Indie gem Stardew Valley will get multiplayer on August 1st

Stardew Valley, the popular indie farming simulator (it’s more fun than “farming simulator” makes it sound, I promise) is quite possibly the chillest game of all time. But, without any multiplayer aspect, it can get … a bit lonely. From farming, to fishing, to exploring mines, it’s always felt like a game that would be better with friends.

We’ll soon find out if thats true. After about year of work has been put into the feature, the game will get cooperative multiplayer starting on August 1st.

There’s a slight catch: multiplayer will be limited to PC/Mac/Linux, at first. The trailer (below) says support will roll out to Nintendo Switch/PS4/Xbox One “soon”, but doesn’t get into specifics.

Multiplayer Stardew Valley will support up to 4 players on the same farm, with all players sharing the same money and farmland. According to this page on the Stardew Valley fan wiki, groups will be able to tweak the game a bit to their tastes (specifically, they can scale things like profit margins and in-game item costs) to account for the added ease of having four players doing the work that was previously designed for one.

Stardew Valley is surprisingly in-depth for a game built primarily by just one person; while it’s published by a company, the vast majority of the work — from the pixel art, to the musical composition, to the programming — is done by Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone. By the beginning of this year, it was reported that the game had sold over 3.5 million copies. GQ did a profile on Barone and how he built the game back in March.

Barone clarified a few things on Twitter shortly after the trailer went live:

  • If you’ve already found your way into the multiplayer beta, there won’t be any major changes in the public releases besides a “few last-minute bug fixes”
  • While work on the console builds is underway, he doesn’t have any release dates in mind yet
  • No split-screen or shared screen co-op — if you want multiplayer, you’ll need your own device to play on

CowryWise micro-savings service opens high yield government bonds to everyday Nigerians

In emerging market countries where economic volatility is a way of life, there aren’t a lot of relatively safe options for members of the burgeoning middle class to park their money.

For instance, countries like Nigeria have experienced a tremendous growth in the number of citizens entering the middle class, which now accounts for about 23% of the population (it’s around 50% in the U.S.), according to a recent article citing the African Development Bank.

While Nigeria now faces some significant headwinds from a weak domestic currency (the naira), high interest rates and a manufacturing recession, there are ways that local investment can both protect the wealth that’s been created and encourage investment domestically to potentially spur development.

At least, that’s the conclusion that college friends Razaq Ahmed and Edward Popoola came to while they were thinking about opportunities for new financial services options in their home country of Nigeria.

The two men, Ahmed with a background in finance and Popoola in computer science, are launching a company called CowryWise that gives Nigerian investors a way to save their money by investing in high yield government bonds. The rates on those products are high enough to absorb the wild swings in value of the naira and still provide a healthy return for investors, according to Ahmed.

Set to present at this year’s demo day from Y Combinator, CowryWise is one of a number of startups that Y Combinator has backed coming from the African continent and an example of the wellspring of entrepreneurial talent that is flourishing in sub-Saharan Africa.

Using CowryWise a customer would just have to sign up with their email address and phone number and link their bank account up to the CowryWise platform.

There are already roughly 57 million savings accounts in Nigeria and 32 million unique bank users. By investing in the bonds, these savers gain access to interest rates that range between 10% and 17%, according to Ahmed.

“The bonds… are similar to the treasuries issued by the U.S. government, which is A rated,” says Ahmed. Even if there were foreign currency risk from investing in the Naira, the inflation rate is currently around 11%, according to Ahmed. Given that most of the bonds are yielding interest rates on the higher end, it’s just a better deal for consumers, he said.

“There’s more value in keeping the money in government treasury bills,” than in the bank, says Ahmed.

For Ahmed and Popoola, the decision to launch CowryWise was a way to bring investment opportunities to a retail investor that hadn’t been able to access the best that the financial system in Nigeria had to offer.

To target these retail investors, meant leveraging technology to scale quickly and cheaply across the country. The two men started developing their service in January and tested it in February and March with friends and family.

CowryWise isn’t without competitors. Another Nigerian company, Piggybank, recently raised $1.1 million for its own automated savings solution. Like CowryWise Piggybank also taps into government bonds to offer better rates to its investors.

That company already has 53,000 registered users — who have saved in excess of $5 million since 2016, according to a release.

There are subtle differences between the two. Piggybank touts its ability to save through bonds, but it is primarily working with banks to get Nigerians saving money. Cowrywise is using Meristem Financial (Ahmed’s old employer) as the asset manager for its investments into the bond market.

Another difference is the time customers’ funds are locked up. Piggybank has a three month savings period required before investors can withdraw funds, while CowryWise will let its customers withdraw cash immediately, according to this teardown of the two services.

Ultimately, there’s a large enough market for multiple players, and a need for better financial services, according to Ahmed.

“We kept having interest from retail investors on why they want to do micro-savings and micro-investment, but they didn’t have the required capital,” Ahmed says. “That was the major reason for staring the company. Why not democratize the assets? And make them available in investments and savings in this traditional instrument?”

What next? Oh yes, turning a luxury car into a non-fungible token

We’ve seen more than one project use the immutability of blockchain to verify important physical things. So, for instance, a pioneer in the space, Verisart, has brought blockchain certification of high art to leading galleries worldwide, and other players are now entering this growing market. Codex Protocol is a new startup also putting art on the blockchain. The benefits are obvious: reducing the possibility that an artwork could be fake to near-zero. This is an incredibly powerful idea, especially at the high end of the commercial spectrum.

A relatively new idea is to take blockchain to the car market. Automakers are already starting to take an interest. BMW, Ford, Renault and General Motors recently joined a new working group of more than 30 auto companies to employ blockchain technology. The Mobility Open Blockchain Initiative aims to speed up the adoption of blockchain, with use cases ranging from autonomous payments to ridesharing. But that’s not where blockchain adoption for cars ends.

There remains the need for trustworthy assurances of authenticity and condition, especially when it comes to high-end cars. And that’s doubly true of classic and exotic vehicles. Collectible, classic cars can have their documentation forged or misassigned since there’s no one, single, global document standardization for these kinds of cars.

Now a startup hopes to bring their newly-launched platform for tokenization to this market.

Proxeus is a blockchain startup that has launched a user-friendly method to register classic cars collection on the blockchain, making it both unforgeable and verifiable by anyone. The first client is Mercuria Helvetica in Switzerland.

Proxeus’s process verifies the certificates of authenticity and conditions of the vehicles. As an additional step, the car itself could actually be taken to the blockchain as a non-fungible token with an integrated certification library, offering not only proof of ownership and history but also serve as a permanent link to the verified documentation.

It’s now launching the beta version of its engine which has a drag and drop interface affording.

But do we really want to tokenize luxury cars? Proxeus says that’s not the point. They say their technology means someone without specialized programming skills, the ability to deploy blockchain for a wide variety of use cases.

Antoine Verdon cofounder says: “For the first time we are able to show that our technology is real.” Artan Veliju, CTO, says the platform has the “ability to easily build the workflows needed to use blockchain productively without needing to launch a software development project.”

Their idea is to allow anyone to legally incorporate businesses, register assets, and validate certificates on their testnet blockchain. It’s so far been used by the University of Basel’s Center for Innovative Finance course certificates or WWF Switzerland’s tax donation verification system. Test XES tokens will be provided to show how they function within the Proxeus ecosystem and are used to pay for Proxeus’ services.

Shortly after raising $25M as a part of their ICO, Proxeus now plans to complete the functions described in its whitepaper and release a fully-developed solution for enterprise.

Meantime, I’m going to make a, perhaps obvious, observation: The tokenization craze is clearly not going to end here.

What should competitive Fortnite look like?

Last weekend, Epic Games put forth its first true effort at official competitive Fortnite Battle Royale. It was a disaster.

The private hosts used for the tournament were about as laggy as could be, with pro players getting eliminated simply because they couldn’t move. This tournament was for a total prize of $250K. That’s big money, and big frustration for pro players who were essentially eliminated by the whims of the server gods. But on top of the lag, the whole thing was, well, boring. A cardinal sin in any sport.

The fact is that when you put 100 pro players in a lobby together and tell them that the last man standing wins, most of them will simply sit in a fort and stay safe as long as possible. This does not generate a whole lot of action.

And when there is action on the map, there was no way for a spectator to know about it. There are, after all, a hundred people to watch out for, and jumping from one engagement to another is not only difficult but lacks a certain narrative quality, making the whole thing feel scattered.

It seems clear that a guided mode or hotspot indicator would go a long way to improving the viewing experience. Being told where the fighting was or could be happening or having a guide that flagged these opportunities could work. There could also be a documentary-style concept that followed a few top players on their entire run, with the hope that they’ll find action and maybe even be pushed into conflict to impress viewers.

Epic recently published a post-mortem on the event, outlining ways that the publisher can improve on the tournament. They’ve also set forth the rules for this weekend’s event, proposing a score-based tournament where both eliminations and Victory Royales count toward players’ overall score. Whether or not this will incentivize more action will be determined following the event.

It’s also worth noting that Epic scheduled today’s event during the Fortnite Friday tournament. Fortnite Friday, hosted by popular YouTuber Keemstar and facilitated by UMG, was a $20,000 elimination-based tournament with top players. In this week of the Summer Skirmish Series, which is worth a total of $8 million, Epic is choosing to host a two-day tournament, effectively rendering Fortnite Friday playerless.

It doesn’t have to be this way, Epic. I know that the concept of 100 of the best players in the world dropping into one map sounds incredible. It does. It sounds great, in theory. But in practice, it’s just a disorderly live stream of a bunch of highly talented players sitting around in bases, or, worse, lagging to the point of being frozen.

And, an invitational tournament (that goes terribly wrong) doesn’t scream “inclusive,” which is what Epic repeatedly says competitive Fortnite should be.

There is another way, and it’s the same way that Fortnite players have been competing for months now. A kill race.

But let’s back up a bit.

What should competitive Fortnite be?

Right now, Fortnite is played by 100 people in a single lobby, and “winning” the game is defined by being the last survivor(s). This can be played in solo mode, with 100 individuals facing off against the storm and each other, or in 50 teams of two (Duos), or 25 teams of four (Squads).

Video games often get tweaks for the competitive scene, whether it’s limiting the resources/gear that players can use or reducing the number of maps that can be played. When skill level is that high, most games must make changes to allow for true competition.

Given it’s still early days, Fortnite Battle Royale featuring purely pro players simply hasn’t worked.

But as it stands now, there are roughly two schools of thought.

Whoever gets the most eliminations wins.

Pros:

  • Super fun to watch
  • Requires skill
  • Inclusive to non-pro players

Cons:

  • A lot of RNG
  • More time-consuming

Gamebattle sites like CMG and UMG have been running minor tournaments for quite a while now using this format. Fortnite Friday, arguably one of the biggest weekly tournaments, also follows this format.

Here’s how it works: Individual players load up in a Duo match on the same team, or teams of two load up into a Squad match, also on the same team, and race for who can get the most kills in a public match.

This means that these opposing players can’t kill each other, but can keep track of each other’s kills and placement on the map. When you’re racing for kills, understanding where the other duo is fighting and how many kills they have is important information.

Given only four players are competing at a time, that means the rest of the 92 people on the map are regular Fortnite players.

This is where RNG comes into play. RNG is a term used in gaming that means Random Number Generator. It is the gaming equivalent of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.” It essentially means there is some level of random luck involved in the game. For example, you might land in a place where there is usually a weapon or chest, but that weapon or chest isn’t there, leaving you vulnerable to other players who land around you.

Great players can work around or overcome a certain level of RNG, but if the opposing team comes up on a squad of noobs and your team rolls up on a squad of great players, the tide of the match will inevitably shift against you, and may even result in a loss.

This is the cost of the 2v2 format that has become popularized with the vast majority of Fortnite competitive players.

While it takes more time to have 100 players compete four at a time, this format allows the viewer to watch no more than four players as they traverse the map and seek eliminations. At most, the audience has to follow along with four separate stories on the map. In most cases, duos play together, which brings that number down to two. In either case, it’s much easier than following along with the stories of 50 separate teams.

Traditional Battle Royale

Pros:

  • Less RNG
  • Amazing build fights
  • Fair, in the sense that players are fighting players of equal skill level

Cons:

  • It’s boring
  • Not inclusive
  • Confusing and scattered for viewers

This format was used during the Ninja Live tournament, the Fortnite ProAm tournament and, most recently, during the $8 million Summer Skirmish series, hosted by Epic Games.

Here’s how it works: 100 pro players/streamers pair off into teams of two and all load into the same lobby, with the goal of lasting the longest.

As I said, Fortnite Battle Royale is built around the idea that there would be a sole survivor, but doesn’t predicate that survival on a certain level of skill. In other words, it’s relatively easy to hide, avoid fights and survive to the near end of a game, or potentially even win. It doesn’t take much skill to squat in a bush or set traps in a house and sit in the bathroom.

Obviously, with pro players, there will be gunfights, and those gunfights should be pretty interesting. But they are few and far between, and are difficult to predict and capture for the live stream.

This also excludes regular players from being a part of the action. Yes, it’s a risk to construct a competitive scene on the backs of public gameplay. But it’s also never been done before in the pro gaming world. And it is the best way to include public players into the competitive scene. A regular player is far more likely to get interested in the competitive scene knowing that, on Friday or Saturday, they have the chance to play against the world’s greatest competitors.

The best way to build on the momentum of Fortnite’s popularity, as well as support the community as a whole, is to build out tournaments focused on eliminations within public lobbies.

It makes sense for Epic to want to control that experience, and it certainly makes sense for Epic to want the competitive scene to fit within the game they built, which is a Battle Royale. But thus far, competitive Battle Royale featuring purely pro players simply hasn’t worked. And it feels slightly underhanded for Epic to barrel over Fortnite Friday, given that the more competitive tournaments around Fortnite, the better for the game.

The community is here, telling you what it wants, Epic. And in true Fortnite fashion, if you build it, they will come.

Facebook suspends analytics firm Crimson Hexagon over data use concerns

As part of its ongoing mission to close the barn doors after the cows have got out, Facebook has suspended the accounts of British data analytics firm Crimson Hexagon over concerns that it may be improperly handling user data.

The ominously named company has for years used official APIs to siphon public posts from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other sources online, collating and analyzing for various purposes, such as to gauge public opinion on a political candidate or issue. It has clients around the world, serving Russia and Turkey as well as the U.S. and United Kingdom.

Facebook, it seems, was not fully aware of the extent of Crimson Hexagon’s use of user data, however, including in several government contracts which it didn’t have the opportunity to evaluate before they took effect. The possibility that the company is not complying with its data use rules, specifically that they may have been helping build surveillance tools, was apparently real enough for Facebook to take action. Perhaps the bar for suspension has been lowered somewhat over the last year, and with good reason.

“We are investigating the claims about Crimson Hexagon to see if they violated any of our policies,” said Facebook VP Product Partnerships Ime Archibong in a statement.

The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the suspension, noted that Crimson Hexagon currently has a contract with FEMA to monitor online discussion for various disaster-related purposes, but a deal with ICE fell through because Twitter resisted this application of their “firehose” data.

However, beyond the suggestion that the company has undertaken work that skirts the edge of what the social media companies consider appropriate use of public data, Crimson Hexagon doesn’t seem to have done anything as egregious as the wholesale network collection done by others. It restricts itself to publicly available data that it pays to access, and applies its own methods to produce its own brand of insight and intelligence.

The company also isn’t (at least, not obviously) a quasi-independent arm of a big, shady network of companies working actively to obscure their connections and deals, as Cambridge Analytica was. Crimson Hexagon is more above the board, with ordinary venture investment and partnerships. Its work is in a way similar to CA, in that it is gleaning insights of a perhaps troublingly specific nature from billions of public posts, but it’s at least doing it in full view.

As before, the onus of responsibility is equally on Facebook to enforce as it is on partners to engage in scrupulous handling of user data. It’s hardly good data custodianship for Facebook to let companies take what they need under a handshake agreement that they’ll do no evil, and then take them to task years later when the damage has already been done. But that seems to be the company’s main priority now: to reiterate the folksy metaphor from above, it is frantically counting the cows that have bolted while apologizing for having left the door open for the last decade or so.

Incidentally, Crimson Hexagon was co-founded by the same person who was put in charge of Facebook’s new social science initiative: Harvard’s Gary King. In a statement, he denied any involvement in the former’s everyday work, although he is chairman. No doubt this connection will receive a bit of scrutiny on Facebook’s side as well.

Niantic explains how and why it bans players in Pokémon GO

Getting banned for cheating is nothing new in Pokémon GO. There’ve been big ol’ ban waves every few weeks for ages now.

The policies have never been totally set in stone, however — at least not publicly. Like many of the game’s mechanics, the player base has had to share info amongst themselves to figure out the offenses and their relative punishments, from slaps on the wrist to lifetime bans.

At long last, Niantic has published a proper “Three-Strike Discipline Policy.”

As the name implies, most infractions will be handled on a three-strike system. Niantic notes, however, that “some misbehaviors” (they leave that one pretty open-ended) will work out to an instant perma ban.

So what’s worthy of a strike? Spoofing (making the game think you’re somewhere you’re not), using modified Pokémon GO clients or bots or doing something that accesses Pokémon GO’s backend in an unauthorized way.

On the first strike, you’ll get a warning message. You’ll still be able to play, technically, but you won’t see anything even remotely rare for seven days.

On the second strike, they’ll close your account for a month.

On the third strike, the account is banned for good.

And if you think you got stuck in the crosshairs by accident? Niantic has an appeal process for that.

It’s worth noting that these punishments aren’t really new; bans of all variety have been happening since shortly after the game’s release. This is just the first time Niantic has really put the hows-and-whys in stone.

Niantic could probably go a few steps further in their clarifications here, though, as plenty of players are still confused as to whether or not they’re breaking the rules.

Will they get in trouble for using third-party software (like an automated IV calculator) that doesn’t modify the client or access Niantic’s backend but does provide the player with more info? What about players using third-party versions of the Go Plus hardware, like the Go-tcha? That thing pretty much automates catching/spinning as you walk around… but it’s also been sold in retail stores for years now, likely to many players who’ve never considered that this thing they bought in their local GameStop might not be allowed.

Oscar and Lemonade founders will join us at Disrupt SF to strategize about the future of insurance innovation

Insurance premiums total more than a trillion dollars in the U.S., and yet, where that money goes is something of a mystery. It certainly doesn’t seem to get invested in the consumer experience, where ancient incumbent companies still process paperwork as if it is the 1800s, and consumers are left wanting for new insurance options that meet their needs.

Insurance might well be the last frontier for disruptive innovation, but now, a generation of insurance tech startups is bringing new data models and product experience talent to bear on this sclerotic industry. In the process, they may well become some of the most durable and profitable companies the industry has ever seen.

Those startups face challenging questions. How can a startup even get started in an industry where an insurer often needs millions sitting on the balance sheet just to get started? How can a startup compete in a highly-regulated industry, where incumbents have the financial might to actively stamp out competition? Can there be such a thing as delightful insurance?

These are just some of the questions we will be investigating during a high-powered insurance tech panel at Disrupt SF this September 5-7. We will be joined by two founders who are spearheading a complete overhaul of the industry through their companies.

Mario Schlosser is the CEO and co-founder of Oscar, a New York-based health insurance startup that has raised approaching a billion dollars in venture capital. Schlosser started programming as a young boy in Germany, and eventually moved to the U.S. to work on computer science research at Stanford. Later, he migrated to Harvard Business School where he met his Oscar co-founder Joshua Kushner.

Mario Schlosser (Oscar Health) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

Working with Kevin Nazemi, the trio launched Oscar in 2013 just as Obamacare’s exchanges were becoming operational. Since then, the company’s health insurance products have become available in six states, and it has more than 700 employees. The company is reportedly on track to hit a billion in revenue in 2018, and recorded its first quarterly profit a few months ago.

Health is just one segment of the insurance landscape though. We will also be hosting Daniel Schreiber, who is the CEO and co-founder of Lemonade, a New York-based renters and home insurance startup. Lemonade, which uses artificial intelligence to make the insurance process faster and more consumer friendly, has gotten huge attention from investors since its launch in 2015, receiving $180 million in venture capital, including a mega round from Softbank late last year.

Daniel Schreiber (Lemonade) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

Schreiber, a former attorney who was perviously president of wireless charging startup Powermat, joined with Shai Wininger to launch the startup, and since then the company’s product has been made available in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Perhaps most interestingly, Lemonade has a unique service model for its policyholders. Policyholders are grouped together with “peers” who want to commit to helping the same causes. Then, at the end of the calendar year, any premiums leftover in that group of peers is donated to their cause as part of a “Giveback.” Lemonade takes a fixed cut of the premium, to incentive-align itself with customers and ensure they always pay out claims as efficiently as possible.

If you want to understand the challenge but incredible opportunities present in regulated businesses like insurance, these two founders are not to be missed. They will be chatting on the Next Stage of Disrupt SF the morning of September 5th.

The full agenda is here. Passes for the show are available at the Early-Bird rate until July 25 here.

Healthcare data breach in Singapore affected 1.5M patients, targeted the prime minister

In what’s believed to be the biggest data breach in Singapore’s history, 1.5 million members of the country’s largest healthcare group have had their personal data compromised.

The breach affected SingHealth, Singapore’s biggest network of healthcare facilities. Data obtained in the breach includes names, addresses, gender, race, date of birth and patients’ national identification numbers. Around 160,000 of the 1.5 million patients also had their outpatient medical information accessed by unauthorized individuals. All patients affected by the hack had visited SingHealth clinics between May 1, 2015 and July 4, 2018, Singapore newspaper The Straits Times reports.

“Investigations by the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore (CSA) and the Integrated Health Information System confirmed that this was a deliberate, targeted and well-planned cyberattack,” a press release from Singapore’s Ministry of Health stated. “It was not the work of casual hackers or criminal gangs.”

The hackers appear to have accessed the sensitive data by compromising a single SingHealth workstation with malware and were then able to obtain privileged account credentials with which they accessed the patient database. The breach was first noticed on July 4 and a police report was filed on July 12.

During a press conference, investigating authorities disclosed that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was “specifically and repeatedly targeted.”

The Prime Minister elaborated on the incident on his Facebook page:

SingHealth’s database has experienced a major cyber-attack. 1.5 million patients have had their personal particulars…

Posted by Lee Hsien Loong on Friday, July 20, 2018