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Review: Playdate is a refreshing and unique gaming handheld, but keep your expectations weird

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Everyone thought it was a little bonkers when Panic announced that they would be making a monochrome handheld gaming machine with a sort of subscription model where you can’t choose the games you get. DOA, right? Well, the pre-orders sold out so perhaps not. And fortunately, Playdate is a fun, weird, and promising device that’s exactly what it sets out to be, and for those attracted to its funky aesthetic and games, a worthwhile purchase.

The original idea of the Playdate was a truly pocket-size gaming machine that set itself apart not just with a black-and-white screen and the inclusion of a crank for gaming gimmicks, but a scheduled release of games that would appear automatically and regularly… a play date.

Unexpected levels of interest from gamers (20,000 first batch units sold out even at the rather high asking price of $180) and developers interested in something new and weird led them to expand the first “season” of games to 24, sweetening the deal somewhat. After a few delays due to COVID and the chip shortage, the Playdate is finally shipping, and Panic was kind enough to send TechCrunch one to test out, with games arriving on an accelerated schedule.

So how is it? Fun and weird — like an indie game or film that asks you to engage on its own terms, the Playdate is its own thing and comparing it to other devices isn’t really productive.

A pocketable Panic production

Side view of the Playdate showing USB-C charge port and 3.5mm headphone port. It looks canary yellow here but it’s more goldenrod. Image Credits: Devin Coldewey/TechCrunch

First, the device itself. I love it. It’s button-cute, banana-yellow, and Post-It-small. Panic and their partners at Teenage Engineering really nailed the look and feel.

On it you’ll find a directional pad, A and B buttons, menu and power buttons, and of course the famous crank. The D-pad is a little soft but works fine; the main buttons are pleasant to use. And when gripped like an traditional handheld it is quite comfortable even for medium-large hands like my own. I wouldn’t want to play for hours at a time but that’s not the intent here.

The crank has a lovely, smooth feel to it, and it’s remarkably precise in games that use it, giving an almost analog level of precision. There’s enough friction that you never move it more or less than you want, but it’s easy enough to spin that you can do full loops without any trouble.

The Playdate handheld with a person playing a game on it.

Image Credits: Panic

Where there is a bit of trouble is in how exactly you’re meant to hold the thing so you can hit the A and B buttons while turning the crank. I’ve found something that more or less works for me, but you end up sort of bracing your hand on the buttons themselves to get the leverage needed to crank, or vice versa. It’s not ideal, but fortunately few of the games require this level of dexterity.

The 400×240 screen is a mixed bag. With no backlight, you’re reliant on ambient light to see it, but since it’s glossy, you end up with reflections of the window or lamp if it’s in the best position. I’ve played plenty without cursing or being really bothered by this, but there’s definitely some level of “OK, I need to swivel my chair and hold it here, now tilt it… perfect” so you get in that sweet spot. (It’s also incredibly difficult to photograph well. But screenshots don’t capture the feel of it.)

Those idiosyncrasies aside, the graphics are sharp, fun, and quite expressive. Every developer has found different ways to make the 1-bit look work, with an overall aesthetic like that of old Mac Classic games. If you were worried everything would be stick figures and text… be assured there’s plenty of creativity and fun on display here. And they all play fluidly and responsively.

The sound is also quite good — the graphics make you expect the kind of beepy fare we got back in the old Mac days, but there’s great, modern (or modern retro) sounding music and sound for each game. For some the sound is inextricable from the gameplay, like one where you have to match short music clips to each other.

But is it fun?

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey/TechCrunch

There are 24 games in the first season, which will trickle into every Playdate twice a week for 12 weeks. (Reviewers had them arrive over 12 days.)

I won’t go through the whole list — part of the fun is waking up, seeing “New Game Available!” and then checking it out while you sip your hot morning drink of choice. But it’s fair to say that sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised and engaged on and off all week, while other times you’ll be like… “wait, what? I don’t get it.” Or “that’s it? Weak.”

Generally the games fall into one of three categories for me: My Jam, Cool But Not My Jam, and Eh.

One of the first games to be unlocked, Casual Birder, is My Jam. It’s a weird little RPG filled with charming interactions and a bunch of birds to take pictures of. You focus with the crank while framing with the D-pad, but it makes things feel pleasantly frantic as you track a flying bird to its nest, rather than frustrating.

This is in the first few seconds of the game – it gets really chaotic after a couple minutes.

Another I liked a lot is Flipper Lifter, where the crank controls the position of an elevator that penguins line up to use (and they’re really in a hurry, my god). When I “unwrapped” it (there’s a charming little animation that removes the paper from each game) I intended to just try it very quickly to get a sense of how it controlled, and ended up playing for 20 minutes straight because it felt so right. And that was just on the first level! Definitely My Jam.

Then there’s another early game, Whitewater Wipeout, that’s Cool But Not My Jam. You control the direction of your surfer with the crank and can adjust their motion with the D-pad. I can’t seem to get my brain to wrap around the rotation, and end up wiping out unexpectedly even on a good run. It’s much more arcade-y but after I got a decent score I felt like I had “consumed” this particular game. But it would be fun to pass back and forth to try to beat a score, and others may find it very much Their Jam.

Then there’s Boogie Loops, a sort of sequencer (I think) that might be fun to play with if I had any idea what any of the buttons, switches, or dots on the timeline did. I spent 2 minutes trying to figure it out and then quit. Eh.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey/TechCrunch

I’d say the breakdown of the 24 games is about 25% My Jam, 50% Cool But Not My Jam, and 25% Eh. I feel like that sounds bad, but I really enjoyed trying all of them and seeing how each used the crank in a new and interesting way. Some are puzzles, some action, some puzzle-action, some adventure, and not all have any kind of gimmick at all. One is just a variant of Snake. What’s it doing here? It’s fun, and Zach Gage is great… but it’s basically Snake.

What’s conspicuously absent is any kind of “traditional” Mario/Kirby/Gradius-style action or platforming game — there are a few focused on reflexes and positioning (depending on your facility with the crank this can be exhilarating or maddening) but for the most part these are a bit more funky and slower paced. I can’t wait to spend more time with some of the RPG type games.

Value adds

Playdate’s main value proposition is the 24 games you’ll get in the first season. And for some, that and the uniqueness of it all justify the $180 price point. But the idea is that Playdate will be supported beyond the now, first of all with a probable second season of games (there are no concrete plans but it has been implied) for sale as a bundle.

Image Credits: Playdate

More immediately there is the Pulp game creator, which I did not even attempt to try (having no creativity or skills whatsoever in that domain) but which could be a source of many a non-official game — other dev methods are supported as well, this is just their own platform. It’s easy to sideload these via the SDK and simulator — slightly more involved than dragging and dropping, but not much.

I added the additional game Bloom by this method and it worked perfectly. The game also appears to be My Jam — you plant flowers to sell in your shop but they take real time to bloom, so you have to come back to it every day. Cute! This might be the kind of thing you get as a Patreon reward or downloaded from Itch.io or the like.

The hope is that the Playdate could become a mini-scene for indie game devs looking for a built-in audience, sort of like the Pico-8 community. How I wish I had a real Pico-8! While I wouldn’t expect the next Elden Ring to come out on this handheld, it’s entirely possible that quite a few fun games will be made or ported to the platform.

Is this all enough for you to pay $180 for a Playdate? Well the fact is most people smashed that pre-order button more or less sight unseen because the love the idea so much. I would say that you’re probably already either into it or not, but if my opinion carries any weight here and you’re undecided, I’d say maybe wait a couple months to see how the first season of games is received, and whether the community starts pumping out fun new experiences. I suspect that the Playdate will eventually more than justify itself but caution is understandable given the “surprise” nature of the games.

In its current state the Playdate is a somewhat expensive but definitely one of a kind experience, one that is clearly attractive to many people but the charm of which may elude others. In a few months when more games, accessories, and other pluses have rolled out, that equation will likely only change for the better.

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Amazon-owned MGM makes a viral video show with surveillance footage from Amazon-owned Ring

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MGM (which is owned by Amazon) is making a viral video show based on footage from Ring security cameras (also owned by Amazon). The syndicated television show, “Ring Nation,” is poised to be a modern-day, surveillance-tinged spin on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” with Wanda Sykes as host.

According to a report in Deadline, the show will feature Ring footage of “neighbors saving neighbors, marriage proposals, military reunions and silly animals.” Ring is also known for activities like accidentally leaking people’s home addresses and handing over footage to the government without users’ permission.

Between January and July of this year, Amazon shared ring doorbell footage with U.S. authorities 11 times without the device owner’s consent. Ring has been critiqued for working unusually closely with at least 2,200 police departments around the United States, allowing police to request video doorbell camera footage from homeowners through Ring’s Neighbors app. Like Citizen and Nextdoor, the Neighbors app tracks local crime and allows users to comment anonymously — plus, Ring’s police partners can publicly request video footage on the app.

An Amazon-owned police surveillance network is bad enough, but Neighbors users have also faced repeated safety and security issues.

An executive at MGM, Barry Poznick, praised the new show: “From the incredible, to the hilarious and uplifting must-see viral moments from around the country every day, Ring Nation offers something for everyone watching at home.”

But perhaps what viewers at home really want is data privacy.

Ring only started disclosing its connections with law enforcement after fielding demands for transparency from the U.S. government. In a 2019 letter, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said that the company’s relationship with police forces raise civil liberties concerns.

“The integration of Ring’s network of cameras with law enforcement offices could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities,” Sen. Markey wrote. “In light of evidence that existing facial recognition technology disproportionately misidentifies African Americans and Latinos, a product like this has the potential to catalyze racial profiling and harm people of color.”

Amazon bought the smart video doorbell company in 2018 for $1 billion, then bought MGM for $8.5 billion earlier this year. Now, these two investments — which seemingly have nothing to do with each other — are merging to create a late-capitalist dystopian spectacular that we couldn’t have imagined in our worst nightmares. Amazon also just spent $1.7 billion on iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum, but we will not dare to imagine how that acquisition may one day inspire a horrifying TV show.

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Aramco’s Prosperity7 powers AI drug firm Insilico’s $95M round

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Hong Kong-based drug discovery and development company Insilico has secured fresh capital at a time that its CEO described as a “biotech winter.”

The firm has raised $35 million on the heels of its last tranche in June, bringing its total Series D investment to $95 million. The new round was “oversubscribed”, the firm’s founder and CEO Alex Zhavoronkov told TechCrunch, declining to disclose the company’s valuation.

Prosperity7, the venture capital arm of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Aramco, led the new capital infusion. The fund has been actively scouring for opportunities in and around China that can scale globally and particularly in the Middle East.

Insilico, which operates R&D teams across Hong Kong, Shanghai, and New York, seems to be a good fit for Prosperity7.

“Prosperity7 inspired us to look into sustainable chemistry,” said Zhavoronkov. Insilico uses machine learning to identify potential drug targets and eventually create the drug. The same technology can also be applied to find novel and useful molecules for sustainable chemistry, an emerging area to which Aramco has devoted much effort, the founder explained.

Sustainable chemistry, as defined by OECD, is “a scientific concept that seeks to improve the efficiency with which natural resources are used to meet human needs for chemical products and services.” It “encompasses the design, manufacture, and use of efficient, effective, safe and more environmentally benign chemical products and processes.”

Other investors from the round include an unnamed “large, diversified asset management firm on the U.S. West Coast,” and an assortment of financial and strategic investors like BHR Partners, Warburg Pincus, B Capital Group, Qiming Venture Partners, Deerfield, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, BOLD Capital Partners, and Pavilion Capital.

Zhavoronkov himself also invested in the Series D financing.

When asked why the company straddles China and the U.S., the founder compared the drug discovery space to the early semiconductor industry where research was done mostly in the U.S. while hardware production happened in China.

AI drug discovery relies on a massive amount of investment in so-called contract research organizations (CROs), which provide support to pharmaceutical or medical device companies in the form of outsourcing. China, exemplified by cities like Wuxi, has in recent years emerged as a popular CRO hub for international pharma companies.

The founder was also keen to speak about the company’s new dual-CEO structure. He recently promoted GSK veteran Dr. Feng Ren to be his co-CEO, who is now overseeing Insilico’s R&D and drug business, while Zhavoronkov focuses on the firm’s AI platform.

“Ren generates a lot of proprietary data for us to train AI to do better than humans. We can use this internally for drug discovery and then export this tech to the rest of the industry,” Zhavoronkov said.

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Egyptian startup Convertedin raises $3M, caters to e-commerce brands in MENA and Latin America

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Convertedin, an Egyptian startup that operates a marketing operating system for e-commerce brands, has raised $3 million in a seed round led by Saudi Arabia-headquartered Merak Capital.

Other participating investors include 500 Global and MSAS. The company, in a statement, said it plans to utilize the funds for strategic hiring and further development of its platform.

When brands shift to e-commerce sales, they operate with vast amounts of fragmented data that need to be unified to drive informed decisions and growth. As such, platforms like Convertedin become essential because it caters to brands and businesses with one, some, or all of these objectives: drive personalized and scalable campaigns, convert customers, achieve measurable results and grow revenue.

CEO Mohamed Fergany founded the company with Mohamed Atef and Mustafa Raslan in 2019 after working with several brands in companies such as Speakol Ads and Vodafone. His time as an employee opened his eyes to the opportunity of helping offline stores retarget and retain their customers online while finding new ones to shop at their stores offline.

“If you work into IKEA and they take your phone number down. After that, our engine works to find a similar product you might buy and we retarget you online. If you went back to IKEA for that product, we can calculate the cost of online conversion,” the chief executive said in the interview. “This was the main idea at this time as we saw a huge problem where there was no analytics platform for the offline store or a retargeting mechanism.”

As the pandemic hit and offline stores were forced to close their doors, many of these brands turned to e-commerce, and as a result, Convertedin took its business online too.

Fergany argues that though online brands use CRM software to gather data, they do not utilize most of it. So Convertedin offers a solution where they can use their data best. It plugs into more than 10 major e-commerce platforms and ad networks — and brands, once connected, can place customers into different segments such as high- and low-value and categories like those looking for specific products and use these insights to create personalized multi-channel marketing and drive various campaigns on social media, SMS, email, search and other channels while having the ability to track and attribute revenue conversion.

Convertedin says SMB e-commerce marketers that use its platform increase their return on ad spend (ROAS) by 2x and reduce customer acquisition costs (CAC) by 40%. So far, the company partners with media buying and advertising agencies and works with over 100 local and multinational brands across Africa, the Middle East and South America in the automotive, healthcare and technology industries. Convertedin’s revenues from these businesses have been growing in “double-digits” month-over-month, Fergany said.

The three-year-old Egypt-headquartered company also has offices in Saudi Arabia and Brazil; it just recently opened one in the latter. The South American market is enormous, with e-commerce revenues reaching $160 billion by 2025 from over 200 million users. As a result, Convertedin plans to make its services available in Portuguese — in addition to English and Arabic — for brands in Brazil and also Mexico, another South American market. Fergany also said Convertedin is eyeing South Africa and India too.

“We focus on emerging markets and if you look at it from healthy unit economics, we can sell easily in those countries because there is low competition there,” said the CEO on the expansion to five new markets, including Saudi Arabia. “And customer acquisition cost is low compared to the U.S. or Europe markets.” The new investment will help Convertedin with this expansion in addition to R&D and hiring.

In a statement, Ahmed Aljibreen, partner at lead investor Merak Capital, addressing his firm’s investment, said the ever-changing landscape of digital marketing platforms adds a new layer of challenges for e-commerce companies — and that Convertedin solves that. Hence, the reason why Merak Capital backed the firm. “We are excited to back Convertedin, a martech company that has built a state-of-the-art platform to simplify digital marketing, improve customer acquisition and drive growth for its clients. Convertedin is led by a world-class team in which we have tremendous confidence as the company embarks on its next stage of growth in MENA and Latin America.”

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