Gaming has evolved from single-player to head-to-head to massively multiplayer, but it’s also retreated from public arcades to isolated homes. Today’s launch of the Xbox One makes the whole console experience social, not just the gaming itself. You’ll still be battling other humans, but how you communicate with them and choose what to play is about to change.
Think back 20 years ago, before home gaming devices became the powerhouses they are today. You’d go to an arcade, and the way you’d discover what was fun and popular was looking for which game cabinet drew the rowdiest crowds. I remember discovering Street Fighter 2 in a hotel arcade while on vacation. I couldn’t even see the machine, as it was surrounded by older boys swearing like sailors at every Haduken and thousand-hand-slap.
I knew I wanted to play that game. And when I finally got my turn to get beaten mercilessly as the mob swelled around me, it didn’t feel like I was doing anything nerdy. I was partaking in a new culture, a new community.
That’s the promise of the new Xbox One’s trending section. It surfaces games, apps, video on demand, and other media popular with your friends and the whole Xbox user base. Gamers won’t have to go searching for reviews to see what’s the hot new first-person shooter. The wisdom of the crowd will clue you into what game has captured the zeitgeist, even if you’re playing alone in your basement. Microsoft also hopes to turn word-of-mouth recommendations into an algorithm that shows you what to play next. Because the suggestions come from friends, you might trust them enough to buy a new sports game like NBA Live ’14, listen to a classic album, watch Firefly, or try out a fresh app like Hulu.
Microsoft is also bringing these custom recommendations somewhere that was never really social: television. Live TV can be piped into your living room through the Xbox One; its TV guide features a trending section too. While we’ve gotten used to intelligent suggestions for video-on-demand thanks to data crunchers like Netflix, Xbox one could show you what sports match or awards show your friends and the whole world are watching right now.
Microsoft will have to figure out who your real friends are, possibly through social network integrations, and how to use other factors like geography to massage the trending picks. There will also be privacy design challenges to face, as not everyone wants to share what they do with their controller. But if Xbox One Trending succeeds, it could make games and television viral in a whole new way.
Snap back to the arcade, and 10-year old me is learning all the naughty four-letter words. Each time someone sees their health bar go red, they let out a stream of angry obscenities while onlookers let loose cuss-modified cheers for the victor. But it wasn’t just the sounds. You can hear kids swear at each other all day on Xbox 360 Live. It was the look of anguish in a defeated combatant’s face, the relieved body language of the winner whose reward was one more game and “a new challenger!”
Xbox One’s new Skype group video chat feature means you can play face to face with friends around the world. It’s infinitely more vivid than the audio and text chat capabilities of the Xbox 360. Smile at each other after a successful dungeon raid, or dance around as you brag about your touchdown in Madden. Skype for Xbox goes beyond games so you can watch TV, use apps, and more while having a conversation. Social doesn’t even need to be banished to a second screen. Xbox One “Snap Mode” lets you use voice commands to open video chat in a slide-out, overlaid window on the edge of your TV.
Skype for Xbox takes video chat and puts it in your comfiest chair. Rather than hunching over your laptop, leaning back on your couch could inspire long conversations over your console. You might – *gasp* – even pause your game to chat full screen with your little brother back home. Or it could usher in a new era of simultaneously consumed content, where you having distributed viewing parties for sports and movies rather than cramming your friends in the same room.
Xbox One also comes equipped with automatic, background matchmaking that lets you watch TV or play another game while you wait for a new opponent with a gaming DVR so you can record and share videos of your greatest triumphs or most gruesome game-overs. More people posting those videos to Facebook and Twitter could push serious console gaming ever further into the mainstream.
Of course, some gamers might not want social invading their safe space. Some may use it as a safe space to turn off their good graces, be a bit more primal, and just relax. Pings from friends wanting to Skype chat might be an interruption. Fighting alongside or against other people is all the social interaction they want. But the occasional eye-to-eye encounter could make gaming more fulfilling. If you’ve ever stayed up late playing only to feel a bit empty afterwards, you see the hole a more social Xbox could fill.
Gaming has become a bigger industry than movies. Mobile phones and social networks are bringing games to a wider audience than ever. Yet there’s still a stigma that it’s the realm of unwashed shut-ins and anti-social misfits. The Xbox One and the next generation of social consoles could change that, so even if you play games alone, you’re not a loner anymore.
While we don’t have all of the details on the new Xbox Live features announced at today’s Xbox One launch, it’s clear that Microsoft is going all-in when it comes to social and multiplayer gaming. First, they are upping the number of dedicated servers for online play from 15,000 to 300,000 and nearly all of your content and game data will be store in the cloud.
The service will also allow you to take in-game video and photos and share them over social media services. This is similar to Sony’s PS4 solution and is definitely a method allow users to create valuable and viral homemade content while still maintaining control of distribution. As games become more social and more cinematic, this will be an important differentiator and is essentially free advertising for game makers.
Finally, the new service adds asynchronous matchmaking, which means you can be searching for potential teammates (or enemies) while watching TV or playing another game. This increases the stickiness of multiplayer titles by nudging you back into the game when a worth opponent appears. Microsoft has also added “bigger matches with more players” and, most important, “living and persistent worlds.” This sounds to me like a direct attack on MMORPGs like World Of Warcraft and could make the Xbox a formidable force in the popular professional gaming subculture, a niche no console maker has yet cracked.
We should see further information about the Xbox One at E3 this summer.
Virtual private networking is a great way to accomplish a number of things, including making sure that your secrets stay your own, protecting against malware attacks, and getting around the geoblocking of audio and video content from networks, labels and basically anyone who wants to restrict your sweet, sweet access. It’s understandable, then, that as computing increasingly goes mobile, VPN would get more popular on mobile, too.
Hotspot Shield, a free VPN from leading provider AnchorFree, has just announced that it has crossed 10 million total downloads on Android and iOS, with a growth rate of around 1.5 million new downloads per month. Hotspot Shield is a top productivity app on iOS, and on Android, it has already grown faster than its iOS counterpart in the Android ecosystem since its launch last year, and now around two-thirds of new users come from Android.
The growth has come on strong very recently, with the app seeing its active user base double between now and the beginning of 2013. The company says it has managed to prevent 28.6 billion malware threats since its debut, and has also saved over 102 million MB of data via its compression algorithms. For paranoid and thrifty travellers, it’s a way to both add an extra layer of security at open public Wi-Fi hotspots like those you’ll often find in airports, and conserve data on tight roaming plans, too.
What’s extra funny about the growth is that there’s a huge elephant in the room and AnchoFree is barely talking about it. In a release announcing the news, they offered this choice tidbit:
Hotspot Shield is also used by travelers to access US content while abroad.
Just that line, on its own, amid a sea of text emphasizing the data savings and security benefits of VPN. Which is probably because it’s unlikely content providers like thinking too much about the other, extremely useful benefit of VPNs: namely allowing you to sidestep geographic restrictions.
If you want Spotify and you live in a country where it isn’t available yet, for instance, you could use a VPN to make it appear as though you’re based in the U.S., no matter where you actually are. Using it if you’re a U.S. citizen travelling abroad rides the fair side of the line, but that’s not how most are employing that particular tech. Beyond U.S. borders, there’s a strong and pervasive appetite for U.S. film and video content, the likes of which you can find on Hulu, for example, but not once you exit U.S. territories.
AnchorFree isn’t playing up that angle, but I’ll bet it’s responsible for driving a fair amount of those 10 million downloads. So as long as some content is restricted in terms of where you can watch, it’s likely growth isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.
TeamSnap, a company that provides tools for managing sports teams, has today announced that it is acquiring Weplay, a social networking site for athletes, parents and coaches to help facilitate coordination for events, games, practices, etc.
The terms of the deal were not disclosed.
The Trinity Ventures-backed startup, Teamsnap, is an online tool aimed at making practice scheduling, conditioning sessions, team rosters, payment plans, etc for all amateur sports. It tracks everything from parents’ payments for big tournaments all the way to who’s bringing the sliced oranges.
So far, the company has raised a total of $4.3 million, including its latest round in February for $2.75 million.
According to the release, Weplay had raised even more, a total of $15 million since its launch in 2008. The service acts as a social network with similar functionality to Teamsnap, wherein parents, coaches, and kids can coordinate practices, games, etc. for sports teams.
Teamsnap claims that it will take over Weplay’s “customer base and technology” in the acquisition, though it’s unclear if the Weplay team will migrate over to Teamsnap or if this is the end of their Weplay chapter. It’s also unclear if Weplay will be rolled into Teamsnap or stand alone as its own product.
We’ve reached out for clarification, but haven’t heard back yet.
The release states that Weplay has over 2.25 million customers which will migrate over to the Teamsnap platform. The acquisition should bring Teamsnap’s total userbase to 5 million users in 195 countries.
The deal makes sense considering just how similar the two platforms are. There are a growing number of services like this out there, and not one has risen to the top as a dominating force. Perhaps some consolidation will help Teamsnap reach that peak.
Browser maker Opera’s first WebKit browser has exited beta. The full launch for the browser previously code-named Ice adds a few additional minor updates to the meaty feature-set demoed at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow back in February.
The new updates in this full launch version of the Android browser are as follows:
- Toggle navigation bar from top to bottom
- Wrap text when you zoom
- View active tabs in full screen
- Search and navigate with a responsive address bar
The Android browser represents a huge shift for Opera as it moves its business from technical development to product-focused development, leaving its Presto framework behind and adopting the de facto standard WebKit engine, plus Chromium — a move Opera confirmed in February. Update: Since then Google has announced it’s forking WebKit as Blink. Opera confirmed to TechCrunch that while the current version of its Android browser is built on WebKit/Chromium 24 it will be moving to Blink once it arrives in the Chromium code (due in a later version, it says).
At the time of its WebKit switch announcement, Opera argued then that ditching Presto and adopting WebKit frees up its engineers to focus on product development in a bid to stand out in the increasingly homogenous smartphone browser space.
The other issue for browser makers is that they are fighting with apps for users’ eyeballs. Research put out by mobile analytics firm Flurry in April found that U.S. Android and iOS owners spend an average of 80% of their time within apps, and just a fifth (20%) within mobile browsers. Moving the needle back in the direction of the browser is Opera’s goal here.
Key features of Opera’s Android browser include a content discovery feed that can be accessed by swiping right from the home screen — a feature clearly designed to encourage users to spend more time inside the browser, and less time using social networks and apps like Twitter which also incorporates a personalised discovery feed to try to keep users within its apps, supplementing its even stickier social content.
Opera has also leveraged its data compression expertise for the Android browser with an “off-road” mode that can be toggled on to reduce data consumption in order to improve browser performance when network coverage is poor, or lower data costs when roaming.
Gestures and a light coloured user interface round out Opera’s offering here. According to Google Play the browser has had between 10 million and 50 million downloads in the past 30 days, and appears to be sustaining users’ interest with no sign of a big drop in interest yet. Its Google Play rating is currently 4.5 stars with close to 350,000 ratings.