Two weeks with Apple Arcade

I’ve long been an advocate of mobile gaming. Although initially dismissing the iPhone’s potential in this area, I was drawn in when I actually owned one. Amazing multitouch experiences like Eliss opened my eyes to new ways of interacting with games, and felt like a logical next step from the Nintendo DS. Subsequent titles like Device 6 on iPad were a joyful fusion of touchscreen handheld technology and modern gaming – something that simply wouldn’t work on another system.

At its best, the App Store became a bastion of creativity – a place that echoed the 1980s games I grew up with, in developers not having to be fearful of being creative. You could create something bonkers and different, and yet have a shot at success. But around five years ago, the wheels started to fall off. The race to the bottom was cemented in, with users expecting dirt-cheap titles that would be updated and added to forever. Then the expectation was that everything should be free.

Part of the blame lies with Apple, but it’s also an indication of modern society. When content becomes ephemeral rather than something you can hold, people have been trained to assume they should not have to pay for it. So we now exist in a world where a developer can create a mobile title, and get a review slamming them for including ads and not enough levels, by someone who otherwise claimed they loved the game – and yet played with Airplane Mode on to disable ads, thereby robbing the developer of any income.

Hence: Apple Arcade. Apple’s surprise announcement this summer claimed we would see a return to rosier times for gaming on mobile, free from the cruft that infects modern releases. Games on Apple Arcade can mostly be played offline. Those that require an internet connection do so due to online multiplayer rather than Nintendo’s penchant for always-online for no good reason. Beyond that, there are no ads and no IAPs. Bliss. Possibly.

Even with these features, I initially tempered optimism with a healthy dollop of scepticism. Remember, this was Apple. This was the company that got good in games by mistake – and despite itself. This was the company that repeatedly bafflingly rejected perfectly good games from the App Store, often for oddball puritanical reasons. It was the company that messed up games controllers to a degree that possibly warrants some kind of trophy. It was the company that despite raking in millions from games, still gave you the impression no-one senior at the company gave the slightest crap about them.

Then Apple Arcade dropped during the iOS 13 beta, letting me check out what was on offer. Immediately, the selection of games was overwhelming. When iOS 13 proper landed, it was the kind of launch line-up other systems would kill for. There were 71 titles in all, from tiny indie delicacies that would find it hard to survive as standalone titles, through to new releases from giants like Capcom. Since that first moment, I’ve been working my way through every game, to play every one at least a little, and therefore get an idea as to who Apple Arcade is aimed at, and whether it’s worth subscribing to.

In the US and UK, Apple Arcade costs a fiver a month, although you get 30 days for free. That second bit to my mind suggests that if you have any interest in gaming, and own an Apple device, you’d be nuts to not at least try it out. I still see a lot of ‘proper’ gamers getting all pissy about Apple Arcade, and that stance baffles me. Are people really so entrenched in their tribes they don’t want – for no outlay – to at least try a new service with dozens of interesting titles? Is the fact these games can be played on a phone, and don’t include any AAA franchises really that much of a barrier? Again, to me Apple Arcade seems a no-brainer.

Beyond that basic recommendation, you’d probably like to know whether the games are objectively good. Personally, I’d say it splits slightly better than 50:50 in terms of great-to-good and OK-to-poor (with OK being a larger group than the few games that are garbage). Some of the titles reek of freemium with freemium bits removed at the last moment, and that’s a pity. But there are deeply premium efforts made with love. Some – like Assemble with Care – may only last an hour, but that hour will be memorable; others – like Super Impossible Road, Card of Darkness, Grindstone, PaintyMob, and Sasquatch – feel like games I’ll still be picking up for the odd go in a year’s time, even if Apple Arcade’s drowning in other new titles by then. And with iCloud save states, this is a service you could feasibly dip in and out of, perhaps subscribing for a while every now and again, if you don’t fancy dropping a fiver every single month.

It’s also worth noting the nature of Apple Arcade’s exclusivity. The games are exclusive only to mobile and subscription services. So they won’t rock up on Android, or a service somewhat competing with Apple’s own. But some already exist elsewhere, or are slated to. What’s interesting is many of these games have price-tags that cost several multiples of the Apple Arcade subscription cost. Sayonara Wild Hearts on Switch, for example, sets you back almost three times the monthly cost of Apple Arcade. What The Golf when it lands on the Epic Games store will cost £15.99. This in itself showcases the value at the heart of Apple’s subscription service.

I’d like to think developers are doing well from Apple Arcade. Of course, everyone remains tight-lipped about the terms, but we’ve heard Apple pumped millions to get the games made in the first place, and we know rights are retained by the studios. I’ve no idea if that’s the model going forwards, but I hope creators feel it works out for them, even if this is another lottery of sorts (in terms of getting the invite). For people who like games, though, this is less a game of chance than a rare fairground stall where you’re basically a winner just by turning up.

September 30, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Opinions, Technology

2 Comments

Apple’s abysmal Mail toolbar design in iOS 13

A major differentiator since Apple’s earliest days has been interface design. Apple has long prided itself not only on creating more beautiful interfaces, but also much more usable ones. The aim has always been to make things more obvious, and also more efficient. So what happened in Mail for iOS 13?

The previous grab shows Mail in iOS 12 (left) and iOS 13 (right). On the left, you have immediate access to options that let you flag, file, archive/delete, reply, and start a new message. It’s not overly complicated, and it looks fine. Also: all these actions are fundamental to rapidly dealing with email. Now, you only get archive/delete and reply. Also, because someone in Apple’s design team – and also whoever signed this off – are apparently sociopaths,  these buttons are offset. Good luck reaching them comfortably with your thumb!

It’s not like things were perfect before. Previously, reply actually gave you options to reply, forward and – bafflingly – print. Now? Basically everything’s shoved under a reply button with an icon design stretched to breaking point. Really, it should be an ‘actions’ button; although if Apple has any sense, its next action will instead consign this disaster of an interface to history, and Mail will be made more readily usable once again.

September 27, 2019. Read more in: Opinions, Technology

7 Comments

Super Mario Tour vs Apple Arcade: FIGHT!

Apple Arcade! But Apple doesn’t get gaming, right? So clearly it’s going to be a total disaster. What we need on iOS is a company with a proven track record in games, like Nintendo! They’ll show Apple how it’s done, such as with new super soaraway racer Super Mario Tour! I’m sure this is going to be EXCELLENT, and totally show up Apple Arcade for the rubbish that it really is! !!!! !!!11!11!!ONE1!!!

Oh. Well, lots of games want you to sign in. This is still OK! I mean, the fact you can’t do anything unless you sign up feels a bit like Mario has taken you hostage. But THIS IS ALL FINE.

And everyone loves notifications, right?

Off to a browser. This is already like a tour – OF APPS! How exciting!

And now a little minigame! How thoughtful. Oh, hang on. It’s one of those awful CAPTCHA things that often don’t work. I AM GOING TO CONVINCE MYSELF I AM STILL HAVING FUN.

Tap tap tap tap tap.

Congratulations! I’m ready to race!

Oh. Unless the internet connection goes squiffy, in which case Nintendo hates your face and decides you cannot do anything at all. Oops – sorry, I forgot: Nintendo can DO NO WRONG. Mario Kart Tour is SO FUN!

Internet back, it’s time to race in Mario Kart Tour. The tour apparently takes place somewhere with worse kart games. Because this one is… well… what you might expect from a company that clearly hates mobile and won’t release full experiences on it. FINISH! Yes, you probably should.

Still, I’m playing now, so at least nothing can ruin the momentu— oh. Well, fine. I mean, every game needs to randomly download a few hundred MB of data within a few minutes of you firing it up, right‽

*one cup later*

Well, I mean, it’s… fine? It’s not that exciting, but it looks nice. The mobile controls are… OK? Super Mario Tour is probably the fifth or sixth best kart racer I’ve ever played on mobile. BOX QUOTE!

Let’s hope it doesn’t do anything stupid, eh?

Uh-oh.

Fnar!

Uh-oh.

Yikes!

I… don’t even. A gold pass, which nets you ‘extra benefits’ and 200cc races. And a snap at the exact same price per month as Apple Arcade (with its 71 games and counting – dozens of which are really good).

You know, perhaps Apple is on to something here after all.

September 25, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Humour, Opinions, Technology

3 Comments

Apple: it’s time to bin the Home indicator when we’re playing games

I wrote yesterday, with a perhaps uncharacteristic lack of snark and cynicism, about Apple’s latest event. Much of my disappointment was in other people being disappointed about Apple having apparently done something entirely different in these people’s dreams from reality. (Such is life.) But I was largely happy with what Apple showed. I will however make one exception – and it’s readily apparent in a big chunk of the Apple Arcade section of the keynote video. Once again, I’m talking about the dreaded Home indicator.

Said indicator is the strip that appears at the bottom of every iPhone and iPad that lacks a Home button. It more or less replaces a physical control with a virtual one, providing a place to swipe that switches apps or takes you back to the Home screen. Given that Apple was roundly – and rightly – criticised for a lack of affordances in the overly minimal iOS 7 overhaul, this indicator is a necessary and useful piece of interface design.

The snag is that it’s in certain cases abhorrent. Apple wisely has it fade out when you’re watching video, because it would otherwise wreck the immersive experience, much in the same way your telly wouldn’t be the same if someone scrawled across the bottom of the screen with a fat marker pen. But video isn’t the only immersive experience on iOS. In reading apps – especially with comics – the Home indicator is a distraction. And in games, the indicator is an eyesore – the worst of interface design.

Whatever you’re doing, the Home indicator remains, scything its way across the bottom of the display, often in a contrasting colour that makes it the most prominent thing that’s visible on the screen. (Check out the bright white stripe in Capcom’s game demo at around the eight-minute mark of the keynote video.) Some games fade the Home indicator, and a few have somehow figured out how to turn it off entirely; but it always springs back to life when you interact with the screen. In videogames – and this might come as a shock to Apple execs, who probably don’t play games that often – this tends to happen rather frequently.

The Home indicator should be on by default. I have no argument with that. But reading apps and games should be allowed to disable this interface component. And if that’s too much for Apple to stomach, users should be able to delve into Settings and turn it off themselves.

September 13, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Design, Opinions, Technology

2 Comments

On being disappointed at the latest Apple keynote

I earlier saw a prominent tech pundit complain about Apple’s latest event. Said event was branded as “by innovation only”, but the pundit argued the updates were small, and even the new iPhone cameras didn’t do much more than those on rival devices.

My take is this: if you are disappointed with Apple keynotes – and especially if you are disappointed on a regular basis – you should perhaps take stock of why. If it’s because of a play on words that’s a traditional part of every Apple invite, and that as often relates to its ethos as a company as what’s going to be announced, more fool you. And if it’s because the vast majority of updates from Apple – and indeed all technology companies – are iterative, perhaps stop reading Apple rumour sites. They constantly argue Apple will revolutionise everything in tech, every few months, because that’s what gets eyes on pages. Reality has never agreed.

I’m actually quite happy with my predictions piece for Stuff on the event. I’ve long directed those columns away from the hyperbolic, instead being more concerned about what is likely to happen, and what that means for end users. I had a few misses this time – Apple Pencil for iPhone; Apple Watch sleep tracking; Apple TV update; the fact Apple did update an iPad – but was I disappointed? Not really.

The new iPhones look fantastic. The Apple Watch gets its most-requested feature (an always-on screen). Apple Arcade when demoed didn’t grab me, but the subsequent information from Apple’s press site did. I didn’t find the iPad announcement thrilling, but when I mentioned the price to my wife, her only response was: “That’s really good value”.

So perhaps it’s time to take a step back, reflect on the amazing devices – from Apple and others – we are fortunate enough to be able to use, and provide insight to readers in how they can improve their lives. Then we can stop griping about unfulfilled wishes based on outlandish rumours.

September 12, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

1 Comment

« older postsnewer posts »