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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Low-hanging fruit for Apple and gaming, part one: MFi controllers

I recently wrote about Game Center — twice, in factand even made a video about it. But there are other areas in gaming that I feel Apple’s neglecting or overlooking, for whatever reason. The first is MFi controllers — third-party console-style gamepads that can be used with iOS devices and now also Apple TV.

The original MFi controller release was a mess. Apple seemingly didn’t understand that it was splitting the iOS ecosystem into two camps — games with or without support — and then fragmenting it further, due to offering alternate controller specs. The ‘standard’ controller has a D-pad, four face buttons, and two shoulder buttons. The ‘extended’ controller adds two more shoulder buttons and analogue sticks.

Oddly, the industry standard Start and Select buttons were omitted entirely (in favour of Pause, recently itself replaced by Menu on controllers designed for Apple TV), which I have on good authority very much annoyed several developers. (Update: Matthew Bolton adds that the “omission of click buttons on sticks” is “[a]nother pain for some ports,” while developer Filip Radelic complains that iOS lacks the means to assign controllers to specific players.)

Presumably, someone was trying to do an ‘Apple’ with controllers, particularly with the standard layout, in simplifying everything. But as far as I recall, only one company (Logitech) ever released a standard controller, everyone else plumping for the more complex option. I imagine this was confusing for consumers, even more so if they bought the Logitech, grabbed a game boasting controller support, and found they couldn’t actually control it, since the MFi controller was expecting extended controls.

That’s assuming anyone could find a compatible game in the first place, because Apple oddly broadly ignored controllers in the iTunes Store. You’d think the company would at least flag controller support on game pages (something it does on Apple TV), and also automate an App Store page listing compatible games. Instead, it’s left to third-party sites like Afterpad to pick up the slack, which is baffling.

Today, the MFi ecosystem is fairly mature, with a reasonable range of controllers. (My personal recommendation is the Nimbus, unless you’re desperate for a form-hugging option, in which case grab a Gamevice, in the knowledge it may not fit the next device you buy.) But Apple needs to do more to help.

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


1. Add a section on all App Stores that lists games that are MFi controller compatible, which is automatically updated and, preferably, that itself can be searched and/or filtered by genre.


And speaking of genres, that’ll be the next bugbear I’ll be addressing in this series.

 

April 6, 2016. Read more in: Gaming, iOS gaming, Opinions

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I made a video about iOS 9’s broken Game Center and you’ll never guess what happened next

I wrote that Game Center is broken, and that Apple told me it will “hopefully” be “resolved” “soon”, but the issues are tough to visualise for anyone who’s not experiencing them. At least, people on Twitter tell me so, and Twitter NEVER LIES.

So I dusted off my long-dormant and barely used YouTube account and made an amazing video, featuring:

  • My finger
  • An iPad Air 2
  • Game Center white-screening
  • Settings freezing on trying to access the Game Center section
  • (The excellent) Dashy Crashy not being able to connect, and not showing friends in the racing
  • Game Center white-screening a second time, in case you didn’t see it before

As for what I did next, you probably did guess: I wrote this blog post. So sorry about that misleading heading, but you know how it is online these days — people with SEO hats punch your face in unless you use TECHNIQUES to get people to visit your site. Just think yourself lucky they didn’t make me split this short post up into eleven separate pages. As a gallery.

March 23, 2016. Read more in: Apple, iOS gaming, Technology

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Broken Game Center issue will be resolved soon — honest, guv

I recently wrote that Game Center is still broken after six months. For many people, the system fails entirely, launching to a white screen, and freezing Settings when you try to access the Game Center section. This results in many games not running at all, impacting users who play games, and developers who make them (suddenly finding their games are effectively inaccessible unless they build in a ridiculous ‘is Game Center broken on this device?’ workaround); it’s also a pain in the backside for people like me, who write about iOS gaming.

I’ve filed bug reports about the Game Center issue in the past, but when Apple’s new Twitter support team sprang to life, I figured I’d give it a shot. It became clear that (entirely reasonably), I’d be asked to try a bunch of generic fixes, and so on about the third communication I fired over a lengthy message outlining all the things I’d tried already. (There are various ‘tech voodoo’ solutions rattling around the web, none of which appear permanent. The latest, which bizarrely shows some promise, is to restore your device and avoid any game released before November 2013.) In the end, I was bumped to phone support.

I had a very nice conversation with someone at Apple, who said he’d prioritise the case and get insight from engineers regarding what could be done to fix things. I wasn’t optimistic, and it turns out with good reason, because I now have a response:

the issue is being investigated and should hopefully be resolved soon

So there we go. The Game Center bug, which Apple has known about since the iOS 9 betas, is being investigated and should “hopefully” be resolved “soon”. I realise that’s all anyone can really say, but I think anyone reliant on Game Center would be justified in wearing their cynical hat while reading that statement. We can only hope ‘soon’ in this case means ‘by the time of the next minor update’ and not ‘possibly at some point in the iOS 10 cycle’ or ‘before the heat death of the universe’.

March 18, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, iOS gaming, Opinions, Technology

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