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Once more with feelings: How Yakuza: Like a Dragon reinvents middle-aged men in video games | Games

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It sounds like the set-up for a violent revenge movie. Low-ranking yakuza Ichiban Kasuga takes the blame for an inter-clan assassination and does 18 years in prison to protect the organisation’s patriarch. But, on his release, the gang disowns him and the boss, who he considers a father figure, shoots him and leaves him for dead. Kasuga wakes up days later, destitute and alone in another city. Surely, the stage is set for bloody retribution?

Well … not quite. Kasuga is not that kind of protagonist.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is an open-world, role-playing adventure, part of a long-running, highly acclaimed series from Sega and legendary designer Toshihiro Nagoshi. The games have always followed gangsters and criminals in labyrinthine adventures through city backstreets, with multiple side-quests, from car races to karaoke sessions. The series, too, has consistently presented a nuanced portrait of masculinity, with its hero, Kazuma Kiryu, just as comfortable dancing or crying over childhood memories as he is bashing in his enemies. But, while Kiryu is styled as a rising star of the underworld, a successful and respected young warrior, Ichiban is in his 40s, his best behind him, his career curtailed. He is what characters such as Kiryu become when time and tide turns against them.

The thing is, he doesn’t head out from prison to seek vengeance as a bitter old man. The first thing he wants to do when he is released is get a cool haircut. It’s a disastrous misfire, but he shrugs and adopts it into his look. He rolls with it, because that’s how he reacts to everything. Orphaned as a young child and raised in a massage parlour by its kindly staff, Ichiban is motivated through his quest by a childlike desire for answers, and he is easily distracted by interesting acquaintances. Falling in with a group of homeless people living on a vacant lot, he protects them from local heavies. Dressed in his purple suit, now stained and tattered, he goes with them to find honest work, like the kindly king in an allegorical fairytale, cruelly deposed by a jealous rival.

A lot of Like a Dragon is spent watching cut-scenes of Ichiban’s life as he struggles to get back on his feet, and, as you watch, what hits you is his utter lack of cynicism. Throughout the game, he cares for others but he doesn’t seek to own them; he fights, but only when cornered. This is a very different take on the trope of the troubled middle-aged male protagonist. There is no twisted core, no dead girlfriend or daughter to justify homicidal excesses. This is not Michael or Trevor from GTA V, it’s not Max Payne, it’s not any of the other alcoholic sociopaths and bargain-basement Ian Rankin antiheroes who populate action games. This is not even Joel in The Last of Us whose love for Ellie is possessive and dysfunctional and in the end just another expression of his psychopathy. Ichiban is vulnerable and sensitive; he remains consistently moral whether the player is in control or not. If he sees poor people being victimised or sex workers being exploited, he steps in to protect them.

Indeed, the wonderful thing about this game is the way the story gently guides the player’s actions. It makes us behave like the Ichiban of the narrative: you take on sub-quests to aid other characters not because you get XP or cash (although you do) but because it fits the story and the character – you become a willing understudy to his likability and innocence. Left to die on the streets of Yokohama, he instead befriends a disgraced medic named Yu Nanba, who has been living rough for years. There is a beautiful scene where Ichiban manages to find the two of them an apartment to live in, and sitting alone in their bare room Nanba embraces Ichiban, tearful with gratitude. He asks Ichiban what he wanted to be when he was younger. “A hero,” is the simple answer.

It turns out, Ichiban spent his childhood playing the classic role-playing game Dragon Quest, and he idolised the game’s cast of brave, true warriors. Here, then, in a clever postmodern twist, is a video game character who aspires to be a video game character. But what he admires is the honour and decency of the protagonists, not their skill in combat. Violence is secondary, something he is good at but thoughtless of. Throughout the game you bring other characters into your party, making battles easier, but you also have to talk to them, bond with them, listen to them, in order to strengthen relationships. This is a game in which the links with party warriors are not just practical, they’re emotional. Mainstream video games tend to functionalise everything: you explore to find collectibles, you help people to earn XP, you fight to level up. Like a Dragon infuses all these interactions – and all these characters – with humanity. These are men who need each other.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon.



Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Photograph: Sega

There is a scene later in the game, where Ichiban passes a backstreet movie theatre and gets into a conversation with the owner. The old man begs him to come in and watch a classic film and Ichiban relents. The auditorium is warm and quiet and Ichiban is worried he’ll fall asleep, which will surely offend this old movie buff. But he doesn’t doze off. With the help of an amusing mini-game, he stays awake and enjoys the movie. When it finishes, he turns to find the cinema manager in the seat beside him, fast asleep. The guy just wanted company.

Yakuza is filled with men like this – alongside the stereotypical gangsters, who often end up humiliated by their own empty machismo, these are men who like to talk, to listen and to have human contact. Ichiban is always willing to provide it. This is such a refreshing depiction of middle-aged manhood, but also of the influence of video games. It is kind of beautiful that the lesson Ichiban took from Dragon Quest all those years ago wasn’t that heroes kill monsters. It was that heroes keep a band of close friends around them at all times. This, he understands, is the only way to live and win.

  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon is available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One (£45), and on PS5 and Xbox Series S/X (£70)


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IDFA iOS 14 change coming early spring

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A monorail train displaying Google signage moves past a billboard advertising Apple iPhone security during the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The long-awaited privacy update to Apple’s iPhone and iPad operating systems that could dramatically hurt mobile advertising is coming in “early spring,” Apple told CNBC on Wednesday.

To target mobile ads and measure how effective they are, app developers and other industry players currently often use Apple’s (IDFA), or a string of letters and numbers that’s different on every Apple device. But once this update rolls out, app makers will be forced to ask permission to access a user’s IDFA through a prompt. A significant portion of users are expected to say no, reducing the effectiveness of targeted ads.

Apple first announced the change last summer, giving advertisers and app makers ample time to prepare. But it’s become a major point of contention for ad-supported companies, who could lose revenue from the change.

Facebook in particular argues that the change will hurt the availability of free content on the open web and the ability of small business to place personalized ads. On Facebook’s Q4 2020 earnings call Wednesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg slammed the change, calling Apple one of its biggest competitors and claiming that the change “threatens the personalized ads that millions of small businesses rely on to find and reach customers.” 

The timing of Apple’s change has been the subject of intense speculation in the mobile industry. Apple CEO Tim Cook is set to speak Thursday about data privacy at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference in Brussels. On Thursday, the company is also releasing new marketing materials, including an update to its website and a report on data usage to illustrate how companies track user data across websites and apps.

Apple told CNBC that the next beta version of iOS will require app developers to ask permission to access the phone’s unique identifier.

The current version of iOS is 14.4, which was released earlier this week. There currently isn’t a public beta version beyond that available to developers. Apple declined to provide additional timing details. 

As companies prepare for the change, they’re letting partners and advertisers know how they plan to approach the change. Google on Wednesday said in a post that it will no longer use any information that falls under Apple’s AppTrackingTransparency framework for its iOS apps, and doesn’t plan to show the prompt on those apps.

Nominations are open for the 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50, a list of private start-ups using breakthrough technology to become the next generation of great public companies. Submit by Friday, Feb. 12, at 3 pm EST.


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Digital bank N26 is thinking of acquiring a competitor

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The logo of German online bank N26 displayed on a smartphone.

Thomas Trutschel | Photothek via Getty Images

LONDON — German online bank N26 is considering making an acquisition for the first time, after raising heaps of cash and trimming its losses despite the coronavirus pandemic.

The $3.5 billion financial technology firm said net losses at its core European business came in at 110 million euros ($133 million) in 2020, down from 165 million euros the previous year.

N26 didn’t disclose a revenue figure for last year, but said gross revenues doubled to nearly 100 million euros in 2019, from 43.6 million euros a year earlier. Its losses also more than doubled that year, though, from 73.2 million euros in 2018.

Founded in 2013 by longtime friends Maximilian Tayenthal and Valentin Stalf, N26 has attracted 7 million users globally and is one of many app-based challenger banks that gained popularity in recent years. Its rivals include Revolut in Europe and Chime in the U.S.

The firm has raised a total of $800 million to date, from investors including Chinese tech giant Tencent and billionaires Peter Thiel and Li Ka-shing. It has also started looking at deploying its war chest of funds to buy a fintech competitor.

“We have started to look — and we are still looking — opportunistically at some interesting targets,” Tayenthal, N26’s co-CEO, told CNBC in an interview. The company has historically relied on organic growth, he added.

“It could be players that are strong in certain areas; think about trading, think about KYC (know your customer). There could be other fintechs; challenger players in our space that have a good customer base.”

Tayenthal said there were no “super concrete” plans currently in place, but that it’s held discussions and is “looking at a good number of players.”

“I’ve had conversations and we still continue to look at interesting opportunities,” he said.

The Berlin-based group raised $100 million in fresh funds from existing investors early last year, just as the coronavirus pandemic rattled the global economy.

In the summer of 2020, N26 grappled with discontent from its own workers. Disgruntled staff formed their own works councils — worker organization bodies within a company — to address concerns with management.

Pushing for profitability

So-called neobanks have come under pressure to not only clean up their work culture but also switch their focus toward making money. Experts in the fintech industry have warned the space could see some consolidation as some players stumble amid the Covid-19 crisis.

A big driver of N26’s revenues has been its premium subscription-based accounts, for which it charges between 4.90 euros to 16.90 euros for a range of additional features.

But Tayenthal said the big focus for 2021 will be a “marketplace” model, where it includes products it can’t offer itself — such as trading and credit — while taking fees from third-party providers in the N26 app.

“In 2020, we actually brought down the burn significantly,” Tayenthal said. “It is true that, at one point in time, while we are still investing into growth, expansion and building up the team, we also want to get more in the direction of profitability.”

The N26 co-founder said his company plans to hire an additional 200 employees this year. It currently employs 1,500 staff globally. The firm is also planning to expand into Brazil, having recently obtained a banking license in the country.

“The environment in Brazil is actually very favorable,” Tayenthal said. “Everyone has a bank account in the markets we’re in already; in Brazil, this is obviously not true.”

Just under a third of adults in Brazil don’t have access to a bank account, according to the World Bank. But the market has seen increased digital banking adoption over the past few years. Nubank, a well-funded neobank based in Brazil, has a total of 25 million users across Latin America.

N26 recently hired a new chief financial officer, Jan Kempe to replace Tayenthal, who was himself elevated through the ranks to a newly created co-CEO role. Kempe is a former Zalando executive who led the German e-commerce firm’s 2014 initial public offering.

The move fueled speculation that N26 may soon go public. But Tayenthal said the firm has no immediate plans, despite strong recent debuts from the likes of U.S. consumer finance start-up Affirm and digital insurer Lemonade.


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Best quarter in the history of the smartphone

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Apple reported blowout earnings on Wednesday. Even during a global pandemic, every single product line was up, leading to the company’s first quarter with over $100 billion in sales.

But Apple is still best known for the iPhone, which accounted for nearly 59% of the company’s revenue during the holiday quarter. The iPhone is booming, too: Sales were up 17% year-over-year to a whopping $65.6 billion in a single quarter. That’s a big improvement from last year’s holiday quarter, when sales were up only 7.6% from the year ago.

Apple doesn’t provide unit sales for its products anymore, but according to an estimate from research firm IDC, Apple shipped 90.1 million phones during the quarter. That’s the largest number in any single quarter since IDC started tracking smartphones, analyst Francisco Jeronimo said.

Apple’s dominant quarter is adding fuel to the so-called “super cycle” investor thesis, where must-have updates combine with the natural customer upgrade cycle to drive a spike in sales growth. Analysts saw this year’s iPhone 12 models as a good candidate for a super-cycle because they sported a new design and added 5G, which enables the devices to connect to faster wireless networks.

In a note on Wednesday, Wedbush analyst Dan Ives predicted that the current cycle “should eclipse the previous iPhone record set in FY15, an achievement for the ages in our opinion.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook also said in an interview with CNBC that the company’s iPhone results could have been better if not for store closures caused by the ongoing pandemic.

“Taking the stores out of the equation, particularly for iPhones and wearables, there’s a drag on sales,” Cook told CNBC’s Josh Lipton.  

In a conference call with analysts, Cook said that the new iPhones were not only getting current iPhone users to open up their wallets and upgrade, but also convincing people who had previously used competitor phones to get their first iPhone.

“Looking at the iPhone 12 family, we saw both switchers and upgraders increase on a year over year basis. And in fact, we saw the largest number of upgraders, that we’ve ever seen in a quarter,” Cook said.

5G remains a potential tailwind for iPhone sales through the rest of the year, Apple signaled on Wednesday. Cook said that while 5G in China was well established, leading to strong iPhone sales, 5G cellular networks in other regions aren’t as built-out yet, especially in Europe.

“I think most of that growth is probably in front of us there as well,” Cook said.


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