Apple should rethink regarding games with political and sexual content

Apple likes to think it’s hip and cool — or whatever words hip and cool people are using these days to describe being hip and cool — but the company at times comes across like someone’s dad. This is never more the case than when it comes to gaming. Apple’s latest news headline in this area: rejecting a game about a Palestinian child struggling to survive in the 2014 Gaza strip.

This line of thinking isn’t new for Apple. App Store guidelines since 2010 have stated:

We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app.

This showcases Apple’s concern with the interactive components of apps. When it comes specifically to gaming, I also suspect Apple links them to being a juvenile pursuit, unlike the ‘grown up’ mediums of music and literature. This was a dated distinction to make in the 1990s, when Cannon Fodder did the rounds, ruthlessly satirising war (while simultaneously being a bloody excellent game). But we’re now 35 years into home gaming, and the medium has matured at speed. As someone who’s trained in the fine arts, I often take issue with the ‘games are art’ argument, but it’s clear some border on (or possibly are) art, plenty more are artistic, and a great many have something important to say.

This is one of those occasions where Google Play’s light-touch curation gets things right, letting people create in the medium of their choice. Liyla and the Shadows of War is available to download there. But whereas Apple as an organisation lauds creativity and encourages people to be creative with its devices, it stops short when it comes to interactive content. Apple doubles down on older mediums and means of expression other than embracing the new. There are exceptions — Apple will allow abstracted political statements, as evidenced by Papers, Please — but that feels a lot like dancing around any points, and can be a compromise too far when someone’s trying to craft a very personal story via the medium of gaming. (Similarly, in a store with device age-gating, why shouldn’t someone be able to create a game that explores aspects of sex?)

On the flip side, I don’t doubt Apple has it tough. If there was a change in policy, perhaps there would be a flood of rabid ‘anti’ games, slamming specific figures, politicians or movements. With App Store reviews reportedly lasting only a matter of minutes, would it even be possible for a reviewer to examine a game, and deem whether it’s unacceptably offensive in some way? Still, I do hope Apple rethinks, because it could and should be a force for good across the entire range of gaming, rather than a force for ambivalence or, worse, obstruction.

Update (May 23): In this case, at least, Apple has rethought. The game’s creator says on Twitter that the game will be published on the App Store.

May 20, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, iOS gaming, Opinions, Politics

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Steve the jumping dinosaur clone

Steve the jumping dinosaur bounded past me a while ago, but there’s been a deluge of press about this mini-game over the past week, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Moreover, it’s odd how much of this coverage is ignoring key facts about the game.

If you’ve not chanced across Steve’s retro charms, it’s a game for iOS that works within Notification Center. You tap and the little dinosaur hops over obstacles until you mess up and it doesn’t, at which point your game is over. Much of the press seems to be full of wonder about the ultra-casual nature of the game, and the excitement of playing a game within Notification Center.

But although Steve isn’t a terrible game by any means, it’s nothing remotely special, given that there are countless similar (and better) games available for iOS (and Android, for that matter). It’s also far from the first Notification Center game — they go back at least a couple of years, after Apple cooled on only allowing the feature to be used for information presentation. Most of all, Steve is a truly blatant clone of a game that’s long appeared in Google Chrome’s offline mode. (If you have that browser installed, try it now — turn off your Wi-Fi, try to access a site, and you’ll see a little dinosaur lurking. Tap space and away you go.) So it’s not very good, it’s not unique, and it even omits the pterodactyls from the browser version, presumably angering pterodactyl fans everywhere.

However, Steve does give you a bunch of new themes to, naturally, buy via IAP. Given that Steve’s creator wasn’t responsible for the Chrome original, this all feels a bit iffy, profiting off of someone else’s work, but if this is the brave new world of gaming, it’s clearly time to throw integrity down a mineshaft and get involved. Any devs out there went to partner up? I’m sure we can get a ton of column inches with Steve Invaders, Steve ‘Flappy’ Bird, Stevey Road, and Angry Steve. And that’s just for starters.

April 25, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, iOS gaming, Opinions

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Low-hanging fruit for Apple and gaming, part two: genres and search

Following on from my gripes about MFi controllers, I want to touch on another aspect of Apple and gaming: genres and search.

Gaming is a rare example in the App Store where Apple included genre links, enabling people to filter their browsing. But I always found the categories Apple chose a bit strange. That ‘dice’ games get their own category but platform games don’t makes me question whether this list of genres was put together by anyone who knows the first thing about gaming.

Now there are many thousands of games on the store, these categories are entirely inadequate for finding the types of games you might enjoy. Apple’s search isn’t especially helpful (type ‘platform game’ and you get a list mostly comprising not exactly great titles, and a ton of stuff is lumped in with ‘arcade’), and so Apple’s own ‘curated’ groups are probably someone’s best bet for unearthing new games within a genre — assuming Apple’s made a list and you can find it.

Ideally, Apple would rip up the genre list and start again. But perhaps there’s another way around this, giving developers some kind of tagging system based around recognised genres and sub-genres, and allowing them to select from a small range when submitting their games (each of which would have to be justified to the App Store reviewer). That way, you could feasibly with a couple of clicks or taps (or a keyword search) get an always current list of kart racers or twin-stick shooters, rather than continuing to rummage through the semi-random marketstall that is the current App Store. (And I imagine this kind of thing could work for apps, too, also plagued by very general categories.)

So my second piece of low-hanging fruit for Apple and gaming is:

2. Improve discoverability for games by creating a more robust tagging/categorisation/search system that would enable dynamic grouping of broadly similar games.

April 21, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, iOS gaming, Opinions


Pay to play: why paid placements in the App Store must not spread further than search

Given that Apple doesn’t comment on rumours, take Bloomberg’s story Apple Pursues New Search Features for a Crowded App Store with a pinch of salt. The claim is that Apple has

constructed a secret team to explore changes to the App Store, including a new strategy for charging developers to have their apps more prominently displayed

For me, the key paragraph in the story is this:

If Apple goes through with the idea, “it’s going to be huge,” said Krishna Subramanian, the co-founder of Captiv8, which helps brands market using social media. “Anything that you can do to help drive more awareness to your app, to get organic downloads, is critical.”

Subramanian is right in one sense: if Apple does this, it will be huge. It’ll be huge in eradicating any sense that the App Store is a meritocracy when it comes to app visibility.

Right now, search remains a mess, in part due to its lack of granularity regarding fields to search within. It has improved — a search for ‘Twitter’ now first returns a selection of Twitter clients rather than random apps with teams who were very good at App Store SEO — but it could be better.

My bigger concern, though, is paid placement permeating throughout the store, such as on to the entry pages a great many people use to find new apps and games. There, Apple’s ‘curation’ is uneven. I’ve been told by various American friends that ‘Editor’s Choice’ in the US is closer in meaning to ‘this is interesting’ than ‘this is amazing’, but even so, that slot is often filled with garbage, albeit garbage released by companies important to Apple from a revenue standpoint.

However, it would be hyperbole to suggest this is ubiquitous. In both apps and games, prominent positions in the App Store are very regularly given to top-notch products, many of which are by indies; Apple’s selections are on the whole pretty good. A case in point: today’s App Store highlights for games include Warbits, PKTBALL, and Chameleon Run, all of which are very much worth playing. And the first couple of entries in the smaller ‘What We’re Playing’ zone are Looty Dungeon and Shadow Bug — both of which I’d also recommend.

So should Apple veer down a paid route for search, I hope it won’t spread further. Things are hard enough for developers now, without them worrying that they’ll need the deepest of pockets, in order to even have a shot of visibility on the App Store.

April 15, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Apps, Gaming, Opinions

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Game Center: It’s alive! IT’S ALIVE! Finally.

I recently kicked up a fuss about Game Center:

If you follow the Apple or mobile gaming press, you might have heard Game Center is working again, as of the current iOS 9 beta.

I don’t usually install beta software on iOS devices, because you can’t dual-boot, and betas often have bugs and conflicts that render much of my work (testing apps and games) problematic. However, I made an exception in this case and installed iOS 9.3.2 beta 1 on my iPad Air 2.

Post-install, I immediately fired up Game Center, and although it was slow (and initially seemingly trolled me with a white screen for about five seconds), it fired into life for the first time in weeks. For the first time since last autumn, I can switch tabs within the Game Center app and access Game Center in Settings. You can see it working in a new video I uploaded to YouTube.

Now looking at the Games tab in Game Center is interesting. The system itself was clearly working in some capacity, since it lists all Game Center compatible games I’ve downloaded. However, I estimate that only one in ten has been populated with any data, and even then that only happened only sporadically. Most flatly state I have zero points and no high scores. Perhaps Game Center morphed into an ancient dial-up emulator without telling anyone.

Judging by the now 75-page Touch Arcade thread, other people seem to be finding this beta sorts the problem, across multiple devices. Only one person has so far reported an issue, and that vanished upon a restart.

So it looks like Game Center’s finally fixed. And, yes, this one does deserve a ‘finally’, given how long it’s been broken. I just hope the many devs caught in the fallout have not been hit too hard in the pocket, and also that Apple either starts being honest with itself. The company should either admit it wants nothing to do with gaming, and drop Game Center entirely (which, given Android’s rapidly improving equivalent, wouldn’t look good), or ensure from this point on the team keeps Game Center working.

April 13, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Opinions

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