What we can all learn from Flappy Bird

So one-thumb survival game and viral hit Flappy Bird flew too close to the sun and got deleted from the App Store by the developer. This morning, writers are aiming to make sense of what happened, such as in Keith Stuart’s piece for The Guardian, where he likens the game’s “cheerful sadism” to 1980s arcade games, worries that negative reactions were xenophobic in nature, and argues Flappy Bird was well-tuned and balanced—in effect, a model other games designers should learn from rather than scorn.

I wouldn’t go quite that far. I played Flappy Bird a bunch of times over a day or two, and I saw nothing that made me think it was anything more than a mediocre survival game. Judging by the response on my Twitter feed, the game was hugely divisive, with some getting totally addicted and others wondering what all the fuss was about. But I do agree with Stuart, in that there are things we can all learn from Flappy Bird’s short-lived success.

If it’s free, people will try anything. There are plenty of people who argue that free gaming will be the death of iOS, but I’ve never seen it that way. Although I will continue to champion great games with a price-tag, the fact is free games remove a barrier to entry. If something’s free, pretty much anyone will try not only something they were recommended as a good experience, but also something they just ‘have to see’. If you can make such an app compelling enough to make money, free can be a good starting point; just don’t gouge your users.

Design for on-the-move play. Some iOS titles, such as the superb Eliss Infinity, are very much sit-down experiences, but many people play mobile games on the go. I quite often get people on Twitter asking me for games that would work during a commute, when they’re standing on a train, only able to interact with an iPhone with a single digit. This is where Flappy Bird got everything right: it worked in portrait; a thumb didn’t cover the gameplay; controls used one digit; and games were short, meaning you could always fit one in. This of course isn’t the recipe for mobile gaming, but certainly a recipe, and there are oddly few short one-thumb titles that work in portrait.

Success is immediately cloned. Flappy Bird was not a remotely original concept—endless avoid ’em ups have existed since the dawn of gaming. But the App Store and Google Play are both cesspits when it comes to IP infringement. As Flappy Bird stormed the charts, a slew of imitators appeared. At the time of writing, various clones were flying high in the charts, having merrily stolen artwork from other developers, shoving ‘Flappy’ in their names, and in one particularly egregious case having welded IAP to the concept. One of the things that first drew me to iOS was the sheer innovation on display; these days, mobile gaming is increasingly full of crappy knock-offs.

People can be really nasty. In an earlier Guardian piece on Flappy Bird, Stuart Dredge said the game had “put the noses of a few gaming snobs out of joint along the way”. He later clarified to me that this wasn’t a response to critics offering a constructive opinion, but people responding in a mean or vicious manner to those who liked the game. Rather than argue about the game’s merits (or lack thereof), some accused others of being stupid for liking it. Worse, the developer has now been getting death threats on Twitter due to having removed the game. It’s depressing what people get so worked up about these days—imagine if all that energy was put into something worthwhile.

Reporters need to investigate more. Another related issue in terms of communication was the slew of reports about Flappy Bird, most of which didn’t investigate but instead assumed. Figures were bandied about regarding the small fortune the dev was making daily, and about him having ripped images from Nintendo titles; elsewhere, accusations of chart-rigging weren’t offered as a possibility, but as facts. The dev himself, freaking out under a deluge of press requests, pled for peace, which only made reporters write yet more about him, adding a ‘mysterious’ label. With writing being the profession in which I now spend most of my time, the lack of research into the Flappy Bird phenomenon, and assumptions and guesswork trotted out as facts, was merely indicative of reporting as a whole—but that in itself is deeply worrying.

We need to champion better games. The final point—and one I explore in more depth in an upcoming piece for TechRadar—is that we need to shout louder when great games come along. Flappy Bird was not an objectively great game; at best, it was a compelling, convenient and free time killer. But iOS and Android both have reputations that are being flushed down the toilet, to take their place among a sea of IAP and freemium effluent. But mobile gaming can be brilliant. Mobile gaming gave the industry a kick up the arse, combining the innovation then seen on Nintendo handhelds with the kind of open audience access only previously available to people working on the PC. Even now, despite the dross, there are titles being released for the iPad, iPhone and Android devices that are wonderful and simply couldn’t have existed on any other kind of system. But devs that succeed in making great games are increasingly failing, because discoverability on the App Store and Google Play is so poor; we need to do more to bring such titles to people’s attention, before it gets to the point such titles are no longer viable, and all we’re left with is the Flappy Birds and Dungeon Keepers of this world.

February 10, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Gaming

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On Apple TV 2014 rumours and the future of Apple’s little black box

I recently wrote for Stuff about the Apple TV. I think it’s a great device, and we use ours all the time, for renting movies, watching Netflix, and sending all manner of content from iOS devices to the TV and amp. It being an Apple product, the rumour mill’s now going nuts about how the device will evolve this year, not least because Apple finally ‘promoted’ it on the Apple Store, rather than burying it as an iPod accessory.

Macworld’s Karen Haslam has rounded up all of the rumours, which (as ever) vary from the sensible to outlandish craziness. And even things that might seem an obvious path for Apple to take are sometimes fraught with problems.

Games on the Apple TV. This is something people have been banging on about for a while, arguing Apple should be taking on Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, despite not really having a clue about gaming. If anything, the recent iOS controllers mess should showcase Apple still has a lot to learn about gaming in general, with the company absurdly fragmenting hardware from the get-go.

More importantly, though, as Haslam hints at, the Apple TV would effectively be an entirely different platform from ‘standard’ iOS, merely sharing code. Games would lack touch and need to be controlled remotely. On that basis, Apple’s controller idea makes more sense—games that are fully compatible with the controllers (menus and all) could potentially work with Apple TV games. After all, the Apple TV is essentially a headless iPod. But for that to happen widely, controllers need to be far better and far cheaper, the games need to work more fully with controllers, and the Apple TV would need way more storage than the 8 GB it currently has, which would ramp up the price and move it away from being an impulse purchase.

Integrated storage and live TV recording. Macworld’s article talks about DVR recording, boosting content available to users. I imagine any argument the Apple TV will suddenly get a ton of internal storage to facilitate this is way off base, and, as Haslam argues, content will be primarily streamed. As for storing TV shows in the cloud, I think it’ll be tough for Apple to persuade many companies to go down that route, and it would also obviously impact on Apple’s own iTunes Store sales. Still, as someone outside of the USA, this won’t make a great deal of odds to me anyway—if Apple does provide an Apple TV with any kind of live-TV recording feature, it won’t make it beyond the USA for years.

TV Tuner for live TV. This would just be an added cost, and also duplicate something the vast majority of people already have. It seems unlikely in the extreme. More integration with existing on-demand services over the web, however, would be sensible. In other words, I want BBC iPlayer and 4oD on my TV.

Integrated AirPort Express. One of the stranger Apple TV reports claims the new model would include an AirPort Express router. Purely from a cost and complexity standpoint, this seems staggeringly unlikely.

More content‚TV shows and entertainment. This one’s a no-brainer, but my hope here is Apple encourages (as much as it can) faster worldwide rollouts of channels, and also looks to popular local channels outside of the US more often. Again, it’s insane Brits don’t yet have access to the likes of iPlayer and 4oD on the Apple TV.

Apps and an App Store. Similar issues exist here as with gaming, but apps are already on the Apple TV, such as The Weather Channel. The real question is how many people want to use their TV as a giant app screen. Television use has historically primarily been passive, gaming being the main exception. Apple’s ideal is to foist as many devices on people as possible, which points to continuing to encourage integration between iPads/iPhones and the Apple TV (via AirPlay) rather than attempting to get loads of apps for its black box. The obvious exception: aforementioned media channels.

Motion control or voice activation. A short quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy should suffice here:

A loud clatter of gunk music flooded through the Heart of Gold cabin as Zaphod searched the sub-etha radio wave bands for news of himself. The machine was rather difficult to operate. For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive–you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure, of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same program.

New Interface. This is a must regardless of what happens next. The basic interface is fine, but more editing control is desperately needed. Right now, you’re limited to deleting apps via the hacky method of using parental controls. Apple needs to provide a much more discoverable show/hide interface if it adds more apps and games.

Another question that Macworld doesn’t address directly is whether the Apple TV line will grow. The basic unit could continue, and new models could be released with more storage, to cater for things like games and apps. However, right now, the Apple TV isn’t a particularly big seller and it’s already competing with a slew of low-cost and quite high-quality rivals. Apple has to tread carefully to find that sweet spot of pricing, features and quality that would enable the Apple TV to thrive in the future, rather than become another tech also-ran. It also must ensure it doesn’t promote buyer’s doubt. It’s one thing to have a single cheap unit people will just buy, but it’s quite another to make people choose between several and worry about buying the wrong one.

 

January 31, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Apple to close down, because the company is just so sick of analysts

Tension was in the air yesterday as Apple announced its financial results for its fiscal 2014 first quarter, ended December 28, 2013. “We posted record quarterly revenue of $57.6 billion, and sold 51 million iPhones,” said Tim Cook, angrily adding: “But we could have been responsible for every smartphone sale worldwide and made $200 billion in profit, and it still wouldn’t have been enough for those analyst jerks.”

Cook said Apple should have been happy with its 4.8 million Macs sold, record iPad sales, and monstrous profits of $13.1 billion, resulting in Apple’s cash mountain reaching unprecedented levels. “The thing is, we know thousands of hacks worldwide are already smashing their heads against their keyboards, ham-fistedly trying to spin our success into failure, and say that—yet again—Apple is doomed,” fumed Cook. “Fuckers,” interjected Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer, kicking his chair out of the window and storming out of the room.

“I’m just so sick of it,” seethed Cook, “and so we’re shutting the whole thing down. As of tomorrow, no more Apple. I’m going to spend my time hiking and getting to grips with whatever piece of shit Android I’ll now have to use—and you’d best get used to that too. I’m done here.”

Analysts reacted positively to Cook’s statement, noting that while, in the short term, Apple shutting down entirely was not a positive step, it would finally provide plenty of room for meteoric growth should the company decide to reopen again at some point in the future. In after-hours trading, AAPL was up 37 per cent.

January 28, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Humour, Television

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Apple says the Mac will keep going forever. I just don’t see it

Macworld has managed quite a scoop, interviewing Apple executives about the future of the Mac. Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, noted Apple’s longevity, remarking how the companies making computers when Apple released the Mac are all gone. This, he said, was down to Apple’s ability to reinvent itself over and over.

This willingness was most clearly illustrated with iOS, not least when the iPad arrived. On its introduction, Apple’s tablet was positioned as being some way between a notebook and smartphone, but it’s increasingly obvious the device is capable enough to replace computers for a great many people. Plenty of users look forward to a future where the iPad is so powerful that it becomes the device for everything, with Macs consigned to history.

Interestingly, Apple doesn’t seem to agree. Schiller said:

There is a super-important role [for the Mac] that will always be. We don’t see an end to that role. There’s a role for the Mac as far as our eye can see. A role in conjunction with smartphones and tablets, that allows you to make the choice of what you want to use. Our view is, the Mac keeps going forever, because the differences it brings are really valuable.

I have no doubt this passage will fuel speculation for a long time. It says so little—there are no specifics—but it also suggests so much, not least that Apple doesn’t see (or at least won’t admit to seeing) the iPad eventually replacing the Mac. The question is why that might be the case. It would seem nonsensical for Apple to arbitrarily ‘hold back’ what the iPad might be capable of, in order for its Mac line to survive. Instead, it seems more logical that the will Mac increasingly move into ever-smaller niches, for those needing to do tasks the iPad’s not suitable for, until such a time no longer exists.

It’s also telling Schiller appears to be approaching life from the standpoint of someone with an awful lot of money (which he has):

It’s not an either/or. It’s a world where you’re going to have a phone, a tablet, a computer, you don’t have to choose. And so what’s more important is how you seamlessly move between them all…. It’s not like this is a laptop person and that’s a tablet person. It doesn’t have to be that way.

That’s a worryingly Microsoft sentiment. The main difference between that statement and Steve Ballmer’s line of thinking is that Microsoft’s desperate to shove all the aspects of these devices into a single case; Schiller simply reasons you should buy them all.

As educator and iPad fanatic Fraser Speirs remarked on Twitter, this latest interview is in stark contrast to Steve Jobs’s radical simplification of Apple’s product line in 1997. Perhaps such thinking is now obsolete in itself, but as a long time Mac user, I’ve increasingly been caught in the buyer’s doubt loop because of the growing range of Apple products. MacBook Air or MacBook Pro? iPad Air or iPad Mini with Retina? Logic would seem to suggest the iPad would in the long run take the consumer/mobile slot in the original Jobs four-box product matrix (one each of consumer/pro for mobile/desktop), but perhaps now Apple sees the future as something more complex, with more devices.

That’s all very well if you can afford it, but Schiller’s being optimistic to think that will be the default for typical users in the future, splashing out on phones and tablets and computers. Something has to give; Apple would like it to be your resolve and your wallet. To my mind, within the next decade, it’s for most people going to be the Mac, whether Apple likes it or not.

January 24, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Opinions

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The Mac at 30: then and now

30 years ago today, the Mac was formally introduced, two days after Apple ran its famous 1984 commercial at Super Bowl XVIII. Over the years, there have been many fantastic Macs, ten of which I’ve written about for Stuff.tv. Looking at the images in that piece, it’s interesting to chart the evolution of Apple’s computers, and show how many examples—even those that seemed a bad idea at the time—informed those that came later.

It also showcases the game of iteration Apple plays, rather than lurching from one thing to the next. Of late, many tech hacks have regularly criticised Apple for not revolutionising Macs, iPads or iPhones with every release. But stand back a little and compare current kit with what came before the previous iteration; the leaps become more obvious.

Today, the best way to do that is with the Mac. Current Macs are immensely powerful machines, with specifications insanely superior to the 1984 incarnation. But it’s perhaps easier to use visual comparisons to see how far Macs have come. For example, here’s a picture of the current OS X Mavericks Finder icon, with the original Mac Finder icon perched on top of it:

OS X Finder icon with tiny original Finder icon from 1984


And here’s the same current icon wearing the entire original Mac desktop as a kind of ironic retro hat:

mac-at-30-desktop
30 years apart, and one icon now has twice the horizontal resolution of the entire original Mac desktop!

Technology does evolve, but so often we’re caught up in the fine details to the point that we don’t see it. So next time you buy some new tech kit—be it a Mac, iPhone, Android device or PC—don’t just compare it to what was released a few months back to see how technology’s faring. Instead, think back a year, five years, ten years, and more, and realise that technology is in fact barrelling along at a frightening and exciting pace.


In this article, you can click the images to see them full-size on screens with a high enough resolution.

January 24, 2014. Read more in: Apple

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