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Snapchat will let you play as your Bitmoji in video games – TechCrunch

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Want your video game character to look just like you? Soon you’ll be able to scan an in-game code with Snapchat to play as your personalized Bitmoji avatar on PC, console and mobile games. Today Snapchat announced its new Bitmoji for Games SDK that will let hand-selected partners integrate 3D Bitmoji as a replacement for their character skins. With support for Unity, Unreal and the Play Canvas engine behind Snap’s new Bitmoji Party game inside Snapchat, the SDK should make it easy for developers to pipe in life-like avatars that give people a stronger emotional connection to the game.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer to bring Bitmoji into games. Games can be so much more engaging with you…in the game,” Bitmoji co-founder Ba Blackstock tells me. “We’re adding an identity layer to gaming that has the potential to have a transformational effect on the industry.”

Snapchat has a massive opportunity to colonize the web — and the games ecosystem — with its Bitmoji instead of waiting for developers to make half-assed clones. Bitmoji is perhaps Snapchat’s most popular and enduring feature now that Stories and ephemeral messaging have been widely copied, with 330 million estimated downloads, according to Sensor Tower. As I wrote in my feature piece on Snapchat’s new platform strategy, “To stop copycats, Snapchat shares itself,” every distributed instance of the company drives attention back to its original apps, and each partnership it establishes is one more ally in the fight against Facebook.

Snap’s new CMO

Snap’s new CMO Kenny Mitchell

As Snapchat moves into this new era of marketing itself through Bitmoji, today it also announced it has hired a new CMO, Kenny Mitchell. He was formerly the VP of marketing at McDonald’s and the head of consumer engagement at Gatorade. Mitchell oversaw the sports drink’s Serena Williams tennis game that lived inside a Snapchat ad and saw an average of over 200 seconds of play time, and its viral Super Bowl augmented reality lens that let you dump a cooler of Gatorade on yourself.

“Kenny’s consumer marketing expertise and his deep understanding of our products will be a great combination for Snap,” writes Snap CEO Evan Spiegel.

The company has seen many senior execs depart over the years due to clashes with Spiegel over leadership, so we’ll see if Mitchell sticks around. He’ll be spearheading Snap’s new marketing campaign to reactivate Android users frustrated by its buggy app and bring them back to its newly reengineered version. “I look forward to helping Evan and Snap continue to tell their story to people around the world, and working with my new colleagues as we define the future of the camera and self-expression,” Mitchell writes.

Bitmoji, the visual identity layer

Snap acquired Bitmoji parent Bitstrips in 2016 for just $64 million, propelling it to become a staple top 10 app. Snap launched its Snap Kit platform in June 2018, allowing developers to integrate Bitmoji into the keyboards of their apps like Tinder for use as chat stickers or 2D profile pics. And this month, at Snap’s first Partner Summit, it launched partnerships to bring Bitmoji to the Venmo feed, Fitbit watch faces and more. But now it will let 3D Bitmoji replace your in-game character head-to-toe.

For now, the SDK will be free to top developers chosen for the program from PC, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android and other platforms. Surprisingly, most game devs just build their own avatar customization feature from scratch, but they’re typically focused on clothes and crazy hairstyles rather than fine-tuning a face that looks like your own. And while customized avatars are common in shooter games, Bitmoji could bring them to platform, racing, dancing, puzzle, fighting and role-playing games too.

Bitmoji for games won’t be an open platform, to ensure the brand isn’t misused. Blackstock explains that “You can look at what we’re doing with Bitmoji Kit where we have guidelines of best practices of how to use Bitmoji and not use Bitmoji. We’ll apply the same kinds of guidelines to gaming.” That might mean no extra graphically violent games, or anything in which players might revel in inflicting pain on a personalized avatar. But Fortnite, with its cartoony violence, might be an ideal Bitmoji partner.

Snap’s global head of gaming partnerships, John Imah, says he could imagine using his Bitmoji in titles from Star Wars, Lego, Mario Kart or Warcraft. Depending on how their models for characters, landscapes and items work, developers may have to do some work to make Bitmoji work gracefully. But Imah says when it can, “There will be some modification on our end to make sure this works within their engine so we can make this process as seamless as possible for these developers.”

Users will design their avatar in the Bitmoji or Snapchat app, though there may be in-game customization options down the line. If users ask to import their Bitmoji, the game will show a QR Snapcode on screen that users can scan with the Snapchat camera. That authentication unlocks their Bitmoji to use as an avatar skin in the game. Suddenly, every quest, battle and cutscene becomes about them, not some generic character.

Given Fortnite is earning hundreds of millions of dollars selling cosmetic upgrades, the inevitable question is whether Snap will start selling bonus outfits, items or face options for Bitmoji. “It’s really early days for Bitmoji for Games. It’s something we’ll explore later down the road,” Imah tells me. Imagine if kids could buy Supreme sweatshirts or fresh Nikes for their Bitmoji? That could be a lucrative new business for Snap that’s strengthened by each Bitmoji partnership, and at a time when it’s eager to boost revenue and cut losses as it aims for profitability.

Bitmoji for Games could cement Snapchat as the best way to visually represent yourself online without a photograph. As the darker sides of the internet and human nature come into focus for the tech industry, we need more ways to be ourselves while retaining privacy. Bitmoji could deliver the emotional connection of seeing yourself as the hero without the risks of exposing your true face.

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Microsoft set to purchase Activision Blizzard in $68.7 billion deal

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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

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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

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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 Battle.net service every 30 days, even if you play the game exclusively offline.

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