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“The 6 stages of a free-to-play social gamer” plus 19 more VentureBeat

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“The 6 stages of a free-to-play social gamer” plus 19 more VentureBeat


The 6 stages of a free-to-play social gamer

Posted: 05 Nov 2016 02:00 PM PDT

Candy Crush is one of the best games at understanding its players.

Social-game developers have a tough challenge trying to keep people coming back to their game for as long as possible, but no one strategy is going to hook everyone — and that’s where Optimove wants to help.

Optimove is a retention and marketing firm that has broken down social-game players into six major categories and provided a look at some of the actions that developers can take to win them over and maximize lifetime value. While a big part of the free-to-play space is obsessed with user acquisition and the costs of marketing, more studios are starting to put their efforts into retention and understanding their customers instead because it’s more cost effective. And Optimove wants to make it even easier.

Here’s a quick look at Optimove’s six types of social gamers:

New Non-spender

This is someone who has installed or registered to play a game but hasn’t made any in-game transactions through the first 14 days. Nearly 34 percent of all paying players make their first transaction after the first two weeks, which is a huge chunk of potential revenue.

Optimove strategic services director Moshe Demri:

“The goal with this segment is conversion. Patience is key, as it is critical to quickly engage New Non-spenders during the first few days after registration with the goal of motivating them first to become highly active, and only then trying to push them towards their first deposit. The strategy should be brand awareness and building, content marketing based on gameplay behavior, and only then a push for first payment.

“This is also a good place to use predictive models to discover consumer surplus and discover for each player the payment sweet spot. Bear in mind that the data also shows a direct correlation between the activity levels of New Non-spenders and the likelihood of them converting to become paying players, thus generating revenues for the site. New Non-spenders with higher activity levels are worth more to the gaming operator, on average.”

New Spenders

Once someone makes their first payment, their behavior typically changes. A New Spender is someone who is in a 14-day period after their first purchase. Capitalizing on their willingness to spend requires quick targeting from the developer because second purchases come the next day in 39 percent  of cases. And 64 percent come in the first week.

Moshe Demri: 

“According to our data, New Spenders who convert quickly (up to two days after registration) have a higher LTV compared to later converters. Be aggressive during this time period and make sure the game experience is good. Gamified campaigns can work here (for example: three payments over three days will open bonus stages on day four), as well as "welcome packages.” It's important to view New Spenders as being in an "incubation" stage. The goal is to provide them with offers that will encourage them to become Active Spenders and retain the payment activity. Provide different incentives to players based on their previous activty. For example, players who used to be very active before their first payment should recive enticing offers like gamified campaigns and messaging that will help them undestand the value of being paying players vs. non-paying players.

Players who had no previous activity before their first deposit should be addresed diffrently. These players have not yet achieved brand awarness, and are probably not completely familiar with the product yet. In cases where they are very active, try to increase their payment activity. Otherwise, make sure they are engaged with the product first.

You should also be aware that if the two-week time window passes without any additional payments, the cost of reactivation is usually equivalent to acquisition costs.

Active spender

This is someone who has spent money on a game on two distinct days within the last two weeks. These include the whales, the top 1 percent of spenders who generate 30 percent of revenues for most games.

revenue

Moshe Demri: 

“Since 5 percent of active players bring in 55 percent of monthly deposit amounts, operators need to make sure they are well aware of their top tier 5 percent. This means monitoring their activity on a daily basis and contacting them after important events like big wins, big losses, and levels changes. Make sure these players are well aware that they are VIPs. If you don't have a VIP plan in place, this is your absolutely first priority. They should get limited edition/special games access, event invites, special gifts, and a personal touch.”

“In addition, tracking the highest achieved tier of each player is also important. Players who used to be part of the 5% group but are no longer there need to receive better treatment since they have higher potential.”

Active Non-spender

These are players who have spent money on a game and are still playing but haven’t made a consecutive purchase in more than 21 days. Optimove argues that this group potentially signifies a problem in a free-to-play game’s economy.

Moshe Demri:

“The goal with this segment is to push to the next payment, as post-payment the likelihood of churn decreases. In order to understand the potential of these players we use "Payment Activity" segmentation based on three attributes: Days since last payment, number of payments and payment amount. This segmentation identifies recently high tier payment "churned" players, long time since last payment low tier players, etc. in other words, the amount of past payments reflect a players' likelihood to pay in the coming month, and the potential of loss in case of churn.

Players who were in the high tier payers and have recently stopped paying should receive stronger offers with bonuses for higher payments. On the other hand, players who stopped paying a long time ago should receive lighter offers that will hopefully drive them to make another payment. Also note that some of these players may be in risk of churn. Of course you can incorporate into this logic the identification of risk of churn players, and try to engage them to play first, before aiming for another payment.”

Churn Spender

When a paying player leaves a game for more than 21 days, they are now known as a Churn Spender. This is a group that developers could potentially win back with the appropriate targeting and updates.

Moshe Demri: 

“The goal with this segment is reactivation. Within the Churn Spenders segments there are lots of low hanging fruit. In order to identify the future potential of each player within this group it's important to address both churn longevity and activity tier pre-churn.

Another parameter to watch is whether this is a first visit to the Churn Spenders lifecycle stage. By looking at the number of visits to the Churn LCS we can estimate whether each player is in actual risk of churning and never coming back, or whether they are only taking some time off. Players who are at the Churn LCS for the first time need to get stronger promotions and more focus compared to players who have already churned a few times.

Seniority is another telling factor. Players who've churned after 90 days are the most likely to re-engage compared to players who stayed with the game for a shorter or longer time period. Ninety days is the peak duration since players who have lasted that long have a deep brand awareness on the one hand, and have probably not played long enough to go off the game completely. After 90 days of inactivity likelihood of reactivation slumps dramatically, and it's worth trying to cross-sell other titles.”

Reactivated Spenders

Finally, this is a player who has gone full cycle. They went from Active Spender to Churn Spender, and they are now back in the game. They will likely churn again quickly, according to Optimove, so it’s important for developers to pay attention to them.

Moshe Demri

“The goal here is to re-incubate the players in order to keep them active for as long as possible. The first distinction to make here refers to the reactivation action. Players who were reactivated with a payment will usually survive in higher rates compared to players who were reactivated with a game.

Senior players who churned recently and have been reactivated don't need an introduction to your brand and product. Players who churned a long time ago or had lower seniority probably need to readopt their brand awareness and therefore should receive messaging of a different nature.”

Using this knowledge

It’s unlikely at this point that any successful mobile developer is unaware of these various stages of a social gamer’s relationship with a game. But building an understanding of these categories and understanding how to act on them is still crucial to any burgeoning studio.

Of course, understanding and acting on players requires collecting and sifting through massive stacks of data, and knowing you have to do that and having the capability to do it are two separate things. This is why the business-to-business tool market is so big for social and mobile gaming.

And it’s also why you see even some of the biggest developers, like Blizzard, take a more one-size fits all approach that involves consistently adding new content and events that have a strong appeal to every kind of player along Optimove’s spectrum.

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How a 4-week test can produce more female startup founders

Posted: 05 Nov 2016 01:10 PM PDT

planning

CrunchBase data on US funded startups shows that in 2014, only 18 percent – about 1 in 5 – had at least one female founder. It's a gain over 2009, when that number was only 9.5 percent – but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

I know this firsthand. I was one of 30 female founders in a batch of 300 founders earlier this year at Y Combinator. And I'm frequently asked, "Why aren't there more female startup founders?"

It's an important question with many answers — from access to capital and support networks to the challenges of family commitments that increase the risk factor when launching a startup. All of these reasons ring true, but for me, it ultimately comes down to one thing.

We don't have more female founders because, although women start more companies than men, they don’t create more startups. According to Venture for America, in 2012, while women started twice as many businesses as men, 88 percent of them were sole proprietorships that didn't have employees. There is a clear difference between starting a solo businesses and starting a fast-growing, high-impact startup. And if more women don’t take the leap into these higher-risk ventures, we’ll continue to see few of the them at the helm.

Both men and women are guilty of stalling when it comes to building a company, because we all get stuck planning perfection. But research shows that women are more affected by this. For example, women will wait to have 10 of 10 qualifications before applying for a job, while men feel they only need six. Some experts have referred to this dynamic as the Confidence Gap – that often women lack the self-assurance of their male counterparts, even though they are just as capable and qualified (often more so).

It's beyond a shame — it's a tragedy. I know many brilliant, ambitious, visionary women who are seeing bold solutions to big, complex problems in ways that others haven't or can't. I believe so deeply that the best companies are born from people trying to fix pain they personally live through each day.

But we need to find a way for these bold ideas to get into the world faster and in greater numbers.

I understand the appeal of having an idea remain pristine and perfect in my mind, always alive as a possibility. But having gone forward with my own startup idea twice now, I can also tell you that there is nothing like having it live out there in the world — to see something living because you put it there. It's very much like being a parent — all that pride and wonder wrapped up in the worry and fear.

So I want to help others, and women in particular, remove some of the barriers to getting started and find a way to quickly figure out if you have a contender or not.

It took two years for me to launch my first venture, which ended up better suited as a small business than a high-growth startup. By the time I realized I really wanted to build a high-growth, high-impact startup, I had run through my personal funds and more importantly, the time I had allocated for myself.

But I was curious – really, obsessed – about the problems plaguing childcare. I wanted to see if my simple idea of connecting parents with pre-screened caregivers was compelling in a crowded arena of contestants. So with both time and money running short, I devised a simple, four-week test, and using the $180 I had left in my bank account, I set off with the goal of finding 100 paying customers. The result was Poppy.

I realized that this simple trick of challenging myself to do a four-week test with a minimal amount of money was immensely powerful in showing me I had a viable startup idea. Why?

  • Calling it a test made it feel less daunting to me and gave me an easy out if it was an utter disaster.
  • Committing only four weeks made me treat each day with urgency because I only had 28 of them to prove that my idea could become a viable business.
  • Using less than $200 made me scrappy and forced me to find solutions I hadn't thought about before.
  • Seeking just 100 paying customers (and just four that first week) made me focus on a goal that seemed within reach. It kept my gaze down on the path in front of me rather than up towards that nebulous future.
  • Most importantly, hitting 40-50 percent weekly growth in those early days proved that this could be a real startup — and laid the groundwork to later raise capital.

Eighteen months later, having grown bookings 50x since that first week and raised venture funding, I now realize how important this test was. It set my company on a course that is scrappy and focused on growth that delivers value.

If you think you may have a great idea but have been stalling when it comes to taking that first step, here’s my advice:

1. First, let's stop talking about everything in terms of a launch. Let's call it a test. Then start thinking about all of the things you want to learn from this test, what experiments you're going to use to learn, and what metrics you'll use so you know what the result is.

2. Next, let's give it the resource constraints of four weeks and $200. Resource constraints are one of the only true constants of startup. Beginning with this mindset will keep you on your toes and scrappy. Plan out each of the four weeks deliberately with what you want to learn and accomplish. Print out a calendar. Write your goals in the margins.

Most of you will need a website and some mechanism of showing your product, getting feedback, and getting paid. There are so many affordable, accessible resources out there now, but to keep it simple and get started, check out SquareSpace and Typeform. Both of these integrate with Stripe so you can collect payment as a storefront or through short links. In any case, you should be able to get the most basic version of what you're trying to do within that $200 budget. If there is expensive inventory, think about ways to approximate some of that in the beginning.

3. And, lastly, give yourself a tangible goal — to reach 25 paying customers. While my original goal was to hit 100 paying customers, that is very aggressive in just four weeks, and I was selling a relatively low-cost service. So to begin with, aim for 25, with a 30 percent weekly growth goal. So if you start with 10 paying customers in week 1, then you need 13 in Week 2, 17 in Week 3, 22 in Week 4. It keeps things manageable, concrete, and actionable. And once you've got 25 and you're in the cadence of seeking weekly growth, the path to 100 customers will become more visible.

I know firsthand that it's so much harder than this makes it sound. I know what the bar is to be funded by top VCs and to build a startup that can turn into a sustainable company, and how hard that is as a mother of two young kids and in a two-career marriage. There are many barriers to getting started — a full time job, a family, thinking you don't have the resources. But I can tell you, each of those barriers can be overcome for four weeks if you want it badly enough.

At the end of the four weeks, you'll be over that initial barrier of starting. You'll figure out if your idea represents something people really need in their lives, or if it is something that was great in theory but not so much in practice. Regardless, you'll learn a great deal, and that's the real point.

If there is any lesson to be salvaged from this election cycle, it's this: It is women's time to be big and bold and brave.

So I challenge you to commit to four weeks — think big but start small.

You have little to lose and everything to learn.

I’d love to connect with you and help you out if you do decide to take the plunge. So if you want to tell me about and commit to your own four-week test, go to fourweektest.com.

Avni Patel Thompson is founder and CEO of Poppy. Prior to making the entrepreneurial leap, Avni was a brand marketer at Starbucks, adidas and P&G. Follow her on Twitter: @APatelThompson.

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The season of assassination tourism comes to close with final Hitman episode

Posted: 05 Nov 2016 12:10 PM PDT

The final Hitman episode occurs at a hospital in Hokkaido.

The makers of Hitman at Danish developer IO Interactive pioneered a new model for releasing a major video game with six episodes released over eight months. The full seasons of “assassination tourism” comes to a close with this week’s Hokkaido episode.

In the games, you can live out the fantasy of being Agent 47, a professional killer who goes to exotic places, dresses in tuxedos, drives fancy cars, and assassinates people without mercy.

The first installment arrived in March as a $15 set that included a prologue (where you learn about Agent 47’s origins and learn how to take people out) and an open world in the city of Paris. Then the game moved on to scenic places in Sapienza, Italy; Marrakesh, Morocco; Bangkok, Thailand; a farm compound in Colorado; and the final episode in Hokkaido.

During the release, IO Interactive kept players busy with weekly contracts and “elusive targets,” where players had a limited time to take out a particular target. We talked with Christian Elverdam, creative director of the studio, about the Square Enix game and what the team learned from the feedback from fans from the various episodes.

Hitman debuted on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Windows PC. You can buy an “intro pack” with the prologue and Paris missions for $15, or purchase a full year of content for $60. The full year-disk will be available in January.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Christian Elverdam is creative director at IO Interactive, creator of Hitman.

Above: Christian Elverdam is creative director at IO Interactive, creator of Hitman.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: Where are you on Hitman now? Do you have an update?

Christian Elverdam: We're completing the season, the final episode. We're in a good place. It's been quite a long season, seven months of episodes, but it's also been nice to see how much appreciation we're getting for the Hitman sandbox.

We're also looking back on everything a bit. We had a bit of a rough start, maybe, when we were wondering what the episodic model would do for Hitman. In this case, I feel that the game and our live services have shown people that it works. We have some gamers who are saying that instead of going episode by episode, they'd rather get the whole season and binge on that. They can do that now.

When we set out to work on Hitman—it had been about 10 years since we built a large, complex sandbox like this. We were pretty excited and nervous when we released the first episode. But now we're in a place where we feel confident about the game and how it's going.

GamesBeat: When you talk about some hiccups at the beginning, what do you mean, more specifically? How did you address those?

Elverdam: One of the bigger issues in the beginning was that we communicated rather vaguely around what we were doing. To begin with, we weren’t clear about how many episodes would be in the starting pack. At some point we had three levels. That obviously hurt us. When you're doing something new, people tend to be skeptical. If you're not clear about what you're saying, you seem like you're not sure yourself.

In truth, I think we weren't completely sure. We knew we wanted to launch a season of content, so the content between each episode would feel worthwhile and give players something to do. At some point we were debating whether one level would be enough and whether we needed more. But the down side to that is that if you have more content, people will just cruise through it. That's what we saw with other games, like Blood Money. Some people will understand the depth in the game, but others might just play it like a normal game. They'll take out one or two targets and decide that they've beaten the level, which is obviously not our game.

At the end of all that, we decided to go with one episode. I'm happy we chose that now, but it wasn't totally clear to us at the beginning. So that's one example of something that was rough for us early on.

Hitman Hokkaido takes place in a hospital.

Above: Hitman Hokkaido takes place in a hospital.

Image Credit: Square Enix

GamesBeat: Were you changing a fair amount of the content in real time, dynamically, in response to how people were playing in that episode?

Elverdam: We changed quite a few things. It's almost—you can talk about reactions, but it's a long answer. Some of the major things, like the story and where we're traveling in the world, obviously that's out of our control after the content launches. But there's a difference between saying you're going to build a hospital in the end – knowing where the story will end up – and the actuality of building that.

At this point we're changing the formula into something more straight up stealth action. With Hokkaido, we're going to throw some curve balls at the player in terms of what you can expect, both out of our disguise mechanics—this hospital is run by an artificial intelligence. That shakes up the entire foundation of the disguise gameplay. Also, ideas like how the target can be revived in the hospital if you kill him.

We've gained a certain confidence level out of building the first few levels and watching how people play them. Also, we're making the levels more challenging after watching our fan base play the game. Some of the larger things we've done, they might feel a little bit intangible, but those are some of the major things we've changed.

On some smaller levels, we've changed how challenges are described in the game. People felt that they were giving too much away, so we added a menu option to change how much info we spoil. We added a lot of small visual stuff. People requested a re-holstering animation. We got that in. We tweaked vision cones on the NPCs. We're constantly adjusting the game. Going back to some of the old levels, it honestly feels rather new, because of how the NPCs behave compared to where it was back in March.

GamesBeat: What did you mean by how much information you're giving away?

Elverdam: When we do a challenge in the game—we reward you for replaying the game by completing challenges and unlocking different elements like starting locations or weapons and stuff like that. But the challenges themselves have an image, a title, and then a pretty precise description of what you need to do to accomplish them. A lot of people felt like that spoiled too much content in the level. We added an element where you can just get the image, or we won't tell you exactly what to do. It affects how verbose that description is.

GamesBeat: You mentioned Hokkaido. What are some things about it that players are going to enjoy?

Elverdam: The hospital is an interesting setting in the Hitman context. We wanted to do that for a long time. Looking at what people expect, it's safe to say we'll live to expectations as far as what can actually happen in the hospital. It's a serious location in our game, but at the same time it's rather playful. I think people can look forward to a very dense level. The amount of things you can do and interact with is pretty incredible.

We pulled off some memorable moments as far as what can happen. You can tamper a lot with the NPCs. They'll have some fun and profound consequences on what happens in the level. To me it feels like a worthy end to everything in the season. The elusive targets will continue after this as well. They'll be part of the live element continuing on.

Hitman's final episode wraps up a season that started in March 2016.

Above: Hitman’s final episode wraps up a season that started in March 2016.

Image Credit: Square Enix

GamesBeat: So there's a lot of emergent gameplay opportunities there?

Elverdam: Absolutely. Some affect the NPCs in a rather fun way. Obviously I can't spoil too much, but there's a surgeon with an implanted neural chip, for example, to interface with the AI. There's a guy who's had facial surgery. That can play to your advantage. Or a yoga teacher with a bad back. You can find many different things and interact with, and it all has a sort of darkly humorous tone to it.

GamesBeat: Where are we story-wise? What can you say about the story in general?

Elverdam: The story obviously concludes for season one, with the final cinematic and what goes on the level. It's very much like a series finale. We've established a few different story arcs during season one. Some of them we close down when the season ends, and we also open up some new story arcs. We close the book on some of the characters and open up new avenues. People will feel like there was a lot going on in season one, and hopefully there will be a desire to see where this is going to go. Now we've established a world, a good foundation for the universe.

GamesBeat: What happens next? Do you have a timing window on the full disc-based version of the game?

Elverdam: As of Monday, we'll conclude the season. Then we expect to have a lot of people jumping in and being part of the elusive targets. By January 31 we'll have a disc out as well for people who prefer that.

GamesBeat: Are some things going to be different about the version on disc, given the way you've released this?

Elverdam: The disc is a compilation of what we call the full season pass. We talked about how—for everyone there will be a bonus episode around that time, much like we did with the summer bonus episodes. We had two episodes in Marrakech and Sapienza. But the disc is identical to what you'd have if you were a full season pass holder.

Hitman's Hokkaido episode has beautiful environments.

Above: Hitman’s Hokkaido episode has beautiful environments.

Image Credit: Square Enix

GamesBeat: Is there anything additional motivating people to get the disc, if they're just a casual player?

Elverdam: I don't think so. As I say, we have a certain subset of players who'd like the full experience to be ready before they jump in. They're free to jump in now with the disc. That's the thinking.

GamesBeat: Do you feel that you have a different audience, or an expanded audience, because of the way you've released this?

Elverdam: I'd say so. One thing we're most happy with about going episodic is it's a way to showcase how much goes on in a Hitman level. We've always had very deep levels, at least with Blood Money and before. But we also had a lot of people who didn't quite get it. Some fans would break through that barrier and find the extra depth in the games, but others wouldn't.

Episodic has allowed our players to discuss and break down each level together while they're live. When Paris is out, everyone's talking about Paris. When Sapienza's out, everyone's talking about Sapienza. That means the depth of each episode really comes under the magnifying glass for everyone who's playing the game. You don't have to be as hardcore as you would have been in the old days to get under the hood of a Hitman level and understand all the things you can do. We've found a balance where we can get many people to appreciate what the game is about without sacrificing the complexity and depth of the sandbox.

GamesBeat: So you're getting more repeat gameplay on each level?

Elverdam: Absolutely. A big part of playing Hitman is replaying the game to master the individual sandboxes. It's never been a game about just killing the targets and moving on. We can definitely see that people are playing a lot more. Also, with the elusive targets, people come back and play those, and then sometimes they stick around to just play a little more Hitman, because they're pulled back into it.

GamesBeat: Did it help you out on the development side as far as giving you an easier working schedule?

Elverdam: I think you could say so. There's been a curse in this industry where you sprint toward the finish line on a game, work super hard, and then everything resets after you ship it. When we do what we're doing, that's not possible, because it comes out over a longer period. It made us work more efficiently. We didn't work as many long hours, because we couldn't afford to exhaust ourselves and start making stupid mistakes.

It's been tough. The pressure has been on. We've been pushing to meet deadlines for a long time. That's mentally taxing. But it was nice to keep decent hours for a long time now. Where we are right now at Io is a good place. We pulled it off without getting delayed, which we were obviously afraid of. We feel like we have a good grip on this version of the Hitman sandbox. We seem to be getting a lot of positive reactions.

GamesBeat: You're delivering something in the style of a game as a service. It's not exactly like a free-to-play game, where the updates happen constantly, but you're still delivering something in a similar model.

Elverdam: Our ambition was to deliver a game that feels like it's alive. We managed to put out an update each week, whether it's a level or a challenge pack or an escalation contract or an elusive target. There's been some kind of update every week. That was the ambition, that this would feel like a live season. That's why we were so happy about the elusive targets as the pinnacle of the live assassination part of what we were doing. It's a living world.

GamesBeat: If you think about this like an esport, did you find anybody in particular who was your most talented player?

Elverdam: We have some incredibly gifted fans doing amazing things. One guy, on the first elusive target, launched a fire extinguisher from the lawn of the palace in Paris. It shot up to the balcony and killed the target, which is completely crazy considering it's an elusive target. He only got the one shot.

We're still monitoring the elusive targets. We're not down to the final list, but every time we do an elusive target, the number of people who have accomplished all of them shrinks a little. We're waiting to see. We still have elusive targets ahead, but we're following that crew of people. At some point the club will be small enough that we can start celebrating them a bit more.

HItman gives you lots of options for taking out targets.

Above: HItman gives you lots of options for taking out targets.

Image Credit: Square Enix

GamesBeat: That's an interesting bonus for the fans, that you can identify who's doing the best over the season.

Elverdam: We're about to recognize some pretty legendary gamers, yeah.

GamesBeat: Did you have any other interesting surprises, like the fire extinguisher shot?

Elverdam: After launching the game with Paris, we were all pleasantly surprised at how Sapienza could speak for itself, speak for the game, and change what people thought about what we're doing. That was great to witness. We have a fairly complex game, but it was good to see that even in a time where people are sometimes impatient – they want everything very fast – our game could be appreciated for its depth and exploration.

GamesBeat: What are you thinking about lessons for the future? Do you have anything particular in mind you'd like to do?

Elverdam: We're just now shipping Hokkaido. That in itself shows a lot that we've already learned. But now we're in a good position where we can look at all these different sandbox levels and figure out what worked well, what we'd like to do more of. We learned a lot from elusive targets. That was a first. Even the elusive targets we have coming up will be affected by what we've already learned.

We learned a lot about how to strike a balance between guiding the player, so many people can appreciate what we're doing, and still having a game that caters to an audience of dedicated, skilled gamers. That will continue to be an interesting balance to work on.

GamesBeat: Anything else you'd like to add?

Elverdam: It's a remarkable place we're in right now. I feel a bit of nostalgia, looking at all the levels we've done over the season. I'm happy for the people who've given us such good feedback. And I'd say to anyone who's been waiting, go ahead and jump in now. We still have some live elements coming, so it's a very good time to get started.

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How AI turns customers into big-spending brand loyalists (VB Live)

Posted: 05 Nov 2016 11:15 AM PDT

AI.shutterstock_500228107

Loyalty is the age-old metric that can make or break your business; AI is the hot new technology that's transforming marketing as we know it. May-December romance? These marketing masters think so. Join this VB Live event for insight into how AI messaging can more than triple engagement.

Register here for free.


Your customers may like artificial intelligence more than they like you. A lot more. For instance, loyalty app Flok found that when AI is at the wheel, push marketing designed to boost customer engagement and loyalty suddenly performs significantly better. 3.8 times better than messages sent by humans, in fact.

While that might not be great for egos, it's exceptional news when it comes to your bottom line. Loyalty, the most ephemeral of all customer metrics is also, arguably, the most important of all them.

But the face of loyalty has changed. While rewards and incentives still move the needle (and probably always will), customers increasingly demand to be seen and be heard as unique individuals with particular needs. And they're always going to reward the businesses that can treat them like special snowflakes, instead of treat them to a blizzard of non-specific messages.

Personalized, one-to-one messaging at scale? That's got artificial intelligence written all over it. It's the only way a brand can reach into an audience of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, and pluck out an individual's need, intent or preference in real-time. It's the only way to understand each customer as an individual, piecing together thousands or millions of interactions to create a fully realized data set that delivers something far beyond numbers: insight.

But not just insights — actionable insights that surprise, delight, and deliver the kind of personalized messaging, offers, and exceptional customer service that drives enduring, rock-solid loyalty.

The biggest obstacle is getting it right the first time — and there's a lot to get right, from security and privacy issues to data integration challenges and decisions about whether to build, partner or buy.

Want to do it right? Join our free VB Live event to learn how master marketers join marketing insight with AI intelligence execution to significantly boost customer loyalty.


Don’t miss out!

Register here for free.


In this VB Live event, you’ll:

  • Learn how deep learning can help your customers get a “human” through chat
  • Cut through the hype around chat bots and learn what really matters
  • Understand privacy issues around AI and how it may impact your org’s security
  • Integrate a successful marketing campaign using chatbot interactions

Speakers:

  • Stewart Rogers, Director of marketing technology, VentureBeat
  • Wendy Schuchart, Moderator, VentureBeat

 

Fintech lenders need their own valuation metrics

Posted: 05 Nov 2016 11:05 AM PDT

stock values

Lately, those saying that fintech lenders have been overvalued are being vindicated by an across-the-board slashing of valuations. Numerous fintech lenders have taken down rounds or markdowns, while Wall Street has largely pummeled the few companies brave enough to enter an IPO. Indeed, as of this writing, Lending Club, OnDeck Capital, and Enova have each lost major ground versus their respective IPO share prices.

This is a troubling trend for all companies in this space. It underscores the difficulty of properly assigning a valuation to a new business category that combines qualities of both a technology company and a financial services organization. My previous experience as a venture capitalist taught me how difficult it can be to properly value emerging companies, particularly when the entire domain is new.

While I have skin in the game as a fintech founder, after surveying the landscape over the last several years, I believe fintech lenders, which were previously overvalued, are now undervalued due to an overreliance on valuation methods that are better suited for banks or tech companies — not for companies that share qualities of both.

Online lenders are not SaaS – but they aren’t banks either

If you were developing the first car in history — something no one had seen or used before — would you compare it to a train? What about a horse? Although it is a vehicle for transportation, the car is neither of those things. Today, fintech lenders find themselves in a similar situation; for proof, just look at the different ways their valuations have been calculated to date.

Back in 2014 when Lending Club and OnDeck Capital went public, their relative valuations were largely based on the most common approach to valuing a SaaS company — a revenue multiple. However, online lenders — whether they are factoring companies, term-loan providers or line of credit providers — have structural risks (like capital losses) that SaaS companies don't, leading them to be overvalued by these multiples.

Today, instead of revenue, these fintech lender valuations tend to be based on the price-to-book ratio — the de facto bank stock multiple. This, however, is also a poor comparison.

Comparisons are good if …

Properly valuing a company requires understanding future cash flows and structural risk. While a discounted cash flow analysis is the theoretical gold standard of valuations, it is time-consuming.

For this reason, comparables (comps) are frequently used as a shortcut: If you are confident in your valuation of a certain company, you can find a multiple and apply it to another company as a shortcut. Obviously, however, this is only useful to the extent that the companies in question are genuinely similar.

In this case, fintech lenders are structurally very different from both SaaS and banking companies. Whereas fintech lenders leverage cutting-edge technology to deliver their product to the market, traditional banking incumbents rely on legacy systems, huge workforces, and to some degree on physical infrastructure such as branches and ATM locations.

The result is vastly different returns on assets between banks and fintech lenders. JPMorgan Chase manages $2.3 trillion in assets and generates nearly $100 billion in annual revenue, whereas in 2015 OnDeck Capital generated $200 million in revenue on assets of only $750 million. When a bank typically returns 4-5 percent of its book, while some fintech lenders return 40-50 percent, how does it make any sense to apply a bank metric to fintech lenders?

While I am not opposed to using multiples like revenue for SaaS companies or book value for banking entities, they are designed to evaluate comparable companies against each other in order to assign relative value. Alternative lenders have now established themselves as neither banks nor SaaS businesses. It is time to find a new multiple.

A multiple to call its own

Fintech lenders deserve their own valuation method, and I believe it should be a gross profit multiple. Let me explain my thinking: While fintech lenders have a similar cost structure to SaaS companies (e.g., inside sales divisions, large research and development arms, customer acquisition via online marketing, etc.), SaaS revenue does not have losses or cost of capital concerns.

Gross profit calculates how much a company is making net of cost of capital and losses; in other words, it strips out what is different from lenders and SaaS companies. Of course, this is not a one-size-fits-all metric given the differences between fintech lenders, but I believe it better reflects the true value of fintech lenders.

The actual multiple — 5x, 10x, etc. — will vary between fintech lenders based on relative growth rates, inherent risks, margins, and other factors just as multiples vary within SaaS or banking. For example, a short-term lender is less vulnerable to changes in the macro credit environment, which should increase its multiple versus a similar longer-term lender. While investors will still need to scrutinize individual fintech lenders, starting with gross profit will ensure that the baseline for the multiple more accurately represents the value drivers of a fintech company.

A more nuanced approach

In spite of the falling valuations of public fintech lenders, alternative lenders aren't going away anytime soon. The continued confidence in fintech lending is reassuring, but we will most likely continue to see delayed IPOs until these companies believe they are receiving a fair assessment of their future prospects.

Square, the last fintech company to go public, has also struggled to find its way and still trades below its initial IPO price. While lending is currently a relatively smaller portion of their business, its stock serves as a daily reminder that all private fintech companies — not just alternative lenders — need an appropriate evaluation criteria to properly measure the value they provide to the market.

Whether we use a gross profit multiple or another metric, I hope we can take a more thoughtful approach to valuing these innovative companies instead of haphazardly applying convenient shortcuts from "similar" sectors. Ultimately, the market will correct itself, and those investors who have recognized that current multiples undervalue these fintech lenders will be well-positioned for outsized returns.

Eyal Lifshitz is CEO of BlueVine. Follow him on Twitter: @eyallifs.

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Cows and data centers: What HP’s chief engineer thinks about fusing the real world with technology

Posted: 05 Nov 2016 10:00 AM PDT

Chandrakant Patel is an HP senior fellow and chief engineer. He is at HP's original garage headquarters.

Chandrakant Patel has a deep history working on hardware and fundamental science at Hewlett-Packard, and he has used that background to create a vision for the future of technology that combines the physical and digital worlds.

He hopes to inspire his fellow HP colleagues and the rest of the tech world on a new decades-long path. Patel is a senior fellow and the chief engineer at Hewlett-Packard. That’s an important and rare position, as HP has more than 50,000 employees in 170 countries, with many thousands of engineers. I met Patel at the 50th anniversary of HP Labs in Palo Alto, and we caught up for an interview after that event at a very special place for HP employees: the original garage at a home on Addison Street in Palo Alto, Calif., where HP was born in 1939.

Patel’s job is to inspire HP’s engineers to be creative when thinking about the big technology problems they must overcome. After all, Moore’s Law — or doubling the number of transistors on a chip every couple of years — doesn’t just happen. It is the result of a lot of smart people figuring out the toughest technical problems of the day. Patel believes that we still have to figure out a much more energy efficient world network, with intelligent devices at the edge that don’t drain resources out of the data centers.

We talked about why he chose to stay with the PC and printer maker, HP, rather than HP Enterprise, the services company, after last year’s split-up. And we reminisced about HP’s past, including the creation of its first computer 50 years ago this week. Patel is very passionate about how students should study the fundamentals of science — and both hardware and software — to prepare themselves for the age of the Internet of Things. He prefers to call this the “cyber physical” applications, which expose the seams between hardware and software, between the real world and the digital.

We chatted there so that we could get inspired about the history of technology and where it’s going in the future. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. I’ve also added many of Patel’s slides, as he loves to paint his ideas of the future by making sketches.

The future is cyber physical.

Above: The future is cyber physical.

Image Credit: HP

Chandrakant Patel: I'm a mechanical engineer. I started at an interesting time in Silicon Valley. My first interview was with a company called Dysan. It was on Patrick Henry Drive. Patrick Henry was brand new. Now the stadium is very close to it. They were making disks. Heads and media were done here. I got a job at Memorex, where Nvidia is now located.

A long time ago, Memorex had that commercial – "Is it live or is it Memorex?" Ella Fitzgerald would shatter a glass with the frequency of her voice. They'd copy it to a Memorex tape, and then playing back the tape would shatter the glass too.

The reason it's important to me is it was a prime time commercial. People understood why the glass broke. People understood physical fundamentals, back in the early '80s. I found myself in what I called the "valley of tinkerers." Memorex had its share. Al Shugart, Finis Conner. They went on to create Seagate. We had manufacturing and design there.

I was making drives where the mass was 100 kilograms. A gigabyte would cost $100,000 and it was the size of a washing machine. Because the mass was very high and the stiffness was low, the frequency, the characteristic frequency of the drive was low. Low-frequency vibrations could damage it. As mechanical engineers we had interesting problems to solve.

VentureBeat: It was an age of physical hardware.

Patel: Very much so. Understanding how physical hardware worked. Discs were rotating at 3600 RPM, 32 heads, how do you keep them flying? Then one thing I noticed was, as the hardware got smaller, the drives got smaller, I felt the stiffness was going up. The mass went down. The ratio of stiffness to mass goes down and the natural frequency goes up. They're less susceptible to those low-frequency vibrations. It was simple first-order fundamentals-based thinking to see that drives would be commoditized.

I reset myself, after working on large drives and small drives. I joined HP Labs in 1991 to work on the PA-RISC chip. We were going from wire bonds to the flip chip to get a lot more I/Os out of the chip. I established the chip packing and thermal management. I did a lot of work on electronics cooling. That's when I got to know Bill. Subsequently I felt that chips would come from one or two places. As you scale down you need volume.

Chandrakant Patel is an HP senior fellow and chief engineer. He is standing at HP's original garage headquarters.

Above: Chandrakant Patel is an HP senior fellow and chief engineer. He is standing at HP’s original garage headquarters.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

I moved out into systems, working on large-scale systems like Superdome, the supercomputer-class systems we were building. In the mid-'90s I went to my boss and said, "The data center is the computer. The building is the computer." I filled a room with racks that I said would be about 10 kilowatts, filled with industry-standard components. Now the building is the value add, not the servers. If the networking, the cooling, the power—power, ping, and pipe. Those three Ps would determine the data center and the total cost of ownership of a data center is driven by energy.

My boss said, "Why do you want to work on facilities?" My contention was, it's Carnegie Hall with 150 people per seat. A person is 100 watts. A rack would be 15 kilowatts. That's 150 people in a seat. Imagine that. You have to deal with fluid flow and so on. We created the smart data center project. We build a data center with sensors and controls. We built the dynamic control systems for it. We were the first ones to do that.

We went on to build eco parts. That started because of a conversation with a customer of ours. The customer had underground mines. My recommendation was to put data centers in containers and lower them into the ground. The region where they were, the ground was nine degrees Celsius. I said, "Let's dump heat into the ground." That didn't happen. I wish it had, but the dot-com boom and bust happened at that moment. Otherwise that would have been one of the most secure places in the world.

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Why investors are throwing heaps of money at machine learning

Posted: 05 Nov 2016 09:15 AM PDT

innovation

If you're a whip-smart investor with big bucks to spend, chances are you've got your fingers in the AI pie.

It's a market where $50 million is chump change, so if you really want to play with the high rollers you'll need more room on the check.

Sentient's up to $144 million in an AI platform play, while Vicarious Systems has thrown $67 million at AI algorithms.

So it's pretty fair to say that if you're a bot, you're going to enjoy a top-notch private education.

But why now? What's made machine learning and AI the hot stuff du jour?

It's a game changer, that's what.

AI and machine learning are about process optimization, but taken to the extreme.

The more they learn, the smarter they get and the more they're going to utterly disrupt the economics of the world as we know it.

But first they're going to disrupt the economics of software development.

It won't be long until a project that currently takes a full year of work and a team of 6-10 devs can be compressed to a couple of months.

And that's just to start. Because while humans are pretty well optimized, machines are just getting started.

Skeptical? Sure. But we've seen it before with the first industrial revolution. And that was when machines weren't so bright.

Now they're smart enough to put whole teams of devs – and all the teams supporting them — out to pasture.

Take the stock exchange ticker symbols that epitomize Wall Street. Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg used to spend a small fortune maintaining their databases of AAPLs, MSFTs, and AMZNs – collating their information, tracking prices, and preparing reports.

No longer. Machine learning can automate all of this. Those databases can now run on AI power alone thanks to models primed to identify ticker patterns or news relating to a publicly traded company.

The fact is, if it's repetitive, process based, and involves large amounts of data, it's a prime target for machine learning.

And let's face it – those are the kinds of problems developers are targeted with solving.

After all, good developers are the ones who are lazy at heart. They want to solve a problem once, not multiple times.

And machines are crafted for efficiency. They're born pattern recognizers and problem solvers.

And given enough time and enough maturity, we'll be seeing systems that possess near-human intelligence in narrow domains.

That's a lot of smarts for a lot less money than it would take to hire a team of crack developers. Which is why investors are throwing money at machine learning like there's no tomorrow.

Because they see the tomorrow – and it's one that involves a ROI that humans just can't offer.

Sure, there'll be road bumps.

Machines are as left-brained as they come, and some problems are fuzzier, messier, and broader than machines can currently handle. Finding a way to solve those right-brain problems – the ones that require logical leaps and creativity – is where the real opportunity lies.

Because when we've done that? We've cracked the secret to our own humanity. We're still figuring our how own brains work, so recreating them is going to be a challenge we might not yet be up for. But the lure of that is pretty spectacular.

There'll be massive failures. There'll be efforts to solve the unsolvable. We're betting that companies that build out toolkits to improve the accessibility and usability of AI will be some of the first winners in this field. Helping data scientists all over the world make use of AI to solve individual problems in specific domains will be one of the first places the economic value becomes apparent.

This, of course, is only the beginning. Data exchange between these models will further accelerate the usefulness and cost effectiveness of this AI. When it all comes together, there'll be successes that will change the very fabric of our economy – and how we see and do things. Smart investors see it. They're willing to gamble on the failures because they see the game changing potential of the successes.

Simplifying and compressing data science is the first place we'll see the economics of machine learning start to pay off. It'll mean smaller teams and condensed projects.

But let's face it – putting ourselves out of a job is utterly worth it for the future that could be.

With a tireless, dedicated genius working with us on solving problems, we can turn our attention to the more rewarding, inalienably human bit: defining them.

Jeff Catlin is CEO of Lexalytics.

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Naughty Dog storyteller brought deeper narrative to Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Posted: 05 Nov 2016 08:02 AM PDT

Taylor Kurosaki, narrative director at Infinity Ward, headed story creation for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare has a better story than it has had for some time. And one of the reasons is that Activision’s Infinity Ward studio recruited a couple of veterans from Naughty Dog, the maker of narrative-driven video games such as Uncharted and The Last of Us.

One of the new recruits was Taylor Kurosaki, the narrative director at Infinity Ward. He helped get the studio on track after the heavily criticized Call of Duty: Ghosts from 2013. That game had to be made in just two years even as it tried to span the platform transition between the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 and the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The result was kind of a rush job. But Activision created a new studio, Sledgehammer Games, that started making Call of Duty titles and allowed Infinity Ward the luxury of working on a game for three years instead of just two.

Kurosaki and the team took advantage of that to build a deeper narrative for the story. He focused on a single character, Nick Reyes, who is forced under pressure of a surprise attack to become a leader in a war that spans the solar system. That story had to hold up under the scrutiny of Call of Duty’s shift from a modern warfare setting to science fiction. I’ve played all of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and the results are quite satisfying. Through battlefield promotion, Reyes has to deal with the change in fighting for the elite soldiers next to him to the responsibilities of being a commander in charge of giant space vessel.

After I finished the game, I talked with Kurosaki about what he tried to accomplish. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. Check out our other interview with Infinity Ward studio head Dave Stohl and our review of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.


Editor's note: This story has some spoilers, but we've tried to minimize them. We recommend you read this after you’ve played the campaign. 


 

Taylor Kurosaki at Infinity Ward moved over from Naughty Dog and the Uncharted series.

Above: Taylor Kurosaki at Infinity Ward moved over from Naughty Dog and the Uncharted series.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: When did you come over from Naughty Dog?

Taylor Kurosaki: I started in the summer of 2014. I came over with a very dear friend of mine, Jacob Minkoff. We'd worked together at Naughty Dog for many years. He was the lead game designer on Uncharted 3 and Last of Us.

It's an odd story, probably boring, but Jacob decided he was going to move down to Peru and live in the jungles. He sold his house and his truck and gave away a lot of his earthly possessions. He was staying with my wife and I for several weeks, waiting for his tax returns to come back and sew up loose ends before he left.

I was talking with Infinity Ward about working there. He and I, at my house, started watching war movies, started going back and playing the old Call of Duty games, and it was just fun brainstorming with him, thinking about what we'd do if we made Call of Duty. Then he took off. I sent him an email and said I was going to Infinity Ward. I said something like, "I'm sure you'll get this in several weeks, the next time you trek into town or whatever, but it would be fun if you were with me on this. I'm thinking about you."

I got a response the next day. He said, "Funny thing. Malaria is not really a lot of fun. A lot of people down here have it. I think I want to come home." Within a couple of days he was taking a call from Dave Stoll, the studio head at Infinity Ward, in a phone booth in—he said there was water coming in the corner of the roof. He was back in the states and we got to go on this fun journey together.

We were really students of—we'd worked on these games for a long time at Naughty Dog. We were always searching for these sources of pressure to put on our characters. When you put pressure on characters, that reveals their real nature. You learn more about them. That's storytelling. A zombie pandemic is a source of pressure. There are other good sources of pressure we invented for things like Uncharted. But a great source of pressure is war. It's a rich genre. There are some amazing stories told in that genre — great films, TV shows, books. We thought this would be fun.

Captain Nick Reyes finds out he's in charge in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

Above: Captain Nick Reyes finds out he’s in charge in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

Image Credit: Activision

We studied. We found a couple of predominant sort of lenses through which we could look at war. One was the lens of a grunt in the field, the new guy, however you want to call it. Black Hawk Down is that kind of story. The theme in all of those stories is that you never leave a man behind. Black Hawk Down, we're gonna go back and save those guys, because that's what we do. Then you see another batch of stories told through the eyes of a leader. The theme of those is almost exclusively that the mission comes first. The mission supersedes all.

We thought, what if we told a story that was about the journey of a guy who goes from a mantra of fighting for the guy next to you, and then through the course of our story and the pressure put on him, he has to evolve to the mantra of the mission coming first. That's Reyes' story. He and Salter, they're the best. They're these SCARs, soldiers that are half SEAL and half Top Gun pilot. We hope that it feels like they've been friends for a long time, wingmen for a long time. They have this unstated pact. "We're the best. We'll keep making it home. We'll bring all our buddies home." And they're faced with an event, a sneak attack, where that doesn't happen.

They almost double down on that, because that's what people do. They reinforce their beliefs, what they hold to be true. They like stability. People don't change unless they're forced to change. They both openly question Captain Alder's decision [redacted to avoid spoiler]. "There had to be another way. I don't sacrifice my crew when I'm overrun." And through the events of the story, Reyes ends up doing what Alder did and then some. He's forced to evolve to a place where the mission comes first.

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Above: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Image Credit: Activision

GamesBeat: When you came in, what was the direction? Did you have any particular marching orders, a charter to do anything specific?

Kurosaki: No. We came in the summer of 2014. Ghosts shipped in the fall of 2013. The team had—everyone takes a much-needed vacation. There's not a lot of activity. When you ship a holiday game – I've only ever shipped games for the holiday – nothing really happens until the new year. But even so, those guys had four or five months to think about what they wanted to do next, and they had some interesting ideas. A lot of those ideas matched perfectly with stuff Jacob and I believe in as game-makers and storytellers.

They wanted to question the structure of the Call of Duty games, which is "do a mission, have an interstitial graphic thing, jump to another part of the globe, do another mission." They wanted to do a seamless game. Lo and behold, Jacob and I had made games that were totally seamless for many years, where there were no loading screens, where you hit start and you're in the action. Of course we were into that notion.

They were big on mission choice, on giving a non-linearity to it. That's something we'd never done before. We'd only made these linear stories. Call of Duty had only been—I guess in some games you could pick. But most of the campaigns are very linear. That was a new challenge for us. Had it been a story of a soldier in the field, I probably would have said it wasn't worth it. But when you're going to tell a story about a leader, unless that's just window-dressing, you have to have the power to make choices.

So how do we incorporate side missions in a way where—as a player I love that. When I first played the campaign, once it all hung together and was progressable beginning to end, I did some of the Jackal missions, where you assault the Jackal squadrons. I did one, and then I did all of them. It was fun. I was into that flow. As a player I appreciate being able to play at my own pace and choose what I want to do. And again, to make a story about military leadership, we had to do that.

That was a big challenge for us. How do you have a sense of urgency and pressure, but also have the chance to go and do these side missions? You can do them in any order. You want the characters to still feel present, but you can't have events that happen in the side missions that then alter what happens in the main missions afterward. We can't afford to do a huge tree of possible permutations. I think we did an okay job at allowing you to do that.

The other thing they were already thinking about was this idea of taking Call of Duty to a new setting. What I bought from the get-go was the reasoning behind that. They weren't doing it because, "oh, we like sci-fi." They were doing it for very practical, design-oriented reasons.

Zero-G combat is an extension of the traditional Call of Duty loop, where you assess the combat space, find a piece of cover, and strategically move through cover to flank your enemies. It's exactly that, but now in a more 3D space. You have the grapple mechanic. When we talked to our Navy SEAL advisors, we said, "If you were fighting in zero-G, what would you do?" "Well, you'd want to get in cover really quickly." That gave birth to the grapple mechanic, where again, you assess the combat zone and flank your enemies with that mechanic.

The Jackal is the same thing. It has a hover mode. You can strafe. It has a primary and secondary weapon. The ADS button is the lock-on button. Jump button ascends, crouch button descends. It ports perfectly to those FPS controls. In a lot of ways, the Jackal is an extension of the Call of Duty control scheme and feel. An aerospace fighter in zero-G with RCS thrusters ports to that. That was the impetus for taking it to the new setting. It wasn't just for fashion's sake. It was based on mechanics.

GamesBeat: It seemed like the Call of Duty story was always that the hero doesn't really die. You're a super-soldier who saves the world, and usually your friends make it to the end with you. Maybe someone dies early on as a motivation, but for the most part, the good guys always win.

Nick Reyes has to make the tough decisions as a commander in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

Above: Nick Reyes has to make the tough decisions as a commander in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.

Image Credit: Activision

Kurosaki: Being a soldier means that you are willing to put your life on the line. Being a military leader means that you're not only willing to put your life on the line, but you're willing to put other people's lives on the line, and then you have shoulder that responsibility. We wanted you to feel what it was like to be a military leader. To have to move forward, despite the fact that maybe some people you're close to didn't make it. There's still an overarching mission you have to focus on despite those losses. That's a tough circumstance to be put in, and we wanted you to be in those boots.

GamesBeat: You did seem to show that Reyes has real trouble moving from foot soldier to commander. I even saw it in who opens the doors. Sometimes you'd get your assistant to open the door for you, or Salter would say to him quite often, "Help him with this door." She gives the commands. He's holding the door open for all the others to go through. Something about him doesn't really accept the officer's point of view. He's always trying to be a doer.

Kurosaki: In the circumstances he's in—when they come back to the Retribution and they ask the air boss how many made it back, she says, "SCAR 2s are in the net and after that you're it." Meaning that all the other SCAR squadrons were lost in the battle. You're so shorthanded that you don't have the luxury of staying back on the bridge. Even Sergeant Omar says, "This is a ground assault. Captain's place is on the bridge." And Reyes says, "Not this captain. Not today." It's not bravado. It's saying, "I'm the best we have. I have to go out there and do these things to."

The fact that he's still the tip of the spear, still going out on the front lines, makes it that much harder for him to have that metamorphosis, to truly behave like a leader. He's having to wear both hats. Like I said earlier, we're all creatures of habit. We don't like to change. He's going to double down on his MO until he's basically forced to change.

GamesBeat: You have a character who has to change, a character who makes choices, and so you get an arc to this story. That's something we haven't seen in a lot of shooters.

Ethan and Salter in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Above: Ethan and Salter in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

Image Credit: Activision

Kurosaki: Another thing that was new for us was doing a first-person shooter. All the games we've made before were third-person. There's a big difference between seeing the protagonist on the screen for the whole game and not. Reyes has to—you don't get to see, unless you're in a cutscene, if he's getting angry, if he's about to lash out at someone. You don't see his face or his body language, the tells that we all give off.

Having a character that is relatable to our players – letting our players feel parity with the protagonist – I believe that's key to our goals, putting you in his shoes. If he seems passionate, but you weren't feeling the same way, there's a disconnect between the character and the player. We don't want that to ever happen. You are seeing the events unfold through his eyes. You don't have a privileged point of view. There's no, "Meanwhile, back at enemy headquarters…" He learns things when you learn them. All these things are designed to keep you in emotional sync with him.

Reyes does make choices. They may not always be the choices that our players think they would make. But if you do understand who Reyes is, and you understand why he makes the choices he makes, we feel like you're in relative emotional parity with him.

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Top 10 startup ecosystems in the world 2016

Posted: 05 Nov 2016 07:15 AM PDT

San Fransokyo

Last year was the first time SparkLabs revealed our rankings for the top 10 startup ecosystems in the world here on VentureBeat. Now I'm excited to present our update for 2016.

sparklabs top 10

The top 10 haven't changed, but there has been movement within the rankings. Los Angeles has jumped two spots up, replacing Seoul in the number five spot. This step up was driven by the increase in the number of unicorns and exits from Oculus to Dollar Shave Club to Snapchat's impending IPO.

All this recent momentum of success could permanently change the LA startup landscape in two ways. First, it creates a base of angel investors who can actively engage and fund the next wave of new entrepreneurs and startups in LA. Second, success attracts talent. This strong momentum along with the higher (outrageous) cost of living in the Bay Area will lure some of Silicon Valley’s top talent down to LA and will make LA an option for others in the U.S. and across the globe. It will be interesting to see how the LA startup ecosystem develops over the next few years.

To find this top 10, we looked at eight factors: Funding Ecosystem & Exits, Engineering Talent, Active Mentoring, Technical Infrastructure, Startup Culture, Legal & Policy Infrastructure, Economic Foundation, and Government Policies & Programs.

Here are the cumulative scores (out of a total possible 80 points) for each of the top 10 startup cities:

scores

Silicon Valley continued to strengthen its top position with a two point increase to 77. More exits, more IPOs, more "hot startups" equals two points. You really can't become any more perfect than 77 out of 80 points. Los Angeles increased 6 points from 57 to 63, and Beijing increased 4 points from 55 to 59.

silicon valley

Beijing like Los Angeles jumped two spots from 8th to 6th. Beijing continues to be the best startup hub in Asia and is strengthening its position for the future, such as by heavily investing in AI.

beijing

Of the eight factors we considered to reach these scores, some are "soft" factors that are difficult to quantify but that have real consequences. Trust between members of a founding team, for example, is essential. It is also very difficult to quantify, and yet breakdown of trust and chemistry is the cause for many startups.

As John Doerr, Chair of Kleiner Perkins, puts it, "You must ask, ‘Are these the people I want to be in trouble with for the next 5, 10, 15 years of my life?’ Because as you build a new business, one thing’s for sure: You will get into trouble."

nyc

Similarly, the cultural ethos of an ecosystem is critical. The "pay it forward" culture has been cited numerous times as the "secret sauce" of Silicon Valley and why its startup environment is so difficult to replicate. This is something that can be developed but will take time. For our affiliated accelerators in Asia, we have taken a long view and mission towards bringing the "pay it forward" culture to the startup ecosystems in Seoul, Beijing, Singapore, and throughout Asia.

seoul

On the heels of our top 10 list, we see up and coming startup ecosystems continuing to develop further, such as Paris, Singapore, Chicago, Shanghai, and others. What startup hubs are you active in? What do you see as the next up and comers?

Bernard Moon is cofounder and General Partner at SparkLabs Global Ventures, a new global seed-stage fund, and cofounder of SparkLabs, a startup accelerator in Seoul, Korea. Follow him on Twitter

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You can now shop for Alexa skills on Amazon.com

Posted: 05 Nov 2016 03:03 AM PDT

Amazon Echo Dot

You can now shop for Amazon Alexa skills the same way you shop for anything else on Amazon.com, the company announced today.

Owners of Amazon Alexa-enabled devices like the Echo or Tap can find, enable, or disable skills via an Alexa skills marketplace or dedicated URLs for individual skills.

The single website to find all Alexa skills launches the same day as Google Home, which immediately takes its place as one of Amazon’s top competitors in the race to put an intelligent assistant inside consumers’ homes.

In May, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos posited that Alexa may be the fourth pillar for the Amazon business model, so maybe it’s fitting that Alexa skills is now the first thing you see on the drop-down search bar menu on Amazon.com. More than 3,200 Alexa skills have been made by businesses and third parties that let you do things like lock your smart car or hear nearby tweets.

“This is the first time that we are offering a pre-login discovery experience for Alexa skills. Before now, customers would need to log in to the Alexa app on their mobile device or browser,” said Alexa chief evangelist David Isbitski in a blog post. “Developers can also improve organic discovery by search engines by optimizing skill detail pages.”

alexa-website

Recently added skills include an intelligent assistant for Yahoo fantasy football, and “augmented conversations” in the office through a HipChat-Alexa integration released Tuesday.

The Alexa skills website and app share the same 21 categories — ranging from business to shopping to weather — but the app appears to offer more ways to discover skills.

Unlike the app, the website tallies the number of skills in each category, so you can see that games, trivia, and accessories make up roughly one in three Alexa skills, and that there are only eight connected car skills. Alexa users can also shop based on customer 1-5 star ratings.

Alexa fans can also browse for new skills added in the last week, 30 days, or 90 days and break those skills down based on category to find the latest music and TV skills.

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Microsoft now lets you easily use Kinect as a webcam

Posted: 05 Nov 2016 12:35 AM PDT

Xbox One and Kinect.

Microsoft today announced a few updates related to its Kinect sensor.

For one thing, the company said that it has followed through on its promise to expose RGB, depth, and infrared data from the Kinect for third-party Universal Windows Platform (UWP) applications to use, with the launch of a new Kinect driver for Windows 10.

But the new driver also makes it possible for end users to easily set up the Kinect to function as a simple webcam. There were other ways to do this, including code in the Kinect for Windows software development kit (SDK) beta 2, but now it’s as easy as opening Device Manager on a Windows 10 machine and locating the driver under the “Kinect sensor devices” folder. You’ll be able to use the Kinect to make Skype video calls, and you can configure the Kinect to perform Windows Hello biometric authentication through face recognition, Microsoft’s Yin Li wrote in a blog post.

With the release of the Xbox Summer Update in July, Microsoft also enhanced the Kinect’s capability for developers. “Apps that use the Kinect sensor's RGB, infrared, and/or depth cameras will run on Xbox with same code, and Xbox can also use the Kinect RGB camera as a normal webcam for Skype-like scenarios,” Li wrote.

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These were the 10 biggest European tech stories this week

Posted: 04 Nov 2016 11:44 PM PDT

Euros

This week, Tech.eu tracked 15 technology M&A transactions, one IPO, and 81 tech funding deals (totalling €401 million, about $447 million) in Europe, Turkey, and Israel.

Here's an overview of the 10 biggest European tech news items for this week:

1) Google poured scorn on E.U. allegations that it skewed shopping search results to favor its own services and said regulators lack evidence and have failed to see that it is competing head on with ecommerce giants Amazon.com and eBay.

2) Mail.Ru has acquired Russian food delivery business Delivery Club from Berlin-based, Rocket Internet-backed Foodpanda for $100 million in cash.

3) The U.K. government unveiled the new National Cyber Security Strategy, with around £1.9 billion ($2.33 billion) to be invested in improving cyber security and capabilities between 2016 and 2021.

4) The corporate VC arm of German reinsurance company Munich Re Group has made a $23 million strategic investment in Relayr, a Berlin-based startup creating technologies that allow industrial customers to harness the Internet of Things.

5) Fitbit, Jawbone, and other fitness wristbands will imminently be hit with formal complaints from Norway's consumer watchdog for breaking European privacy laws.

6) Spotify has announced its acquisition of Preact, a U.S.-based provider of customer service and predictive analytics software. Terms of the acquisition were undisclosed.

7) Oslo's The Future Group, a social entertainment platform that blends virtual interactivity with TV, has raised $20 million in a Series C round from Ferd and Aker ASA, along with 25 other investors.

8) Apple apparently has a secret office in Cambridge where it's working on Siri, the company's AI-powered personal assistant.

9) Rocket Internet's cleaning service ZipJet has acquired its London-based competitor, Asteria Cleaners.

10) Graphcore, a U.K.-based startup developing new technology to deliver acceleration for machine learning and AI applications, has completed a $30 million Series A funding round from Robert Bosch Venture Capital, Samsung Catalyst Fund, Amadeus Capital Partners, Draper Esprit, and others.

Bonus link: TOP 50: Europe's most influential women in the startup and venture capital space

You can subscribe to Tech.eu's newsletter here.

This story originally appeared on tech.eu.

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Online retailer Bonobos reportedly in talks to raise $100 million funding

Posted: 04 Nov 2016 07:17 PM PDT

Bonobos Logo

(Reuters) – E-commerce menswear company Bonobos is speaking to investors about raising $100 million in a new round of funding that would value the company roughly at half a billion dollars, according to people familiar with the matter.

Bonobos is using the new funds to expand its retail footprint, highlighting the crossover that e-commerce companies are making into traditional brick and mortar retail as they push for growth, the sources said on Friday.

Bonobos, which is profitable, generates around $150 million in sales and is working with Citigroup to assist with the fundraising, according to the people, who asked not to be named because the matter is private.

Citi and Bonobos declined to comment.

New York-based Bonobos was founded in 2007 by Stanford business school graduates who wanted to create better fitting chinos. The company sells pants with a “signature curved waistband,” that creates a more flattering fit.

Bonobos has since expanded beyond khakis, and now sells golf apparel, outerwear, shoes and accessories. In 2013, it launched a female-focused website, Ayr.com, before announcing it will spin off the website late last year.

Bonobos was one of the first e-retailers to move into traditional brick and mortar in 2012, but made its biggest retail push over the last two years. Bonobos has said it is looking to reach customers who prefer to touch and see products before purchase.

Bonobos offers “guideshops” which have no inventory, but allow customers to try on clothes before having them shipped to their home. Eyewear company Warby Parker and clothing rental service Rent the Runway have similar retail concepts.

Bonobos has roughly 28 of these shops in states that include Atlanta, Texas, New York and California. It also sells clothing at retailers such as Nordstrom and Belk.

Internet giant Amazon.com has also moved further into brick and mortar and has said it will build out bookstores and food retail shops, looking to gobble up an even greater share of the respective markets.

Many of the online platforms that sprouted up over the last 20 years have since sold to larger companies, who have sought to improve their direct-to-consumer reach. Earlier this year, Unilever bought online razor retailer Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion and Wal-Mart Stores bought internet retailer Jet.com for $3 billion.

Trunk Club, a personalized online retailer that was founded by one of Bonobos’ founders Brian Spaly, sold to Nordstrom in 2014 for $350 million.

Bonobos has raised about $127 million to date with backers that include Accel Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Nordstrom.

(Reporting by Lauren Hirsch in New York and Liana B. Baker in San Francisco; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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Bot community leader accused of using 100 pitch decks to help his own startup

Posted: 04 Nov 2016 04:32 PM PDT

Screenshot of Matt Schlicht apologizing to members of the Bots Facebook group Thursday

Startup founders and some members of the Bots Facebook group are accusing its creator, Matt Schlicht, of misleading them about his intentions. In May, Schlicht asked for and received more than 100 pitch decks from entrepreneurs after offering to help connect them with investors. The furor erupted this week when Schlicht launched his own bot startup, Octane AI.

"It's frustrating because he was creating a competing product, and had all of our information for months, and we had no clue," said Steffan Howey, CEO and cofounder of Lifecycle, a chat app and bot creation platform.

Howey said he shared a pitch deck with Schlicht in May but never heard back from Schlicht and was not contacted by investors.

 "And because we were competitive to what he was secretly working on, it would be easy for me to make some assumptions that he may not have actually shopped our deck around like he said,” Howey told VentureBeat. “Why would he of? He was trying to get his own startup funded."

Schlicht has maintained that he gathered the pitch decks from some of the top bot startups because he wanted to connect them to venture capitalists or angel investors. But, as he has acknowledged, he failed to disclose that he was working on his own bot company. It’s unclear whether information Schlicht shared resulted in funding for any companies who shared pitch decks.

“I should have told everybody I was doing a company so they could make a decision about whether to share their presentation with me,” said Schlicht in a videotaped apology. “I didn't. I'm sorry. That was a huge mistake and I'm sorry.”

One month prior to inviting startups to send him their pitch decks, Schlicht started the Bots Facebook group, which has grown to near 18,000 members in six months. The most active members today are startup founders or members of the bot industry, like Chris Messina and API.ai founder Ilya Gelfenbeyn. Schlicht also created Chatbots Magazine, which has published the work of 400 authors.

These roles cemented Schlicht’s position as a leader within the bot community. But when the Octane AI bot platform launched Wednesday and announced $1.5 million in funding, the backlash was swift.

Almost immediately, members of the Bots Facebook group began to express anger and a sense of betrayal. Some wrote that Schlicht had misrepresented himself and said they wouldn’t have shared information about their companies if they had known about Octane AI.

14956044_193057517811422_3069534772566961607_n (1)

"This community just got scammed!" wrote Molly Ryans, a member of the group. Schlicht reacted by banning her from the Facebook group. VentureBeat messaged Ryans for further comment, but her Facebook user account no longer exists.

Schlicht also stoked the flames of indignation by blocking comments on posts related to pitch decks and his lack of disclosure. Schlicht defended these moves as an effort to change the discussion to what he feels are more important matters, like new API.ai features.

"It causes a lot of commotion in the Bots group,” Schlicht said. “The purpose of the Bots group isn't necessarily to discuss this [lack of disclosure]. It's to share lots of different stories, and so what I did was shut off comments and directed all the conversations related to this to a new post so that it wasn't taking over the entire group."

As a protest against the banning of Ryans and Schlicht’s lack of disclosure, the hashtag #WAAB (We Are All Banned) was started, and at least half a dozen new bot groups were created or shared in the group feed.

By midday Thursday, Schlicht was in a defensive mode. He posted an apology video, shared a link to a months-old Octane AI pitch deck, and created forms for people to apply to become moderators of the Bots group.

Members of the group can now nominate themselves or someone else to become a Bots group moderator. A vote will be held on the Bots group to choose new moderators. However, Schlicht will gather the names, review them, and determine which nominees move forward for a vote.

Who got funding?

“Not everybody that I introduced got funding, but some of them did and that's awesome.” Schlicht said in the apology video.

However, in an interview with VentureBeat, Schlicht admitted that investors never saw the pitch decks. Rather, pitch decks were gathered so Schlicht could evaluate which startups were worth sharing with investors. A list of more than 100 was reduced to about 20 companies, like Automat.ai, Zoom.ai, commerce bot Kip, character maker Imperson, travel bot Alterra, and the polling bot Polly, whose maker recently worked with Microsoft on the launch of Microsoft Teams.

Then, Schlicht said, he shared the names of these companies via email with 35 investors, people at venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Greylock Partners. Investors then picked which companies they wanted to meet and an email introduction was made, Schlicht said.

Schlicht points to Eva, a bot that sends gifts, and another startup (which asked to be kept anonymous) as companies that received funding as a result of a warm introduction.

Yet the creators of Eva and the other startup told VentureBeat that their companies received funding thanks to help from Schlicht — just not via the email introductions at the center of this controversy.

People who handed over their pitch decks to Schlicht shouldn’t be surprised, said Smooch cofounder and head of product Mike Gozzo in a comment on the group’s Facebook page. "I'm a little surprised to see so much shock over this. It’s heinous, sure, but many of you saw it coming from a mile away and you still shared pitch decks?" he said.

Schlicht is an entrepreneur who has created multiple businesses and is an alumnus of the Y Combinator startup accelerator.

“It doesn’t matter whether the motives were ulterior or were really to serve the community. But without at least a pinch of selfish motive, no one could’ve built this kind of a good group or forum,” wrote Srinath Akula, who suggested that Schlicht invite more moderators to participate in the forum.

On Thursday, amid talk of forming new bot groups, some members wondered if this was the Bot group’s equivalent of Brexit — a.k.a Botxit.

Whether through the Bots group he created or another group, Schlicht believes the community needs a forum to allow people to connect, experiment, and help one another.

“I think the biggest value of having a large group, whether it's this one or another one, is it gives people a great place to share their ideas and get feedback on what they're doing. Before I started this group, nothing like this existed,” he said. “I know people who found their cofounders through the group, who got feedback through the group, who get users through the group.”

From this incident, Schlicht said he learned that next time he should err on the side of full disclosure.

And of the promised connection to investors, some bot community members learned something too: If something appears too good to be true, it usually is.

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BlizzCon: Everything Blizzard announced today

Posted: 04 Nov 2016 04:30 PM PDT

BlizzCon is one of the biggest community events in gaming.

BlizzCon is underway in Anaheim, California, and publisher Blizzard Entertainment used its annual massive fan event to make several big announcements. But don’t go back and sit through the video just to get the news because you were busy when it was livestreaming — that’s for suckers.

We’ve gathered up all the major headlines for you right here:

Overwatch gets new character, maps, and modes

Overwatch is about to get a major content drop that includes the new character Sombra. She’s an offensive character that can hack her opponents, teleport, and turn invisible. Blizzard is also planning to introduce new 1-on-1 and 3-on-3 game types in a new Arcade mode as well as two new maps.

Blizzard establishes Overwatch League

While the Overwatch World Cup is happening this weekend, Blizzard plans to establish a long-term league for the shooter that it will own and operate. Teams will get tied to cities, and players will get guaranteed contracts and benefits.

Diablo III brings back the original game and gets Necromancer class

The Darkening of Tristram add-on for Diablo III hits test servers next week, and it re-creates the original Diablo game inside of Diablo III. The publisher is also bringing back the popular Diablo II class Necromancer.

Hearthstone’s next expansion is Mean Streets of Gadgetzan

In early December, Blizzard will begin the Mean Streets of Gadgetzan expansion. As usual, this will introduce a plethora of new cards, but it will also create new classes that are an amalgamation of the current roster.

Heroes of the Storm gets two new characters

The multiplayer online arena battler is continuing to fill out its cast of characters. Warcraft Alliance leader Varian Wynn comes to the game November 15, and Warcraft elemental lord Ragnaros will debut in December.

Google is using StarCraft II to research A.I.

Google’s DeepMind A.I. is better than even the best humans at turn-based strategy games like chess and go. Now, Google wants researchers to take on StarCraft II, which is several times more complex than even go due to its real-time nature.

Blizzard details two upcoming patches for World of Warcraft

Your raiding is never done, and Blizzard is working on more reasons for you to come back and visit its massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

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Expect more chatbots as businesses generate more data

Posted: 04 Nov 2016 04:10 PM PDT

More data means better chatbots.

Ever since the mobile revolution began, we have been able to collect huge amounts of data. In fact, in just a single minute, there are 4,166,667 Facebook likes, 347,222 tweets, and 284,722 Snapchat snaps generated. In a full day, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is produced.

Large volumes of data can be a tremendous asset to businesses. This is because businesses can use the data to get insights into consumer behavior, the market, competing products, their own company, and much more. However, a company can generate so much data that it is unable to effectively use it all. This is where chatbots can be extremely helpful.

A chatbot is a tool that is capable of handling complexity. Chatbots can sift through large volumes of data quickly and provide real-time, effective use of that data. In other words, chatbots can help to bring order from chaos. For example, chatbots can do things like answer customer service questions, scan many local restaurants to help you book dinner reservations, check sports scores, and order flowers.

Chatbots can be extremely helpful for many businesses. In fact, using a chatbot effectively can be a strong competitive differentiator for a company. However, some businesses stand to gain much more from the use of chatbots than others. Here’s a look into how a company’s data volume affects the usefulness of chatbots.

Companies with large amounts of data

Companies with a high level of data can benefit the most from chatbots. Such companies include major insurance companies, credit card companies like American Express, or others that gather tremendous amounts of data. The reason why these companies can benefit the most is because the larger a company’s data volume is, the more opportunity chatbots have to help the business.

Without chatbots, employees at high-data companies may have trouble keeping up with and effectively using the data. However, a company can implement chatbots to handle business functions that involve scanning through these large levels of data.

For example, an electronics manufacturer could put a chatbot on its website that can help with complex customer service questions. Such a chatbot could quickly search through hundreds, or even thousands, of models and products, and provide specific individual details about each product. When you consider that the process of answering these questions may have to be repeated hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of times in a year, you can really see how a chatbot can be useful for companies with large amounts of data.

Chatbots can also be used internally by companies to analyze key data that the company collects. The chatbots can scan the data in seconds, thus preventing employees from having to take ages to dig through it. Using chatbots in this manner can help companies arrive at key conclusions that can help market research, product development, competition analysis, and many other vital tasks.

Companies with small amounts of data

Companies with small amounts of data have a considerably reduced need for chatbots. After all, the primary purpose of chatbots is to help companies use their data more effectively. So if a company is not collecting significant levels of data, then a chatbot is not going to be able to help very much at all.

Companies that do not collect large amounts of data may include small retail stores with only a few products, companies that do not have a large online presence, or companies that don’t use the internet for their business at all.

If these companies do collect some data, a few employees may be able to easily make use of it. For example, a small retail store may keep a list of its most important competitors. This data may be used by an employee without the assistance of a chatbot.

Conclusion

Chatbots are an incredibly exciting development in the tech world because they can potentially help companies save a lot of money and can speed up many business processes. However, chatbots are substantially more helpful for companies with higher volumes of data than those with smaller volumes. The amount of data that your company needs to collect and analyze in order to differentiate itself determines whether or not you should look into chatbots.

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World of Warcraft: Legion’s future patches bring flying, invasions, and more bosses

Posted: 04 Nov 2016 04:01 PM PDT

Legion is a success for Blizzard, and its director is leaving the game.

Blizzard has plenty of updates coming to World of Warcraft.

The publisher detailed upcoming patches coming to Legion, the latest (and according to GamesBeat, the best) expansion released for its massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Legion sold 3.3 million copies in its first day, and a steady stream of new content ensures that those players stick around and keep paying for their subscriptions.

What’s coming in Patch 7.1.5

Patch 7.1.5 is Legion’s first small patch, meaning it doesn’t introduce significant new content like a dungeon or raid, but it will offer new rewards and evergreen content. Blizzard did not specify when this patch would release, saying it would be soon.

It will include Timewalking versions of dungeons from the Mists of Pandaria expansion. This enables players to go through the old content but have it be challenging and give appropriate awards for their level 110 characters.

The patch also brings back the Brawler’s Guild, a place where players can compete on 1-vs.-1 battles against computer opponents. While much of World of Warcraft is meant for multiplayer play, the Brawler’s Guild is mostly meant for solo players. However, random raid-sized bosses in the guild will summon multiple players queued for the mode. You can also earn Brawler’s Gold, which you can use to buy items like shirts and a Basilisk mount. Plus, the classic Arena for player-vs.-player combat Blade’s Edge is getting a graphical update.

7.1.5 also adds micro-holidays, smaller versions of the in-game holiday events that typically last for a couple of weeks and offer new quests with special rewards. For example, there will be an Ahn’Qiraj Remembrance Day, hearkening back to when players opened up that special Ahn’Qiraj gate back in 2006. Meanwhile, Volunteer Guard Day gives you a chance to take on a role normally reserved for non-player characters.

The patch brings about more changes for the MMOs classes, tweaking classes and their specialization for better balance. While this will include number-tuning, meaning simply making abilities stronger or weaker, some talents and spells will be completely changed. Blizzard will also bring back some abilities it removed from certain specializations before the launch of the expansion, including traps for non-Survival Hunters.

What’s coming in Patch 7.2

After that, comes the larger 7.2 patch, called The Tomb of Sargeras. It has players returning to the same place where many Warcraft heroes died in the events leading up to the launch of Legion. It continues the story of the Class Hall campaigns that started in the expansion. It was also add new World Quests, daily tasks that players can complete for rewards like gold and gear.

The patch also has players creating bases on the Broken Shore to help set a foothold in the Legion-controlled area. Meanwhile, the Legion will begin assaulting the other Broken Isles zones, similar to the Legion Invasion events in the game before the launch of the expansion. Unlock the invasions, these assaults end with a three-player scenario where you take the fight to a Legion airship.

And, thankfully, 7.2 will enable us to use our flying mounts in the Broken Isles. You can earn that ability by earning achievements tied-in with story quests. Also, each class will get a unique flying mount, which you can earn by completing the Class Hall Campaign.

Of course, 7.2 also includes the Tomb of Sargeras raid, end-game content intended for 10 to 25 players. It offers nine new bosses, each dropping new loot to help make your characters stronger. That includes Kil’jaeden, one of the Legion’s biggest commanders and a foe familiar to Warcraft fans.

For those who prefer 5-player content, you can check out the new dungeon Cathedral of Eternal Night. While the raid descends into the Tomb of Sargeras, the dungeon has players rising up the tower. 7.2 will make the Heroic and Mythic difficulties of the original Legion dungeons harder, while making their rewards more powerful. Blizzard is also going to split the new Karazhan dungeon up into two instances that players can choose to queue up for with random players.

On the PVP side, 7.2 adds Brawls, similar to a feature that Blizzard’s been adding to a lot of its other games, including Hearthstone and Overwatch. Brawls change rules and offer unique fights. For example, you can play a variation of the capture-the-flag Warsong Gulch map that allows you to capture the enemy flag even if your team’s flag isn’t in your base.

The patch also brings new traits to unlock for your Artifact Weapon, which players have been using since Legion launch. This includes the ability to put new points in old traits as well as all new abilities that you can unlock new perks. You can also now spend Order Resources to unlock more Artifact Power, which you need in order to unlock those new traits and make your weapon stronger. 7.2 will also continue the Artifact Weapon questlines and allow players to unlock a new appearance. You can unlock the new appearance by completing difficult, solo challenges.

So, yeah … that’s of stuff coming to Legion. Blizzard didn’t say when 7.2 would release, but it did promise that it would follow soon after 7.1.5.

However, 7.2 won’t be the end of the story. Blizzard teased future content that had players taking the fight directly to the Legion by going to their home planet of Argus. We don’t know if that will be in a future patch or expansion.

Google’s DeepMind A.I. takes on something even more complicated than chess or go: StarCraft II

Posted: 04 Nov 2016 03:09 PM PDT

They should make a movie about what happens when you teach an A.I. how to fight a war.

Google and Blizzard are opening up StarCraft II to anyone who wants to teach artificial intelligence systems how to conduct warfare, because apparently I’m the only one who has ever seen The Terminator.

Researchers can now use Google’s DeepMind A.I. to test various theories for ways that machines can learn to make sense of complicated systems, in this case Blizzard’s beloved real-time strategy game. In StarCraft II, players fight against one another by gathering resources to pay for defensive and offensive units. It has a healthy competitive community that is known for having a ludicrously high skill level. But considering that DeepMind A.I. has previously conquered complicated turn-based games like chess and go, a real-time strategy game makes sense as the next frontier.

The companies announced the collaboration today at the BlizzCon fan event in Anaheim, California, and Google’s DeepMind A.I. division posted a blog about the partnership and why StarCraft II is so ideal for machine-learning research.

“StarCraft is an interesting testing environment for current AI research because it provides a useful bridge to the messiness of the real-world,” reads Google’s blog. “The skills required for an agent to progress through the environment and play StarCraft well could ultimately transfer to real-world tasks.”

Most notably, StarCraft requires players to send out scouts to learn information. To succeed, the player then needs to retain and act on that information over a long period of time with ever-changing variables.

“This makes for an even more complex challenge as the environment becomes partially observable,” Google’s blog explains. “[That’s] an interesting contrast to perfect information games such as chess or go. And this is a real-time strategy game where both players are playing simultaneously, so every decision needs to be computed quickly and efficiently.”

If you’re wondering how much humans will have to teach A.I. about how to play and win at StarCraft, the answer is very little. DeepMind learned to beat the best go players in the world by teaching itself through trial and error. All the researchers had to do was explain how to determine success, and the A.I. can then begin playing games against itself on a loop while always reinforcing any strategies that lead to more success.

For StarCraft, that will likely mean asking the A.I. to prioritize how long it survives and/or how much damage it does to the enemy’s primary base. Or, maybe, researchers will find that defining success in a more abstract way will lead to better results, discovering the answers to all of this is the entire point of Google and Blizzard teaming up.

And, of course, once we are dealing with the fallout of the A.I. realizing that its best strategy for winning is to overtake every computer on the internet to use as its massive, worldwide cloud-based brain, you just steer clear of my completely analog bunker out in the Rocky Mountains.

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Hearthstone’s tri-class cards will change the card game forever

Posted: 04 Nov 2016 02:30 PM PDT

Hearthstone: Mean Streets of Gadgetzan.

Players expected Blizzard to announce a new expansion for its digital-card-game-market leader Hearthstone. They didn’t think it would introduce a new card type that completely changes the way they’ll make decks.

Before, cards have belonged in one of two categories: class (Mage, Rogue, Warrior, Warlock, Priest, Paladin, Shaman, Druid, and Hunter) and neutral, which could go into any deck. You couldn’t put a Hunter card in a Priest deck, for example (unless you used a Thoughtsteal or another spell to add one to yours). Now, Blizzard is introducing tri-class cards in Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, the new Hearthstone expansion coming out in early December.

This card can go in Mage, Priest, and Warlock decks.

Above: This card can go in Mage, Priest, and Warlock decks.

Image Credit: Hearthpwn

Tri-class cards can go into one of three classes. For example, the new Legendary Kazakus can go work for Priests, Mages, and Warlocks. In Mean Streets of Gadgetzan, the nine classes have formed three gangs. Priests, Mages, and Warlocks form the Kabal. The Grimy Goons include the Hunters, Paladins, and Warriors, while The Jade Lotus have Rogue, Druid, and Shaman.

Blizzard isn’t grouping classes together randomly. The Kabal, for example, consist of the Hearthstone’s three main spell-users. Each of the three gangs will have three tri-class cards, including one Legendary (like Kazakus, pictured to the right). So, that’s a total of nine tri-class cards. It’s clear that Blizzard is treading carefully with this new mechanics.

Still, this transforms the way that Blizzard has to design cards and how players create decks. Trying to balance a single class is hard enough. With these tri-class cards, Blizzard has to figure out how to make a card that works well with three different classes.

Now, that may not sound too different from what Blizzard has to do with neutral cards, which can go in any deck. But these tri-class cards offer some interesting possibilities. Now, a Priest has a chance to Discover a Mage card. Imagine playing an innocent Priest, only to see your foe destroy you with a Pyroblast.

Or picture a Shaman that gets the Druid spell Innervate and then can suddenly use powerful cards like Fire Elemental for 4 mana instead of 6 or to negate the effects of Overload. Or you could be a Paladin that gets extra value from your Secrets if you pick up the Hunter weapon Eaglehorn Bow (or even worse, a Secret Paladin armed with Freezing Trap or Cat Trick).

It’s also worth noting that players have had ways to steal cards cards from other classes before. The Warlock spell Renounce Darkness allows players to replace all of the class cards in their deck with ones from a different class. Also, the Rogue minion Undercity Huckster gives players a card from their opponent’s class. But tri-class cards are different. Players can put them into their decks when they’re making them, not having to rely on random spells and effects from minions.

But tri-class cards aren’t just about Discovering minions and spells you normally wouldn’t have. Just look at Kazakus again. The spell it allows players to create can be extremely powerful, as we can see in the video below.

Now imagine we find out that this is one of the best cards in the set. That’s a huge boon for Priest, Warlock, and Mage, while the other six classes have no chance to normally play it. Think about how different Hearthstone would have been during the Goblins vs. Gnomes era if Dr. Boom only worked for three classes.

It’ll be interesting to see how the community reacts to these cards and how popular they become. These multi-class cards could become an even bigger part of the game in the future … or it could flop, like those poor Inspire cards from The Grand Tournament.

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5 celebrity chatbots to try

Posted: 04 Nov 2016 02:10 PM PDT

Celebrity chatbots give us the illusion of a reply.

Chatbots are mostly intended to be practical and helpful. They help us with our daily tasks so that we can focus on what we do best. But it’s not all serious work.

Since we’re living in the era of connectivity, we’re connected to our favorite celebrities via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The problem, of course, is that celebrities rarely say anything back. But now this empty space of conversing with your beloved stars is filled with chatbots! We can ask them about their lives and their upcoming projects.

Last time, I talked to some random chatbots and explained how they replied. This time I took on celebrity chatbots. Take a look!

1. Selena Gomez

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Everybody loves Selena Gomez. She’s gorgeous and makes some good music. But have you ever thought about talking to her, asking about her life and her music? Talking to the SelenaBot was a good experience. The bot replied instantly. It greeted me in a nice way *blushes*, and when I asked her about her favorite songs, she told me! If you’re a Selena fan, then you should definitely try talking to this chatbot.

2. Elon Musk

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The Ask Elon Musk chatbot is a total sarcastic badass, like the man himself. If you want to know anything about SpaceX, Tesla, or AI, it’s there for you. The Elon Musk chatbot is good at giving advice as well. It felt like I’m actually talking to Elon (including the cocky attitude), and did I tell you that it has an awesome “Elon Musk for President” t-shirt? I’m definitely gonna buy one!

3. Kanye West

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As a rap star and unfiltered internet sensation, Kanye West gets trolled 365 days a year (366 in leap years). Forget the Kardashian connection — this guy is really interesting in his own right, and so is his chatbot. Kanyewestbot entertains you with his bold way of talking about his life, his songs, and of course his wife. The script is good, and it does feel like you’re talking to the real Kanye.

4. Eric Cartman

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Deep learning and deep fried! OK, so it’s not based on a real person, but this Eric Cartman chatbot is creating a buzz for its sharp style of conversing and its hilarious South Park references. It even swears like Cartman! If you’re a South Park fan, you’ll enjoy talking to this chatbot. The best celebrity chatbot award goes to Eric, my man.

5. George Takei

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George Takei? Who doesn’t wanna talk to him — especially if you’re a Star Trek fan! From motivational talk to dad jokes, this chatbot offers the unique experience of having a conversation with George Takei. There are a few hiccups in the scripts, but those are present in almost every bot. Talk to this bot to start your day with a smile.

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