” coming in June 2022. That’s apparently what this film is, though a ton of questions—particularly about connections to other fictional characters in the Buzz Lightyear toy-verse—will likely remain unanswered until the film gets closer to its theatrical launch.

Lightyear premiere trailer.

Listing image by Disney Pixar

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