Disrupting fun: the startups taking gaming to the next level

Disrupting fun: the startups taking gaming to the next level

TechCrunch Disrupt was back in Berlin this week. The startups gathered to introduce themselves to attending tech enthusiasts, potential business partners and rivals, and of course, investors. But it wasn't all just business. From the cutting edge AI to a new perspective on the oldschool, these are the companies looking to disrupt the world of gaming.

Wolf3D will help you be...'you' in games

Back in the day, when VR gaming was something you only really saw in fiction, a character would jump into a virtual world and look just like...themselves, if a bit more polygonal. Something that now, with VR lagging a bit behind the initial hype, we're still not seeing in the mainstream.

Johnny Quest's CGI wasn't up to much, but they had the right idea:

Wolf3D is looking to change all that, with a way to bring realistic avatars to virtual worlds that doesn't involve awkward body-scanning. All it takes is a simple selfie, which, thanks to what Wolf3D coyly refers to as 'magic', can be transformed into a 3D avatar that can be scaled to be more realistic or more stylized depending on your platform and needs. For example, here's Kaspar's head.

With the shift of VR hype towards its use in business, I expected to sit down with Wolf3D co-founder Kaspar and hear a lot about how this technology will revolutionize board meetings and conferences in virtual spaces, such as VRChat and Oculus Rooms. And while that's certainly on the cards, gaming is clearly what makes Kaspar light up, especially today's popular battle royales, PUBG and Fortnite.

Wolf3D's avatar tech would let you play PUBG as your real life self, just like those effortless avatars in science fiction. That is great for immersion, bragging rights and being recognized easily by your teammates, but it did have me wondering about potentially traumatic possibilities, such as someone making a kill-video of your virtual body, or picking on minorities. There are some advantages to having an alternate identity online. Kaspar, on the other hand, is convinced that people are less likely to be antisocial in virtual spaces if either they or those around them are showing their 'real' faces.

Personally, I'm vain enough that the temptation to see my personal avatar rendered in a game is worth the risk of seeing myself gunned down. To be able to see your friend's faces as you fight by side sounds heartwarming, doesn't it? And speaking of gamer friends...

Gametree: finding friends with the help of AI

Gaming is more social than ever before, sometimes with the social aspect eclipsing the game itself, such as kids hanging out on Fortnite more to chat than to win.  At the same time, the gaming world is also famous for antisocial behavior. For every loving couple or best friends that get made while gaming, dozens of reports of griefing, trolling, harassment and so on follow.

Founder John Uke doesn't like to think of GameTree as a social network, but will reluctantly admit that it kind of is one. The company website agrees. Rather, he describes it as a platform for 'fixing loneliness' that uses what was it knows about your tastes, your psychology (submitted via in-app personality test), with a little machine learning magic to match you with potential teammates (or worthy opponents) for games.

A new approach for the gaming community? / © GameTree

John likens modern multiplayer matchmaking for games to a meat market, without much warm human interaction going on. You don't often have much of an idea who n00bkilla_666 is before you really play with them, and you might not get a chance to find out from a leaderboard or matchmaking lobby either. GameTree is there to fill in the gaps and get you together with the kind of people you're likely to bond with.

Ethics is also a concern for GameTree. As a Public Benefit Corporation, it's not under as much pressure to sacrifice user benefits in the name of profit. Addressing the gaming community's reputation for toxicity, John stresses that GameTree uses its psychological matching and recommendations to encourage respect and making genuine friendships through play.

For monetization, GameTree boasts the most accurate game recommendations ever...naturally, this is attractive to anyone who wants to sell games, such as Huawei and OPPO, who have approached GameTree to make recommendations for their own app platforms aiming to compete with the mighty Google Play Store.

All in all, it sounds like GameTree can find its niche in the increasingly fragmented ecosystems of gaming and social networking. But the proof is in the pudding, and I found it intriguing enough to download and test personally. Does it live up to the philosophy of its promise? More on that later...


Smartboard is company that's offering a high tech twist on the classic boardgame. Out with the literal painted board, in with a new surface that's essentially a giant tablet. It can load up the game surface onto a screen, and leverage magnets to detect game pieces, such as miniature soldiers for a wargame, or playing cards, counters, and so on. 

Smartboards can be joined together to create even larger playing areas. / © NextPit

What makes the Smartboards exciting is how they add visual and sound affects to the game. For example, playing out a space battle on the board will let you see the laser beams zap across the device surface complete with pew-pew explody noises, or a trap in a dungeon maze will activate with a snap.

Aside from snazzy AR-style elements, the Smartboard can also automate certain processes in rules-heavy games, such as Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer 40K, eliminating the need for instruction manuals or rulebooks. Naturally, scoring big IPs like these could quickly catapult Smartboard into the mainstream.

In the on-screen demo, hit points are tracked for characters in a D&D style tabletop RPG. / © NextPit

Rather than be a game itself, Smartboard will be a platform that others can make games for, which users will then download from Smartboard's own app store. In effect, it's a kind of game console, and it commands a game console's price - $400. Having said that, if you want to get in early with a discount, you can register to be notified for the upcoming Kickstarter. However, since it's still not in production, don't put one in your letter to Santa this year.

Realistic avatars, deeper friendships, high-tech any of these innovations in the world of gaming appeal to you? Let us know in the comments!

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  • Gavin Runeblade Dec 3, 2018 Link to comment

    GameTree is one I'm very curious to see how well it works. If the matching is good that is a product with a huge future. If the matching can be trolled, they will crash and burn. I definitely wish them luck, that is a product the industry could benefit from.

    Realistic Avatars... I don't see that as having much of a future. Kaspar is a dangerously naive person if he can't see the lawsuits that are waiting for his company when realistic avatars of actual children are livestreamed being groped and abused. Because there are trolls who are sick enough to do this.