iWin: how Apple became the accidental king of mobile gaming

Time  yesterday published Matt Peckham’s piece For iOS 7, Apple Needs More Than Game Controllers to Win Gaming. Within, he mentions the third-party controller API alluded to at WWDC 2013, but then makes claims about iOS gaming that don’t sit right with me. He makes all the usual arguments:

  • Apple barely cares about gaming and treats games like any other apps that happen to be on the App Store (inferring this is a bad thing);
  • iOS has interface issues that stop “major gaming franchises [being] ported over unaltered”;
  • Most people “don’t buy iPhones, iPads or the iPod Touch to game foremost”;
  • Apple should be more serious about gaming, notably in making it easier to “connect your iOS devices to a larger display”

Not doing these things, he argues, is a missed opportunity, and he reckons iOS games

feel stuck in 2007 with chart leaders like Angry Birds, Temple Run, Plants vs. Zombies, Fruit Ninja, Tetris, Cut the Rope, Doodle Jump and Bejeweled—not exactly arguments for design vibrancy

He concludes:

It’s a shame, in 2013, that a company known for leading in so many other ways seems content to follow here, at best dabbling in the most lucrative segment of the entertainment industry.

Regular readers will know I fundamentally disagree with this view of gaming. To take Peckham’s points in turn:

  • Apple barely caring about gaming is one of the main reasons why iOS has flourished as a gaming ecosystem, especially when it comes to indies, which have crafted wildly creative, original fare for the platform;
  • Not everyone wants the same titles ported over yet again, and instead hanker for a bit of innovation, even if said innovation sometimes centres around existing IP;
  • Most people don’t buy iOS devices to game foremost, but that doesn’t mean iOS isn’t their primary gaming platform;
  • Apple enabling you to connect your device to a TV turns it into an entirely different system, one that has a traditional controller/abstraction/screen mechanic rather than one of direct touch manipulation. It turns something intuitive, innovative and new into Yet Another Console.

My latest article for Stuff.tv explores these things. iWin: how Apple became the accidental king of mobile gaming interviews a number of leading developers, from the likes of Ste Pickford through to Sega’s European CTO, to get their take on the current state of the games industry. For the most part, the developers I spoke to also reckon Apple really opened things up, especially for indies, and that the very worst thing for Apple in this space would have been to ape Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft.

That’s not to say Apple has no problems in gaming. There are clear issues with discoverability and developers who fight hard but get nowhere. There’s also an argument Apple should care at least a bit rather than barely a jot, to create a healthier ecosystem for the indies that made it so great in the first place. However, no-one was clamouring for the Apple TV to become some kind of television console, nor for Brown And Grey Army Shooter XIV to come across in identical fashion from another format.

June 18, 2013. Read more in: Apple, iOS gaming, Technology

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Exclusive insight into how iOS 7’s Game Center logo was designed

iOS 7 has a new interface, including new icons. Most make sense, but it’s hard to understand what Game Center’s represents until you know the reasoning behind its design, captured in this EXCLUSIVE transcription of audio taken from a microphone hidden in Jony Ive’s white room of despair.

Game Center icon
  • Ive: Hey, team. So we’ve got another icon to design, for an app called Game Center.
  • Team member A: What’s that?
  • Team member B: I’ve never heard of it.
  • Ive: Me neither. But I checked Wikipedia and it’s been on iOS for years, and so we have to design something for it.
  • Team member C: Um, I’ve a question.
  • Ive: Sure—go ahead.
  • Team member C: Uh, this might sound silly, but… what’s a game?
  • Team member A: That’s a good point. I’ve no idea.
  • Ive: We need to research what these ‘game’ things are. I know all about ‘center’, but ‘game’ is new to me. It’s very exciting.
  • Team member A: You don’t look excited.
  • Ive: I always look like this. You know I only have one expression.
  • Team member A: Sorry.
  • Ive: That’s OK. *mournfuleyes*
  • Team member B: Hey, wait a minute. I remember playing a game with my niece, during my annual hour off from Apple.
  • Ive: That’s great—what did you do?
  • Team member B: She had this liquid and she used it to blow bubbles. She had lots of fun—almost as much fun as we do when we lovingly paw at an iPhone or iPad.
  • Ive: Wow. That does sound like fun. So, games are bubbles. Got it. Get to work, team!

June 11, 2013. Read more in: Apple, Design, iOS gaming

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If you can look past…

Slide to Play on Tetris Blitz:

It’s fun, it’s quick, and if you can look past its unsavory freemium trappings, it ought to satisfy your modern puzzle needs.

“It’s tasty, it’s quick, and if you can look past this burger being laced with glass, dead frogs and poison, it ought to satisfy your lunchtime needs.”

May 30, 2013. Read more in: Apple, iOS gaming, Opinions

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iOS games dev being generous about IAP results in possible business-killing “epic fail”

Sometimes you read something on a blog that’s like a punch to the gut:

I don’t know exactly how much Bombcats needed to make to keep Radiangames in business, but these numbers aren’t close.

That’s a comment from Radian Games, in reality indie dev Luke Schneider. He recently released Bombcats, which has enjoyed plenty of downloads, but IAP conversion of around 0.1 per cent. On one day he mentions, he states 100,000 downloads resulted in a couple of hundred bucks in income—figures likely to drop as the game fades from view over time.

I had no idea Schneider was on his last throw of the dice, but it’s doubly sad to see him being generous about IAP (the game isn’t pushy and provides plenty of content for nothing) and then finding out that this method doesn’t work.

I wrote about the pros and cons of freemium/free-to-play/IAP on iOS recently. Every developer I spoke to said the same things:

  • IAP in and of itself is not a bad system, and can actually be beneficial in providing income over time that can be reinvested in a title’s development and/or new projects.
  • IAP has a somewhat poor reputation because it’s too often exploited.
  • IAP can fail if you are not aggressive enough.

You can see the disconnect. In order to create a good user experience, you’re better off being generous; but in order to survive, you have to be a bastard. There are exceptions—Hero Academy comes to mind—but for the most part, those IAP titles that thrive are the ones nickel-and-diming you at every turn.

It’s also pretty depressing to see the comments in the Radian Games post. Some people say they won’t even try the game purely because it’s free-to-play, and, well, that never means free. That’s sort of how I used to think, but a comment by indie Ste Pickford sums up why I changed my tune long ago:

I think the move to digital distribution meant that a drift towards a purchase of price of zero was inevitable (as the ‘cost of goods’ is effectively zero), so now we’re here on iOS we might as well get on with working out how to make good games—and make a living—within this landscape, rather than clinging to the old business model.

Following on from that, gamers also have to understand these changing business models and support those developers embracing IAP if they’re going about it the right way. People who loved Punch Quest should have thought “Wow, this is amazing—I’ll fling the dev a few bucks just because”, rather than “Wow, this is amazing AND free—WOOOO!” The thing is, as Alan Downie recently wrote, customers won’t give you money unless you ask, and in iOS gaming, it seems you really have to ask rather hard.

I hope there’s a balance to be found. I hope the future of gaming isn’t developers increasingly getting consultants in from the gambling industry (yes, this is happening, and, no, it’s not a good thing) rather than simply creating great games. I hope that, somehow, Apple will one day embrace making smaller games more discoverable rather than so often flagging games that are guaranteed hits already. Right now, despite some devs finding they can’t survive the iOS lottery, there are still fantastic titles arriving by the day, but the manner in which aggression is becoming a requirement makes me uncomfortable and concerned for the future of what’s otherwise an amazing gaming platform.

It’s at this point I wish I were a Daring Fireball or The Loop, with the kind of readership that could make a difference. I could say go and buy Inferno+ (Robotron meets Gauntlet in neon) and Slydris (futuristic well-based block-falling puzzler), two of Radian’s best titles (for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad). I could say fling a few bucks at Bombcats, knowing that it could change the course of events. But my readership is small and so I’m effectively powerless; I can only imagine how the likes of Schneider feel.

Still, go and buy those games anyway, because you never know and—most importantly—they’re really very good indeed.

May 21, 2013. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, iOS gaming

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Dear hardcore gamers: great mobile efforts on iOS deserve high scores, so deal with it

Edge has put up its Impossible Road review. It gets a 9. Having spent hours wrestling with this bastard-hard game, I think that’s a perfectly justifiable score. Impossible Road is addictive, pure and polished. It’s not perfect, but in the context of mobile games, it’s very, very, very, very good indeed.

However, how does it fare when you remove the context of mobile games? In the comments section of the Edge review, a couple of readers have complained that the game doesn’t deserve its rating, that Edge is dumbing down, or that it only deserves a 9 if you compare it to other games that you play for five minutes. So here’s my entirely reasoned and carefully considered response to that: bullshit.

I’m sick to death of people whining about mobile games somehow being inferior to ‘proper’ games on ‘proper’ consoles. If you have a ratings system, its full range should be used. If a game is really great, it should get a high score. If it’s not that great, it shouldn’t. I understand why it might break some people’s brains that the likes of Impossible Road might score similarly to a Zelda, but it’s insulting to mobile developers to suggest their games aren’t as rewarding or, for that matter, don’t reward investment.

If I think about the games I’ve spent most time on over the years, they are varied. Civilization II had tons of depth, and I spent many hours rampaging around semi-random planets, obliterating all-comers. But I also spent an insane number of hours honing my skills on Tetris. Should Tetris somehow have had a ratings ceiling, just because it was a simple game? Of course not. Just because you can understand Tetris and see pretty much all it has to offer within a minute, does that mean it lacks longevity? Absolutely not. In fact, gaming’s history is littered with titles that were absurdly simple and yet also brilliant, from the Pac-Mans of the classic era of arcade gaming through to the Super Hexagons of the modern mobile age. Moreover, they reward investment. It’s a different type of investment to finite and linear games, where the objective is often to complete a story, but it’s still a reward, more akin, perhaps, to honing a sports skill.

Given the choice, I’d obliterate all scores in every publication, essentially forcing everyone to—horrors!—read the text. At the most, I’d allow ‘recommended’ and ‘bloody essential’ badges, as per the mid-1990s Melody Maker. But if numbers must be applied, then this shouldn’t be done on the basis of any arbitrary rules dreamt up by ‘hardcore’ gamers scared witless by the prospect of mobile gaming encroaching on their turf. The thinking should be simple: is this game any good? If it is, like Impossible Road, it deserves a high score, regardless of the platform the game’s on and the mechanics it offers.

May 13, 2013. Read more in: Apple, iOS gaming

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