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Niantic tries its hand at sports with NBA All-World

Niantic, the company behind the mega-hit Pokémon GO, has reached an inflection point. Whether because of pandemic fatigue or frustration over the limitations…

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Niantic, the company behind the mega-hit Pokémon GO, has reached an inflection point.

Whether because of pandemic fatigue or frustration over the limitations of today’s AR tech, the Google-spawned startup has struggled mightily to replicate the success of GO, which became one of the fastest-growing games in history shortly after it launched in July 2016. Niantic shut down Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, its first high-profile title after GO, just two years post-debut, while another tentpole project — Pikmin Bloom — has generated only a fraction of the downloads that GO attained over the same time frame.

Last June, Niantic laid off 8% of its staff — about 85 to 90 people — and canceled four of its projects, including a Transformers game that had already entered beta testing.

Needless to say, there’s a lot riding on NBA All-World, Niantic’s latest attempt to again achieve iOS and Android virality. Revealed last summer in a joint announcement with the NBA and National Basketball Players Association, All-World — which is visually quite similar to GO — is chock full of merchandise, nods to basketball culture, minigames and opportunities to meet avatars of real-world NBA players like Jordan Poole, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not All-World’s core demographic. The only team I’ve ever followed is the Cleveland Cavaliers, and that’s simply because I grew up near Cleveland (and, well, LeBron’s stardom didn’t hurt). Being that I’m not much of a sports person — my preferred type of game involves controllers and screens — I hadn’t given All-World much thought until Darrell Etherington, TechCrunch’s managing editor, assigned me to write a first impressions piece.

So I went in blind to my All-World demo, which took place on a gray and gloomy, rainy afternoon at the Compound near Red Hook in Brooklyn. The Compound, I was informed by the PR folks who arranged the affair, was founded by hip-hop DJ Set Free Richardson of AND1 fame. Neat. In any case, the loft-like space was nicely appointed, with checkerboard-patterned rugs, Picasso-esque prints and a pool table racked and ready for play.

Image Credits: Kyle Wiggers / TechCrunch

But I wasn’t there for pool. After arriving and pouring myself a cup of coffee, I plopped down on a thick leather couch next to Glenn Chin, head of global marketing at Niantic, and Marcus Matthews, a senior producer for All-World, to walk through All-World a day ahead of its release on the Play Store and App Store.

I started with the obvious question: why basketball, now, for Niantic? Why’d the studio choose this sport for its next AR venture? Answering candidly, Chin pointed out that licensing deals are far easier to strike with an international organization like the NBA as opposed to, say, disparate soccer confederations. But he and Matthews — who grew up playing basketball in Downtown Jacksonville, Florida — repeatedly emphasized basketball’s communal aspect, too, particularly in cities with public courts where kids and teens gather (so I’m told) to casually shoot some hoops.

In emphasizing social, the dev team behind All-World followed in the footsteps of GO, which — beyond Pokémon sheer brand strength — resonated because of the compelling mix of shared and competitive experiences it delivered. (Think gym battles with strangers and mad dashes for rare Pokémon.) It’s the fine-tuning of a familiar formula, albeit with a few twists and adaptations to meet the expectations of today’s game-playing audience.

Niantic All-World

Image Credits: Niantic

As with GO, All-World players can explore their own neighborhoods for collectibles, power-ups and other items of varying intruige. Exploring requires physically walking to a place — this is a Niantic game, after all — and navigating menus by tap- and swipe-based gestures. In-app, you’re represented by an avatar.

All-World is built on Niantic’s Lightship platform, which leverages the Unity game engine to power graphics and gameplay. Orlando-based HypGames co-developed the experience with Niantic; HypGames CEO Mike Taramykin served as VP and GM over EA’s Tiger Woods franchise until 2013.

On top of a real-world map of a player’s surroundings, All-World layers things like power-ups, challenges, gear, boosts and in-game currency. There wasn’t much near the Compound when Matthews demoed the game to me, but he managed to pick up some moolah that could be put toward apparel for his NBA player avatars.

A central mechanic in All-World is recruiting those players, who can then be “leveled up” to become the “rulers” of local basketball courts. (The game has over 100,000 courts at present.) Players can challenge each other to three-point shootouts and other timing-based minigames in recreations of real-world courts, which not only increase the level of a player’s recruits but also their overall team level.

The team level serves as a merit-based stand-in for real-world salary caps — the higher the level, the stronger the NBA players an All-World player can recruit.

Niantic All-World

Image Credits: Kyle Wiggers / TechCrunch

Adjacent to this, All-World has a robust merchandising component. Players can search for “drops” of jerseys and more (a la Supreme) from brands such as Adidas and Nike that mirror real-world SKUs. Their in-game team members don this merch, some of which improves their game stats. Chin says that the plan is to work with additional brands to create and recreate accessories, balls, clothing and sneakers and even time drops with real-world product launches.

The merch mechanic was built to reflect — and respect — the basketball fan frenzy around collectibles, Chin and Matthews say. I don’t doubt that fact. But there’s an obvious profit motive, too. All-World might be free-to-play, but it certainly isn’t a charity.

As another case in point, Niantic also plans to make money by selling “boosts” for player stats like offense and defense, which improve performance in the minigames. Chin and Matthews don’t deny players who shell out can advance through certain aspects of All-World faster. But Matthews stressed that players don’t need to fork over cash if they play relatively often.

Niantic All-World

Image Credits: Niantic

That remains to be seen. I was only treated to glimpses of the game — which, unfortunately, experienced some freezing issues during the demo. (Matthews blamed the Compound building’s poor reception, which isn’t unlikely — it wasn’t good.) The bigger-picture question is whether All-World has staying power — and indeed, whether it can make enough noise to stand out in the ultra-crowded mobile market.

With All-World, Niantic is placing bets both on the strength of the NBA brand and the appeal of AR. As a sports ignoramus, I can’t speak on the former point. But on the latter, I wouldn’t write a eulogy for AR just yet. The tech’s just getting started, I’d argue — especially if rumors of an Apple headset someday come to pass.

If Niantic can keep All-World fresh and interesting with compelling AR-focused gameplay, it might just have a fighting chance. (My impression is that it’s a bit light on content at the moment, but to be fair, it’s early.) On the other hand, if All-World devolves into a pay-to-win collect-a-thon down the line, I can’t see it topping the download charts for very long — if ever.

As for what All-World’s success or failure might spell for Niantic, it wouldn’t tank or make the company necessarily. Niantic sells its Lightship platform to developers as a paid service. And GO is still going (pun intended) strong, with revenue estimated to be north of $1 billion. Besides, Niantic raised $300 million at a $9 billion valuation in November 2021 — more than doubling its valuation from 2018.

But after years in development, it’d no doubt be a disappointment for the studio — and for the NBA head honchos who evidently have faith in Niantic’s ability to spin viral magic.

Niantic tries its hand at sports with NBA All-World by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

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What’s Still Missing on Royal Caribbean Cruises Post Covid

The cruise line has almost fully returned to normal after the covid pandemic, but one very popular activity hasn’t been brought back.

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The cruise line has almost fully returned to normal after the covid pandemic, but one very popular activity hasn't been brought back.

In the early days of Royal Caribbean Group's (RCL) - Get Free Report return from its 15-month covid pandemic shutdown, cruising looked a lot different. Ships sailed with limited capacities, masks were required in most indoor areas, and social distancing was a thing.

Keeping people six feet apart made certain aspects of taking a cruise impossible. Some were made easier by the lower passenger counts. For example, all Royal Caribbean Windjammer buffets required reservations to keep the crowds down, but in practice that system was generally not needed because capacities were never reached.

Dance parties and nightclub-style events had to be held on the pool decks or in larger spaces, and shows in the big theaters left open seats between parties traveling together. In most cases, accommodations were made and events more or less happened in a sort of normal fashion.

A few very popular events were not possible, however, in an environment where keeping six feet between passengers was a goal. Two of those events -- the first night balloon drop and the adult "Crazy Quest" game show -- simply did not work with social-distancing requirements.

One of those popular events has now made its comeback while the second appears to still be missing (aside from a few one-off appearances).

TheStreet

The Quest Is Still Mostly Missing

In late November, Royal Caribbean's adult scavenger hunt, "The Quest," (sometimes known as "Crazy Quest") began appearing on select sailings. And at the time it appeared like it was coming back across the fleet: A number of people posted about the return of the interactive adult game show in an unofficial Royal Caribbean Facebook group.

It first appeared during a Wonder of the Seas transatlantic sailing.

Since, then its appearances continue to be spotty and it has not returned on a fleetwide basis. This might not be due to any covid-related issues directly, but covid may play a role.

On some ships, Studio B, which hosts "The Quest," has been used for show rehearsals. That has been more of an issue with the trouble Royal Caribbean has had in getting new crew members onboard. And while that staffing issue has been improving, some shows may not have had full complements of performers, so using the space for rehearsal has been a continuing need.

In addition, while covid rules have gone away, covid has not, and ill cast members may force the need for more rehearsals.

Royal Caribbean has not publicly commented on when (or whether) "The Quest" will make a full comeback

Royal Caribbean Balloon Drops Are Back   

Before the pandemic, Royal Caribbean kicked off many of its cruises with a balloon drop on the Royal Promenade. That went away because it forced people to cluster as music was performed and, at midnight, balloons fell from the ceiling.

Now, the cruise line has brought back the balloon drop, albeit with a twist. The drop itself is appearing on activity schedules for upcoming Royal Caribbean cruises. Immediately after it, however, the cruise line has added something new: "The Big Recycle Balloon Pickup."

Most of the dropped balloons get popped during the drop. Previously, crewmembers picked up the used balloons. Now, the cruise line has made it a "fun" passenger activity.

"Get environmentally friendly as you help us gather our 100% biodegradable balloons in recycle baskets," the cruise line shared in its app. 

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Royal Caribbean Brings Back Popular Event; Adult Favorite Still Missing

The cruise line has almost fully returned to normal after the covid pandemic, but one very popular activity hasn’t been brought back.

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on

The cruise line has almost fully returned to normal after the covid pandemic, but one very popular activity hasn't been brought back.

In the early days of Royal Caribbean Group's (RCL) - Get Free Report return from its 15-month covid pandemic shutdown, cruising looked a lot different. Ships sailed with limited capacities, masks were required in most indoor areas, and social distancing was a thing.

Keeping people six feet apart made certain aspects of taking a cruise impossible. Some were made easier by the lower passenger counts. For example, all Royal Caribbean Windjammer buffets required reservations to keep the crowds down, but in practice that system was generally not needed because capacities were never reached.

Dance parties and nightclub-style events had to be held on the pool decks or in larger spaces, and shows in the big theaters left open seats between parties traveling together. In most cases, accommodations were made and events more or less happened in a sort of normal fashion.

A few very popular events were not possible, however, in an environment where keeping six feet between passengers was a goal. Two of those events -- the first night balloon drop and the adult "Crazy Quest" game show -- simply did not work with social-distancing requirements.

One of those popular events has now made its comeback while the second appears to still be missing (aside from a few one-off appearances).

TheStreet

The Quest Is Still Mostly Missing

In late November, Royal Caribbean's adult scavenger hunt, "The Quest," (sometimes known as "Crazy Quest") began appearing on select sailings. And at the time it appeared like it was coming back across the fleet: A number of people posted about the return of the interactive adult game show in an unofficial Royal Caribbean Facebook group.

It first appeared during a Wonder of the Seas transatlantic sailing.

Since, then its appearances continue to be spotty and it has not returned on a fleetwide basis. This might not be due to any covid-related issues directly, but covid may play a role.

On some ships, Studio B, which hosts "The Quest," has been used for show rehearsals. That has been more of an issue with the trouble Royal Caribbean has had in getting new crew members onboard. And while that staffing issue has been improving, some shows may not have had full complements of performers, so using the space for rehearsal has been a continuing need.

In addition, while covid rules have gone away, covid has not, and ill cast members may force the need for more rehearsals.

Royal Caribbean has not publicly commented on when (or whether) "The Quest" will make a full comeback

Royal Caribbean Balloon Drops Are Back   

Before the pandemic, Royal Caribbean kicked off many of its cruises with a balloon drop on the Royal Promenade. That went away because it forced people to cluster as music was performed and, at midnight, balloons fell from the ceiling.

Now, the cruise line has brought back the balloon drop, albeit with a twist. The drop itself is appearing on activity schedules for upcoming Royal Caribbean cruises. Immediately after it, however, the cruise line has added something new: "The Big Recycle Balloon Pickup."

Most of the dropped balloons get popped during the drop. Previously, crewmembers picked up the used balloons. Now, the cruise line has made it a "fun" passenger activity.

"Get environmentally friendly as you help us gather our 100% biodegradable balloons in recycle baskets," the cruise line shared in its app. 

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How far could UK property prices drop and should investors be concerned?

The more pessimistic analysts believe that UK house prices could drop by as much as 30% over the next couple of years.…
The post How far could UK property…

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The more pessimistic analysts believe that UK house prices could drop by as much as 30% over the next couple of years. Property prices leapt alongside most other asset classes over the long bull market that ran relatively uninterrupted over the 13 year period from the start of the recovery from the international financial crisis in 2009 and last year.

Average prices across the country almost doubled from £154,500 in March 2009 to just under £296,000 in October last year, when the market hit its most recent record high. Global stock markets had been in a downward spiral for almost a year while property prices kept climbing.

Source: PropertyData

However, a combination of rising interest rates, up from 0.1% in late 2021 to 3.5% in January 2023 and further hikes expected this year, soaring inflation putting pressure on household budgets and nerves around a recession has seen house prices ease. There still not far off their record highs of late 2022 but the trend is downward.

chart

Source: BankofEngland

The big question for homeowners and property investors is just how far could UK residential property prices drop over the next couple of years? How long prices might take to recover from a drop is another important unknown.

First time buyers struggling to get onto the property ladder may welcome a significant drop in UK house prices. Even if higher interest rates mean monthly mortgage costs don’t change much, lower sales prices should reduce the minimum deposits required to secure a mortgage.

However, for anyone who currently owns a home, especially if purchased in the past couple of years towards the top of the market, a significant drop in valuation would be extremely unwelcome. That is particularly the case for home owners at risk of falling into negative equity, which means the market value of their property is lower than the outstanding sum due on the mortgage.

Falling house prices, if the decline is steep, could also create a wider economic crisis and spill over into other parts of the economy and financial markets.

But not everyone agrees UK house prices will drop by anywhere near 30%. Let’s explore the factors that would affect the residential property market over 2023 and beyond and different opinions on how serious a market slump could be. As well as the wider potential consequences that could result if the dive in home valuations turns out to be in line with more negative forecasts.

How much will UK house prices fall by?

The short answer to that question is that we don’t know but the most pessimistic outlook is for drops of up to 30% over the next couple of years. However, there are a number of factors that mean there is a high chance valuations will slide by less. But let’s look at the negative scenario first.

A 30% drop in home valuations sounds like a lot and it is. However, against the backdrop of the last couple of years that kind of fall looks a little less extreme. Prices are up 28% since April 2019 and a 30% fall would take the average price of a home in the UK to around £210,000, where it was in 2016. A less severe 20% drop in prices would see the average price settle at around £235,000, where it was just before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Bank of England dropping interest rates to just 0.1%.

Mid-term interest rates are likely to have the biggest influence on house prices. At the BoE’s current 3.5% base rate, the best mortgage deals available are 2 years fixed at 4.8% compared to 1% deals available until recently. At an LTV of 60% on a £400,000 mortgage, that would push the monthly rate up to £2300 a month from £1500 a month.

For some borrowers, that is likely to prove problematic. It is also likely to mean lower demand for properties from buyers who might have otherwise decided to move up the property ladder and first time buyers. A drop in demand at higher price brackets due to affordability thresholds being passed will see property prices fall.

Will demand drop enough to lead to a 30% fall? That depends on factors that are currently unknown. How high interest rates go will have a huge influence and that will depend on inflation. There are signs inflation is easing and today the Fed’s preferred gauge for inflation, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, rose 5.0% in December from a year earlier. That was slower than the 5.5% 12-month gain as of November and the lowest level since September 2021.

In the UK, inflation has also eased from 11.1% year-on-year in October to 10.5% in December. It’s still much higher than in the USA but will hopefully now maintain a consistent downward trend helped by easing energy prices.

There are hopes the Fed will pull back on further interest rate rises from March and that would set a tone that the Bank of England may well follow with a slight delay. The Fed’s base rate is also already higher than in the UK at 4.25% to 4.5%.

If interest rates and, more importantly, mortgage rates do not rise by more than 1% from where they are today it is unlikely valuation drops of as much as 30% eventuate. But if they did what would the consequences be?

What happens if UK house prices fall 30%?

The good news is that even a house price fall as extreme as 30% would be unlikely to lead to systematic issues in the UK’s financial services sector. More people own their homes outright than have a mortgage – 8.8 million to 6.8 million homes. Lloyds Bank, one of the UK’s biggest mortgage lenders recently reported the average LTV of its mortgage portfolio is just 40%.

Even if average LTV is a little higher for other banks, a wave of defaults is unlikely to threaten their stability and infect other areas of financial markets or the wider economy. Mortgage lenders are also reluctant to repossess homes they’ve lent against as it’s an expensive process for them. They will do as much as they can to work with borrowers who are struggling to meet increased mortgage payments.

What does falling property prices mean for investors?

For property investors, it’s really a case of if rental income will continue to cover mortgage payments, or get close enough to mean the investment still adds up. If mortgage payments are likely to exceed realistic rental income over the next few years investors may consider selling up. Unless the property was purchased in the last 2-3 years, that could still mean walking away with a reasonable return.

For investors in the wider financial markets, it seems unlikely that falling property prices, even if up to 30% is knocked off valuations, will see serious contagion spread and spark a crisis.

It’s not impossible that UK property prices could fall by as much as 30% over the next couple of years as a result of higher interest rates and tighter household budgets but the likelihood is the average drop will be less. And in the worst case scenario, wider fallout should be limited. A repeat of the systemic crash that led to the 2008 financial crisis does not seem like a real prospect. Lenders are well capitalised and the system looks strong enough to cope.

The post How far could UK property prices drop and should investors be concerned? first appeared on Trading and Investment News.

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