Gaming

Valve confirms it’s making a ‘flagship’ Half-Life VR game

Posted by | Gaming, half life, TC, Valve, Virtual reality | No Comments

After what feels like years of rumors, it’s official: Valve is making a virtual reality Half-Life game.

Official word of the new title comes via Valve’s (brand new, but verified) Twitter account, where the company is promising more details later this week:

While it’s a bit curious to drop news like this as the first tweet from a brand new account, Valve’s long-established official Steam twitter account retweeted it — so signs are pointing toward it being legit.

Alas, we know next to nothing besides the name — Half-Life: Alyx — until 10 am on Thursday. Will we finally get a proper conclusion for Alyx Vance, whose storyline ended so abruptly when Valve dropped the Half-Life storyline mid-sentence 12 years ago ?

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Logitech accessory kit makes the Xbox Adaptive Controller even more accessible

Posted by | accessibility, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, Logitech, Microsoft, TC, xbox, xbox adaptive controller | No Comments

Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller was a breath of fresh air in a gaming world that has largely failed to consider the needs of people with disabilities. Now Logitech has joined the effort to empower this diverse population with an expanded set of XAC-compatible buttons and triggers.

Logitech’s $100 Adaptive Gaming Kit comes with a dozen buttons in a variety of sizes, two large analog levers to control the triggers, and a Velcro-style pad to which they can all be securely attached. It’s hopefully the start of a hardware ecosystem that will be at least a significant fraction of the diversity available to the able population.

The visibility of gamers with disabilities has grown both as the communities have organized and communicated their needs, and as gaming itself has moved towards the mainstream. Turns out there are millions of people who, for one reason or another, can’t use a controller or mouse and keyboard the way others can — and they want to play games too.

Always one of the more reliably considerate companies when it comes to accessibility issues, Microsoft began developing the XAC a couple years back — though admittedly after years of, like the rest of the gaming hardware community, failing to accommodate disabled gamers.

Logitech was an unwitting partner, having provided joysticks for the project without being told what they were for. But when the XAC was unveiled, Logitech was stunned and chagrined.

“This is something that, shame on us, we didn’t think about,” said Mark Starrett, Logitech G’s senior global product manager. “We’ve been trying to diversify gaming, like getting more girls to play, but we totally did not think about this. But you see the videos Microsoft put out, how excited the kids are — it’s so motivating to see that, it makes you want to continue that work.”

And to their credit, the team got in contact with Microsoft soon after and said they’d like to collaborate on some accessories for the system.

In some ways this wouldn’t be particularly difficult: The XAC uses 3.5mm headphone jacks as its main input, so it can accept signals from a wide range of devices, from its own buttons and sticks to things like blow tubes, so there’s no worries about proprietary connections, for instance. But when it comes to accessible devices and systems like this, there are often other rigorous standards in place that need to be upheld throughout, so it’s necessary to work closely with both the platform provider (Microsoft) and, naturally, the people who will actually be using them.

“This community, you can’t make anything for them without doing it with them,” said Starrett. “When we design a gaming keyboard or mouse, we engage pros, players, all that stuff, right? So with this, it’s absolutely critical to watch them with every piece.”

“The biggest takeaway is that everybody is so different: every challenge, every setup, everyone we talked to,” he continued. “We had a 70, 80 year old guy who plays Destiny and has arthritis — all we really needed to do was put a block on the back of his controller, because he couldn’t pull the trigger. Then we worked with a girl who has a quadstick, she was playing Madden like a pro with something you just puff and blow on. Another guy played everything with his feet. So we spent a lot of time on the site just watching.”

The final set of buttons they arrived at includes three very large ones, four smaller ones (though still big compared with ordinary controller buttons), four “light touch” buttons that can be easily activated by any contact, and two big triggers. Because they knew different gamers would use the sets differently, there’s a set of labels in the box that can be applied however they like.

Then there are two hook and loop (i.e. Velcro) mats to which the buttons can be attached, one rigid and the other flexible, so it can be draped over a leg, the arm of a couch, etc.

Even the packaging the buttons come in is accessible: A single strip of tape pulls out and causes the whole box to unfold, and then everything is in non-sealed reusable bags. The guide is wordless so it can be used in any country, by any player.

It’s nice to see such consideration at work, and no doubt the players who will benefit from these products will be happy to have a variety of options to choose from. I was starting to think I could use a couple of these buttons myself.

Starrett seemed very happy with the results, and also proud that the work had started something new at Logitech.

“The groups we talked to brought a lot of different things to mind for us,” he said. “We’re always updating things, but now we’re updating everything with an eye to accessibility. It’s helped Logitech as a company to learn about this stuff.”

You can pick up Logitech’s Adaptive Gaming kit here for $100.

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‘Magic: The Gathering’ game maker exposed 452,000 players’ account data

Posted by | Bucket, computer security, cryptography, database, Europe, game developer, Gaming, General Data Protection Regulation, Government, information commissioner's office, Password, player, Prevention, Security, spokesperson, United Kingdom, washington | No Comments

The maker of Magic: The Gathering has confirmed that a security lapse exposed the data on hundreds of thousands of game players.

The game’s developer, the Washington-based Wizards of the Coast, left a database backup file in a public Amazon Web Services storage bucket. The database file contained user account information for the game’s online arena. But there was no password on the storage bucket, allowing anyone to access the files inside.

The bucket is not believed to have been exposed for long — since around early-September — but it was long enough for U.K. cybersecurity firm Fidus Information Security to find the database.

A review of the database file showed there were 452,634 players’ information, including about 470 email addresses associated with Wizards’ staff. The database included player names and usernames, email addresses, and the date and time of the account’s creation. The database also had user passwords, which were hashed and salted, making it difficult but not impossible to unscramble.

None of the data was encrypted. The accounts date back to at least 2012, according to our review of the data, but some of the more recent entries date back to mid-2018.

A formatted version of the database backup file, redacted, containing 452,000 user records. (Image: TechCrunch)

Fidus reached out to Wizards of the Coast but did not hear back. It was only after TechCrunch reached out that the game maker pulled the storage bucket offline.

Bruce Dugan, a spokesperson for the game developer, told TechCrunch in a statement: “We learned that a database file from a decommissioned website had inadvertently been made accessible outside the company.”

“We removed the database file from our server and commenced an investigation to determine the scope of the incident,” he said. “We believe that this was an isolated incident and we have no reason to believe that any malicious use has been made of the data,” but the spokesperson did not provide any evidence for this claim.

“However, in an abundance of caution, we are notifying players whose information was contained in the database and requiring them to reset their passwords on our current system,” he said.

Harriet Lester, Fidus’ director of research and development, said it was “surprising in this day and age that misconfigurations and lack of basic security hygiene still exist on this scale, especially when referring to such large companies with a userbase of over 450,000 accounts.”

“Our research team work continuously, looking for misconfigurations such as this to alert companies as soon as possible to avoid the data falling into the wrong hands. It’s our small way of helping make the internet a safer place,” she told TechCrunch.

The game maker said it informed the U.K. data protection authorities about the exposure, in line with breach notification rules under Europe’s GDPR regulations. The U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office did not immediately return an email to confirm the disclosure.

Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual turnover for GDPR violations.

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This Week in Apps: Apple’s vaping app ban, Disney+ gets installed, apps gear up for Black Friday

Posted by | app-store, Apple, Apps, developers, e-commerce, Gaming, Google, Mobile, publishers, TC, this week in apps | No Comments

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support, and the money that flows through it all. What are developers talking about? What do app publishers and marketers need to know? How are politics impacting the App Store and app businesses? And which apps are everyone using?

As mid-November rolls around, we’re looking at a few big stories, including Apple’s decision to ban an entire category of apps due to health concerns, the launch of Disney+ from an app perspective, what Black Friday will mean for e-commerce apps, and more.

Fast Facts

With Disney+’s huge launch (10+ million users!) on everyone’s minds, it’s time to think about what these streaming newcomers mean for the overall landscape and the app stores. In this case, it seems that Disney+’s user base was highly mobile. The company itself announced more than 10 million users, while data on the Disney+ app’s first few days indicates it now has over 10 million downloads. It seems like consumers definitely want to take their new streaming service with them everywhere they go.

  • In 2020, App Annie forecasts consumers will spend more than 674 billion hours in the Entertainment and Video Player and Editor categories worldwide on Android phones, up from an expected 558 billion hours in 2019. Thanks to Disney+, Apple TV+ and soon, HBO Max, Peacock and Quibi, to making the landscape both richer and more complicated.
  • On its launch day, Disney+ hit #1 by iPhone Overall downloads at 8 AM in the U.S. and at 11 AM in Canada — an indication of the ability that strong IP has can really excite consumers to come out in droves. (Unfortunately, that led to some launch day glitches, too.)
  • Apptopia estimated Disney+ was downloaded 3.2 million times in its first 24 hours. The firm also estimated users collectively spent 1.3 million hours watching Disney+ on day one — ahead of Amazon Prime Video, but well behind Netflix.

  • Sensor Tower waited to collect a little more data instead. It found that the Disney+ app was installed approximately 9.6 million times in all available markets (the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands), since its U.S. launch on Tuesday, Nov. 12. For comparison’s sake, HBO Now’s U.S. launch only saw 180,000 installs in its first three days — or 2% of the Disney+ total. Combined with the test period installs in the Netherlands, the app has now been installed over 10 million times.
  • The hype around Disney+ has had a halo effect. Hulu and ESPN, which were offered in a bundle with Disney+, also grew as a result of the Disney+ launch. Sensor Tower found combined users of the apps in the U.S. and Canada were up 30% in the past week over the week prior.

Headlines

Apple removed all vaping apps from the App Store, citing CDC health concerns

The CDC says 42 people have died due to vaping product use and thousands more cases of lung injuries have been reported from 49 states. Now, Apple has made the controversial decision to remove all 181 vaping-related apps from its App Store — including those with news and information about vaping and even vaping-related games, Axios reported this week.

Some say Apple is helping to protect kids and teens by limiting their exposure to e-cigarette and vaping products, which are being used to addict a younger generation to nicotine and cause serious disease. Others argue that Apple is over-reaching. After all, many of the lung illnesses involve people who were vaping illegally obtained THC, studies indicated.

This isn’t the first time Apple has banned a category of apps because of what appear to be moral concerns. The company in the past had booted apps that promoted weed or depicted gun violence, for example. In the case of vaping apps, Apple cited the public health crisis and youth epidemic as contributing factors, telling Axios that:

We take great care to curate the App Store as a trusted place for customers, particularly youth, to download apps. We’re constantly evaluating apps, and consulting the latest evidence, to determine risks to users’ health and well-being. Recently, experts ranging from the CDC to the American Heart Association have attributed a variety of lung injuries and fatalities to e-cigarette and vaping products, going so far as to call the spread of these devices a public health crisis and a youth epidemic. We agree, and we’ve updated our App Store Review Guidelines to reflect that apps encouraging or facilitating the use of these products are not permitted. As of today, these apps are no longer available to download.

Existing users will still be able to use their apps, but new users will not be able to download the banned apps going forward.

Minecraft Earth arrives 

Minecraft Earth launched early last week across 9 countries on both Android and iOS and now it’s come to the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and several other markets. Some expect the app will rival the success of the AR breakout hit, Pokémon Go, which was thought at the time to be the precursor to a new wave of massive AR gaming titles. But in reality, that didn’t happen. The highly anticipated follow-up from Niantic, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite didn’t come close to competing with its predecessor, generating $12 million in its first month, compared with Pokémon Go’s first-month earnings of $300 million. With Minecraft Earth now sitting at No. 2 (c’mon, you can’t unseat Disney+) on the U.S. App Store, it seems there’s potential for another AR kingpin.

App Annie releases a user acquisition playbook

A top name in App Store intelligence, App Annie this week released a new how-to handbook focused on user acquisition strategies on mobile. Sure the free download is just a bit of lead gen for App Annie, but the guide promises to fill you in on all you need to know to be successful in acquiring mobile users. The playbook’s arrival follows App Annie’s acquisition of adtech insights firm Libring this fall, as it expands to cover more aspects of running an app business. Just as important as rankings and downloads are the very real costs associated with running an app business — including the cost of acquiring users.

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Microsoft announces its xCloud streaming service and a truckload of new games are coming in 2020

Posted by | game streaming, Gaming, Microsoft, project xcloud, streaming, xbox, Xbox Game Pass, xcloud | No Comments

Microsoft has announced a vague intention to launch its xCloud game streaming service sometime in 2020, and dropped a double handful of new titles that will arrive on it and the existing Game Pass subscription. It seems that next year will indeed be the opening battle in the streaming wars to come.

The announcements came at XO19, the company’s Xbox-focused event, which is taking place in London. They seem calculated to take the wind out of Google’s sails; the opening lineup of Stadia, Google’s entry in the game streaming world, was finalized earlier this week and is rather bare bones. Microsoft is hoping Google’s first-mover advantage will be nullified by the expected confusion around payments, features, titles and other issues Stadia is still working out.

Game Pass is currently in a preview period on PC. Although Microsoft did not supply a hard release date, saying only that 2020 is the plan. That year will also bring Windows 10 support, PC game streaming and potentially an expansion beyond Android for mobile streaming.

The price, too, is TBA — Google’s proposition is remarkably complicated, and it will take time for consumers to figure out what they’re willing to pay for, what the real costs are, and so on. So Microsoft is probably going to wait and see here.

But what is known about xCloud is that gamers will get access to all the games currently available on Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription — well over a hundred PC and console titles right now, with more being added regularly. That makes it easier to commit to for a lot of gamers.

New controllers will be supported soon, including Sony’s DualShock 4, which comes with the PlayStation 4; that’s a real olive branch to Microsoft’s arch-rival. And new countries will be brought into the fold soon, as well: Canada, India, Japan and “Western Europe.”

Game Pass will also be receiving dozens of titles old and new throughout 2020, including Final Fantasy 7 through 15, Darksiders 3, Flight Simulator and a bunch of newly announced games such as Obsidian’s new “Honey, I Shrunk the Survival Game” title, “Grounded.”

Several brand new properties and gameplay for known but unreleased games were also teased at XO19. Check them out below:

Everwild is a new IP from Rare that appears to involve a lot of sneaking around a lush forest and either avoiding or interacting with fantastical animals. It’s still early days, but the team wants to create “new ways to play in a natural and magical world.” I’m just here for the solar-powered dino-deer.

Tell Me Why is a new one from Dontnod, makers of Life Is Strange starring a pair of twins with some kind of paranormal connection. Notably one of the twins is transgender, not common among game protagonists, and the company worked with GLAAD to make sure the representation of the character is genuine.

Age of Empires IV got an only slightly satisfying gameplay reveal. Real-time strategy buffs will want more than this, but no doubt they’re excited to see this venerable franchise getting a modern sequel.

You can catch up on the rest over at the Xbox official blog post.

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Minecraft Earth is live, so get tapping

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Gaming, Microsoft, Minecraft, minecraft earth, Mobile | No Comments

Microsoft’s big experiment in real-world augmented reality gaming, Minecraft Earth, is live now for players in North America, the U.K. and a number of other areas. The pocket-size AR game lets you collect blocks and critters wherever you go, undertake little adventures with friends and, of course, build sweet castles.

I played an early version of Minecraft Earth earlier this year, and found it entertaining and the AR aspect surprisingly seamless. The gameplay many were first introduced to in Pokémon GO is adapted here in a more creative and collaborative way.

You still walk around your neighborhood, rendered in this case charmingly like a Minecraft world, and tap little icons that pop up around your character. These may be blocks you can use to build, animals you can collect or events like combat encounters that you can do alone or with friends for rewards.

Ultimately all this is in service of building stuff, which you do on “build plates” of various sizes. These you place in AR mode on a flat surface, which they lock onto, letting you move around freely to edit and play with them. This sounded like it could be fussy or buggy when I first heard about it, but actually doing it was smooth and easy. It’s easy to “zoom in” to edit a structure by just moving your phone closer, and multiple people can play with the same blocks and plate at the same time.

Once you’ve put together something fun, you can take it to an outdoor location and have it represented at essentially “real” size, so you can walk around the interior of your castle or dungeon. Of course, you can’t climb steps, because they’re not real, but the other aspects work as expected: you can manipulate doors and other items, breed cave chickens and generally enjoy yourself.

The game is definitely more open-ended than the collection-focused Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Whether that proves to be to its benefit or detriment when it comes to appeal and lasting power remains to be seen — but one thing is for sure: People love Minecraft and they’re going to want to at least try this out.

And now they can, if they’re in one of the following countries — with others coming throughout the holiday season:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • South Korea
  • Philippines
  • Sweden
  • Mexico
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Iceland

You can download Minecraft Earth for iOS here and for Android here.

 

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Twitch publicly launches its free broadcasting software, Twitch Studio

Posted by | Entertainment, Gaming, streaming, TC, Twitch, Twitch Studio | No Comments

Twitch today publicly launched Twitch Studio, its new software designed to help new streamers get started broadcasting. The idea behind the app is to make it simple for someone new to the space to get started, by offering a quick setup process and other tools to make the stream both look and sound more professional — even if the streamer doesn’t have broadcasting experience.

The software, which was only available in closed beta until today, will detect the user’s mic, webcam, monitor resolution, bitrate and more through a guided setup process. Streamers can then choose from a variety of starter layouts and overlays that will help them personalize their stream’s look-and-feel.

Once live on Twitch, the software will also help streamers interact with the online community and viewers, including by way of built-in alerts, an activity feed and integrated Twitch chat.

As the company previously explained, many people have thought about streaming but gave up on doing so because the process was too difficult. The new software aims to get them over that hurdle of setting up a stream for the first time.

As the streamer becomes more knowledgable and capable, they may outgrow their need for Twitch Studio — and that would be fine. The goal is to get them involved with Twitch streaming in the first place, not necessarily keep them on the platform longer-term.

Twitch Studio is currently available only on Windows PCs, not Mac, iOS or Android “at this time,” Twitch says — a hint that cross-platform support could come further down the road. However, in the near-term, Twitch is working to better integrate the software with other Twitch functionality, as well as roll out tools that make it easier to chat and engage viewers.

The launch timing is notable as Twitch has recently lost its biggest streamer, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, to Microsoft’s Mixer. The loss was then followed by the exit of Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, also to Mixer. Meanwhile, Google’s Stadia, which is about to launch on November 19, will make it easy to stream directly to YouTube. 

Twitch says the new Twitch Studio software is available today, in beta, for anyone on Windows 7 or newer.

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‘Death Stranding’ brings back appointment gaming

Posted by | death stranding, Gaming, hideo kojima, playstation, PlayStation 4, PS4, Sony, TC | No Comments

Game launches these days are frequently the very worst time to play them. Plagued by bugs, server issues, balance problems and a lack of content, many “games as a service” titles are best consumed after a month or two. Not so with Hideo Kojima’s long-awaited Death Stranding, which, if you’re going to play at all… you should probably play now.

This type of game comes out once every year or two: A title where the gradual discovery of mechanics and ideas by the players is part of the adventure. Being part of that vanguard of players who go in unsure of what to expect, learning by doing and sharing that information with others has a special feeling, not of exclusivity exactly, but of a collective experience.

Sure, playing the new Call of Duty on day one can be thrilling, but it’s not exactly a journey of discovery. Furthermore, games like those tend to get better after the first few months as content is added, gameplay is tweaked and so on.

But just as some TV and movies are best seen with friends on the day they’re released, some games beg to be played before they become over-amply documented, their mysteries vivisected and wikified.

The most frequent entries on this list are From Software’s Dark Souls type games, the esoteric workings of which are sometimes never fully revealed even years later. Bloodborne is still yielding up its secrets even now, for instance.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was another one, in which it wasn’t exactly that people were finding hidden things or speculating on lore, but rather finding how open-ended the world really was and demonstrating that in ingenious ways. When someone figured out you can trick an enemy into being struck by lightning by slipping them a metal weapon in a thunderstorm, it was like a million gamers worldwide squinted, said “wait, what?” and ran to their Switch to try it.

Death Stranding is likewise “appointment gaming,” because… well, it’s so weird. But it definitely belongs in the company of those games that are best experienced while steaming hot, like the frequent showers you’ll see Norman Reedus take in it. I’m glad I let a friend of mine convince me to jump in right away.

Don’t worry, I won’t be spoiling anything you don’t learn in the first couple of hours. But there is a mechanic where items like ladders or climbing ropes you lay down to help navigate the terrain get shared with other people for their own use. Just as there is glory in being the first to call down lightning in Zelda, there’s a glory (slightly more obscure admittedly) in being the first to go a certain way and let others follow in your footsteps.

Lay down a bridge to reach a shelter more easily while carrying lots of cargo, and you may find that a day or two later, thousands of people have used it, given it “likes,” and maybe even upgraded or expanded it with their own resources.

The thing about this is that in a year or two, the locations of these bridges will have been optimized and documented for all to know, as if they were part of the game’s landscape to begin with. Where’s the fun in that? It’s a pleasure knowing that the environment around you is being improvised by players all over the world.

Similarly, there are “aha” moments already occurring. You’re told directly that your character’s bodily fluids seem anathema to the ghostly “BTs” that are your most serious enemies. You’re also given the option, once you’ve drunk sufficient quantities from your canteen, to have a wee. Someone made that connection and decided to wee on the horrible ghostly BTs — and it repels them!

And a million gamers squint, say “wait, what?” and run to their PS4 to try it.

That collective experience that we shared when we sat in the same room to watch the Game of Thrones finale or, before that, Lost’s ultimately regrettable but thrilling perambulations, is present here in Death Stranding, as it has been for other games before it.

Is Death Stranding a game for everyone? Hell no. But nor was Dark Souls. Death Stranding is a game that is frequently original and odd and surprising, while also occasionally being heavy-handed, tedious and obtuse. We need more of that in the increasingly cynical and predictable world of AAA gaming.

By its nature Death Stranding is something that, if you don’t give it a hard pass (and I definitely get that), you should be playing today — not next year or even next month. Get it, then be patient, be weird, have fun and send likes.

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Niantic will open Pokémon GO Pokéstop submissions to players worldwide next week

Posted by | Gaming, niantic, Pokémon Go, TC | No Comments

Pokémon GO and games like it can’t exist without waypoints — the in-game locations that correlate to real-world points of interest, acting as the Pokéstops, gyms, etc. The more waypoints they have around the world, the better the game becomes.

But building up these databases of waypoints is tough. A company can’t do it alone; that just doesn’t scale. Even if they open it up to user submissions, verifying new locations (so as to avoid a bunch of false/bad locations being thrown into the mix) is tough for a company to do alone.

Niantic has spent the last few years figuring out this process, building a user-driven and peer-moderated system that got its start way back with the company’s first game.

Next week, at long last, they’re opening the submission process to Pokémon GO players around the world.

Called Niantic Wayfarer, the submission system will be largely user-driven. One player nominates a location, submitting a photo of the location and answering a handful of questions to help determine eligibility. Other high-level players will review these submissions, helping to filter out the ones that are inaccurate, offensive or just not right for the game.

Niantic had previously opened up location submissions in select regions, including much of Central and South America and parts of Asia. With the launch next week, the submission system goes worldwide.

“This is going to be launched for Pokémon GO players next week,” Niantic CEO John Hanke told a handful of reporters at a press gathering yesterday. “So worldwide people will be able to submit and rate and review these locations. That’s for GO now, and it’ll be in other games in the future. You can imagine that Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, and other games as they come online, will also share this capability.”

If you’ve been following Niantic for a while, the Wayfarer system might seem familiar. It’s effectively a polished up, rebranded version of the “Portal Recon” system originally built into Niantic’s first game, Ingress. Niantic tells us that they’ve seen 27 million waypoint locations submitted by users so far, with 26 million having been reviewed, and 9.4 million approved and in-game. Even in these early stages, the company says it’s seeing about 1 million nominations per week.

One catch: At least initially, you’ll need to be level 40 (the highest level in Pokémon GO) to submit or review potential new stops. The company tells me you’ll also have to take a little quiz to confirm that you’ve got a good understanding of what makes for a good Pokéstop.

A common (constant?) complaint from Pokémon GO fans has been that players in rural areas are at a massive disadvantage compared to players in major cities — a portion of which, at least, boils down to rural areas having considerably fewer stops, gyms, etc. Opening the player submission system doesn’t completely fix the gameplay challenges in rural areas, but it should at least be a big step in the right direction.

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Niantic will soon let small businesses pay to have a Pokémon GO Pokéstop

Posted by | Gaming, niantic, Pokémon Go, TC | No Comments

Sponsored locations aren’t new to Niantic games. Companies like Sprint, McDonald’s and AT&T have had sponsored locations in games like Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite for a long while now. The idea: by turning your business into a big in-game beacon and giving players some reason to stop by, you increase foot traffic.

So far, though, the sponsorship system has really only been open to these mega chains. Starbucks got to turn all of its stores into sponsored Pokéstops at the height of the Pokémon GO craze, but the little mom-and-pop coffee shop down the street? No such luck.

That’ll change later this year, as the company opens a self-serve platform for small to medium-sized businesses looking to light up sponsored locations in-game.

Details are still somewhat light, but Niantic says that they’ll start accepting applications tomorrow and roll out an “early access” beta program later this year. As with pretty much everything Niantic does, they’re rolling it out on a region-by-region basis; in this case, it’ll only be open to U.S. businesses at first. The first new sponsored locations should start showing up in December.

“Sponsored” locations tend to have slight perks over their non-sponsored counterparts. Sponsored gyms in Pokémon GO, for example, are almost always “EX Raid” locations — which in GO-speak just means that battling there might get you a ticket to a bigger, badder, invite-only boss battle in the weeks that follow. Sponsored fortresses in Harry Potter: Wizards Unite give out more XP and more of the spell energy required to play.

Beyond being able to pay to have a sponsored in-game location, these businesses will also be able to pay to schedule things like Pokémon GO raids (read: bigger, co-operative boss battles that often require 5-10 players working together to win) during time slots when foot traffic might be slow. And because getting foot traffic is only part of the equation, sponsored businesses will also be able to offer up deals and promotions in-game to (hopefully) turn those passing by into paying customers.

Niantic also says that businesses will be able to host other on-site “mini-games” beyond GO raids in the future, but didn’t elaborate on what those might be.

According to this page, Niantic will offer two plans:

  • $30 per month gets you one Pokéstop, with the ability to change its image/description/promotion once per month
  • $60 per month gets you a gym, with the ability to schedule one hour of raiding per month. This plan allows you to change the image/description/promotion twice per month.

Niantic says that small businesses can have one stop or gym per physical location, and up to 30 per chain.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, and if/how it impacts things in-game. While Pokémon GO isn’t the overwhelmingly popular monster of a game that it was at launch, it can still cause crowds to pop up out of nowhere — particularly when new Pokémon appear as raid bosses, or when they’ve got some limited-time event going on. Will sponsoring a raid cause fewer raids nearby (to maximize visibility of the sponsored spot), or will more of them pop up nearby to hook groups looking to do multiple raids in one swoop?

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