On Atari vs. Jeff Minter

As reported by Eurogamer, Ars Technica, Rob Fearon and others, what currently passes for Atari (essentially a rotting corpse worn by Infogrames) has decided to throw lawyers at game developer Jeff Minter, in an attempt to get rid of the award-winning TxK, which is a bit too Tempesty for Atari’s liking. It’s been interesting to see the reaction online, which seems broadly split between staunch defence of Minter (who’s been making arcade-inspired games since the early 1980s, but not outright clones) and alignment with the idea Atari somehow has to defend its IP.

Rarely is gaming cut and dried. There’s precedent for companies suing others over a game’s mechanics, even if such lawsuits are invariably more often about a big company kicking the shit out of a smaller one with lawyers. But this particular incident is even messier, because TxK borrows from Minter’s own fantastic Tempest 2000, which he developed for Atari.

On balance, though, the side I’m taking on this scrap isn’t really for Minter nor for Atari, but for games. Much like in any other medium, individual titles do not exist in a vacuum — they are often influenced by what went before. Many titles are evolved forms of their predecessors. It’s how people learn. It’s how we get amazing mash-ups like Forget-Me-Not, or modern takes on old classics, like Pac-Man: Championship Edition.

This cannot happen when corporations fling lawyers at games in part based on older ones without good reason. And while it’s arguable Atari has some points in its letter to Minter regarding the similarities between TxK and the games that inspired it, the lawyers wilfully obfuscate and confuse, and in some cases offer outright fabrication. This includes the argument TxK includes an “electronic music sound track and sound effects which are indistinguishable from those used in TEMPEST 2000”, despite TxK having an original score. (I ‘look forward’ to Atari now suing every game that uses electronic music, just because.)

Then you delve further. Minter notes he once spoke to the Tempest X developer, who revealed it was changed just enough to enable Atari to not pay Minter any royalties. The game nonetheless remained closer to Tempest 2000 than TxK, showcasing the hypocritical nature of Atari when it comes to this series and business in general. But worse, Minter adds that he made it very clear he’d have been willing to negotiate some sort of licensing agreement. Atari, naturally, wasn’t interested. This is something I’ve heard is always the case with Atari, which is bizarre. Presumably, it’s satisfied with its terrible iOS Tempest, dumbed-down Caterpillar remakes, and using its IP as skins for gambling and casino games.

Of course, Atari’s been here before many times. It’s regularly rampaged about like a spoilt child, demolishing anything vaguely resembling Asteroids or Pong. And when Peter Hirschberg crafted Vector Tanks and the superb Vector Tanks Extreme!, Atari had them removed from the iOS App Store for resembling Battlezone, despite the latter no more being a copy of Battlezone than Space Invaders Infinity Gene is a copy of the original Space Invaders.

The smart move would be for Atari to make these games official. TxK and Vector Tanks Extreme! are both significantly better modern takes on Atari IP than anything the company has managed itself. Instead, the organisation revels in destroying games, angering people who love classic arcade fare, further ruining whatever remains of its tattered reputation; it prefers to bully developers rather than work with them, hiding behind lawyers and bending the truth.

I’ve no time for this, so fuck Atari. Hmm. It appears I did take a side after all.

March 19, 2015. Read more in: Gaming, Opinions

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Apple Watch is the worst thing ever, and here’s why

Yeah, sorry about that link-bait title, but I figured I’d best get in on the current wave of tech stupid before my tech journo credentials are snatched away from me. Mind you, perhaps escaping would be a smart move while the majority of the industry loses its collective mind.

I mentioned tech writers tending towards bile last week, but the latest stick to smack Apple with appears to be the accusation that the company has lost focus and no longer understands the value of simplicity.

Jason Hiner’s piece for ZDNet is fairly typical of this latest raft of Apple Watch moanery, calling it “too ambitious” and “a bit of a mess”. He argues:

the fact that Apple released the product in its current form says something. In fact, it says a lot about Apple under the new leadership regime because it’s the first new product category of the Cook-Ive era. And as far as innovation and discipline goes, this is a wobbly start.

His core complaint seemingly revolves around a belief that all Apple products start out simple and then layer greater functionality as they evolve. He’s right that Apple builds on products (notably software, adding richer features) over time, but what is simple?

For Apple Watch, Hiner complains that the device tries to do too much and that there are a load of new functions for a user to figure out, which are

unlike any other Apple or tech product so they aren’t naturally intuitive.

But what is intuitive? What is fully natural? My dad recently admitted to me he’d never used copy and paste, and he’s been using Macs for well over a decade. He’d just been dragging selections around, muddling through. With Watch, you imagine quite a few people will do something similar, perhaps chancing across functionality. Others will dig deeper. But the point is that many pieces of functionality that tech pundits consider simple and natural are only so to them because they use these things every day.

Consider the mouse and the original Mac. Back then, the windows/icons/mouse/pointer interface wasn’t unique, but it certainly wasn’t commonplace. Then there’s the iPhone, with its gestural interface that had a fair number of elements that felt natural, but also elements users had to learn, in order to access all of the device’s functionality.

Of course, people slammed those things too, saying they’d fail, because that’s what you do with Apple. And perhaps Apple Watch will be a faceplant, but I think the tech industry would be a better place if writers actually started to spend a bit of time with kit before deciding that it was a waste of time, a mess, or too ambitious. (And you can bet that had Apple released a much more locked-down Watch, with a razor-sharp focus and far fewer functions, ZDNet would have been whining about Apple’s closed nature, and how the device was a rip-off for the few things it enabled you to do.)

March 16, 2015. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Maclash: the unfortunate modern tendency of tech reporting to spew bile rather than inform readers

Regular readers of Revert to Saved — and indeed my other writing — will be well aware I can be opinionated. But something I aim to do — even here — is ensure snark and rants are underpinned by facts and reason. Of late, it appears tech reporting has vanished down a rabbit-hole of link-bait madness.

On watching Apple’s latest event, where it unveiled the new MacBook, more details about Apple Watch, and my personal favourite new Apple thing, ResearchKit, I knew people would fire up their gripe cannons. I just wasn’t entirely prepared for how far they’d go.

First came a piece in the Guardian, where Hannah Jane Parkinson helpfully suggested that “only a tool would buy the Apple Watch”. The feature’s clearly open-minded approach defined, she went on to offer a load of ridiculous interpretation, spin and FUD about Apple’s new product that reminded me of the kind of garbage you’d read on a mindless Apple blog, rather than a supposedly respectable publication like The Guardian.

Next, TechCrunch’s Matt Burns referred to Apple’s new MacBook as the company’s “latest betrayal”, because Apple has had the audacity to do what it’s done only loads of times before and omit what it considers soon-to-be-obsolete technology. If anything, the piece injects even more stupid sauce into the mix than The Guardian’s. Gems included arguing the new MacBook has “more in common with a tablet than most laptops”, and the ridiculous suggestion the Intel chipset inside the machine “likely doesn’t provide enough oomph to play computer games, but it should render GIFs just fine”. Ooh, you BURN, Burns! Plus that will come as a shock to all the professionals I know doing highly complex work on older and far less powerful Mac notebooks.

As the internet and tech coverage evolves, it feels like we’re witnessing a shift from survival of the fittest to survival of the inane. Pieces more often resemble personal soapboxes, omitting facts to fit agendas, and punching intelligence until it’s bloodied and broken. This does readers a disservice, and should be left for personal blogs.

March 11, 2015. Read more in: Apple, Technology, Writing

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We’ve already paid $billions

Barry Collins has written a piece for Expert Reviews on Björk’s reluctance to release her new music on Spotify. She says it simply doesn’t feel right to essentially give away something you’ve spent years working on. It’s a point of view that aligns with my own, and while revenue from streaming services is better than nothing, there are plenty of reports online that showcase how little bands and artists actually receive from the likes of Spotify.

Naturally, Spotify itself was bullish in response. CEO Daniel Ek argued:

We’ve already paid more than $2 billion in royalties to the music industry and if that money is not flowing to the creative community in a timely and transparent way, that’s a big problem

So it’s the fault of the labels in not getting money to artists, apparently. But what stood out to me more is the figure. Apple plays this trick too: talk about the BILLIONS that have been paid out, but entirely remove the context. A billion sounds like a lot when you’re talking about US dollars, Sterling or Euros. To the individual, a billion is a lot. But when that amount is divided up among every artist or developer on a service, across the entire amount of time the service has been running, a swift bit of maths leads you to a very different conclusion.

March 2, 2015. Read more in: Opinions, Technology

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Access all areas — why even Apple needs to rethink regarding accessibility

The recent Flipboard discussion and my ongoing issues with OS X Yosemite and accessibility brought to mind a piece I wrote for the dearly departed MacUser last year. It’s still very relevant (sadly), in part relating to major accessibility issues I’ve been writing to Apple’s accessibility team about since 2012, and so I’m republishing it here.

 

Apple might be a tech champion when it comes to accessibility, but it still has blind spots and a propensity to frustrate by using accessibility settings as a fix for contentious design

Perhaps the most laudable goal throughout Apple’s history has been a desire to make its products accessible to everyone who wants to use them. A combination of technological leaps and advancements in understanding wider user needs has resulted in astonishing accessibility controls lurking at the heart of OS X and iOS. Chances are, if you’ve poor vision, hearing or motor control, you’ll still be able to use Apple’s products. Given that you interact with an iPhone by pawing at a pane of glass, it’s quite something you can do so even if you’re unable to see the interface.

But for all of Apple’s success in terms of accessibility, the company still has work to do. It stubbornly retains an odd and frustrating tendency to erect barriers that make the going tougher than it needs to be for many users. It’s unclear why this is the case, but recent changes to iOS and OS X suggest a combination of ignorance and arrogance.

With iOS, Apple created a mobile operating system second-to-none when it comes to accessibility. A quick glance at relevant options in the Settings app compared to the equivalents in vanilla Android show just how far ahead Apple is. And yet when iOS 7 appeared, many users found it made them feel sick and dizzy, because of excessive zooming and swiping animations that could not be disabled; others complained of headaches, due to the brighter, starker interface.

On OS X, similar balance/motion concerns have existed since OS X Lion, and elsewhere the ‘iOSification’ of OS X has introduced further problems: ditching scroll bar arrows has made things tough for some people with motor issues; the upcoming OS X Yosemite includes transparency that dramatically reduces contrast for many interface components, bringing to mind ‘trendy’ (i.e. unreadable) grey-on-grey early-2000s web design; and several updated apps boast toolbars with tiny hit areas, meaning they can only be dragged if you have the dexterity to precisely aim and grab.

But perhaps the most disturbing trend is Apple’s inclination to seemingly use accessibility settings as a kind of band-aid for questionable and divisive design decisions. Not happy about iOS using a spindly font? Change that in accessibility! Hate the fact you can barely read menu items in OS X Yosemite’s dark mode? Change that in accessibility! And so on.

It’s hard to argue Apple should adjust the default state of everything that could potentially reduce accessibility. The swooping, zoomy nature of iOS 7 provides a sense of place if it doesn’t make you throw up, and Yosemite’s revamp has generally gone down very well (at least with anyone who’s forgotten about Mac users laughing at Windows Vista’s transparency seven years ago).

However, if Apple won’t make smarter design decisions and avoid giving into the temptation to sometimes push the shiny over the usable, it should make the means to adjust irksome pain-points more readily available and not bury them in a System Preferences pane or Settings section relatively few people are aware of. For remaining issues, Apple must be faster to address concerns. It’s great iOS now boasts a ‘Reduce Motion’ option, but unacceptable OS X doesn’t after several major revisions, nor properly old-school scroll-bars for those who truly need them.

If accessibility is a checklist, Apple still ticks more boxes than most, but the list is huge, and some of Apple’s nagging reminders date back to 2011. It’s time ‘access for all’ really meant that, especially when the changes would barely affect the majority yet improve the OS X and iOS experience for many thousands of people beyond measure.

February 18, 2015. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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