While iOS games started out as either simple physics or casual simulation titles when the platform launched about five years ago, the bar has gotten steadily higher and more hard-core. Midcore studios like Kabam started to rise in prominence.
Now the iOS platform might be seeing is most hardcore title to date – a very, very massive multi-player title from YC- and Menlo Ventures-backed Machine Zone.
The company, which started out doing text-based RPGs a couple years ago like iMob, is launching Game of War: Fire Age. It’s a title where players build and grow empires, train massive armies, forge alliances with other players to win kingdoms.
The game can handle hundreds of thousands of players concurrently in the same universe, which is not an easy technical feat. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, in contrast, typically handles a few thousand players simultaneously in a single realm. All movement on the game’s map is visible to everyone else.
“We wanted to take the company to the next level and be really ambitious,” said Machine Zone CEO Gabriel Leydon. “We decided to build some things that had never been done before. We had the capital to do it and the willpower.”
Leydon didn’t hire just typical game designers to build the title. He also found people who had experience in scaling massive systems. The game’s user interface is in HTML5 and is rendered natively, allowing the company to handle different screen sizes.
The other really cool thing about the game’s social capabilities is that there is a mechanical turk-like translation system where the players themselves translate chat in exchange for virtual currency rewards. That helps Game of War have really interactive play with a proper critical mass of users who can talk to each other, even if they don’t speak the same language. The in-game chat system helps Game of War get manage slang and gamer speak, which a third-party translation system probably wouldn’t handle correctly. If say, 50 players translate the same words in the same way, then the game will start using that translation automatically.
“It’s like a highly structured Facebook,” Leydon said. “My goal as a game designer was to create a feeling of what it would be to be a king, where you’d have a lot of people under you. You’d have to subjects, wealth and land.”
Assuming say, the game grows to 1 million players, there might only be 20 kings in the game. To reach that level, players have to woo others to form alliances with them. Within those alliances, there are ranks for different officers.
“This is a very hardcore game. This is not Candy Crush,” he said. “This is a complex system with a lot of potential trees of outcomes. If you’re the type of person that’s fascinated by systems like this, then this is for you.”
Machine Zone used to be known as Addmired, and rebranded last year when it took $8 million in funding from Menlo Ventures. Leydon said this is what the company took the round for, even though its older titles like Original Gangstaz and iMob 2 were pretty lucrative early on.
At TechCrunch Disrupt NYC back in April, former Facebook exec-turned-venture capitalist, Chamath Palihapitiya delivered a deflating critique of the tech industry – in particular, the quality of its startups. Had he been issuing a report card, the Tech World would have gotten an “F,” with an extra side of “shame.” His frustration seemed to emanate principally from the fact that “Big Ideas” are few and far between in the industry today. Rather than aiming high, he intoned, entrepreneurs seem content to reach for low-hanging fruit despite the diminishing returns inherent to that approach.
While Big Ideas may not be at all-time high, today’s news brings some assurance that they are still alive and well in the tech industry – and that there’s even capital to support them, for-profit or not. Watsi, a Y Combinator-backed healthcare crowdfunding platform, is tackling one of the biggest: That more than one billion people can’t afford (or don’t have access to) adequate medical services. Even Chamath would likely agree that falls in the “Big Idea” camp.
Today, the non-profit crowdfunding platform announced that it has raised $1.2 million in what is its first round of financing, or “philanthropic seed round,” as the startup is calling it. Granted, if Watsi is setting its sights high, than $1.2 million will only be a drop in the bucket compared to the capital and resources it will need if it truly hopes to make a difference at scale.
A good start, to be sure, especially when considering the impressive roster of names contributing to its first financing, which includes institutional investors, like China’s largest Internet services portal, Tencent, Y Combinator partners – including personal investments from founder Paul Graham and YC Partner Geoff Ralston – along with the “godfather of angel investing” and owner of the most pristine coiffure in the Valley, Ron Conway, Sun Microsystems and Khosla Ventures co-founder, Vinod Khosla, venture philanthropy fund (and Kiva investor), The Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation and Flixter founder and Rotten Tomatoes CEO, Joe Greenstein – to name a few.
While the list is impressive, it’s not a group of investors one would typically find contributing to a non-profit fundraiser. Watsi founder Chase Adam explains that the reason the company opted for this approach is that the traditional mechanisms for non-profit fundraising sometimes act as a counterproductive force by undermining the social movements they’re trying to support. Instead of devoting themselves to their “Big Idea,” socially-minded entrepreneurs often spend their time entering online voting competitions and hosting banquets to raise money to support their operations.
Instead, Adams hopes that the collection of VC, angel and institutional donations represents a move toward a new future of non-profit fundraising. Granted, Watsi is in the unusual (and fortunate) position to have been the first non-profit startup to be accepted into Y Combinator and to have had the vocal support of Y Combinator’s founder, Paul Graham, who also recently accepted a seat on the startup’s board – the first time he’s done so for a YC incubation.
In reference to this question, Graham suggested to Watsi that they call this raise a “Series N” (non-profit and n=variable).
On the flip side, Adams tells us that he set a three-month deadline for fundraising, deciding to go after industry leaders and big names in the angel and venture world, regardless of whether or not the efforts proved to be successful. By doing so, the Watsi founder hopes that this might help encourage other social businesses to consider forgoing traditional sources of fundraising.
Ben Rattray, the founder and CEO of social action platform Change.org and I recently spoke on this very subject after the socially-minded for-profit company closed its own $15 million round of funding. As a for-profit business, there’s more pressure for Change.org to raise institutional or venture capital.
As a non-profit, Watsi would likely be more attractive to investors, whereas Big Idea-based, for-profit companies have traditionally found it difficult to raise money from these types of investors. However, both Adams and Rattray share similar goals, as the Change.org founder that would enable them to remain independent without having to constantly be looking for a one-time liquidity event.
“These kind of social enterprise businesses are working over the long-term, 15 to 20 year windows, which is beyond the scope of most venture capitalists,” Rattray said at the time. However, he believes that it’s going to change: “I have no doubt this is going to change – that eventually more investors are going to start backing socially-conscious businesses,” Rattray says. And it’s for that very reason that I think the juxtaposition of Watsi and Change.org is worthwhile. Although perhaps idealistic – and, admittedly, Watsi is a non-profit, perhaps the startup’s funding is the first sign that it is, in fact, beginning to change.
Nonetheless, for Watsi, this raise is an important validation of its own ambitious, “Big Idea” goals. Of course, eliminating poverty or fixing global healthcare and covering the uncovered, don’t happen over night and aren’t solved by one person or one founder. That’s why Watsi is leveraging the “many hands” approach of crowdfunding to let anyone contribute to the funding of low-cost, high-impact medical treatments for those in need.
Furthermore, the platform automatically creates profiles for those in search of financial support for treatments or surgeries and makes it easy to make direct donations. Furthermore, these profiles, besides providing critical transparency into how your donation will be used and actually help someone, it also works towards attaching actual, human faces to global poverty – which sounds cheesy but is critical to conditions or problems like this that are so huge that providing real faces, one-by-one, can help discourage, say, just ignoring it and hanging for a lower-hanging fruit.
To further incentivize donations, Watsi offers 100 percent of the donations it collects from the crowd to those in need. Graham also says that the startup is paying “all their operational costs from their own funding, and none from your donations,” and in turn, even stomach credit card processing fees. A noble gesture in its own right.
The startup hosts the profiles of people in need but who can’t afford them, allowing donors to peruse profiles, donate as little as $5
, Watsi hosts profiles of people in dire need of medical care, but who can’t afford it. Donors can browse the profiles and donate as little as $5 to help someone get well. 100% of donations go to the sick, and Watsi funds its operations and even pays credit card processing fees on donations out of its own pocket. We name
Don Mattrick, the new Zynga CEO announced at the beginning of the month, offered his initial on-the-job observations today during the conference call discussing the company’s second-quarter earnings.
Mattrick (on the right of the photo with Zynga founder and former CEO Mark Pincus) started out by offering some positive commentary, saying that the company “caught lightning in a bottle” and “achieved in only a few years what most companies took a decade or more to do.” However, he acknowledged, “We’re missing out on platform growth that Apple, Google, and Facebook are seeing. In short, we can do better.”
So how is he going to try to turn things around? He said he’s going to be working with the company’s leadership to “challenge previous assumptions” and to focus on “business fundamentals – which, candidly, we’ve struggled with over the past year.” Mattrick predicted that there will be two to four more quarters of volatility as the company tries to find a new direction.
“Getting a business back on track isn’t easy and isn’t quick,” he said.
Pincus, now Zynga’s chief product officer, was also on the call, and among other things, he said he was impressed that Mattrick set up his desk in the middle of the Farmville studios. Both Pincus and Mattrick described their relationship as one between “partners”.
Mattrick said he’s also going to discuss his priorities on this call – I’ll update this post when he does.
Update: Later in the call, Mattrick said his priorities for his first 90 days on the job include “getting under the hood” to evaluate the business, identifying the real market opportunities, improving product quality, looking at how people are deployed across the company, and reassessing the product pipeline. He also suggested Zynga is a young company that has “the ability to break some bad habits” but that while he’ll be in listen-and-learn mode initially, “When it becomes clear what change is necessary, I’ll move quickly and decisively to do what’s in the best long-term interests of our players, our employees, and our shareholders.”
He concluded, “There are some good winds at our back, and my job is to get our sails up and Zynga pointed in the right direction.”
You can call it a first-world problem. Or you can say it distracts people from their passions and contributions to the world. Either way, laundry is a chore, and new Y Combinator startup Prim wants to do it for you. You can schedule Prim online to come to your place, pick up your laundry, have it washed and folded at a top-notch laundromat, and deliver it back to you. $25 for a bag. It’s that easy.
Prim’s Stanford-educated founders originally came into Y Combinator to build an in-video advertising platform, but the business wasn’t there. The idea for Prim was scattered all over their floors. See, co-founder Yin Yin Wu’s boyfriend worked at Facebook, where they have free laundry service. His clothes ended up neatly washed, folded, and in his drawers rather than in heaps waiting to be done. That meant he could focus on his job and life. Yin Yin thought, “why couldn’t this service be available to anyone?” So they created Prim.
Uber For Laundry
Currently Prim operates in San Francisco, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Menlo Park – home to the world’s busiest techies. You go online and select from their upcoming 9am-11am or 8pm-10pm pickup and drop-off windows. You throw your clothes in a garbage bag and wait for Prim’s text that it’ll be there in 15 minutes. The driver calls when they arrive. You can hand them the bag, leave it with your doorman, or if you’re comfortable, give them a copy of your key or send a photo of it and they’ll make a copy so they can just come into your place and grab the bag.
Their driver takes the sack of clothes to be tagged and brings it to a well-rated local laundromat with a track record of flawless jobs. Within two days you get notified to confirm your delivery, and Prim brings the washed and folded clothes back in high-quality nylon satchels. It even ties together your stacks of shirts or whatever you wouldn’t want wrinkled so they stay prim and proper. See! That’s where they got the name! You got that already? Sorry.
The cost is $25 for the first bag of each pickup and $15 for the additional ones. That’s a bit more expensive than you can expect from a laundromat’s wash and fold, but you get the pick-up and delivery included. Because Prim brings in so much business, it gets discounts from the laundromats so the price stays reasonable. Prim strives for perfection, but in case anything gets lost or damaged, Wu says Prim has insurance and will refund you 100% of the cost of your clothes. “If there’s any mistake, we try to bend over backwards for our customers” says Wu.
The idea is that as Prim gets bigger, it can use economies of scale to improve its margins and lower its costs. While it’s only in the Bay Area now, expansion plans don’t include the sprawl of LA (where Wash.io operates) or fighting the specialized competitors in NYC. Instead it’s looking at Seattle, Boston, and other dense cities full of time-strapped knowledge workers. In SF, Prim will have to battle LaundryLocker where you drop your clothes in a public locker, and delivery services like Sfwash (where you pay by the pound), Sudzee (which requires special lockable bags), and some other local services.
Prim differentiates through simplicity and its flat rate. The risk is that the price is too high and it can’t get traction, or too low that it can’t squeak out a profit. Getting the balance right and giving people a great experience will make or break the startup.
Luckily, I loved Prim. It got my laundry done in 24 hours, everything came back clean, dry, soft, unwrinkled, and nothing seemed shrunk. Oh, and I did basically zero work. No dragging my clothes to the laundromat, fiddling with change for the machines, and most importantly, no waiting for hours. Even if you have machines in your home or apartment, doing loads one at a time can be quite annoying. My laundry often languishes because I dread the rigamarole. With Prim, I’m a lot less likely to make it to the bottom of my sock drawer. A more flexible morning pickup schedule would help, but Prim says they’ll always work with customers to find some time that works. Adding in dry cleaning would also be a big plus, and help them compete with other services that handle all your clothes-washing needs.
Wash And Flow
No, Prim isn’t going to save anyone’s life, but it could still help improve the world if you think about it. Convenience doesn’t just breed laziness. It can enable productivity. In that way, I’d say Prim shares DNA with Dropbox and Asana, not just Uber and TaskRabbit.
Prim lets you concentrate on what you love to do, what you’re responsible for, or how you contribute to the universe. I’m decent at writing, terrible at laundry, and busy. Spending a ton of time washing and folding is just inefficient for me. I feel better stimulating the economy and letting someone good at laundry do their thing. And imagine how this could free up a CEO, doctor, charity director, or parent to take on the duties only they can fulfill?
Think how long it takes you to do laundry. If that amount of your time is worth more than $25 (or $40 if you’ve got a big wardrobe), use Prim.
And use Prim with the promo code “techcrunch” to get $10 off your first pickup.
Prim Co-Founders (From Left): Xuwen Cao and Yin Yin Wu
Last year, when Verizon Wireless and Comcast were trying to get lawmakers to sign off on a giant wireless spectrum sale/noncompete pact, the two companies also said they were going to create a technology/R&D joint venture. It was supposed to come up with really cool tech products that consumers would love.
That JV is now dead. Verizon announced its demise today during the company’s earnings call, but said the partnership actually ended in late August.
The news here is that the most important part of the Comcast/Verizon deal hasn’t changed. Verizon still owns valuable spectrum it purchased from Comcast, and the two companies are still agreeing not to compete – or at least not to compete very vigorously.
It’s not surprising that Comcast and Verizon have concluded that their JV didn’t make sense. Most JVs don’t. And if there is an example of two companies at the scale of Comcast and Verizon successfully working together to create cool consumer tech, I’d love to hear about it.
For the record, though, the two companies didn’t seem to have those doubts back in March 2012. Back then, when the companies were still trying to get federal approval for the deal, they were pointing to the JV as a big win for consumers.
Here’s what Comcast executive vice president David Cohen told a Senate subcommittee back then:
“By enhancing the Cable Companies’ and Verizon Wireless’s own products and services, the Joint Venture will compete with similar solutions that AT&T, Dish Network, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and others already have introduced into the marketplace. This, in turn, will spur other companies to respond, perpetuating a cycle of competitive investment and innovation.”
And here’s what Verizon is saying, via a spokesperson, today:
“The joint venture was formed to bring innovation to the marketplace and enhance the customer experience through technology that integrated wireline and wireless products and services. Evolving technology and market changes since the joint venture was formed have led all parties to conclude that a joint venture, per se, is no longer needed to deliver innovative services to customers. Verizon Wireless and the cable companies will continue to explore ways to collaborate on technology in the future. Each company remains committed to bringing innovation to its customers and will continue to find ways to optimize the user experience for each company’s products.”
If you’re a skeptical person, you might think that Comcast and Verizon were overselling the benefits of the JV from the start. You might think that they never really thought they could successfully compete with the likes of Apple and Google, but were holding out the idea because consumer groups were unhappy with the other parts of their pact, which seemed likely to reduce competition between the two companies.
On the other hand, both Comcast and Verizon did assign people to work on this stuff together, and they did do some work. Comcast, for instance, points to the Xfinity TV Player app, which lets you download movies and TV shows to your iPad and iPhone and take them with you, as an example of the joint venture’s output. [Update: Strike that. A Comcast rep tells us we had bad information: The app was made in-house, not via the JV.]
So, if you were a different kind of skeptical person, you might think that Comcast and Verizon really did think they could successfully compete with the likes of Apple and Google. And the fact that it only took them 17 months to realize they were wrong – and pull the plug – is a good thing.
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock/Carlos Caetano)