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Fortnite’s maximalism still works in its new cyberpunk season



After a handful of eclectic recent chapters, Fortnite’s latest is taking a theme and running with it. Chapter Four, Season Two of Fortnite went live over the weekend, revamping the game’s central island (which got a full makeover last season) while going full futuristic.

The result is a cyberpunk fever dream, with Fortnite’s bucolic rolling hills punctuated by 20-story tall glowing skateboard rails, neon katakana and towering holographic samurai, because cyberpunk aesthetics in this particular genre of fantasy future still necessitate a melange of Japanese imagery, apparently.

With the exception of a few less fun dud seasons here and there, Fortnite generally brings a lot to the table for casual players, who can either play for free or buy its seasonal battle pass for $9.50. The new season is no different, with a new area featuring hot springs and cherry blossoms (Japan again!), a handful of new inscrutably-named weapons and some unique perks known as “reality augments” to make gameplay more interesting. So far, it’s as fun as it is chaotic, which of course is Fortnite’s raison d’être (that and selling a bunch of irresistible virtual stuff).

The new season continues the recent theme of expanding mobility across the island, with street bikes replacing last season’s dirt bikes and a wild new version of aerial parkour that makes for dynamic battles high up in Mega City, the new Tokyo-ish futuristic hot drop combat hub. Epic’s ongoing upgrades to the battle royale mode’s means of getting around make the game feel more dynamic (i.e. less running from the storm on foot) and serve as a showcase for whatever Unreal Engine is capable of at the moment, from more fluid in-game movement to increasingly destructible environments and the like.

That Epic has managed to keep the game feeling fresh for this long without any kind of thematic identity beyond Fortnite’s polished cartoon look and zany vibes is pretty remarkable. Other long-running live service games (think Final Fantasy XIV, Destiny 2, World of Warcraft and even relative newcomers like Genshin Impact and Apex Legends) generally hew more closely to a genre or theme, whether it’s sci-fi, high fantasy or post-apocalypse lite.

Epic changes up the live service battle royale’s feel from chapter to chapter and often even within the shorter three-month seasons in between each of the game’s major shakeups. But unlike more traditional games, Fortnite doesn’t need to maintain any ongoing theme, particularly coherent story or visual identity from season to season. One of Epic’s cleverest turns is that the game’s unifying feature can be summed up as “more is more.”

Fortnite Chapter 4 Season 2

One season might center medieval knights or shirtless body building catmen while the next is about shimmery goo you can scoot around in. That model also lends itself well to Epic’s relentless and surely lucrative smorgasbord of tie-ins with major pop culture touchstones, from the Mandalorian and the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Indiana Jones and a whole cast of anime favorites. For an idea of the breadth of these crossovers, at the time of writing the Fortnite store was selling an avatar of Horizon Zero Dawn’s Aloy and a very solid likeness of Michael B. Jordan from the Creed films that steered well clear of the uncanny valley.

Other games have taken a bite out of the live service shooter pie in recent years (Valorant and Apex Legends, to name a few), but Fortnite’s formula still works six years after its battle royale mode debuted. There’s way more stuff in the game these days — ads for virtual concerts, avatar packs, TV characters, wild boar — but Epic seems to be successfully leveraging that maximalism to keep the game relevant. A few seasons ago, how could you not tune in on Twitch or drop in from the battle bus to see Dragon Ball Z’s Goku leap onto a cel-shaded cloud and blast Darth Vader into atoms?

Fortnite’s recent focus on quests and in-game errands is another bit of the puzzle. There’s a lot of stuff to do each season beyond just shooting other players. You can grab a few friends, hop into the game and roll around the map in a giant hamster ball, knocking off whatever unhinged tasks wind up on the game’s weekly to-do lists. By doing that stuff and unlocking the skins and other virtual miscellany on the seasonal battle pass in the process, you wind up having a good time, even if your crew can’t aim to save your life.

It’s a good game loop and one that’s fun to dip in and out of as a casual player every few months so things don’t get too stale (or too tense — no stakes Fortnite tends to be the most fun, from my experience). Hardcore players can bicker over gun balancing and SBMM formulas, but the game’s real appeal is just bouncing around the map and seeing what happens. It’s usually something funny or dumb, most often both.

These days, it’s hard to get a read on just how many people are playing Fortnite, particularly in light of its app store absence, but the game remains popular enough to stay in Twitch’s most-watched rotation along with a handful of other online multiplayer hits similarly powered by regular infusions of fresh content. The player base may ebb and flow, but Epic likely banks on the fact that the right character can pull plenty of intermittent players back into a seasonal subscription. And Fortnite’s creative mode is a whole other world unto itself, with about half of Fortnite playtime already spent in player-made maps, even though Epic’s creator monetization options aren’t exactly inspiring at the moment. We’ll definitely be hearing more about Fortnite Creative as approachable game design systems continue to unfurl in the coming years.

Fortnite still has a place in the esports world, of course, but at its heart the game is a playground for unexpected pop culture crossovers and viral moments. A battle royale inexplicably full of Disney IP really should feel like a cynical cash grab, but mostly it winds up being a good time. And if we’re still talking about the metaverse (are we still talking about the metaverse?), Epic has laid some serious groundwork here with a technically impressive virtual amusement park — complete with gift shops, of course — which years after launch still doubles as one of the most fun shooters around.


Tesla more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022



Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.

The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.

TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.

The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.

Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.

Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.

The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.

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Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development



Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.

It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.

In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.

Image credit: Stoke Space

“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”

While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.

Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.

Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.

“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”

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Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors



Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.

Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.

Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.

We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.

For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”

There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.

As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.

There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.

Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.

At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.

Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.

Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.

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