Author: Steve O'Hear

MessageBird offers single API for customer comms across WhatsApp, WeChat, Messenger and more

MessageBird, the Amsterdam-based cloud communications platform backed by Accel in the U.S. and Europe’s Atomico, is unveiling a new product today that aims to make it easier for enterprises to communicate with customers across various channels of their choosing.

Dubbed “Programmable Communications” (yes, really!), the product takes the form of a single API that unifies customer interactions across multiple channels into a single conversation thread. Out of the box these include WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, Line, Telegram, SMS and voice interactions. The idea is that by providing a consolidated view of a customer’s entire communication history with an enterprise, customer support agents and other customer-facing staff will have the firepower to stay on top of their game in terms of the customer service they provide.

Or, put another way, more communication channels inevitably lead to fragmented conversations, which, especially when multiple support staff are involved, can lead to a degradation of service. Programmable Communications is an attempt to help solve this problem.

In a call with MessageBird founder and CEO Robert Vis, he told me that more broadly enterprises — and fast-growing startups — no longer have the luxury of dictating how and through what channels customers converse with them. Traditionally, customer service would be delivered via a dedicated phone number, but the plethora of established and emerging online messaging and communications channels has radically increased the number of options customers have and expect.

However, this creates a headache for businesses as each channel needs developer time to be integrated into an existing CRM or business process and additional staffing to service conversations across multiple channels.

It is this heavy lifting that MessageBird’s Programmable Communications takes care off — keeping conversations in sync across multiple channels, for example, isn’t technically simple — thus cutting down on not just initial implementation time and cost, but also continued maintenance and upkeep.

Vis also explained that Programmable Communications is designed to enable comms for enterprises that are global — including scale-ups with global ambitions from the get-go — in terms of the territories, carrier integrations and messaging platforms the company supports.

“Delivering communications experiences that improve customer satisfaction and loyalty has to be a focus of businesses today,” adds the MessageBird CEO in a statement. “Consumers today want to connect with businesses in the same way they do with their friends and family – on their own time, via their preferred channel with all the context of previous conversations. With Programmable Conversations enterprises can now easily build a modern communications experience while reducing the burden of their often over-tasked developers”.

Bossa Studios launches Worlds Adrift, the first game built on Improbable’s SpatialOS

Bossa Studios, the London gaming startup backed by Atomico and behind popular titles ‘Surgeon Simulator’ and ‘I am Bread’, is embarking on its biggest and most ambitious project yet.

Described as a “Community-Crafted MMO,” where players have literally co-built the game’s environment and will continue to do so, Worlds Adrift sees its wider public outing today via the Steam Early Access program.

The new game, which has been three years in the making and was born out of a Bossa Studios “game jam,” akin to the kinds of internal ‘hackathons’ many startups routinely hold, is attempting to pull off a number of firsts.

For starters (and probably most noteworthy to TechCrunch readers), it is the debut game to be built on top of Improbable’s SpacialOS, the cloud-based platform for creating games and other virtual environments that need to go beyond the limitations of traditional server architectures.

Improbable raised a whopping $502 million last May from Softbank and existing investors at a $1 billion-plus valuation, and so — inadvertently, at least — likely has quite a lot riding on Worlds Adrift.

For the Bossa Studios team, the stakes are even higher. Improbable’s tech isn’t exactly proven and, in comparison, Bossa Studios is a smaller and much less well-funded startup attempting to punch way above its weight, even if the team has a lot of gaming industry pedigree.

In a video call with two of its founders, Roberta Lucca and Henrique Olifiers, they were visibly excited by the launch but conceded a large amount of pre-launch nerves. When the Worlds Adrift concept was first conceived during that soon-to-be infamous game jam several years ago, it was indefinitely put on hold due to being far too ambitious per the size of the company.

A chance meeting with Improbable some time later — where I’m told the two young companies were introduced somewhat serendipitously through having the same PR agency — it became clear that it might just be possible. In the coming weeks and months, Bossa Studios will find out if that bet, which meant redirecting all of the startup’s resources into by far its largest undertaking, has likely paid off.

The other first, explained Lucca and Olifiers, is the sheer open-ended, community-driven and ‘persistent’ scale of the game. Tapping into the ‘makers’ trend, early testers of Worlds Adrift have shaped the game itself via Bossa’s Island Creator tool. This has seen 10,000 designs submitted, and Worlds Adrift is launching with 300 ‘floating islands,’ nearly all of which have been created by the community rather than Bossa Studios staff.

Related to this and enabled by the scalable nature of SpacialOS, every aspect of Worlds Adrift is ‘persistent,’ meaning that an object’s current physical status persists in realtime, relative to how or when it was last interacted with, either by a player or the game’s own persistent physics. If, for example, a ship is blown up and its pieces scattered across the ground, it will remain that way indefinitely unless another player, object or the environment it resides in disturbs it.

In addition, the employment of SpacialOS means that players don’t need to be segregated into cohorts based on region and/or distance to a specific set of servers and instead can all play in the same world and at the same time.

“Every player globally will be able to interact with each other and every action by every player will have a lasting impact and be visible to every other player inside the game forever,” is how Bossa Studios explains it.

At scale, opened-ended, and with player versus player gameplay increasing exponentially as the Worlds Adrift launch ramps up, even its makers aren’t sure how these dynamics will play out.

“Offering an entirely user-generated environment, with a completely unscripted style of play, the sheer scale of its scope, and beauty of its design, is an invitation to experiment. Bound only by the laws of physics, the sky truly is the limit,” reads the game’s blurb.

On that note, I wasn’t able to play the game — yet — namely because it runs on Windows and I only have access to a Mac. However, Bossa have kindly invited me to their next game jam and to spend some time up close with Worlds Adrift and its makers. If I’m to join in on the jam, I’m ready to pitch my idea for an adventure game starring a guy in a wheelchair wearing a hat who has to navigate a dystopian future rife with inaccessibility, bureaucracy and government cuts, all the while holding down a job as a tech journalist-cum-private investigator. I think it could be a hit.

Index and Atomico back Teatime Games, a stealthy new startup from QuizUp founders

Teatime Games, a new Icelandic “social games” startup from the same team behind the hugely popular QuizUp (acquired in by Glu Mobile), is disclosing $9 million in funding, made up of seed and Series A rounds.

Index Ventures led both, but have been joined by Atomico, the European VC fund founded by Skype’s Niklas Zennström, for the $7.5 million Series A round. I understand this is the first time the two VC firms have done a Series A deal together in over a decade.

Both VCs have a decent track record in gaming. Index counts King, Roblox and Supercell as previous gaming investments, whilst Atomico also backed Supercell, along with Rovio, and most recently Bossa Studios.

As part of the round, Guzman Diaz of Index Ventures, Mattias Ljungman of Atomico, and David Helgason, founder of Unity, have joined the Teatime Games board of directors.

Meanwhile, Teatime Games is keeping shtum publicly on exactly what the stealthy startup is working on, except that it plays broadly in the social and mobile gaming space. In a call with co-founder and CEO Thor Fridriksson yesterday, he said a little more off the record and on condition that I don’t write about it yet.

What he was willing to describe publicly, however, is the general problem the company has set out to solve, which is how to make mobile games more social and personalised. Specifically, in a way that any social features — including communicating with friends and other players in real-time — enhances the gameplay rather than gets in its way or is simply bolted on as an adjunct to the game itself.

The company’s macro thesis is that games have always been inherently social throughout different eras (e.g. card games, board games, arcades, and consoles), and that most games truly come to life “through the interaction between people, opponents, and the audience”. However, in many respects this has been lost in the age of mobile gaming, which can feel like quite a solitary experience. That’s either because they are single player games or turn-based and played against invisible opponents.

Teatime plans to use the newly-disclosed investment to double the size of its team in Iceland, with a particular focus on software engineers, and to further develop its social gaming offering for third party developers. Yes, that’s right, this is clearly a developer platform play, as much as anything else.

On that note, Atomico Partner Mattias Ljungman says the next “breakout opportunity” in games will see a move beyond individual studios and titles to what he describes as fundamental enabling technologies. Linked to this he argues that the next generation of games companies being developed will “become ever more mass market and socially connected”. You can read much more on Ljungman and Atomico’s gaming thesis in a blog post recently published by the VC firm.

Entrepreneur First, the London-based company builder backed by Greylock, expands to Hong Kong

When Silicon Valley’s Greylock Partners led Entrepreneur First‘s $12.4 million funding round in September, Greylock’s Reid Hoffman said he could see the company builder expanding to “20 or 30 or 40 cities, maybe even 50“. Since then, EF has expanded to Berlin, in addition to existing programmes in London and Singapore, and today the so-called ‘talent first’ investor is adding Hong Kong to the list.

Heading up EF’s Hong Kong office is former Airbnb and Google exec Lavina Tien, while the Hong Kong programme, which kicks off in July, will copy the Berlin format, meaning that it will run for 3 months per cohort, not 6 months as in London and Singapore. In addition, teams formed at EF Hong Kong will be eligible to participate in its Singapore demo day.

This is part of a new EF format that aims to make the company builder’s secret sauce, which sees it recruit founders ‘pre-team, pre-idea,’ a lot more scalable. So far, EF co-founder Matt Clifford tells me, it’s working out well.

He says the Berlin program was able to set up and recruit its first cohort in 9 weeks compared to the 9 months it took to get fully operational in Singapore, sounding extremely bullish about the future potential for more expansion.

That’s because the new shorter formula is designed to let EF focus locally on the part most unique to the organisation — persuading the best technical and domain talent to try their hand at entrepreneurship and in turn matching them with a complementary co-founder so that they can form a startup that might otherwise never exist.

Clifford also says this is about doubling down on EF’s Asia ambitions. He notes that, similar to other EF outposts, Hong Kong is a burgeoning but perhaps latent tech ecosystem with good education — such as Hong Kong University for Science and Technology, the University of Hong Kong, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong — and access to capital that is beginning to turn its attention locally rather than simply investing abroad.

Adds EF co-founder Alice Bentinck: “We believe that there are a handful of exceptional technologists globally who have the skills and ambition to build the next generation of breakout technology companies. We know that we will find some of them in Hong Kong, just as we have in London, Singapore and Berlin”.

Meanwhile, Clifford won’t be drawn into where EF might expand next, although he doesn’t rule out adding a further programme this year. If I had to guess, I’d say Paris is a good bet, but in all honestly there are quite a number of cities that could tick the EF box.

Separately, I’m hearing that the company builder is raising a new investment fund so that it can continue the strategy of doing follow-on investments at seed and Series A into the most promising companies it helps build, across all of the locations it now operates. As always, watch this space.

Fishbrain, the fishing app and social network, raises $13.5M Series B

Fishbrain, the Sweden-made mobile app and social network for sport fishing, is disclosing $13.5 million in Series B funding. The round is led by B Capital Group, the VC fund founded by Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, with participation from SoftBank Ventures Korea, and existing investors Northzone, and Industrifonden. The new cash injection, which brings total […]