Mobile gamers: this is why we can’t have nice things

Some recent mobile gaming highlights:

Angry Birds Transformers launches. It is a surprisingly good game, retaining the series’s penchant for wanton destruction, and wrapping it in a playable and engaging mechanic where you auto-run along levels and shoot directly at targets. But it’s a freemium game, heavily and arbitrarily gated with all kinds of timers, IAP and ads. People complain: they just wanted to play the game.

The Silent Age‘s second episode arrives, hugely expanding the award-winning adventure title, initially downloadable for free. Those who pay $4.99/£2.99 to unlock the full story are treated to a compelling and beautiful gaming experience. But instead many people complain: they just wanted to play the game—for free.

And now paid game Monument Valley has been updated with a new set of gorgeous Escher-like puzzles to explore. The ‘forgotten shores’ is roughly the length of the original game, at least as visually stunning and inventive, and costs roughly half the price. Again, people complain. They don’t understand why they just can’t play the new levels immediately; the developer is, apparently, “greedy”, and those who bought the game are now busy downrating it on iTunes. Their original four- or five-star experience is now only worth one or two stars, because the developer had the audacity to want income for months of effort, in order to fund further games that those who bought it would presumably enjoy in the future.

On Twitter, developer ustwo half-joked:

Seems quite a few people have gone back and 1 star reviewed Monument Valley upon update because the expansion was paid. This makes us sad. That’s it, we’re giving up the premium game. Next time we’re just going to sell you 500 coins for $2 instead.

It’s hardly surprising everyone took the comment at face value. Why wouldn’t they? Developers take months crafting something, and they need to pay the bills somehow. But too many mobile gamers don’t want to pay; but they also don’t want IAP gating or adverts. They want something for nothing.

I don’t know how this plays out, or how it can be fixed. It’s too late to put the entitlement genie back in the bottle, and I suppose developers have to weather the idiocy storm and just hope enough people remain to make their efforts worthwhile, whether that’s from buying apps with price-tags, or paid upgrades, or from flinging a few bucks into the IAP well in order to make a freemium title less hideous. What I do know is that we’re still seeing the most innovative and exciting of gaming platforms continue to get a kicking, all because of greed—but from consumers, not developers.

November 13, 2014. Read more in: Gaming, iOS gaming

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Screen sighs: why 16:9 shouldn’t always be the way

The Guardian criticises the iPad Air 2’s display, due to Apple using what the reviewer refers to in the verdict as a “square screen”. Of course, the screen isn’t actually square, but it’s squarer than the bulk of those used by its rivals. Apple, since the original iPad, has provided a tablet with a 4:3 aspect ratio, somewhat aping the printed page. By contrast, most competing tablets have primarily been designed for landscape orientation, in 16:9, common for movies.

If nothing else, this showcases assumptions regarding intentions for the devices themselves. Android tablets have been more geared towards movie and TV consumption, whereas iPads ‘compromised’ that use-case in order to provide a device with wider scope. I explore this further in a piece for Stuff, which examines Google’s new Nexus displays, the tablet now following Apple’s lead.

The short of that is about versatility. 16:9 leaves little room in landscape for content when using the virtual keyboard; in portrait it’s often unsatisfying for reading, because the viewport is so narrow. (Oddly, the Guardian reviewer calls out the iPad for having black bars at the side of comic books, despite those blank spaces being perfectly good for placing your thumbs and flipping pages, without covering content; by contrast, tablets closer to 9:16 aspect ratios in portrait may have black bars at the top and bottom, which the reviewer had a go at the iPad for regarding video.)

Of course, the best aspect ratio for you depends entirely on what you’re doing with a device, and if you only want TV on the go, then having a device with a screen ratio similar to a telly’s makes sense; however, if you want a device suitable for a much wider range of tasks, 16:9 isn’t the smartest move, something Apple knew all along, something Google’s now embracing, and something Microsoft’s also figured out with its new Surface Pro tablets, which use a 3:2 aspect.

October 23, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Technology

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Dear Apple: we need to talk about Newsstand

The Magazine is shutting down. Created by Marco Arment and taken over in May 2013 by Glenn Fleishman, The Magazine was a pioneer, thinking different about digital magazines. Initially inspired by Arment’s Instapaper, it stripped things back, emphasising content in a manner that chimed with an audience tired of ad-infested websites and poor digital magazine user experiences.

It turns out whatever The Magazine was doing isn’t enough; although it’s been profitable throughout its entire life (extremely rare for any publication), subscriber numbers continue to fall, to the point Fleishman believes the magazine will eventually not be sustainable. Better to go out with a kind of controlled bang than gradually sink into quicksand.

There are undoubtedly all sorts of reasons why The Magazine is closing, some of which are explored in a Cult of Mac interview with Fleishman, but Newsstand seems to be key, having transformed from a well of potential into an empty bucket of pain as far as publishers are concerned. Jim Dalrymple, editor of The Loop, pointedly commented: “Apple should just admit that they don’t give a shit about digital magazines and be done with it.”

He’s right. At one time, Newsstand was touted as Apple redefining magazines, saving an industry in serious decline. In iOS 5 and 6, it resembled iBooks, in being both an app and store, but also used a custom folder to showcase cover images, making new issues very visible. This was irksome for those who didn’t use Newsstand, left with an empty wooden shelf (as ever, Apple could really do with enabling you to disable unused default apps), but handy for publishers and readers alike.

As of iOS 7, Newsstand was overhauled to fit in with Apple’s philosophy of flat design. The icon became a generic picture of four publications, and you now have to tap this to view magazine covers. So instead of a custom folder, Newsstand now has a strange ‘apps within an app’ set-up that doesn’t really seem to benefit anyone. This also means Newsstand now behaves like other iOS apps, in that it can be stashed in a folder. Visibility of new magazine issues has been seriously hit; coupled with this, ongoing abuse of system notifications has led to many disabling them, closing off another avenue for alerting readers about new issues.

Fleishman himself reasons that these changes “did not help [The Magazine] thrive”, and he’s far from alone. In 2011, publishers were full of hope regarding Newsstand; now, pretty much every one of them I know hates it. They think Apple’s practically abandoned Newsstand and just doesn’t care — it’s turned into an afterthought product Apple feels it must have rather than one it wants to keep evolving as part of the core iOS experience.

Perhaps magazines are simply doomed—digital or otherwise. Maybe people just don’t want to pay for content bundles and either want free websites, churn-based humour on Buzzfeed, or some kind of system where they can self-edit and cherry-pick what they think they’ll like (rather than possibly discovering something new). But while some kind of magazine industry does still exist, it’d be great for Apple to do more than turn Newsstand into the publication equivalent of Stocks. Maybe iOS 8.1 should silently admit Newsstand is a failed experiment, and simply remove it entirely. Put individual magazines back on the Home screen as standard apps, with (standard-sized) icons developers can update as and when a new issue goes live and standard alert badges, and therefore provide the flexibility that might reengage readers.

October 10, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Opinions

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The app-makers on the iPhone 6, iOS 8 and Apple Watch

Hardware is nothing without software. The original iPhone was a perfectly nice device, but it wasn’t until the App Store that its true potential was unleashed. Similarly, Android might have the weight of numbers on its side, but it doesn’t have many of the best apps and games—they tend to come to iOS first.

It was with this in mind that I set about wondering what Apple’s latest releases would mean for the app ecosystem. In a feature for Stuff TV, I interview a number of developers (including Neven Mrgan, James Thomson, Brianna Wu and Gedeon Maheux), in order to explore how the iPhone 6, iOS 8 and Apple Watch might mean for the future of the apps and games you know and love.

September 26, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Technology

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Tech pundits and analysts: iPhone 6 Plus selling out in stores means NOTHING

Here we go again. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are now on sale, causing pundits and analysts alike to froth all over the internet, without first taking even a second to think about what they’re saying. Right now, I’m seeing an awful lot of people springing to conclusions that the 6 Plus is ‘outselling’ the iPhone 6, on the basis that it’s selling out in a lot of stores.

The tiny snag is that we don’t know how many units of each type were manufactured, we don’t know how many were shipped to stores, and we don’t know how many were sold in the stores that are selling out. Remember that a store could ‘sell out’ of the iPhone 6 Plus by ordering one of each model, but still have hundreds of iPhone 6 units in the stockroom. Right now, iPhone 6 Plus sales information we’re seeing is no more indicative than Amazon bar charts that have a small bar for last year, a large bar for this year, and an inexplicably blank y axis.

September 22, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Opinions

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