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Netflix series ‘Arcane’ expands ‘League of Legends’ into entertainment

Diane Davis

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If all goes as planned, by Saturday, November 6, over 180 million people around the world will be very aware that Arcane, a TV series based on the multiplayer, online game League of Legends, is launching on Netflix. 

This mega-awareness won’t be so much the result of billboards and TV spots and social media posts about the show—though there have been those, too—rather, is what happens when a gaming company, in this case Riot Games, is able to tap into its ginormous, in-platform ecosystem, and shout from the rooftops. Or, more precisely interweave into its games the kind of clever references, interactive experiences, and rewards (in-game collectibles, new skins)—all of which are related to Arcane—that get players very, very excited.   

In the case of Arcane, which is finally launching after a stop-and-start production that has gone on for several years, costumes and thematics from the show have been introduced not just to League of Legends but also to sibling titles like Teamfight Tactics, League of Legends: Wild Rift, and Valorant, a first-person shooter game that was introduced last year. There is also a website, RiotXArcane, where anyone with a Riot game account can log in and, not only get a taste of Arcane, but earn rewards for the games they play. The launch of Arcane also coincides with Riot League World Finals—the Super Bowl of its esports tournament—and the opening show that kicks off that event on Saturday (which is, yes, inspired by Arcane), featuring musical performances by Imagine Dragons (who are behind the show’s theme song), Bea Miller, and JID. The whole event will then roll into a red-carpet premiere for Arcane at the Riot campus in Santa Monica, California, which will stream live on Twitch. 

Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent refers to it all as “this ridiculously cool, integrated experience,” something he says the company is doing first and foremost for “the players.”

[Image: courtesy of Riot Games]

It’s easy to understand why. At last count there were over 180 million people who play in the LoL universe (which includes all Riot games, excluding Valorant), explaining why Riot can afford to focus on its own platform when it comes to marketing a TV show. (Though there are still outside partnerships, for example, with Fortnite, which is selling a new skin tied to Jinx, the blue-haired LoL character who’s voiced by Ella Purnell in the series.)

That fanbase—which is just shy of Netflix’s number of global subscribers—also explains why Riot sees an opportunity to build out a multimedia universe akin to those born by Disney and Marvel. Riot has already initiated this project with its esports division, which the company launched a few years after LoL debuted in 2009, and with musical offshoots such as K/DA, the virtual K-pop band featured in LoL that also releases real songs that top the Billboard charts. 

[Image: courtesy of Riot Games]

But with the launch of Arcane, Riot’s first-ever piece of traditional entertainment, the gaming giant is taking its biggest step yet toward becoming a cultural powerhouse for a population that transcends gamers. Indeed, Laurent is confident that a gaming company like Riot will inevitably become the “entertainment company of the 21st century,” just as Disney has been for the last 100 years, given the lightning-bolt growth of the gaming industry. In 2020, the games industry generated $177.8 billion globally, according to Newzoo. That’s nearly twice what box office and streaming accounted for in 2019 (the best year of comparison due to the pandemic), which was just over $100 billion, according to the MPA.

“Gaming is going to be the mass market of tomorrow,” Laurent says. “Gaming will be the center of entertainment. So in 30 years, if you say, ‘Oh, this company just focuses on gamers,’ it will be like, ‘Yeah. So everybody, right?’ I think that’s where the world is going.”

[Image: courtesy of Riot Games]

This bet explains why Riot brought on Shauna Spenley in January as the company’s global president of entertainment. A 15-year Netflix alum, where she oversaw marketing and consumer products, Spenley knows a thing or two about brand expansion. (Spenley’s hire comes in the wake of  allegations of sexism and harassment in the workplace at Riot, which led to a reorganization of some of its staff and more women in senior positions.) Although the development and production of Arcane began years before Spenley arrived, she is at the center of how Riot is looking “at this extraordinary IP,” she says, and coming up with ways to grow it. “It’s a story that has so many different tentacles and ways we can take it. There are different tonal journeys it can go on. You can go dark or horror. It feels like the beginnings of a universe that I was really attracted to, and it had depth. Where (at Netflix) I had breadth, here I have depth.” 

Spenley says she was well aware of the “games curse” when it comes to adapting video games for TV and movies when she arrived at Riot. But she thinks the tide is turning, referencing releases like Netflix’s The Witcher and Paramount’s 2020 adaptation of Sonic the Hedgehog. Those titles aside, the graveyard of missed-the-mark attempts is expansive, from Doom to Assassin’s Creed to Halo, which never even made it into production, despite a made-for-Hollywood pitch by Microsoft (scripts delivered to talent agencies by men dressed in Spartan armor).

But she’s hopeful about Arcane—in which the citizens of the glitzy, Paris-like Piltover, and the seedy, underground Zaun, are pitted against one another—given how Riot has gone out of its way to avoid the typical missteps, such as relying on Hollywood creatives to take over.

Instead of outsourcing, Riot kept everything in-house, hiring its own executives and gamers to work on the script and even self-financing the project and not pitching it to distributors until almost all of the episodes were shot. (The show was created by Riot veterans Christian Linke, who is also a LoL music composer, and Alex Yee, with Linke serving as showrunner.) 

“What happens is, you can hire very talented people, but you still have the economics of Hollywood, where if the movie or the TV show is not going in the right direction, at some point pivoting or canceling is not viable economically,” says Laurent. “We wanted to have that control.”

[Image: courtesy of Riot Games]

Indeed, two years ago when “we were super happy with the animation and the characters and the directing, but we had big doubts on the story, we actually paused the project for more than a year,” Laurent says. “It was financially hard to stomach, and there’s no way we believed a traditional distributor or studio would stomach this. But we did stomach it, and eventually I think it paid off in quality.” 

Hollywood TV writers were brought on to help work on the script, and, while things were on hold, Fortiche, the French animation house behind Arcane‘s lush, hand-painted backdrops and vividly drawn characters, turned to making music videos for Riot’s K/DA band.

“They’d ramped up production, they were ready to go,” Laurent says. “It was very difficult to tell them, ‘Hey, actually, we’re going to pause.’ They’d hired hundreds of animators. But we said, Okay, we don’t want to lose you, we don’t want to lose talent. Let’s work on other projects in the meantime. So they did some music videos for our game. Those videos came from that moment where there was nothing to do on the show. Sometimes bad moments turn into opportunities.” 

Moving ahead, neither Laurent nor Spenley would comment on upcoming TV or film projects. But Laurent says, “We’re past the experimentation phase. We’re really trying to take it to the next level. My hope is that the entertainment group will be as valuable and critical as esports is today. Esports is the other side of the business we’ve built over the last 10 years but now is critical. Some people, when you ask them, what is Riot? They’ll tell you it’s an esports company.

“In five to ten years, I’d like to have the same situation for entertainment—where people say, Yeah, that’s where the best stories are told.”


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Google DeepMind’s new generative model makes Super Mario-like games from scratch

Diane Davis

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example of game generated from a crayon sketch

“It’s cool work,” says Matthew Gudzial, an AI researcher at the University of Alberta, who developed a similar game generator a few years ago. 

Genie was trained on 30,000 hours of video of hundreds of 2D platform games taken from the internet. Others have taken that approach before, says Gudzial. His own game generator learned from videos to create abstract platformers. Nivida used video data to train a model called GameGAN, which could produce clones of games like Pac-Man.

But all of these examples trained the model with input actions, button presses on a games controller, as well as video footage: a video frame showing Mario jumping was paired with the “jump” action, and so on. Tagging video footage with input actions takes a lot of work, however. This has limited the amount of training data available. 

In contrast, Genie was trained on video footage alone. It then learned which of eight possible actions would cause the game character in a video to change its position. This turned countless hours of existing online video into potential training data. 

Genie can generate simple games from hand-drawn sketches

GOOGLE DEEPMIND

Genie generates each new frame of the game on the fly depending on the action the player takes. Press jump and Genie updates the current image to show the game character jumping; press left and the image changes to show the character moved to the left. The game ticks along action by action, each new frame generated from scratch as the player plays. 

Future versions of Genie could run faster. “There is no fundamental limitation that prevents us from reaching 30 frames per second,” says Tim Rocktäschel, a research scientist at Google DeepMind who leads the team behind the work. “Genie uses many of the same technologies as contemporary large language models, where there has been significant progress in improving inference speed.” 

Genie learned some common visual quirks found in platformers. Many games of this type use parallax, where the foreground moves sideways faster than the background. Genie often adds this effect to the games it generates.  

While Genie is an in-house research project and won’t be released, Gudzial notes that the Google DeepMind team says it could one day be turned into a game-making tool—something he’s working on too. “I’m definitely interested to see what they build,” he says.

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Tackling long-haul diseases | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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Tal, who has been obsessed with infectious disease since losing an uncle to HIV/AIDS and a cousin to meningococcal meningitis, wondered what this striking diversity could reveal about our immune response to infection. According to one hypothesis, the wide array of these receptors is the result of an evolutionary arms race between disease-causing microbes and the immune system. Think of the receptor as a lock, and the “Nothing to see here” message as a key. Pathogens might evolve to produce their own chemical mimics of this key, effectively hiding from the immune system in plain sight. In response, the human population has developed a wide range of locks to frustrate any given impostor key. 

Wanting to test this hypothesis, Tal found herself walking the halls of Stanford, asking colleagues, “Who’s got a cool bug?” Someone gave her Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Previous research from Tal’s collaborator Jenifer Coburn, a microbiologist now at the Medical College of Wisconsin, had established that Lyme bacteria sport a special protein crucial for establishing a lasting infection. Knock this protein out, and the immune system swiftly overwhelms the bugs. The big question, however, was what made this protein so essential. So Tal used what’s known as a high-affinity probe as bait—and caught the Borrelia’s mimic of our “Don’t eat me” signal binding to it. In other words, she confirmed that the bacteria’s sneakyprotein was, as predicted, a close match for a healthy cell’s signal.  

Sex differences in Lyme infection

Until then, Tal says, she had never given Lyme disease much thought. But the more she learned, the more disturbed she grew. Even after timely antibiotic treatment, roughly 10% of all Lyme patients go on to develop chronic symptoms that can include crushing pain, debilitating fatigue, and cognitive changes that make basic tasks a struggle.  

This confocal micrograph depicts Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which cause Lyme disease when transmitted to humans by ticks. These Borrelia were genetically engineered to produce a green fluorescent protein.

COURTESY OF THE TAL RESEARCH GROUP

Perhaps even more alarming than the disease has been the medical community’s response to it. “I realized that there’s this public health debacle around Lyme, and it’s, for lack of a better word, obscene,” Tal says. Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, clinicians have dismissed their symptoms as signs of mental illness. The medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.” 

Today, there is no objective way to diagnose chronic Lyme, and no medically accepted therapy. For some patients, lengthy treatments with high doses of antibiotics can ease symptoms, but these come with their own serious risks. (They can, for example, damage the microbiome, leading to significant negative effects on health.) And because the antibiotic used currently only prevents bacteria from replicating, Tal notes, it’s up to the immune system to actually kill off the invaders. If immune cells can’t tell friend from foe, the utility of antibiotics may be limited. 

Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, the medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.”

For Tal, these revelations were electrifying. She dove into the immunology of Lyme disease, focusing in particular on sex differences. In one mouse experiment, she discovered that Lyme bacteria “completely disfigured” the uterus. Yet after delving through decades of Lyme research, she could find only one other study that even documented uterine infection. 

This shortfall mirrors larger problems in medical research. “We’ve let men dictate the direction of research funding for so long,” Tal says. Traditionally, studies focused on male subjects, and a 1977 FDA policy barred women from participating in most clinical trials in the US in the wake of birth defects caused by thalidomide. It wasn’t until 1993 that federal law required studies to include women and minorities. This, coupled with other sex- and gender-based medical biases, means that many female-dominated diseases remain under-researched. “So much of this research is being done on males, male mice—male, male, male,” Tal says. “And I’m like, no.” 

Tal suspects that the sex disparities seen in chronic Lyme and other pathogen-­triggered chronic diseases might come down to the fact that men mount a more robust response to acute infection. This no-holds-barred approach is risky—“Your immune system has the power to kill you,” she notes—but it may mean that men, on average, can kill off more viruses or bacteria in the critical first week of infection. After that window closes, the immune system largely settles back down, Tal says. Pathogens that escaped the initial blitz could take up long-term residence in the body, potentially causing persistent symptoms. And women have a higher chance of chronic illness.

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We are beavers all | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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old black and white photo of William Miller in a canoe

As efficient creators and stewards of wetlands, beavers provide a hospitable ecosystem for dozens of other creatures, from insects, frogs, and turtles to owls, otters, great blue herons, and even moose and deer. What’s more, by harvesting undergrowth for their dams and creating ponds and bogs that raise the moisture content of the soil, beavers lessen the likelihood that forest fires will spread. As forest fires devastated Oregon in 2021, beaver wetlands remained green and lush, acting as natural firebreaks. On aerial images of the charred landscape, the beaver’s habitat stands out, a wide and verdant ribbon running through the blackened trees.

While not all property owners who live near beaver habitats appreciate the animals’ tree removal services, the pro-­beaver movement seems to be getting more organized. In November 2023, some 300 beaver restoration advocates from North America and Europe gathered in the Beaver State (Oregon) for the annual State of the Beaver conference. “Seventy-five percent of the artificial wetland restoration projects done in America over the past 30 years have failed,” conference cofounder Stanley Petrowski told the Daily Yonder. “But when beavers do it, they do it perfectly.” 

BeaverCon, held near Baltimore in June of 2022, and the Midwest Beaver Summit, held in Chicago and online in September 2023, attracted similar crowds of humans interested in promoting beaver welfare.

It is, in fact, possible to find ways to allow beavers to continue creating their watery habitats in ways that minimize damage to human infrastructure. For example, devices such as the Beaver Deceiver can be installed to prevent beavers from damming culverts, which often leads to flooding of roads. Skip Lisle, founder of Beaver Deceivers International of Grafton, Vermont, first developed the device in the 1990s to beaver-proof the Penobscot Nation’s 130 miles of roads in Maine. “In all likelihood, they are the first large landowner to completely beaver-proof their property nonlethally,” he says.

Living organic chemical factory

At the base of their tail, all beavers have two castor sacs that store castoreum, a complex, granular substance with a strong and long-lasting musky smell. It is made up of at least 24 different compounds, primarily derived from the barks of the various trees in the beaver’s diet. Beavers deposit castoreum atop foot-high mounds of mud, sticks, and grass to mark the edges of their territory. 

Humans have long valued castoreum. About 400 BCE, Hippocrates, a chronicler of natural cures, wrote of its wonderful medical properties. Around 77 CE, the Roman naturalist Pliny listed castoreum as a cure for headaches, constipation, and epilepsy. In the Middle Ages the list of maladies castoreum was said to cure expanded to include dysentery, worms, fleas, pleurisy, gout, rheumatism, insomnia, hysteria, memory loss, and liver problems. 

Author William Miller ’51, SM ’52, reports that his foot once crashed through a beaver dam while he was dragging his canoe over it to get to the next lake in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. About 100 feet away, a watching beaver immediately began to slap its tail on the pond surface. Having just unleashed a string of curses directed at the beavers, Bill assumed that the beaver was cursing at him. But he now suspects it was sending a warning signal to the other beavers—or possibly urging them to come quickly to repair the damage caused by the trespassing human oaf.

COURTESY OF WILLIAM MILLER

As it turns out, quite a few of the tree barks that beavers prefer contain compounds with known medicinal benefits. Phenols, for example, are often anti-­inflammatory and antiseptic and can have antiviral properties. They include salicylic acid (a precursor to aspirin), which can be found in the bark of willow, poplar, and alder trees—all beaver favorites. The beaver’s system functions as a natural pharmacy, extracting these compounds (among others) and secreting them in the form of castoreum. 

Humans have also used castoreum for several nonmedical applications, such as in high-end “leather note” perfumes including Shalimar, Givenchy III, and Chanel’s Antaeus. It is an ingredient in some bourbons and vodkas and has been used in Sweden to flavor “Bäverhojt” (literally, beaver shout) schnapps.

Today, most castoreum is harvested in a sterile environment by anesthetizing beavers and expressing the castor sacs near their tails. As a food additive, castoreum extract is “generally recognized as safe,” according to the FDA. But at close to $100 per pound, it’s used sparingly. The total annual US consumption of dried castoreum is around 300 pounds.

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