16 December, 2011



Roku rolls out a remote control iOS app for its set-top boxes

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 09:44 AM PST

Roku has launched a new iPhone app for its streaming set-top boxes that turns your iPhone or iPad into a remote control.

Roku boxes, which range in price from $49-$99, allow people to access over 350 channels of content from video, music, social and gaming services. Many people use it solely as a way to watch Netflix and Hulu Plus, but that could soon change. That said, the iOS app remote is a nice, long-overdue addition to the set-top boxes.

Aside from the standard video playback functionality, the app allows Roku owners to rate, add/remove and launch channels on their device. The app gives you all the standard buttons found on a regular Roku remote and lets you swipe your fingers to navigate through other things. Probably the biggest advantage to the iOS app is the virtual keyboard. (I don’t know about most people, but I definitely hate having to type out account information with a direction pad, one character at a time.)

The remote works for all Roku set-top models and the setup process is pretty simple. Users need to have their iPhone on the same wi-fi network as their Roku for the remote functionality to work. Once that’s done you just need to sign into your Roku account for it to start working.

With the increased focus of using streaming set-top boxes as low-powered gaming consoles, I wonder if Roku will ever make use of the iPhone as a motion controller. Although, many people (myself included) probably don’t want to wave their $600 smartphone around wildly while shouting at a television screen.

Screenshots via Roku

Filed under: media, mobile, VentureBeat

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Merchants get savvy about daily deals, to the detriment of consumers, Groupon and LivingSocial

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 09:12 AM PST

A zombie places an order at McDonald's. For BRAAAAIIIINS.

In an unusual move, two of the three underwriters of Groupon’s IPO started their research coverage of the Chicago-based daily deals company this week with the equivalent of a neutral rating. Credit Suisse rated Groupon a “neutral” and Morgan Stanley initiated coverage with an “equal-weight.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, Morgan Stanley analyst Scott Devitt said that only time will tell if Groupon is “a successful company, or just an Internet-induced fad.”

Goldman Sachs, the bookrunner on the Groupon IPO, started coverage with a buy rating, saying that Groupon’s scale would help it overcome the challenges of the daily deal business.

LivingSocial, the clear number two in the space, raised $176 million in private financing instead of doing its own IPO.

Deals that work for merchants are less attractive to consumers

A recent deal by LivingSocial vividly illustrates one of the biggest challenges that many analysts have missed: merchants figure out how to make daily deals work for them. As a result, the economics come down to earth, making them less attractive for consumers and daily deal companies.

Daily deal sites have benefited from the impression that they are marketing magic. In fact, they are just another form of marketing.

Here’s an example. LivingSocial recently offered vouchers for 5 Big Macs and 5 large french fries for $13, essentially half off the $26 retail price of the food. In two days, LivingSocial sold a bit more than 290,000 voucher packages.

Although that’s a large number, the Big Mac deal clearly didn’t sell like hotcakes compared with previous LivingSocial promotions. A $20 Amazon gift certificate for $10 sold 1.1 million vouchers in one day. A $20 for $10 promotion at Whole Foods sold out — 1 million units in less than a day.

That’s despite some changes that made it easier to buy more: McDonald’s deal was originally scheduled for one day and then expanded to another. Unlike the other deals, consumers could purchase two sets of vouchers. (According to Alistair Barr of Reuters, LivingSocial was prepared to sell up to 1 million vouchers.)

“We were very pleased with the sales of the McDonald’s deal, which broke the sales record for national fast food deals,” said Andrew Weinstein, a spokesman for LivingSocial.

Still, the deal sold less than 1/3 the volume of the others. The fundamental difference is that the McDonald’s deal wasn’t essentially selling cash for half off. The Amazon and Whole Foods credit were almost like having cash to spend; there were very few restrictions on how to spend them. The Amazon deal was in so much demand that people created multiple accounts so that they could buy more than the limit of 1 voucher. But when you get farther away from cash, people will buy less.

McDonald’s special sauce

The McDonald’s deal is indicative of what more businesses will do in the future:

  •  Offering specific products instead of cash discounts. In this case, McDonald’s bundled Big Macs, which are relatively low-margin, with french fries, which are high-margin.
  • Fake retail pricing. The $26 “retail” price of the vouchers is based on the a la carte pricing of these items. But these two are usually purchased in conjunction with a drink in a value meal. A value meal knocks about 20% off the price. So really the 50 percent discount is a 30 percent discount.
  • High likelihood of an upsell. ”Would you like fries with that?” will become “Would you like a drink with that?” Fountain drinks are among the highest-margin products in existence. That’s an easy $1-$2 spend on top of the voucher value. Add in any kids in tow demanding happy meals and toys, and the upsell becomes significant.
  • Efficiency of redemption. Many businesses forget to calculate how much it will cost to train staff. Also, there is a potential negative impact to brand and consumer relationships if the offer is hard to use. There’s also the impact on time at the register. In one case, it took me 30 minutes to redeem a Foursquare deal. The clerk and his manager were tied up the whole time and couldn’t serve others. As a company with thousands of franchised stores, McDonald’s couldn’t afford to do all of this training. They are printing and mailing paper vouchers that fit with existing redemption processes.

From a merchant perspective, this is absolutely the right way to structure a deal.

But McDonald’s has one big advantage that most small businesses don’t: Because its brand can draw people to LivingSocial, it gets a deal sweeter than a strawberry shake. On a $13 transaction, a typical daily deal merchant is getting about $6.50. It’s extremely unlikely that McDonald’s franchisees would tolerate receiving just $1.30 for a Big Mac and fries. In the past, franchisees have revolted against overly generous promotions. McDonald’s is likely receiving the vast majority of the $13, giving LivingSocial a much smaller cut.

LivingSocial can run deals that Groupon can’t

In his infamous email to employees, Groupon CEO Andrew Mason wrote:

Living Social's U.S. local business is about 1/3rd our size in revenue (and smaller in GP [gross profit]) and has shrunk relative to us in the last several months. This, in part, appears to be driving them toward short-sighted tactics to buy revenue, like buying gift certificates from national retailers at full price and then paying out of their own pocket to give the appearance of a 50% off deal. Our marketing team has tested this tactic enough to know that it's generally a bad idea, and not a profitable form of customer acquisition.

(Of course, it’s in Mason’s interest to say that. Aggressiveness by LivingSocial hurts Groupon.)

The Amazon deal specifically stated “Amazon.com is not a sponsor of this promotion,” implying that LivingSocial was paying for the discount out of its pocket. Amazon is, however, a substantial investor in LivingSocial.

For the Whole Foods deal, I estimate that LivingSocial paid Whole Foods between $18 and $20 per claimed voucher. LivingSocial CEO Tim O'Shaughnessy told Bloomberg Businessweek that more than 100,000 new subscribers signed up as a result of the deal. I’ll be extremely generous in interpreting O’Shaughnessy’s comment and assume “more than 100,000″ means 150,000 people. At an $18 price per voucher, that leads to a user acquisition cost of $53. That’s roughly double Groupon’s extremely high cost of customer acquisition.

But LivingSocial is in a unique position. As a private company that is only about 1/3 the size of Groupon in terms of subscribers, it needs to grow its user base. It makes sense to do low-margin and negative-margin deals.

“We looked at all of the providers,” Peter Sterling, a vice president of marketing at McDonald’s, told Reuters. “For our restaurant system, LivingSocial was the best fit for us.”

As a public company, Groupon can’t run deals like this. Under the net revenue accounting that Groupon was forced to adopt, a zero-margin deal would also show up as zero revenue. It would also have the effect of dropping Groupon’s share of revenue, which is a number that investors should be watching very closely.

If LivingSocial continues to put pressure on Groupon through low-margin deals, Groupon will eventually have to respond.

There are other competitors waiting in the wings. According to Bloomberg, PayPal is preparing its own deals product to be launched in the first quarter of 2012. It hopes to tap into the service’s more than 103 million users.

Although I have my doubts about PayPal’s ability to be a successful competitor in the daily deals market, it does have the potential to put more margin pressure on Groupon. PayPal has built its business on taking small amounts of money from a large number of customers, while Groupon has built its business taking large amounts of money from a small base of merchants.

In a typical payments transaction, PayPal takes about 3 percent of the transaction. Even if they charge 10 percent or 20 percent for daily deals, that’s still much lower than the 37 percent Groupon charged in Q3.

In short, the daily deals sites have a tough road ahead of them. But Groupon, as the market leader and as a public company, faces even steeper challenges than most.

Rocky AgrawalRocky Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.

Top photo: A zombie places an order at McDonald’s. Photo by Aaron Landry/Flickr.

Filed under: VentureBeat

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Review: OnLive Mobilized: How cloud gaming works on through cell carriers

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 09:00 AM PST

This holiday season, mobile gamers will get a chance to do something they’ve never been able to do: play console games on smartphones and tablets.

Last week OnLive – the cloud-gaming company which streams games rather than playing them natively – released an app for Android (the iOS update is still pending approval from Apple) for use with smartphones and tablets. The mobile service functions much like how OnLive streams high-quality games-on-demand to desktop computers and laptops. But now the service has been tuned to work with Wi-Fi or 4G-connected mobile devices, which typically have much less capability and bandwidth to run a high-quality game.

Users can play a total 24 games with touch-controls alone, or the entire library of OnLive’s 186 games with a new Bluetooth-enabled controller, all on select Android smartphones or tablets. And at some point, users will be able to play on the iOS devices as well.

I've spent the last week testing the OnLive service across Los Angeles on all four major cell providers: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, on each of their respective networks (Verizon on LTE/CDMA, AT&T on 4G and 3G, Sprint on 4G and CDMA, and T-Mobile on 4G and 2G). For the purposes of this article, 4G will signify HSDPA/HSPA+, and all 3G networks will be branded 3G. OnLive did not run on networks slower than 3G. Tests were also done on various Wi-Fi networks, since the now-ubiquitous nature of OnLive will allow users to enjoy free Wi-Fi gaming on their phones and tablets outside of the home.

I did the tests in two ways: while stationary and while driving (up to highway speeds). Stationary tests include using OnLive in different locations with different signal strengths, from one bar to the maximum number of bars (which differs between carriers and phone models). Phones and tablets tested includes the following:

  • HTC Vivid (AT&T)
  • HTC Rezound (Verizon)
  • LG Marquee (Sprint, 3G)
  • Motorola Droid Bionic (Verizon)
  • Samsung Galaxy S II (AT&T)
  • Samsung Epic 4G Touch (Sprint)
  • T-Mobile myTouch
  • T-Mobile myTouch Q
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab Wi-Fi (original, 7″)
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (Verizon LTE)

While OnLive only recommends select Android devices (and all iOS 5 devices once the app is available), in my tests the only requirement for any Android phone to work is a standard 4G antenna. Reports of certain phones not working have come up, but the app is available to all Android phone owners and works on the overwhelming majority of devices. According to OnLive CEO Steve Perlman, every phone handles decompression of the video signal differently, and only the recommended devices listed here have specific algorithms that OnLive has developed for optimal results.

"We use a different compression algorithm for different networks," Perlman added, which results in slightly different results on all cell carriers. However, to ensure the best quality of game play, "the compression algorithm changes every 4 milliseconds." Every phone and every network acts differently, so this method stabilizes the signal across all phones and carriers. Finally, using the new Wireless Controller does not affect data speeds unless, according to Perlman, users connect multiple controllers to a single device.

I tested with three games specifically, though bounced on and off of others to make sure they worked just fine. The three were Mini Ninjas, Darksiders, and Unreal Tournament 3. Mini Ninjas and Darksiders are both titles that use virtual gamepads to play, and require no external controller. The former is a slow-paced arcade action game, while the latter is a medium-paced action/adventure title. UT3 is a fast-paced first person shooter that requires an external controller, and is the most difficult game to play through OnLive because of just how fast the game is, even using a wired connection.

A game like UT3 is extremely stressful for cloud gaming because milliseconds matter. A fast gamer will be able to tell when they click the mouse button if the trigger pulled immediately or not. Darksiders and Mini Ninjas are both easily playable over Wi-Fi with no perceptual slowdown whatsoever.

Here's are the results of my testing per carrier:

Verizon – Yes for LTE, No for CDMA

LTE networks are the fastest available today, with speeds ranging from 20 megabits per second (Mb/sec) to 60 megabits per second. OnLive requires only 1 Mb/sec to run, though recommends at least 5Mb/sec. On Verizon's LTE network, average download and upload rates far surpassed OnLive's requirement, and gaming quality over Verizon's LTE network is superb. On the HTC Rezound, Motorola Droid Bionic, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and all other devices used with an LTE hotspot, the quality of games played was on par with high-speed home Wi-Fi.

With Verizon's LTE, it didn't matter if games were played while stationary or driving. Speeds while traveling had no noticeable impact on game play, though there were occasional stalls when driving. This is presumably due to jumping between cell towers, though Perlman told me that LTE networks are highly efficient, and there are many possible reasons for game play stalling abruptly, such as the signal bouncing around a building.

However, over Verizon's LTE, OnLive was both playable and enjoyable, both with and without a controller. In my testing it never dropped a signal and only momentarily paused. The visual quality is excellent; video compression is smooth and almost impossible to see. Gameplay is extremely low-latency. Button presses are instantly read and, even with the occasional sputter, there is never any lag or a drop in quality. Even with a poor signal, LTE provides a high-quality gaming experience. I actually had more success over LTE in UT3 than over my home Wi-Fi, which seems absurd. Then again LTE in some areas locally is 5x as fast as my home internet.

Because Verizon's LTE network is still fairly limited, when devices go out of range they switch over to the CDMA network, which is significantly slower. Using all of the Verizon handsets on CDMA is, except under perfect conditions (with a great connection and not moving), unplayable. CDMA doesn't have the bandwidth capacity to really support streaming gameplay, mostly due to slow upload speeds. When in a good location with a strong connection, it's possible to play games, but the video quality is very poor, and button presses can and often do lag.

Case in point, I played Darksiders while in the car driving on a freeway. The play experience was fine; smooth, quick, with only occasional sputters. But as soon as I lost the LTE signal, the game stalled for 5-10 seconds, and OnLive’s system kicked in and paused the game to wait for a better signal. Because Darksiders relies on checkpoints or saves, I lost some data, but was able to resume the game without concern later on.

AT&T – Yes

Though AT&T's LTE is not yet available in Los Angeles, 4G is. 4G is available on a small number of handsets, including all AT&T devices listed above, as well as the iPhone 4S. Most older US-based GSM phones do not support 4G, though utilizing the network does not require any new technology. European handsets have used the technology for over three years.

Over 4G OnLive is both playable and enjoyable. It doesn't match the fluidity and visual acuity of LTE, but for game play that's a moot point. Because 4G required only minimal change to AT&T's current infrastructure, the network is universal nationwide: if you have a 3G connection, then you have 4G too. When Verizon phones when out of range of LTE, AT&T models continued playing without experiencing any lag or stalling.

Both stationary and when in motion, 4G on AT&T proved to have good to great quality for OnLive gaming. Video quality is very good, there is minimal lag, and the overall experience is low-latency. While it's not quite as good as on Verizon's LTE network, AT&T with 4G is the only carrier that I can recommend playing games through OnLive for car rides consistently, with a 4G-ready device. However, fast-paced games like UT3 showed some strain, mostly because of the amount of upstream bandwidth required for all of the button presses. Considering UT3 is one of just a handful of FPS titles currently available through OnLive, this slowness isn’t as big a concern as it may seem. Then again, pulling the trigger 50 times and only getting 45 shots is a problem, especially if you’re playing against friends online.

On 3G, just like with Verizon's CDMA, the quality is exponentially worse, and it isn't playable except with a good connection and not moving. AT&T is the only network where it was actually difficult to find areas with one or two bars, or generally poor reception. There are holes in the network, but they are generally very small and limited to canyons and rural roads, by the coast. In general, with poor reception OnLive will pause game play until the phone/tablet picks up a stronger signal.

AT&T, however, is also the only carrier that had could not connect to OnLive's servers 25 percent of the time. This is likely due to data overloads at local cell towers, because it only occurred during high-peak times and only in certain locations. I found no evidence of this on any other service provider.

Filed under: cloud, games

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Zynga’s stock rises in early trading (and then falls)

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 08:49 AM PST

Zynga’s stock price rose as high as 15 percent in early trading on Nasdaq as the company went public at $10 a share.

[Update: at 12:10 pm Eastern time, Zynga's stock has fallen to $9.88 a share]

Raising at least $1 billion, Zynga’s debut on the stock market is the biggest tech IPO in the U.S. since Google went public in 2004 and the biggest IPO in the history of the game industry. Trading under the symbol ZNGA, the stock rose to $11.22 a share at 11:49 am and has risen as high as $11.50 so far today.

Zynga had estimated its price would be about $8.50 to $10 a share in its pre-IPO roadshow, but it priced the stock at the high end of that range, valuing the company, including options, at $8.9 billion. Online game company Nexon, by contrast, which IPO’d two days ago, raised $1.2 billion on the Tokyo Stock Exchange and saw its stock fall in the first couple of days of trading.

Zynga is offering around 14 percent of its common stock, or about 100 million shares. Underwriters have the option to buy 15 million more shares to cover over-allotments, which means Zynga could raise as much as $1.15 billion. Back in July, when Zynga filed, rumors were that Zynga’s value would be $15 billion to $20 billion, and in August, a third-party estimate put Zynga’s value at $14.1 billion. But now the public market is the ultimate test for Zynga and its vision to make everybody into a social gamer, as chronicled in our extensive story on the history of Zynga.

Filed under: games

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Zynga by the numbers (infographic)

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 08:34 AM PST

Social game maker Zynga, which began public trading today on the Nasdaq, released its latest set of numbers that are meant to dazzle investors. Check out the stats, from the number of pounds of food served to 1,700 employees at Zynga headquarters every week (24,000) to total neighbor connections in Zynga games (4 billion).

Filed under: games, social

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

The9′s Game Zone enables mobile game discovery in China (exclusive)

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 08:00 AM PST

The9, an online gaming company with a long history in China, said it has scored good results making games more discoverable in the China Apple App Store.

Working with OpenFeint, The9 has created its Game Zone social gaming platform to help promote and distribute mobile games for third-party game developers.

The9 partnered with game developer Beijing Handloft in Beijing to launch the game Terrible Coaster on mobile devices in China. The game saw great success, rising to the No. 1 free app in the China App Store and remaining there for four days. The move shows that, just as in the U.S., mobile games can benefit from social distribution techniques.

Chris Shen, vice president of The9 and general manager of the mobile business unit, said in an exclusive interview with VentureBeat that the company has figured out how to promote games so they can reach a wide audience in a number of mobile app stores in China’s fragmented app ecosystem. The9 can partner with developers via Game Zone so their games can be exposed to millions of players in China across a number of third-party channels, telecom carrier app stores and mobile device pre-installs.

“We licensed OpenFeint and localized it for the market in China,” Shen said. “We now have 40 partners in China, including three major carriers, mobile device makers and third-party channels.”

Those partners constitute a major mobile game publishing network that allows The9 to get a mobile game in front of a big audience, Shen said.

Terrible Coaster, an action adventure game, debuted on Nov. 30 and has surpassed 700,000 downloads.

Zhao Sanjiang, CEO of Beijing Handloft, said the success of the game was due in large part to the exposure of the title to so many players via The9 Game Zone. Sanjiang believes that networked mobile games with social features are the ones that will succeed in a vast cross-channel network such as The9 Game Zone.

The9 was an investor in OpenFeint, which was acquired by Japan’s Gree this year for $104 million. The9 also continues to invest in American game developers with Fund9, a $100 million fund that helps localize American and European games for distribution in China.

The9, which once operated World of Warcraft in China for Blizzard Entertainment, operates games such as Soul of The Ultimate Nation, Atlantica, and Kingdom Heroes 2 Online in mainland China. The company is also making a number of its own online games. It was originally founded in 1999 as a virtual community and evolved into an online game operator starting in 2002. The World of Warcraft deal ended in 2009.

Filed under: games, mobile, VentureBeat

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

The DeanBeat: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception tops our list of the 10 best games of 2011

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 08:00 AM PST

This year, with our ramped up our GamesBeat review team, we’ve taken our Game of the Year choices much more seriously than we have in the past. We asked our reviewers to select the semifinalists and then picked the final winners ourselves. But our vote on the best game of 2011 ended in a tie, so we had to hold a tie-breaker round to pick our winner.

And the final tie-breaker vote went — for the second time since 2009 — to the Uncharted franchise.

It was a more democratic and contentious process than we’ve ever had. But it’s the least we could do, considering game companies are spending scores of millions of dollars on games, and consumers are spending billions of dollars on them. This year offered some of the best games we’ve ever seen. We hope you enjoy reading our selections, and please let us know in the comments if you agree or disagree with our choices. Be sure to take our poll at the bottom of the story.

Without further ado, here are our top 10 games of 2011:

1. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release date: Nov. 1
GamesBeat review score: 91

In 2009, we gave Uncharted 2: Among Thieves the honor of game of the year. And in 2011, Uncharted 3 has taken the top title again because of its cinematic story, realistic characters, outstanding graphics and unbelievably action-packed combat scenes. As the treasure-hunting hero Nathan Drake, you have to battle your way through a burning French château as it collapses around you. You have to survive a firefight in a cargo plane as the aircraft’s cargo empties out the open ramp in mid-air. And you must dispatch your enemies as you outrun the flooding of a capsized cruise ship. In every scene, you see the spectacular effects from just the right angle, and you have to time your response right to survive in the nick of time. After you play this game, you close your eyes and see the memorable images — like those damn spiders — that take you back to the immersive experience. This is what makes Uncharted the crown jewel in Sony’s portfolio of great video game franchises.

As our interview with Naughty Dog’s Justin Richmond revealed, the developers focused on creating movie-like set pieces, or action sequences that took our breath away, much like blockbuster movies do. The beginning of the game took us deeper into the character of Nathan Drake and his relationship with fellow thief Victor “Sully” Sullivan, who is both Drake’s corrupter and savior. You feel the emotional tugs as Drake parts from his companion Elena, whose eyes sparkle as she holds back tears. You can feel the hatred as Drake seeks revenge against Katherine Marlowe, a memorable villain who runs an army of thugs in a secret society.

Nobody aspires to create such a high level of emotional engagement in games, particularly in the genre of shooting games. The title has its flaws, but it overcomes them by making you feel like an actor inside an adventure movie where your actions make the difference between life or death. The action is backed up by humor, witty dialogue, and a symmetry in the story that links the beginning and the ending. That is what makes this title appealing to much more than just hardcore shooting fans.

“An airplane losing its cargo in mid-air. A château falling apart in an inferno. A cruise ship sinking from a hole in its side. Only Naughty Dog considers staging gun battles in such places. They are defining moments in a game that really delivers a game-play experience that is like no other.” — Dean Takahashi

2. Portal 2
Developer: Valve
Publisher: Valve
Platform: PC, Mac, PS 3, Xbox 360
Release date: April 19
GamesBeat review score: unrated

Valve's Portal 2 was built upon the strong machinations of the massively successful original. To be honest, Portal 2 is rarely more than a series of standalone test chambers, some of which are not particularly clever, or enjoyable. That said, it's not the mind-bending, space-shifting, goo-riding puzzles that elevate Portal 2 far above the competition, but rather its unrivaled writing and voice acting. GLaDOS, Wheatley, and J. Jonah Jameson deftly propel the voiceless Chell along on her journey with their insane ponderings, diabolical aspirations, and undeniably witty banter. With developers constantly struggling to push their games to some arbitrary 10, 20, or 50-hour playtime predominantly listed on the back of the box, Portal 2 proves that a shorter, concise, and well-made masterpiece is infinitely more valuable than a 100-hour game that wears out its welcome long before the credits roll.

"The last game before Portal 2 that I willingly beat twice in the same day was Resident Evil 2. To fans of either series, that is the highest recommendation I can bestow." –Sebastian Haley

3. Batman: Arkham City
Developer: Rocksteady
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Release date: Oct. 18
GamesBeat review score: 89

Cliff “CliffyB” Bleszinski once promised that Gears of War 2 would be "bigger, better, and more bad-ass" than the original. Whether or not that was accomplished is up for debate, but Rocksteady could have easily applied that PR catchphrase to this year's Arkham Asylum sequel. Taking to the streets of the makeshift Arkham City, players can experience the crime-fighting and crime-solving aspects of the World's Greatest Detective like never before. I'm not sure why it took so long for someone to finally get it right, I'm just glad that they did.

The writing and voice acting is sketchy at times, but the brilliant and plentiful Riddler puzzles are easily the most well-thought-out diversions in any game I've ever played. At first I scoffed at the addition of a playable Catwoman, expecting nothing more than a half-assed mutation of Batman (you know, like Robin and Nightwing ended up being). But Catwoman ended up stealing the show, in my opinion — her combat moves are downright awesome, while her wall-climbing and whip-swinging traversal make an excellent alternative to the Dark Knight's.

"Rocksteady has managed to not only create one of the greatest pieces of Batman culture, but has also elevated Catwoman to the upper echelon's of gaming's most able-bodied females. It's not a perfect game, but it's also hard to imagine where Rocksteady can go from here." — Sebastian Haley

4. Minecraft
Developer: Mojang
Publisher: Mojang
Platforms: PC, iOS
Release date: Nov. 18 for version 1.0
GamesBeat review score: pending

Minecraft takes players into a blocky, procedurally generated world, complete with mobile monsters (mobs), farm animals, and an underworld called the Nether. It runs on the Java platform on PC and Mac, as well as within a web browser. The game provides an open world with day, night, and weather cycles. Players must dig deep into the skin of the world, gathering resources to craft ever more complex items and contraptions, and can also build high into the clouds, making Minecraft one of the most addictive and innovative games of the last couple of years.

Released as alpha software in May 2009, and as beta in December 2010, the game made waves across the internet as geeks and gamers discovered this sleeper hit, spending $20 per license and making original programmer  Markus “Notch” Persson enough money to start a company, Mojang, and bring the game to full 1.0 release just this past November. Minecraft had surpassed 10 million registered users by July, 2011, and over 4 million purchases by November 2011, even before release. It has never been commercially advertised, only passed along by word of mouth. There is an extensive YouTube presence of the game, with Minecraft video creators like Minecraft Dad building what seems to be a lucrative channel on the video service, all based on this game.

“Minecraft combines the joy of building, the thrill of discovery, and the mechanics of video game survival into one fantastically compelling game made all the better by its staunch indie cred.” – Rob LeFebvre

5. Dark Souls
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Release date: Oct. 4
GamesBeat review score: 89

Yes, Minecraft and Dark Souls are tied. These games couldn’t be more different. Dark Souls arrived in style towards the end of the year, offering gamers what is essentially an evolved form of its spiritual predecessor, Demon's Souls. With its deep character creation and weapon crafting systems, and virtually load-free open world, the game provided the opportunity for players to engage in a highly immersive and personal journey.

What made Dark Souls stand out this year, to my mind, is the care and attention to detail that From Software put into crafting the game world. Playing the game, I was constantly surprised and astounded by what I saw, making my steady exploration seem like a real adventure, in the truest sense of the word. While Dark Souls offers a level of difficulty not seen in many current-generation games, it is perfectly beatable, given the right amounts of patience and tenacity. There is no denying that you will die, a lot, while playing the game, but the brief moments of joy elicited by success, against seemingly insurmountable odds, are second to none.

"Dark Souls offers a vast and mysterious game world, beautifully crafted and filled with magic and wonder at every turn. It offers a level of challenge that is missing from most games, inviting you to explore and discover its secrets for yourself. The mixture of RPG, action and subtle multiplayer elements is truly sublime, and is a great example of how to incorporate multiplayer features into a largely single player experience." — Dan Crawley

Filed under: games

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Analysts: Market for new game handhelds shrinking compared to heyday

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 07:00 AM PST

The legacy of Nintendo's Game Boy may not end with the 3DS, but two industry analysts suggest the Kyoto, Japan-based company's line of portable video game players and its ilk may be past their prime.

Nintendo's 3DS and Sony's upcoming PlayStation Vita are facing increased pressure from smartphones and other game-capable mobile devices for both consumers' time and money. While the handhelds are targeting two different audiences – the Vita and 3DS are intended for the traditional video game crowd whereas gaming tends to be a secondary function for the typical mobile device user – they are ultimately after the same mind share.

"The market for adult casual gaming on portable gaming hardware has practically disappeared since … smartphones and tablets have arrived," explains Peter Warman, CEO of video game research firm Newzoo.

However, he is quick to note that if demand for dedicated gaming hardware exists, there is still room for portable handsets such as the 3DS and Vita, adding: "As long as Apple and Samsung do not promote their iPod-type devices as portable game consoles for kids, the 3DS might be around for a while … [and] the Vita will cater perfectly to [tech-minded youngsters]."

Although the market for dedicated video game handhelds is there, it is shrinking. Sony and Nintendo will be able to coexist in the space, but the era of dedicated gaming portables selling hundreds of millions of units could be a thing of the past.

"The sandbox may not be as big as it was back in 2009, but there is still plenty of room for Sony and Nintendo to generate significant profits, as well as the third-party publishers that support them," Jesse Divnich, vice president of capital research and communications at Electronic Entertainment Design and Research.

"There will always be a large and significant market for dedicated portable gaming, but we do believe it is a shrinking category that will eventually plateau to a sustainable market size for at least two competitors," he asserts.

As smartphones, tablets and similar devices become more affordable, they are accounting for greater portions of mobile software revenue. In 2009, Apple's iOS and Google's Android platforms made up only 19 percent of total U.S. portable game software revenue, according to data from the NPD Group and mobile analytics firm Flurry. As of 2011, they own 58 percent of the market.

Conversely, Sony has lost 5 percent market share and Nintendo is down 34 percent in the same two-year period. While Nintendo seems content with its position in the market, Sony appears to be positioning its Vita as a hybrid platform between dedicated video game players and casual mobile devices. Apps for social sites such as Facebook and Twitter are in development for Vita, while Sony announced the PlayStation Suite SDK as well, which enables Android developers to create Vita-compatible games.

Earlier this year, Sony also launched the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, an Android-powered smartphone that features a full PlayStation control pad and the ability to play specific games from the video game maker's extensive back catalog of PlayStation and PSP software.

Filed under: games, mobile

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Biomedical company creates muscle sensor based game controller (video)

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 07:00 AM PST

Biomedical company Advancer Technologies has created a plug-in-play device that allows players to directly control video games with their muscles using the power of electromyography (EMG).

Using the low-cost, yet powerful Arduino UNO microcontroller, the universal serial bus (USB) Biofeedback Game Controller allows four muscles to act independently or in combination with each other to control over four buttons.

The left forearm controls the B button (run/attack), the right forearm controls the A button (jump), the left bicep controls the LEFT button, and the right bicep controls the RIGHT button, as well as combinations for UP and DOWN. During gameplay, the Arduino UNO program tracks muscle activity through sensors. A spike in activity triggers a button press, sending the information to the computer via the USB connection in real time.

Advancer Technologies is showing off the device in a new video, where a man navigates his way through the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 using only his muscles.

The company says the controller can be used for practical applications like helping victims of neuromuscular disease or injury rehabilitate their muscles while playing video games. “[Plus] using your muscles to control computers, robots, [and] video games is fun no matter what your age,” the company says.

Advancer Technologies is offering others the chance to make their own USB Biofeedback Game Controller through a detailed tutorial at Instructables.com.

Filed under: games, video

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

‘Call of Duty’ and ‘Black Ops’ top the list of video game searches on Google in 2011

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 06:50 AM PST

Google has released its nifty Zeitgeist report for 2011, outlining the most popular search terms under a number of different categories. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the terms 'Black Ops' and 'Call of Duty' top the list of video game related searches.

Black Ops was released in November 2010, and went on to become the best-selling game ever. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 was released in November this year and sold $1 billion worth of games in its first 16 days on sale, eclipsing the entertainment revenue record held by the film Avatar. With figures like those, it is quite clear why the series has been the target of so many Google searches during 2011.

Rival first person shooter Battlefield 3 came seventh on the list, and it was the only video game to feature in the top 10 fastest rising global search terms, coming in just above searches for “iPhone 5″. The most common inclusion of the term Battlefield 3 came in searches for "beta battlefield 3", perhaps showing the marketing power of offering mass access to the Beta build of the game, prior to its release. Whether people left the notoriously buggy Beta with as much enthusiasm as they searched for it though, is not known.

The full list of Top 10 video game related search terms, in North America, was as follows:

  1. Black Ops
  2. Call of Duty
  3. Halo Reach
  4. Super Mario
  5. Mortal Kombat
  6. Skyrim
  7. Battlefield 3
  8. Dragon Age 2
  9. Diablo 3
  10. Mass Effect 3

Google has also released a separate Top Ten list for online games, which looks like this:

  1. Wow
  2. Addicting games
  3. Free online games
  4. Miniclip
  5. Webkinz
  6. Tower defense
  7. Kids games
  8. Armor games
  9. Tetris
  10. Juegos

Those results will certainly please Activision Blizzard, the publisher behind both World of Warcraft and the Call of Duty series.

Video games also crop up in other part of the Zeitgeist report. 'Angry Birds Costume' was the fastest rising costume search in the US. The search term 'LEGO Black Ops' also makes a surprising appearance at number 9 in the fastest rising toy searches. Following the unusual search term brings you to this video, which offers a brutal re-enactment of a Black Ops multiplayer game, with a variety of LEGO mini figures bearing the brunt of someone's overactive imagination. Please don't watch if you are likely to be upset by the mistreatment of plastic figures.

Filed under: games

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

CD Projekt demands $1,230 from suspected Witcher 2 pirates

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 06:37 AM PST

Last month Witcher 2 developer CD Projekt talked about the estimated 4.5 million copies of its game that had been illegally downloaded via BitTorrent. Now it seems the company is going after users it believes have downloaded the game illegally, demanding $1,230 in damages from these individuals, via a German law firm.

CD Projekt has spoken to Eurogamer, saying "we could introduce advanced copy protection systems which, unfortunately, punish legal customers as well. Instead, we decided to give gamers some additional content with each game release, to make their experience complete."

“However,” CD Projekt added, “that shouldn’t be confused with us giving a green light to piracy. We will never approve of it, since it doesn’t only affect us but has a negative impact on the whole game industry."

The Torrentfreak website claims that thousands of alleged Bittorent users in Germany have been contacted by lawyers acting on behalf of CD Projekt, over the past few months. They have been asked to hand over €911.80 ($1230) to pay off their apparent debt to the company.

This is not the first time that such mass settlements schemes have been used in the fight against piracy. Speaking of a similar scheme earlier this year, Virginia District Court Judge,  John Gibney wrote "the plaintiffs seemingly have no interest in actually litigating the cases, but rather simply have used the Court and its subpoena powers to obtain sufficient information to shake down the John Does".

As Torrentfreak points out, such blanket initiatives are in danger of affecting innocent members of the public, and "aside from targeting many people who indeed downloaded and shared the game without paying, CD Projekt's lawyers are also wrongfully accusing people who have never even heard of the game."

CD Projekt has a track record of being involved in such mass settlement schemes. In 2008, UK based file-sharing lawyers Davenport Lyons demanded cash settlements from individuals who were said to have illegally downloaded the original Witcher game.

In response to concerns over its actions, CD Projekt has insisted that “we only take legal actions against users who we are 100 per cent sure have downloaded our game illegally.”

Filed under: games

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Mark Pincus rings Nasdaq’s opening bell; Zynga stock trades begin

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 06:30 AM PST

Zynga chief executive Mark Pincus rang the opening bell — in a virtual way, from Zynga’s headquarters in San Francisco — as trading began for Zynga’s initial public offering today.

Zynga’s opening trades for its offering of $1 billion at $10 a share are about to begin. The overall stock market is trading up this morning, so the company picked a good day.

Pincus rang the opening bell along with board member Bing Gordon and Pincus’s wife, Alison Pincus. Watching them was a horde of employees at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.

“We thought about the logistics of taking you to New York,” Pincus said. “So we brought the Nasdaq here.”

He added, “With our ipo, we are accelerating this mission of connecting the world through games. There is a lot of energy around our company. And what we need to do is focus that back on our mission and get regrounded in our mission of making games we love to play.”

Zynga is the biggest IPO in gaming history and the biggest tech IPO since Google went public in 2004. The social game company has 230 million monthly active users.

The experience of creating Zynga “renewed my faith in the power of venture capitalists,” he said. “Bing Gordon and John Doerr are here today, and they have been an inspiration to this whole company.

Other social game companies are glad to see Zynga finally going public after first filing for the IPO in July. As we chronicled in our extensive history of the company, Zynga has come a long way since chief executive Mark Pincus founded the company in 2007. His tale is sure to inspire other entrepreneurs.

The company reported net income of $12.5 million in the third quarter ended Sept. 30, down 54 percent from $27 million a year ago, according to an updated S1 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The performance isn't stellar, but it's not so bad as to suggest Zynga's planned initial public offering is in trouble.

Revenue was $307 million in the quarter, up 80 percent from $170.6 million a year ago. In other words, Zynga is working harder for the profits it gets by generating a lot more revenue compared to the past.

In the second quarter, Zynga reported only $1.4 million in profits on $280 million in revenue, so the third quarter report is an improvement on a quarter-to-quarter basis.

Arvind Bhatia, an analyst at Sterne Agee, published a report on Tuesday initiating coverage of Zynga with an "underperform" rating that put Zynga's price at about $7 a share.

That price is equivalent to about 11 times 2012 estimated EBITDA (earnings before income tax, depreciation and amortization). That gives Zynga a 30 percent price premium relative to its peer group, meaning it is viewed as one of the leaders of its pack.

A similar social gaming company, Nexon, went public on the Tokyo Stock Exchange on Wednesday, with a pre-trading market capitalization of $7 billion, although it closed the day down about 3 percent off its IPO price. The Asian online gaming giant raised $1.2 billion and made net income of $260.1 million, up 14 percent, on revenue of $853.5 million, up 26.5 percent, for the nine months ended Sept. 30.

BTIG also wrote a report on Zynga on Wednesday morning that said investors should participate in the Zynga IPO within the $8.50 to $10 a share price range. The research firm's analysts Richard Greenfield and Brandon Ross wrote that they believe Zynga's social games are a cure for boredom, much like TV, and can be played anywhere. They said that Zynga is a "media company" focused on taking a greater share of your time and money spent on entertainment. They said Zynga's growth will be driven by launches across more game platforms, with a powerful network effect. They see continued growth of social networking beyond 1 billion users, with both Zynga and Facebook benefiting.

Pincus said, “We founded this company on a few premises. That there should be free games for everyone in the world to play. And you guys, our shareholders and employees, should be able to lead and share in the success of the company. I’m proud we did that.”

Filed under: games, social

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Echo Nest powers Spotify’s new radio app

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 06:27 AM PST

spotify-gearsMusic startup The Echo Nest revealed today that its music intelligence platform is being used for Spotify’s new radio app.

Spotify announced its new Radio function last week. Spotify Radio will let users create unlimited stations, skip an unlimited number of tracks and feature an all-new intelligent recommendation engine, powered by Echo Nest. The new radio service is available to both free and premium users. The function is available today and is located under Spotify’s Apps section.

As for the recommendation engine, The Echo Nest’s platform lets users create personalized radio stations based on songs or artists in Spotify’s catalogue of around 15 million tracks. The new functionality allows Spotify to directly compete with rival Pandora, which specializes in custom channel creation.

Echo Nest is no slouch when it comes to helping music services create applications. Over 250 music apps have been built on the Echo Nest platform to date.

Founded in 2005, the Somerville, Mass.-based startup has raised a total of $8.3 million in funding from Matrix Partners and Commonwealth Capital Ventures, Argos Management and three co-founders of MIT Media Lab.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Apple may be eyeing smaller sizes for the iPad

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 06:09 AM PST

Sources in Apple’s Taiwan-based manufacturers say the tech giant may be thinking of downsizing the iPad’s 9.7-inch screen size.

According to Taiwanese blog Digitimes, which gets frequent (and often accurate) reports from many gadget component manufacturers, Apple may be preparing to launch a 7.85-inch iPad as soon as 2012.

These sources say the launch wouldn’t happen until late in the year. The smaller screen size is reportedly being considered due to the wild success of tablet/e-reader hybrids such as the Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet and Kobo Vox.

The 7.85-inch display panels that Digitimes says Apple is considering will be coming from a few companies, including LG Display and AU Optronics. Production could start as soon as the end of the second quarter of 2012.

We speculate that if Apple did launch a smaller iPad, the pricetag would likely be smaller as well, if only to compete with Nook and Kindle products in the $250 to $200 range.

Currently, Amazon is selling Kindles at the phenomenal rate of one million units per week, making the Kindle Fire the number two tablet behind the iPad in terms of sales. The Kindle Fire retails for $200.

Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet was released about four weeks ago; sales data is as yet unavailable. The tablet sells for $249. The company also sells the Nook Color, a slightly less flashy offering, for $199.

All three of these low-dollar competitors are, like the iPad, color touchscreens that can access web browsers, email, apps and video content. The one department where they’re lacking still is high-performance graphics. Still, for the non-gaming consumer, excellent graphics quality might not be such a hot selling point.

We’ll have to wait and see if Apple is seeing Kindle and Nook sales through green-colored glasses. But we’ve seen the company aiming for the mass market with smaller, cheaper versions of its hardware before (iPod nano, anyone?), so we wouldn’t be shocked to see it launch a smaller iPad eventually.

Filed under: VentureBeat

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

One company calls out cloudwashing’s worst offenders

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 05:36 AM PST

Cloud computing. What once was a controversial, cutting-edge term is now part of seemingly everyone's vocabulary.

From ads in last year's Super Bowl to billboards in airports across the world, "the cloud" is everywhere. Many of today's solutions do offer the benefits of cloud computing, but we're also seeing an increasing amount of cloudwashing.

We saw the rise of cloudwashing — the practice of painting over traditional IT technology with the word “cloud” — begin last year, but lately it's running rampant across the industry.

With more and more IT spend moving to cloud solutions and CEOs everywhere demanding that their companies investigate how they can "leverage this cloud thing" in their own business, it's no surprise that everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. But it's also creating a lot of confusion and missed expectations.

That’s why my company, Appirio, introduced “The Washies,” a new (and maybe soon to be annual) award given to the worst cloudwashing offenders. Just as the Razzies call out Hollywood’s duds, this award isn’t meant to be mean spirited. It’s a way to poke a little fun and call some attention to this questionable marketing.

We came up with a few categories, from biggest overall cloudwasher to most enthusiastic use of the word “cloud,” and solicited nominations. As you may have guessed, one vendor took home most of the category awards, which can likely attributed to their long history of cloudwashing (which itself has just recently turned into a big public kiss for the public cloud).

Envelope please… Here are the winners:

The biggest overall cloudwasher: Oracle

This mega-vendor couldn't utter the word "cloud" without some kind of skeptical comment until recently, at which time they jumped wholeheartedly on the bandwagon.

The worst case of cloudwashed advertising: Microsoft
"To the cloud!" Have you heard it? During a television commercial staged with two people bored at an airport, the world saw this company introduce "the cloud" to consumers. Until then it was simply known as "the Internet."

While Microsoft does have some legitimate cloud solutions in their portfolio, these and their other TV commercials handed them the win in this category.

The most cloudwashed statement: Larry Ellison and Oracle
This one was a toss-up, but ultimately, Oracle's Larry Ellison edged out the competition with his past Churchill Club sound bite: “We’ve redefined cloud computing to include everything that we already do." That, ladies and gentlemen, is cloudwashing in a nutshell.

The biggest personal cloudwasher: Larry Ellison
This was a controversial category that — perhaps rightly so — raised the ire of some of the nominees, but we have to give the award to Larry.

As a side note, we were a bit surprised that one of the nominees launched a social media campaign to win this award and even set up a bot to auto-vote for himself. But it wouldn't be right to faux-reward a cheater, so Larry Ellison earned himself his second award of the night.

The most enthusiastic use of the word “cloud”: Salesforce

Love for the cloud can sometimes lead to excessive use of the word “cloud” and other over-the-top behavior, even among true cloud companies.

We freely admit that Appirio often sits in that camp; everything we touch seems to be incomplete without a cloud image. However, Salesforce edged us out for this category win. Given their strong voice in cloud advocacy, we respectfully accept defeat.

The public has voted: these are your 2011 Washie winners. What do you think? Did the public get it right? We would love to hear your thoughts for nominees or categories next year — although we hope by then this award will no longer be needed.

Narinder Singh co-founded Appirio, a cloud solutions provider. Currently, he serves the company as its chief strategy officer and head of research and development. Prioring to helping start Appirio, he was at SAP in the office of the CEO, where his role was focused on corporate strategy around sales, service and business and technology disruptions.

Filed under: cloud, dev

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Zynga’s rivals welcome the social gaming IPO

Posted: 16 Dec 2011 04:00 AM PST

With the IPOs of Zynga and Nexon, the social and online game industries have their first billion-dollar public offerings. May many more follow.

That’s the spirit among other social gaming rivals, including those that have been fierce competitors to Zynga, the largest of the social gaming companies. Now both Zynga and Nexon will have an extra billion dollars to buy some of those rivals, spreading around some of the holiday cheer. And the worldwide publicity from the offerings will bring new recognition that gaming is a big business and that social and online games have mass market awareness.

As we chronicled in our 25,000-word history of the company, Zynga has come a long way since chief executive Mark Pincus (pictured) founded the company in 2007. His tale is sure to inspire other entrepreneurs to follow in his footsteps. Pincus will ring the opening bell — virtually, from Zynga’s headquarters in San Francisco — on Nasdaq this morning.

Nexon went public three days ago, raising $1.2 billion on the Tokyo Stock Exchange at a $7 billion valuation. Zynga priced its IPO shares yesterday at $10 a share, which will enable it to raise $1.15 billion at a $8.9 billion valuation.

“Zynga's IPO is great for the industry, providing a focal point for many to learn and get more involved in important industry trends,” said Trip Hawkins, chief executive of mobile and social gaming firm Digital Chocolate. “The IPO should also prove to be a catalyst for many future transactions that will help the industry.”

Hawkins is certainly no fan of Zynga, as he competes head to head against it every day. Peter Relan, chairman of YouWeb and CEO of social game firm CrowdStar, said, “In the western world zynga is the first company to bring validity to a business model that has thrived in Asia for over a decade as exemplified by the Nexon IPO.”

Kevin Chou, chief executive of hardcore social gaming company Kabam, said, “”The excitement and pricing of Zynga’s IPO as one of the largest in gaming history shows just how powerful and fast disruption is coming to the industry.”

He added, “Zynga is at the center of not one but three very powerful disruptive forces.” That includes the free-to-play business model (where users play for free and pay real money for virtual goods) as a frictionless way to optimize how to charge for entertainment. It also provides technology advancements to put entertainment within reach of any consumer with an internet connected device. And it enables “social interactions that power connectivity and play.”

Chou said, “It’s the most important event in the gaming industry in the last decade, and Zynga didn’t even exist five years ago.”

Arjun Sethi, head of social game maker Lolapps at 6waves Lolapps, said, “Zynga’s IPO is an important validation for the social gaming market which will continue its rapid growth in 2012. Zynga’s milestone proves that companies taking a data-informed approach to their product development continue to find the most success.”

Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, isn’t allowed to comment on the valuation yet. But he said, “It’s not a surprise that they priced at the high end of the range. I think they created a lot of demand with limited supply, and expect it to trade up due to demand.”

Alex St. John, former president of social network Hi5, said, “I think it's a good thing no matter what happens. If they fail it will be blamed on the bad times and Facebook dependency. If they succeed, they will define the value of hundreds of online game companies that are successful and control their own audiences.  The market will become highly educated about the online game business regardless of what happens.”

“What Zynga's IPO does is finally put tangible metrics and evaluations within the social space,” said Jesse Divnich, analyst at game research firm EEDAR. “Till now the forces driving evaluations have mostly been expert driven guest work.  Now we'll have an entire public market driving evaluations to their true value.”

But Divnich said that these new IPOs shouldn’t necessarily lead to a bunch of others.

“I do fear that Zynga's IPO may create a surge in IPO offerings from other social and mobile game companies across the world, much like we saw in the 2000's with the internet boom,” he said. “At the very least, having an objective measuring stick (Zynga's IPO) will likely accelerate acquisitions in the space. Certainly those being acquired or going public will see the benefit, but I do worry that this could be part of a bubble.”

Eric Goldberg, managing director at Crossover Technologies, said that Zynga’s IPO may actually be an impediment to more social game companies going public. Other companies will want to ride in Zynga’s slipstream and insist that they do one or two things better than Zynga. It doesn’t always follow that these followers are going to be good investments, Goldberg said.

Brandon Barber, senior vice president of marketing at social game firm Kixeye, said, “We believe it’s good for the industry. All boats will rise. “

Electronic Arts and Zynga have had no love for each other. But an EA spokesman said in a statement, “If the Zynga IPO is a bellwether on social network gaming, it should be a big success.  Audiences for social games will continue to grow as the content evolves from the simple game mechanic that launched the genre.  Going forward, consumers will consolidate behind high-quality games on brands they recognize from other media.”

Filed under: games, mobile, social

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

On heels of new funding and global expansion, car service Uber launches in D.C. today

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 08:01 PM PST

Car service Uber, which started just 18 months ago, debuts in Washington D.C. today, hot on the heels of its recently-closed Series B funding round and its official global expansion, which started with Paris earlier this month and will continue at a pace of two cities a month in 2012.

I've studied the company and the market opportunity from various angles before, then I finally got to try the service in San Francisco, coming away very satisfied. (You can read more about that experience here.)

I also had a chance to speak with CEO Travis Kalanick for more details on this month's launches in Paris and Washington, and what we can look forward to from his company in 2012.

What is Uber?

Uber is an on-demand car service that lets customers request town car sedans that show up within 10 minutes. The service is fueled in no small part by the shortsighted politics that empower taxicab unions.

In cities around the world, these labor groups lobby for burdensome medallion regimes or other regulations that lead to a massive undersupply of cabs. Kalanick says that for some cities, there's a shortage of taxicabs by a factor of about five or six times. The end result is a huge business opportunity for Uber.

Uber started in San Francisco in June 2010 and has expanded by one city per month since May 2011; it now operates in seven cities.

The service is all about leveraging technology to skirt around the politics. It takes advantage of GPS, increasing smartphone use, easier mobile payments, sophisticated demand-prediction algorithms and efficient, numbers-driven dispatch operations.

Kalanick, who is a self-proclaimed numbers geek, touts the incredible amount of math that underlies the system. To ensure that cars show up in 5 minutes, complex algorithms are used to first determine how much supply is needed, and then to position that supply (the actual cars) where it's needed most.

Algorithms also help determine pricing, which is usually fixed, although the service has experimented with dynamic pricing. Over Halloween, for example, five cities across the U.S. featured Uber service where the pricing would automatically adjust depending on demand. This was, to Kalanick's knowledge, never performed in the history of in-city consumer transportation. Dynamic pricing will again be rolled out for New Years Eve, but there are currently no plans for weekends or other peak times.

A well-funded enterprise

The promise of using math and technology to make the marketplace between drivers and riders efficient and convenient is exactly the type of startup investment the top tier of venture firms is looking for. This is why venture capitalists like Shervin Pishevar of Menlo Ventures led the latest funding round, the fourth capital infusion for Uber that has so far raised $44 million in total.

After Kalanick and co-founder Garrett Camp put in their own $200,000 as seed money, the company raised a $1.25m angel round led by First Round Capital, an $11m Series A round led by Benchmark Capital, Founder Collective and First Round Capital, as well as the most recent $32m Series B with Menlo Ventures, Jeff Bezos, Goldman Sachs and Benchmark again. The Series B is extendable up to $39m with the opening of a second tranche if need be.

When he announced the funding at the Le Web conference in Paris last week, Kalanick said, "Uber's in it for the long haul, the goal is an IPO." This justifies Goldman's investment in the Series B: the investment bank is now a stakeholder in the company's success at an early stage, and will no doubt play a role in its public exit.

The capital will be funneled into Uber's global expansion, which aims to be in about 25 more cities by the end of 2012 and an additional 25 shortly after. A good chunk of the money will go into establishing 3-person operations teams in each new city, maintaining and enhancing quality in existing cities, and squashing any clones and copycats. Money will also be used to expand the executive ranks.

"We've been doers and makers, and now we need some managers," said Kalanick.

A look at its jobs page reveals that Uber is hiring operations people in Los Angeles, Miami, Las Vegas, Toronto and Vancouver, and you can bet those are the next cities to come online in Q1 of 2012.

Metrics and more

Kalanick refused to give exact revenue figures, but boasted a 35 percent month-over-month growth in revenue, well into the eight figures with gross receipts. Each rider spends an average of $100 each month.

Interestingly, Uber spends zero dollars on marketing, opting for word-of-mouth referrals and whatever steam they pick up online to attract new customers. Kalanick says they may spend on marketing in the future, especially as their global expansion heats up and clones pop up. This may never be needed, however, as he also points out that they have a "blessed" viral loop of seven: for every seven rides, a new rider is acquired.

Uber has experienced substantial traction thus far, which has allowed it to expand to one city each month at this point. In 2012, with its new funding and accelerated hiring, it will quicken the pace to two cities per month.

Every city has a different geography. Using his own home city of Los Angeles, which will come online soon in 2012, Kalanick discussed the specific challenges posed by each city's own urban geography.

Because L.A. is so huge, Uber will be built around "hot zones" where riders may travel within, but not necessarily between, hot zones at opposite ends of town.

This also marks the trajectory of Uber’s expansion: Cities that have similar transportation layouts and quirks will come online in succession, not necessarily those that are close merely by proximity.

This is why Paris debuted before many other U.S. cities, because it was similar in key respects (such as density, transit alternatives, and even the overall culture) to San Francisco, where the logistics have already been perfected.

Dealing with the competition

Kalanick told me that one of the motivators for expanding so quickly was to be able to establish Uber in cities before copycats showed up.

However, he also said that most competitors thus far have gone after the taxi industry directly, not the higher-end on-demand luxury car service industry Uber is after.

One of these competitors, Taxi Magic, aims to connect smartphone owners with existing taxi fleets, and is already in 45 cities, including D.C., where it books more than 1,000 rides a day.

But Kalanick isn't worried, dismissing services like Taxi Magic by saying, "They'll do an app for taxi dispatch, but they're never any good because the supply is still broken. You need to attack this regulated oligopoly from the ground-up."

The D.C. market should work well for Uber. The city has the highest concentration of people with secondary degrees, and a wide swath are involved in work that befits showing up in a town car, such as government and law.

This seems vindicated by some of the metrics it's been tracking since the soft-launch a few weeks ago. Again, Kalanick won't reveal exact figures but says D.C. has been the city to adopt Uber the fastest, despite the service's cars costing 50 percent more than existing cabs in the area.

It turns out that if you provide people with sufficient incomes, appropriate jobs, and enough tech saavy to know about a useful app or two, they will pay for a convenient and fast way to get around their city.

Filed under: deals, mobile, VentureBeat

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

BitGym’s new workout-as-game iPad app sees healthy amount of in-app purchases (video)

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 06:25 PM PST

Exercise good for your health (but boring), while video games are fun (but make you fat). A startup called BitGym is hoping to combine the best aspects of the two with a workout app for the iPhone and iPad that turns exercise equipment into video game machines.

The company has just released Virtual Active, an immersive fitness app with 10 different workout environments. Put your iPhone 4 or or iPad 2 on the magazine rack of an exercise bike or a elliptical machine, and within seconds you’re inside a virtual world that responds to your every movement. While jogging on the treadmill or riding an exercise bike, Virtual Active detects your speed based on vibrations and ferries you through a virtual mountain bike trail in the Swiss Alps, the narrow canals of Venice or the lush, or temperate environs of the Pacific Northwest.

The app isn’t directly connected to the exercise machine’s electronics. Instead, pedaling the exercise bike sends vibrations through your device to make you move faster or slower. Your head movements are tracked by the forward-facing camera for direction control. Move your head right or left your avatar will respond accordingly.

The app is free, but BitGym is selling new environments as in-app purchases for $3.99 or $7.99. Each new environment comes with six jogging courses.

Since launching yesterday in the App Store, 8.5 percent of users have made an in-app purchase, says co-founder Alex Gourley, and the American Southwest environment pack and Northern Italy are the most popular. BitGym has also been contacted by two major fitness industry players for potential collaborations, Gourley said, though he wasn’t at liberty to discuss who they are.

Here’s a tip: If you’re reading this at your desk and you want to try before you buy, open the free Southwest U.S. trial pack, set your phone on a flat surface, and tap the edge vigorously. This will simulate the vibrations registered from exercise equipment, and will allow you to see Virtual Active in action.

The Canals of Venice course

Due up next from BitGym is another app called Fit Freeway, which takes the exercise concept to a virtual racetrack. Think of your exercise bike as Mario Kart, and you’ve got a pretty close approximation. Sky Runner is another upcoming title, which is like Starfox on your Stairmaster.

San Francisco-based BitGym is looking for investments to help outflank any potential imitators.

“Once people realize you can do this, there’s going to be a lot of competition and a lot of people are going to try to do it,” BitGym co-founder Josh McCready told VentureBeat. “We want to get momentum and keep developing it.” One potential rival is iFit, whose apps allow runners to navigate through a Google Streetview map, but don’t have gameplay functionality.

BitGym is focused on developing single-player games for now. Asynchronous multiplayer games could follow soon, where two or more players could log their achievements in Apple’s Game Center and challenge friends to beat a high score the next time they use their exercise equipment. An app store for developers of new environments or workouts is also a tantalizing prospect. Once the notion of playing video games through an exercise bike catches on, other developers may want to sell their workouts through the BitGym App Store.

More than 41 million American adults have access to exercise equipment such as a bike, elliptical or treadmill in their homes, Gourley estimates, and gyms bring this number t0 more than 74 million. Last week we reported that Apple sold more than 30 million smartphones, and as many as 13 million tablets in Q4. Put the two together, and the potential reach of an app like Virtual Active is considerable.

Filed under: games, mobile

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Club Nintendo adds downloadable games to reward list

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 06:23 PM PST

Club Nintendo

Club Nintendo has recently expanded their selection of rewards to include downloadable titles for the 3DS and the Wii.

One of the most common complaints leveled against the North American Club Nintendo, a rewards program for loyal customers, has been its lack of valuable content for members who spend their hard earned cash on Nintendo games. The Gold and Platinum rewards have ranged from calendars to life-size Mario hats over the past few years, but many members still were not satisfied. It looks like Nintendo is trying to change that.

Nintendo has been responsible for increasingly positive headlines recently, from the out-of-left-field Xenoblade Chronicles announcement to the surprisingly adequate list of GBA games making their way to the 3DS later this month. Now Nintendo fans have yet another piece of (possibly) good news, with a set of four downloadable games at Club Nintendo: two for the Wii and two for the 3DS.

This is the current list of games and their respective prices:

  • Super Mario Kart (Wii, 100 Coins)
  • Fluidity (Wii, 150 Coins)
  • 3D Classics: Xevious (3DS, 100 Coins)
  • Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again! (3DS, 150 Coins)

For those not familiar with the exchange rate of Club Nintendo Coins, the registration of a typical Wii game, such as Skyward Sword, will net you 50 Coins. A new system (Wii, 3DS) is worth 160 Coins, downloadable WiiWare and 3DSWare games can be worth between 10 and 20 Coins, and post play surveys of games already purchased are worth another 10. In other words, there are plenty of ways to accumulate these points, and no one will complain that the Club Nintendo catalog is growing, but the relative price of the software is certainly skewed.

These games will only be available until January 10, at which point a new slew of downloadables will be unleashed. Until then, it might be worth investing in some of the more appropriately priced rewards, including a gorgeous set of Zelda 25th Anniversary posters or Peach and Mario notebooks. Hopefully next month will see either lower priced or more valuable games in the Club.

Filed under: games

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Sony: PS3 still on track for 15 million sales this year

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 06:22 PM PST

Despite a troubled European economy, and a major attack by hackers in April, Sony has revealed it is still on track to sell 15 million Playstation 3 consoles worldwide, in the financial year to end-March.

Andrew House, new head of Sony Computer Entertainment, told reporters on Thursday that, if anything, PS3 sales were slightly ahead of target for the financial year to date. House declined to comment on Playstation Vita sales estimates, with the new handheld device due to launch in Japan on Saturday.

SCE made its first profit since the Playstation 3's 2006 launch during the 2010-2011 financial year, as it managed to sell 14.3 million PS3 units, while squeezing production costs of the console. Worldwide hardware sales of the PS3 console stood at 55.5M as of September 2011, compared to 57.6M worldwide sales of the rival Xbox 360 console. The PS3 has consistently performed better than its closest rival in Asia and Europe, making these regions highly valuable markets for Sony, but it still plays second fiddle to the 360 in the US.

While the PS3 is finally helping SCE to turn a profit, the impending launch of the Playstation Vita will be another big test for the company. Some industry voices doubt the sustainability of dedicated handheld consoles, given the increasingly robust challenge of smartphones and tablets as viable options for gaming on the move.

House still believes that the Vita will find a market though, through its "truly unique gaming experience" that he hopes will attract both hardcore and casual gamers. Vita sales in Japan are expected to be brisk, but Sony may face a tougher challenge when its launches the device in the US and Europe in February 2012.

The Wi-Fi only version of the Playstation Vita will cost $249 when it hits the US, which was the same price attached to the Nintendo 3DS when it launched this March. The Nintendo handheld got off to a slow start and was slashed in price to $169 within five months to help boost sales. Whether the Vita will be seen as a desirable gaming option by consumers, despite its relatively high price tag, remains to be seen.

Filed under: games

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Previously a dud, relaunched APB game gets 3 million users in a week

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 06:08 PM PST

As one of a growing number of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games adopting a free-to-play strategy, APB Reloaded has hit a milestone of 3 million users, just one week after its relaunch. This is all the more remarkable given the  failed initial launch of the game in 2010, under the title APB, which saw developer Realtime Worlds going into the equivalent of bankruptcy.

APB was originally released in June 2010 by Electronic Arts, under a subscription model, with players purchasing game time, either by the hour, or as an unlimited 30 day access package. In addition players were required to purchase a retail copy of the game, either in boxed or digital form, which included an initial 50 hours of access.

This strategy seemed to backfire horribly, especially when Metacritic reviews started appearing, casting the game in a very bad light. Poor sales and low player numbers resulted in the game servers being closed, just 79 days after launch, and developer Realtime Worlds going into administration. After the event, a member of the development team admitted "if we’re being brutally honest, we didn’t pay enough attention to the design of the game".

APB has now been reborn, under the title APB Reloaded, and early signs are that this revamped incarnation of the game, now published by GamersFirst, will prove to be more successful. Gone is the subscription model, and in its place is a free-to-play system, supported by micro-transactions, where players can spend real money on optional items, which can be used in-game.

GamersFirst ran a lengthy Beta testing phase for APB Reloaded, before releasing the game on Valve's digital distribution platform Steam on Dec. 7. APB Reloaded has already gained 3 million users, and is currently the second most popular microtransaction-based game on Steam.

Vindicia chief executive officer Gene Hoffman, who has worked on payment systems for MMOs such as Star Trek Online and Rift, spoke to GamesIndustry.biz today, saying "Look, some of these MMOs are launching and, they’re really bad". He went on to note that many such titles are accidentally stumbling towards a free-to-play model, which eventually ends up resuscitating the game. The original APB launch seems to be a prime example of this problem, but its fast track failure sadly ended with the closure of the original development studio. Hopefully the relaunched APB Reloaded has pro-actively hit on a business model that will prove more of a success.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Today in U.S. drones: GPS spoof attack in Iran, ACLU worried at home

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 06:03 PM PST

Drones ACLU

A U.S. drone that veered off course and landed in Iran last week is said to have been hacked using a GPS spoofing attack, the Christian Science Monitor reported today. Also today, the American Civil Liberties Union called for the U.S. government to tighten restrictions on drone usage in U.S. airways.

Since the drone showed up in excellent condition on Iranian television, people have been wondering how the U.S. could have lost control of the machine. Now it seems the drone was attacked by hackers who confused its internal GPS system, or spoofed it, making it believe it was in a different place than it actually was. It then landed itself safely in Iran, believing it was landing at its original destination. These details were uncovered when the Monitor spoke with an Iranian engineer who examined the drone.

Compromising the GPS system allowed the drone to "land on its own where we wanted it to, without having to crack the remote-control signals and communications,” the Iranian engineer told the Christian Science Monitor. This attack also hid the operation from U.S. engineers controlling the drone.

According to the engineer, the GPS system is one of the easiest to manipulate, making it a huge vulnerability. However, it appears that the United States was already aware of potential problems with GPS. Papers such as this one pointed out by The Register detail why the GPS is so susceptible to the spoofing attack, including information for both military and civilian attacks.

The attack, while mostly successful, did leave the underbelly of the drone damaged. According to the Iranian engineer’s statement to the Monitor, the landing area for the drone was similar, but obviously not identical, to its programmed landing location in Afghanistan. The landing was off by a few meters, which caused the damage. Once the drone landed, the engineers were elated, likening the experience to getting a new laptop “multiplied many-fold.”

Concerns of drone surveillance is not just an issue for those residing in the Middle East. In the U.S., the American Civil Liberties Union is calling for action from the government to tighten rules on drone usage in U.S. airspace. The concern resides in the increase of drone use cases for criminal surveillance by law enforcement agencies.

The ACLU’s report outlines different uses for drones currently being employed in the US. This includes border surveillance and permission given to the Miami police department to test drones, but only over the Everglades at elevations no higher than 400 feet.

The ACLU stated in its report, “We need a system of rules to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without bringing us a large step closer to a "surveillance society" in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities.”

[via The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times]

Filed under: security, VentureBeat

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

iPhone owners likely to invest in Apple, but not even Blackberry users want RIM stock

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 05:57 PM PST

You may love your phone, but do you love it enough to invest in the company that makes it? Well, if you own an iPhone you are more likely to also own Apple stock, a recent survey reveals.

SigFig, an investment tracking and advice website, conducted a survey of its 300,000 members to find out how loyal mobile customers are to the brand behind their phone. The results show that 16 percent of iPhone owners also own stock in Apple, compared to  just over 12 percent of all SigFig members. In addition, only eight percent of Android owners and six percent of BlackBerry owners have stock in Apple.

Apple by far has the highest loyalty of smartphone owners among the survey respondents, a trend not seen with those who use Android or Blackberry phones. Only four percent of Android owners have stock in Google, and even fewer — less than one percent — own stock in Motorola. Loyalty to Android is harder to show because you can either own stock in the company that makes the software (Google) or one of the many the manufacturers of Android hardware (Motorola, LG, Samsung, etc). Still, far more smartphone users are investing in Apple than Google.

Blackberry fairs the worst; less than one in 100 Blackberry owners have stock in RIM. That’s right, even people who willingly own and use Blackberrys won’t invest in RIM.

So, are you loyal enough to your phone to buy stock the company that makes it?

Infographic via SigFig

Filed under: mobile

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Skyrim ships 10 million units, receives another patch

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 04:48 PM PST

Bethesda Softworks has announced that its award-winning role-playing game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, has shipped 10 million units worldwide.

Actual units sold were not revealed, but Bethesda estimates approximately $650 million in sales since its November 11 release. This makes Skyrim one of the most successful multiplatform releases in video game history, alongside Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which released in October and November of this year, respectively.

Although Elder Scrolls titles, especially starting with Morrowind for the PC and Xbox, have always been very successful, it’s impressive that a single-player-only experience spanning hundreds of hours of gameplay can thrive in a videogame industry that tends to favor multiplayer and casual games.

Unfortunately, along with its great success, the Elder Scrolls franchise is notorious for launching with countless technical issues. Bethesda has recently submitted the latest patch, version 1.3, to fix a small handful of issues, including those it caused with the last patch:

  • General stability improvements
  • Fixed Radiant Story incorrectly filling certain roles
  • Fixed magic resistances not calculating properly
  • Fixed issue with placing books on bookshelves inside player purchased homes
  • Fixed dragon animation issues with saving and loading
  • Fixed Y-look input to scale correctly with framerate
  • Optimize performance for Core 2 Duo CPUs (PC)

The patch is now live on Steam and Xbox 360, with the PlayStation 3 version still in the approval process.

It’s interesting to note that while Bethesda is touting its success, the top comments on their latest blog are all related to outstanding problems players are having with the game. Some choice quotes below:

Please fix the never-disappearing ash piles and the super-glowy nirnroots. That should help everyone with large save files.

Note that this issue was mentioned in our review.

Yeah- these are all great- but how about fixing the glitch that leave quest items in my inventory even after the quest is completed! Sure the dont effect my total carrying capacity- but they are annoying to have stuck in there! you'd think Bethesda would have figured this out after Oblivion!

I can't absorb dragon souls and the talos shine blessing to reduce your shout time is still that 0%.

Please fix a glitch where your companion dies and people still think he/she is with you! The 3 day reset isn't working.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

The end of an era: Dell stops making netbooks

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 04:45 PM PST

Netbooks, once the cheap portables spotted at coffee shops everywhere, have become so uncool that they are near extinction. Case in point: Dell is saying sayonara to its consumer netbook business.

Dell will stop producing its Inspiron Mini line of netbooks and has no plans to release any devices in the mini notebook category, the company told The Verge.

The company is now focusing its attention on pricier Ultrabooks, the red hot new category of devices inspired by Apple’s popular MacBook Air. “Thin and powerful is where it is at for us,” Dell’s marketing director Alison Gardner told The Verge.

Scrapping the netbook business is the wise thing to do. Research shows that tablet sales are booming while netbook sales are tanking. And, in Western Europe, Gartner calculated a more than 40 percent decrease in netbook shipments in the third quarter of 2011.

Still, it’s a bittersweet sign that an era — albeit a short one, as netbooks only date back to late 2007 — has come to end. Viva la ultrabook.

[Red sunset image via Shutterstock]

Filed under: VentureBeat

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Salesforce to acquire social enterprise player Rypple, re-name it ‘Successforce’

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 04:07 PM PST

Cloud-based software giant salesforce-ryppleSalesforce.com has agreed to buy performance management firm Rypple for an undisclosed sum, the two companies announced today.

Rypple dubs itself as a “cloud-based social performance management company.” Basically, it provides software designed to help managers improve employee performance through “social goals” and consistent feedback and recognition. It competes in an increasingly competitive (and essential) market for cloud-based human resource management services. Leading competitors include SuccessFactors, which enterprise giant SAP recently announced it was acquiring for $3.4 billion, Taleo (whose revenues come mostly from recruiting), Workday, Ultimate Software, and Cornerstone OnDemand.

Rypple counts outfits like Facebook, Mozilla, Spotify and Rackspace as customers, and it has raised $13 million to date in three rounds of funding.

The deal is expected to close by the end of April 2012. Pending approval, Salesforce will take over Rypple and re-name the service as “Successforce” to meld it better with the cloud company’s branding. Successforce will fall under Salesforce’s new human capital management (HCM) unit, which will be run by John Wookey, Salesforce’s executive VP for advanced applications.

“Salesforce.com and Rypple share a vision for extending the social enterprise to transform the way we work,” said Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, in a statement. “The next generation of HCM is not just about a cloud delivery model, it’s about a fundamentally better way to recruit, manage and empower employees in a social world.”

Salesforce’s commitment to HCM signifies the social direction major companies are headed and with Rypple, we’re seeing another example of consumer-focused tech applied to business. Further validating these notions, enterprise social networking company Jive Software went public this week.

Filed under: cloud, deals, enterprise

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Last.fm’s new music discovery web app focuses on indie bands

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 03:05 PM PST

Last.fm Discovery

Streaming music site Last.fm has launched a new Web app for people who are bored with their music library and looking for some fresh tunes.

One of the first streaming music services, Last.fm grew in popularity for its ability to let users customize radio stations and carry their listening data (called scrobbles) to other music services for an enhanced experience. But with the influx of competing streaming music services (Pandora, Turntable.fm, Spotify), Last.fm hasn’t made many waves. The company hopes to change with its new Last.fm Discovery app.

The app is basically a HTML5-optimized music player geared toward lesser known indie bands and music groups. Songs are sorted by more than two million user-generated tags, rather than a group of familiar genres such as rock, alternative or jazz. The service features music from over 500,000 artists. It’s currently advertisement-free and available worldwide.

“[The app] introduces you to bands from around the world by letting you browse through musical styles that you may already know or want to learn more about,” said Last.fm Product Lead Matthew Hawn in a blog post announcing Last.fm Discovery. “You won't find the latest X-factor winner or the latest plastic boyband manufactured by evil scientists in a lab somewhere. Our tags system encourages the weird and the wonderful, the micro-communities and new scenes that are springing up as fast as new, independent bands are formed.”

The Last.fm Discovery app seems like an improved version of the “Tag Tuner” feature from competitor Blip.fm — a service that turns user-submitted streaming music links from other services (like Grooveshark and YouTube) into playlists. Since Last.fm hosts its own music, its music player isn’t likely to have many of the playback issues that plague Blip.fm.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Adobe beats the street with surprisingly strong Q4

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 03:04 PM PST

Adobe-CS5Adobe Systems has reported stronger-than-expected revenues for the fourth quarter, after several events in the past few months suggested a weakened position.

Adobe has had a tough fourth quarter, with its decision to kill Flash software on mobile platforms and the company laying off 750 full-time employees in early November. But despite those challenges, the company did well in its digital media and digital marketing businesses, according to Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen.

The company posted revenue of $1.152 billion, which is up 14 percent from the same quarter a year ago. Non-GAAP profits amounted to 67 cents a share. Adobe beat the estimates of analysts surveyed by FactSet Research, who predicted Adobe would earn $1.09 billion in revenues, or 60 cents a share.

For the first quarter of 2012, Adobe forecasts earnings of 37 cents to 43 cents a share, on revenue between $1.025 billion to $1.075 billion.

On the positive news, Adobe’s stock on the Nasdaq exchange is trading up about 4 percent over its closing price. At time of writing, the stock sits at $27.69 after closing at $26.46.

Filed under: deals

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Trailer: Resident Evil heroes fight back in new Operation Raccoon City multiplayer mode

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 02:47 PM PST

Capcom has revealed a new multiplayer mode for its upcoming non-canonical spin-off to the Resident Evil series, Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. In the four-versus-four online “Heroes Mode,” players will take control of classic good guys (and gals) such as Leon S. Kennedy, Claire Redfield, and Jill Valentine to fight against the other team, consisting of villains such as Hunk and Ada Wong. Sadly, there has been no mention of Tofu, or which side he will take if and when he is included in the game.

To make things more interesting, players will not only have to deal with the opposing team, but also the AI-controlled zombies and weaponized mutants roaming the streets of Raccoon City. As hinted at in the trailer, each character has unique abilities, and the chance to have all of the iconic Resident Evil faces together in the same game is sure to be a hallmark moment for fans of the series.

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City takes place in an alternative fiction within the Resident Evil universe, allowing players to take control of an Umbrella Special Services (USS) squad. The USS squad’s objective is to eliminate any survivors and evidence of the T-virus outbreak which could incriminate Umbrella Corporation. Occurring during the events of Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, the third-person shooter will allow players to kill off main hero characters, creating an intriguing “What if?” scenario.

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City releases for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on March 20 in North America. A PC version is planned to release at a later date.

Filed under: games, video

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now

Stats show startups spend a chunk of their seed funding on legal fees (infographic)

Posted: 15 Dec 2011 02:44 PM PST

New statistics from Silicon Valley’s top law firms show that new startups spend around $80,000 on legal costs.

AttorneyFee, a website that compares lawyer’s fees, pulled recent numbers from Silicon Valley’s most prominent law firms. The digits reveal the average amount of money startups spend on legal fees, the annual increase in new businesses, and an boom in law firms’ digital presence.

Startups usually face several legal hurdles in the early phases of creating their businesses. Several law firms in Silicon Valley make their money by helping these startups get up and running, often for a hefty price. In 2011, Silicon Valley attorneys made an estimated $37 million in revenue from startups alone. Most of the money that startups raise in their first rounds of funding goes directly to legal fees; the average bill for series A financing is over $50,000.

One important statistic uncovered is that the annual growth of business formation is approaching pre dot-com bubble times. Startup growth for 2011 is close to 30 percent, the highest its been in over five years.

While law firms are making a lot of money off startups in Silicon Valley, they are also trying to get more tech savvy. AttorneyFee found growing Twitter presences, website views, and Klout scores among law firms and attorneys. See the infographic below for more stats about startups and the legal teams that help get them off the ground.

Filed under: deals

This posting includes an audio/video/photo media file: Download Now