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Former Apple engineer and autocorrect creator builds his first app, a word game called Up Spell

Former Apple software engineer and designer Ken Kocienda, whose work included the original iPhone and the development of touchscreen autocorrect, has created his first iOS app, Up Spell. The fast-paced, fun word game challenges users to spell all the words you can in two minutes and uses a lexicon of words Kocienda built to allow for the inclusion of proper names. A portion of app revenues are also being donated to a local food bank, so you can help give back while relieving stress through gaming.

Kocienda says he had never before made a standalone iOS app.

When he worked at Apple, all the code he wrote was integrated into a bigger iOS release. So when Kocienda got the idea to develop a game, he looked to obvious sources of inspiration: his past experiences with typing, keyboards, and autocorrect.

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The game’s lexicon was built first with the New General Service List to serve as its foundation. This was followed by weeks of writing small programs to generate lists of candidate words — like, by adding an “S” to existing words to pluralize them, for example. And hours more were spent scanning lists to choose the words to include.

Kocienda says he also wanted the game to fun, and personally found it frustrating that other word games wouldn’t allow proper names.

“Many games accept words like PHARAOH and PYRAMID, but not NILE or EGYPT. This doesn’t make sense to me. These are all words!,” he says.

So he built his own list that includes thousands of proper names, then added to it more slang and contractions to expand it even further. That means you can spell a word like S’MORES, which involves an apostrophe, for example.

Image Credits: Up Sell

While support for a variety of words, including proper names, is the key way the gameplay differentiates from rivals, the app’s business model is also one that’s becoming less common these days: it’s a one-time paid download.

The app is a $1.99 download that lets you pay once to play forever. Today, many games in this same space use a freemium model where the app download itself is free, but you’re then nagged with in-app hooks to buy coins or tokens to advance gameplay or unlock certain features.

Kocienda’s decision to forgo this model was intentional, he explains.

“I made Up Spell a two-minute game without much in the way of gameplay gimmicks,” says Kocienda. “You just spell words. 2020 has been a rough year for everyone, and sometimes taking out two minutes to think about nothing but spelling a few words is just the kind of right kind of stress reliever,” he adds. “I hope Up Spell brings people a little unexpected happiness to their 2020.”

Also of note, 25 cents per download is being donated to the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, which works to get food to vulnerable people in Kocienda’s area.

If all goes well, Up Spell may be followed by other games with a similar model, like a sounds or color-matching games, for instance.

The new game is a one-time paid download on the App Store.

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Tencent wants to merge China’s esports archrivals Douyu and Huya

The war between two of China’s largest esports companies may soon come to a truce at the will of their investor Tencent.

Tencent, the world’s biggest games publisher, announced late Monday a proposal to consolidate Douyu and Huya, the competing livestreaming sites focused on video games. Rather than paying in cash, the deal will see the pair enter a stock-for-stock merger.

The proposal is non-binding, but Tencent has paved the way for it to go through. In a separate deal, the entertainment giant agreed to pay Joyy, part-owner of Huya and the company behind TikTok’s serious rival Likee, $810 million in exchange for 30 million shares. Tencent will also buy 1 million shares from Huya CEO Dong Rongjie. Upon the transaction, Tencent will hold 51% of Huya’s shares and 70.4% of its voting rights.

Tencent is also the largest shareholder of Douyu with a 38% stake and voting power.

What this means is the esports platforms that have long fought neck and neck for audiences and livestreaming hosts may soon need to work together. That’s good news for investors who have been hemorrhaging cash.

NYSE-listed Huya has a current market cap of $5.27 billion and NASDAQ-traded Douyu is worth $4.44 billion, giving the duo a combined value of around $10 billion. The pair will together control over 300 million monthly esports users. By March, Douyu had 158 monthly active users and Huya claimed 151.3 MAUs, though there can be overlaps.

The question is who will be in charge of the consolidated behemoth. Could Mr. Dong be relinquishing control of Huya as he gives up a considerable amount of shares? Joyy already signaled its retreat in the first quarter when it stopped folding Huya’s operating results into its own report.

Ammo for Tencent

Industry observers believe the merger can significantly expand Tencent’s reach in the gaming supply chain. The company is the publisher behind blockbusters like the mobile versions of PUBG and Call of Duty, and the addition of a livestreaming empire will allow it to capture not just gamers but also the wider esports spectatorship.

It’s worth noting that Tencent has its own in-house ‘Penguin Esports‘ that’s a counterpart to Douyu and Huya. It’s not hard to imagine the three players integrating resources and generating synergies under Tencent’s oversight.

New challengers have sprung up in the field. While Douyu and Huya focused on esports from the outset, more general-purpose video services like Bilibili and Kuaishou have been luring legions of esports users in recent years. But lo and behold, Tencent is also an investor in Bilibili and Kuaishou.

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FTC fines kids’ app developer HyperBeard $150K for use of third-party ad trackers

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today announced a settlement of $150,000 with HyperBeard, the developer of a collection of children’s mobile games over violations of U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Rule (COPPA Rule). The company’s applications had been downloaded more than 50 million times on a worldwide basis to date, according to data from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

A complaint filed by the Dept. of Justice on behalf of the FTC alleged that HyperBeard had violated COPPA by allowing third-party ad networks to collect personal information in the form of persistent identifiers to track users of the company’s child-directed apps. And it did so without notifying parents or obtaining verifiable parental consent, as is required. These ad networks then used the identifiers to target ads to children using HyperBeard’s games.

The company’s lineup included games like Axolochi, BunnyBuns, Chichens, Clawbert, Clawberta, KleptoCats, KleptoCats 2, KleptoDogs, MonkeyNauts and NomNoms (not to be confused with toy craze Num Noms).

The FTC determined HyperBeard’s apps were marketed toward children because they used brightly colored, animated characters like cats, dogs, bunnies, chicks, monkeys and other cartoon characters, and were described in child-friendly terms like “super cute” and “silly.” The company also marketed its apps on a kids’ entertainment website, YayOMG, published children’s books and licensed other products, including stuffed animals and block construction sets, based on its app characters.

Unbelievably, the company would post disclaimers to its marketing materials that these apps were not meant for children under 13.

Above: A disclaimer on the NomNoms game website. 

In HyperBeard’s settlement with the FTC, the company has agreed to pay a $150,000 fine and delete the personal information it illegally collected from children under the age of 13. The settlement had originally included a $4 million penalty, but the FTC suspended it over HyperBeard’s inability to pay the full amount. But that larger amount will become due if the company or its CEO, Alexander Kozachenko, are ever found to have misrepresented their finances.

HyperBeard is not the first tech company to be charged with COPPA violations. Two high-profile examples preceding it were YouTube and Musical.ly (TikTok)’s settlements of $170 million and $5.7 million, respectively, both in 2019. By comparison, HyperBeard’s fine seems minimal. However, its case is different from either video platform as the company itself was not handling the data collection — it was permitting ad networks to do so.

The complaint explained that HyperBeard let third-party advertising networks serve ads and collect personal information in the form of persistent identifiers, in order to serve behavioral ads — meaning, targeted ads based on users’ activity over time and across sites.

This requires parental consent, but companies have skirted this rule for years — or outright ignored it, like YouTube did.

The ad networks used in HyperBeard’s apps included AdColony, AdMob, AppLovin, Facebook Audience Network, Fyber, IronSource, Kiip, TapCore, TapJoy, Vungle and UnityAds. Despite being notified of the issue by watchdogs and the FTC, HyperBeard didn’t alert any of the ad networks that its apps were directed towards kids, not to make changes.

The issues around the invasiveness of third-party ad networks and trackers — and their questionable data collection practices — have come in the spotlight thanks to in-depth reporting about app privacy issues, various privacy experiments, petitions against their use and, more recently, as a counter-argument to Apple’s marketing of its iPhone as a privacy-conscious device.

Last year, these complaints finally led Apple to ban the use of third-party networks and trackers in any iOS apps aimed at kids.

HyperBeard’s install base was below 50 million at the time of the settlement, we understand. According to Sensor Tower, around 12 million of HyperBeard’s installs to date have come from its most popular title, Adorable Home, which only launched in January 2020. U.S. consumers so far have accounted for about 18% of the company’s total installs to date, followed by the Chinese App Store at 14%. So far, in 2020, Vietnam has emerged as leading the market with close to 24% of all installs since January, while the U.S. dropped to No. 7 overall, with a 7% share.

The FTC’s action against HyperBeard should serve as a warning to other app developers that simply saying an app is not meant for kids doesn’t exempt them from following COPPA guidelines, when it’s clear the app is targeting kids. In addition, app makers can and will be held liable for the data collection practices of third-party ad networks, even if the app itself isn’t storing kids’ personal data on its own servers.

“If your app or website is directed to kids, you’ve got to make sure parents are in the loop before you collect children’s personal information,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement about the settlement. “This includes allowing someone else, such as an ad network, to collect persistent identifiers, like advertising IDs or cookies, in order to serve behavioral advertising,” he said.

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Consumers spent record $23.4 billion on apps in Q1 2020, thanks to being stuck indoors

Time spent in mobile apps has been surging, as people stuck at home due to the coronavirus outbreak have been turning to apps to do their shopping, manage their finances, find new exercises, work from home, and stay entertained. According to new data from App Annie, released today, Q1 2020 was …

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Stuck at Home? These Board Games Can Sharpen Your Business Skills.

As the world commits to social distancing, many people are confined to their apartments in self-isolation. For many entrepreneurs, that’s not so bad since they may have been running their businesses from home in the first place. However, isolation may extend for months, and that’s tough for anybody.

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Female-led Robin Games raises $7 million to combine lifestyle content with fantasy gaming

As a former Jam City executive, Jill Wilson led teams behind some of the top-grossing gaming franchises, like Cookie Jam and Panda Pop. Now she’s running her own startup, Robin Games, where a team of mostly women is working to create a new niche in mobile entertainment they’re …

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Roblox raises $150M Series G, led by Andreessen Horowitz, now valued at $4B

Online gaming platform Roblox, now home to 115 million largely Gen Z players per month, announced today it has raised $150 million in Series G funding, led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Late Stage Venture fund. The company will also open a tender offer for up to $350 million of common and preferred shares, it says.

The company has previously offered stakeholders and employees liquidity through periodic secondary offerings, as it believes in its long-term potential. Roblox is also cash-flow positive, according to its CFO Michael Guthrie.

Others participating in the Series G include new investors Temasek and Tencent Holdings Limited, as well as existing investors Altos Ventures, Meritech Capital, and Tiger Global Management.

The funding comes at a period of significant growth for the gaming platform. Just last summer, it was being visited by 100 million users, topping Minecraft, and its developer community of over 2 million actives earned $110 million in 2019 — up from around $70+ million in 2018 and $40+ million in 2017.

Since then, Roblox has further invested in its developer business, with the launch of new tools for building more realistic 3D experiences and a marketplace where creators can sell their own development assets and tools to others, among other things.

Roblox offers a platform for its developers to build upon, similar to the App Store. Many of its most popular games are free, instead monetizing as players spend on in-game items using virtual cash called Robux. Some of its largest games average over 10 million users monthly. Over 10 games have seen more than 1 billion visits.

Players on Roblox often do more than just focus on completing a goal or task — they go online to hang out with friends in a gaming environment. Half of weekly active users go to Roblox to play with friends. In addition, half of Roblox users update their avatar every month.

In recent months, Roblox has also been working to take its platform further outside the U.S. including most notably China. Last year, Roblox entered a strategic partnership with Tencent in an effort to bring its platform and coding curriculum to the region, including by adding support for Chinese languages and running coder camps. Today, Roblox has players and creators in over 200 countries, it says.

As of last year, Roblox was valued at $2.5 billion, with roughly half of U.S. children ages 9 through 12 playing on its platform, according to comScore. This remains true today. In addition, its user base overall skews younger, with over 40% 13 and up.

The company is now valued at $4 billion, The Wall Street Journal reported. (TechCrunch additionally understands this to be true. Roblox isn’t commenting.)

Today, Roblox says its user base is spending a collective 1.5 billion hours per month on its service. And because it’s accessible across platforms, users often move from PC to smartphone to continue to play — a newer trend in online gaming, and one that’s also driving adoption of games like Fortnite, PUBG, and others.

“We are big believers in Roblox’s long-term vision, and are confident in backing the team as they enter this next inflection point,” said David George, General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, of the firm’s investment. “Roblox is one of those rare platform companies with massive traction and an organic, high-growth business model that will advance the company, and push the industry forward for many years to come,” he added.

Roblox plans to leverage the new funds to continue its growth, including international; further build out its developer tools and ecosystem; and invest in engineering talent and infrastructure.

“We’ve stayed true to our vision of creating a safe and civil place where people come together to create, learn, and have fun, and it’s amazing to see what we’ve built together with our global creator community,” said David Baszucki, CEO and co-founder of Roblox, in a statement. “Looking ahead, we’re doubling down on our commitment to building the most advanced tools and technology to take our creators and players into the metaverse of the future.”

Updated, 2/26/20, 7:30 PM ET with more updated statistics.

Source: TechCrunch