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6 investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities

Many VCs historically avoided placing bets on hit-driven mobile gaming content in favor of clearer platform opportunities, but as more success stories pop up, the economics overturned conventional wisdom with new business models. As more accessible infrastructure allowed young studios to become more ambitious, venture money began pouring into the gaming ecosystem.
After tackling topics including how investors are looking at opportunities in social gaming, infrastructure bets and the moonshots of AR/VR, I asked a group of VCs about their approach to mobile content investing and whether new platforms were changing perspectives about opportunities in mobile-first and desktop-first experiences.
While desktop gaming has evolved dramatically in the past few years as new business models and platforms take hold, to some degree, mobile has been hampered. Investors I chatted with openly worried that some of mobile’s opportunities were being hamstrung by Apple’s App Store.
“We are definitely fearful of Apple’s ability to completely disrupt/affect the growth of a game,” Bessemer’s Ethan Kurzweil and Sakib Dadi told TechCrunch. “We do not foresee that changing any time in the near future despite the outcry from companies such as Epic and others.”
All the while, another central focus seems to be the ever-evolving push toward cross-platform gaming, which is getting further bolstered by new technologies. One area of interest for investors: migrating the ambition of desktop titles to mobile and finding ways to build cross-platform experiences that feel fulfilling on devices that are so differently abled performance-wise.
Madrona’s Hope Cochran, who previously served as CFO of Candy Crush maker King, said mobile still has plenty of untapped opportunities. “When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale.”
Responses have been edited for length and clarity. We spoke with:

Hope Cochran, managing director, Madrona Venture Group

Daniel Li, partner, Madrona Venture Group

Ethan Kurzweil, partner, Bessemer Venture Partners

Sakib Dadi, investor, Bessemer Venture Partners

Alice Lloyd George, founding partner, Rogue VC

Gigi Levy-Weiss, general partner, NFX

Hope Cochran and Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group
Does it ever get any easier to bet on a gaming content play? What do you look for?
Hope Cochran: I feel like there are a couple different sectors in gaming. There’s the actual studios that are developing games and they have several approaches. Are they developing a brand new game, are they reimagining a game from 25 years ago and reskinning it, which is a big trend right now, or are they taking IP that is really trendy right now and trying to create a game around it? There are different ways to predict which ones of those might make it, but then there’s also the infrastructure behind gaming and then there’s also identifying trends and which games or studios are embracing those. Those are some of the ways I try to parse it out and figure out which ones I think are going to rise to the top of the list.
Daniel Li: There’s this single-player narrative versus multiplayer metaverse and I think people are more comfortable on the metaverse stuff because if you’re building a social network and seeing good early traction, those things don’t typically just disappear. Then if you are betting more on individual studios producing games, I think the other thing is we’re seeing more and more VCs pop up that are just totally games-focused or devoting a portion of the portfolio to games. And for them it’s okay to have a hits-driven portfolio.
There seems to be more innovation happening on PC/console in terms of business models and distribution, do you think mobile feels less experimental these days? Why or why not?
Hope Cochran: Mobile is still trying to push the technology forward, the important element of being cross-platform is difficult. When you have a AAA game, bringing it to mobile is challenging and yet it opens up an entire universe of scale. The metrics are also very different for mobile though.
Daniel Li: It seems like the big monetization innovation that has happened over the last couple of years has been the “battle pass” type of subscription where you can unlock more content by playing. Obviously that’s gone over to mobile, but it doesn’t feel like mobile has had some sort of new monetization unlock. The other thing that’s happened on desktop is the success of the “pay $10 or $20 or $20 for this indie game” type of thing, and it feels like that’s not going to happen on mobile because of the price points that people are used to paying.
Alice Lloyd George, Rogue VC

6 investors on 2021’s mobile gaming trends and opportunities

TrendForce expects the smartphone market to slowly recover in 2021, but Huawei won’t benefit

After a dismal year, the global smartphone market will slowly start recovering in 2021, predicts TrendForce. But Huawei won’t benefit and, in fact, will fall out of the research firm’s list of the world’s top six smartphone makers by production volume.
In 2020, global smartphone production dropped 11% year-over-year to 1.25 billion units. This year, TrendForce expects it to increase by 9% to 1.36 million units, as people replace old devices and demand grows in emerging markets. But even that slight recovery is contingent on how the pandemic continues to impact the economy and the global chip shortage that is currently causing production delays across almost the entire electronics industry.
In 2020, the top six smartphone brands in order of production volume were Samsung, Apple, Huawei, Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo. But this year TrendForce expects Huawei to slip out of that ranking, with the new top-six list comprising Samsung, Apple, Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo and Transsion.

Those six companies are expected to account for 80% of the global smartphone market in 2021, while Huawei will come in at seventh place.
The main reason for Huawei’s drop is the divestment of its budget smartphone brand, Honor. Huawei confirmed in November that it is selling Honor to a consortium of companies to save the division’s supply chain from the impact of United States government trade restrictions.

Huawei sells budget phone unit Honor to state-backed firms, distribution partners

The spin-out was meant to shield Honor from the sanctions that have hurt Huawei’s business. But “it remains to be seen whether the ‘new’ Honor can capture consumers’ attention without the support from Huawei. Also, Huawei and the new Honor will be directly competing against each other in the future, especially if the former is somehow freed from the U.S. trade sanctions at a later time,” said TrendForce’s report.
In a previous report published shortly after Honor’s sale was announced, TrendForce predicted that the deal, along with the global chip shortage, meant Huawei would take just 4% of the market in 2021, compared to the 17% it held in 2019, and estimated 14% in 2020. Apple is expected to take away some market share from Huawei’s high-end smartphones, while Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo will also benefit. TrendForce expects the newly spun-out Honor to take 2% market share in 2021.

Not even 5G could rescue smartphone sales in 2020

TrendForce expects the smartphone market to slowly recover in 2021, but Huawei won’t benefit

How Niantic evolved Pokémon GO for the year no one could go anywhere

Pokémon GO was created to encourage players to explore the world while coordinating impromptu large group gatherings — activities we’ve all been encouraged to avoid since the pandemic began.
And yet, analysts estimate that 2020 was Pokémon GO’s highest-earning year yet.

By twisting some knobs and tweaking variables, Pokémon GO became much easier to play without leaving the house.

Niantic’s approach to 2020 was full of carefully considered changes, and I’ve highlighted many of their key decisions below.
Consider this something of an addendum to the Niantic EC-1 I wrote last year, where I outlined things like the company’s beginnings as a side project within Google, how Pokémon Go began as an April Fools’ joke and the company’s aim to build the platform that powers the AR headsets of the future.
Hit the brakes
On a press call outlining an update Niantic shipped in November, the company put it on no uncertain terms: the roadmap they’d followed over the last ten-or-so months was not the one they started the year with. Their original roadmap included a handful of new features that have yet to see the light of day. They declined to say what those features were of course (presumably because they still hope to launch them once the world is less broken) — but they just didn’t make sense to release right now.
Instead, as any potential end date for the pandemic slipped further into the horizon, the team refocused in Q1 2020 on figuring out ways to adapt what already worked and adjust existing gameplay to let players do more while going out less.
Turning the dials
As its name indicates, GO was never meant to be played while sitting at home. John Hanke’s initial vision for Niantic was focused around finding ways to get people outside and playing together; from its very first prototype, Niantic had players running around a city to take over its virtual equivalent block by block. They’d spent nearly a decade building up a database of real-world locations that would act as in-game points meant to encourage exploration and wandering. Years of development effort went into turning Pokémon GO into more and more of a social game, requiring teamwork and sometimes even flash mob-like meetups for its biggest challenges.
Now it all needed to work from the player’s couch.
The earliest changes were those that were easiest for Niantic to make on-the-fly, but they had dramatic impacts on the way the game actually works.
Some of the changes:

Doubling the players “radius” for interacting with in-game gyms, landmarks that players can temporarily take over for their in-game team, earning occupants a bit of in-game currency based on how long they maintain control. This change let more gym battles happen from the couch.
Increasing spawn points, generally upping the number of Pokémon you could find at home dramatically.
Increasing “incense” effectiveness, which allowed players to use a premium item to encourage even more Pokémon to pop up at home. Niantic phased this change out in October, then quietly reintroduced it in late November. Incense would also last twice as long, making it cheaper for players to use.
Allowing steps taken indoors (read: on treadmills) to count toward in-game distance challenges.
Players would no longer need to walk long distances to earn entry into the online player-versus-player battle system.
Your “buddy” Pokémon (a specially designated Pokémon that you can level up Tamagotchi-style for bonus perks) would now bring you more gifts of items you’d need to play. Pre-pandemic, getting these items meant wandering to the nearby “Pokéstop” landmarks.

By twisting some knobs and tweaking variables, Pokémon GO became much easier to play without leaving the house — but, importantly, these changes avoided anything that might break the game while being just as easy to reverse once it became safe to do so.
GO Fest goes virtual

Like this, just … online. Image Credits: Greg Kumparak

Thrown by Niantic every year since 2017, GO Fest is meant to be an ultra-concentrated version of the Pokémon GO experience. Thousands of players cram into one park, coming together to tackle challenges and capture previously unreleased Pokémon.

How Niantic evolved Pokémon GO for the year no one could go anywhere

Facebook highlights small businesses as it ramps up Apple criticism

Facebook already made it clear that it isn’t happy about Apple’s upcoming restrictions on app tracking and ad targeting, but the publicity battle entered a new phase today.
Over the summer, Apple announced that beginning in iOS 14, developers will have to ask users for permission in order to use their IDFA identifiers for ad targeting. On one level, it’s simply giving users a choice, but because they’ll have to opt-in to participate, the assumption is that we’ll see a dramatic reduction in app tracking and targeting.
The actual change was delayed until early next year, but in the meantime Facebook suggested that this might mean the end of its Audience Network (which uses Facebook data to target ads on other websites and apps) on iOS.

Then, this morning, Facebook placed print ads in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post declaring that it’s “standing up to Apple for small businesses everywhere,” and it published a blog post and website making the same argument.
While it’s easy to see all of this as an attempt to put a more sympathetic face on a PR campaign that’s really just protecting Facebook’s ad business, Dan Levy — the company’s vice president of ads and business products — got on a call with reporters today to argue otherwise.

Image Credits: Facebook

For one thing, he said that with its “diversified” advertising business, Facebook won’t feel the impact as keenly as small businesses, particularly since it already acknowledged potential ad targeting challenges in its most recent earnings report.
“We’ve already been factoring this into our expectations for the business,” he said.
In contrast, Levy said small businesses rely on targeting in order to run efficient advertising campaigns — and because they’ve got small budgets, they need that efficiency. He predicted that if Apple moves forward with its plans, “Small businesses will struggle to stay afloat and many aspiring entrepreneurs may never get off the ground.”
Levy was joined by two small business owners, Monique Wilsondebriano of Charleston Gourmet Burger Company in South Carolina and Hrag Kalebjian of Henry’s House of Coffee in San Francisco. Kalebjian said that while business in the coffee shop is down 40% year-over-year, his online sales have tripled, and he credited targeted Facebook campaigns for allowing him to tell personal stories about his family’s love for Armenian coffee.
Wilsondebriano, meanwhile, said that when she and her husband Chevalo started a business selling their homemade burger marinade, “we did not have the option to run radio ads or TV ads, we just didn’t have a budget for that” — and so they turned to Facebook and Instagram. With the marinade now available in 50 states and 17 countries, Wilsondebriano said, “It makes me sad that if this update happens, so many small businesses won’t get that same opportunity that Cheval and I had.”
Levy also suggested that Apple’s bottom line might benefit from the changes — if developers make less money on ads from Facebook and other platforms, they may need to rely more on subscriptions or in-app transactions (with Apple collecting its much-discussed fee), and they might turn to Apple’s own targeted advertising platform.
A number of ad industry groups have also taken issue with Apple’s policy, with SVP Craig Federighi fighting back in a speech criticizing what he called “outlandish” and “false” claims from the adtech industry. In that speech, Federighi said Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature is designed “to empower our users to decide when or if they want to allow an app to track them in a way that could be shared across other companies’ apps or websites.”
Update: Apple sent out the following statement.
We believe that this is a simple matter of standing up for our users. Users should know when their data is being collected and shared across other apps and websites — and they should have the choice to allow that or not. App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14 does not require Facebook to change its approach to tracking users and creating targeted advertising, it simply requires they give users a choice.

Facebook isn’t happy about Apple’s upcoming ad tracking restrictions

Facebook highlights small businesses as it ramps up Apple criticism

Tinder makes it easier to report bad actors using ‘unmatch’ to hide from victims

Last month, Bumble introduced a new feature that would prevent bad actors from using the dating app’s “unmatch” feature to hide from victims. Now Tinder has done something similar. The company announced on Friday it will soon roll out an update to its app that will make it easier for users to report someone who has used the unmatch feature in an effort to get away with their abuse. But in Tinder’s case, it’s only making it easier for users to learn how to report the violation, rather than giving the victims a button in the chat interface to report the abuse more directly.
Tinder notes that users have always been able to report anyone on the app at any time — even if the person had used the unmatch feature. But few users likely knew how to do so, as there weren’t obvious explanations in the app’s user interface about how to report a chat after it disappeared.
With the update, Tinder says it will soon add its “Safety Center” shield icon within the Match List, where the chats take place. This will direct users to the Safety Center in the app, where they can learn how to report users who aren’t displayed on the Match List because they used the unmatch feature.

Image Credits: Tinder

The updates to both Tinder and Bumble came about following an investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which found that 48 out of 231 survey respondents who had used Tinder said they had reported other users for some kind of sexual offense. But only 11 of those reports had received any replies, and even fewer offered specific information about what was being done.
The story had also explained how bad actors would take advantage of the dating app’s “unmatch” feature to hide from their victims. After unmatching, their chat history would disappear from the victim’s phone, which would have allowed the user to more easily report the abuse to Tinder or even to law enforcement, if needed.
Though Tinder was the focus of the story, Bumble quickly followed up to say it was changing how unmatching on its app would work. Instead of having the chat disappear when unmatched, Bumble users are now shown a message that says the other person has ended the chat. Here, they’re given the option to also either delete the chat or report it.

Bumble’s new feature prevents bad actors from using ‘unmatch’ to hide from their victims

The ability to report the chat directly from the messaging inbox is what makes Bumble’s solution more useful. Tinder, on the other hand, is just redirecting users to what’s essentially its help documentation — the Tinder Safety Center — to learn how to go about making such a report. The addition of this extra step could end up being a deterrent to making these reports, as it’s less straightforward than simply clicking a button that reads “Report.”
Tinder also didn’t address the other issues raised by the investigation, which said many reports lacked follow-up or clear information about what actions Tinder was taking to address the issues.
Instead, the company says that it will continue to acknowledge when reports are received to let the member making the report know an appropriate action will be taken. Tinder added it will also direct users to trained resources for crisis counseling and survivor support; remove accounts if it finds account holders have been reported for violent crimes; and will continue to work with law enforcement on investigations, when required. These actions, however, should be baseline features for any dating app, not points of pride.
Tinder stressed, too, that it would not remove the unmatch feature, which is necessary for safety and privacy of its members. That seems to miss the point of what users’ complaints were about. Tinder users were not angry or concerned that an unmatching feature existed in the first place, but that it was being used by bad actors to avoid repercussions for their abuse.
The company didn’t say precisely when the changes to the dating app would roll out, beyond the “coming weeks.”
Today, Tinder’s parent company also announced a partnership with RAINN, a large anti-sexual violence organization, to conduct “a comprehensive review of sexual misconduct reporting, moderation, and response across Match Group’s dating platforms” and “to work together to improve current safety systems and tools.”
The organization will review Tinder, Hinge and Plenty of Fish to determine what best practices should be. Match says the partnership begins today and will continue through 2021.
“Every person deserves safe and respectful experiences, and we want to do our part to create safer communities on our platforms and beyond,” said Tracey Breeden, head of Safety and Social Advocacy for Match Group, in a statement. “By working together with courageous, thought-leading organizations like RAINN, we will up level safety processes and strengthen our responses for survivors of sexual assault. Safety challenges touch every corner of society. We are committed to creating actionable solutions by working collaboratively with experts to innovate on meaningful, industry-led safety approaches,” she added.

Face to Face, Tinder’s opt-in video chat feature, is now rolling out globally

 

Tinder makes it easier to report bad actors using ‘unmatch’ to hide from victims