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The Carter Crater – A Fond Farewell

The Carter Crater – A Fond Farewell

This is quite the bittersweet day, as my time at TouchArcade is coming to an end. It was a tough decision, but I’m leaving for a full-time job up in the Dallas suburbs. I hope y’all will keep track of what I’m doing, because I’ll still be out there playing and talking about mobile games, just not under the watchful eye of Eli Hodapp and co. I’ve been all around the mobile gaming journalism world, as I’ve probably contributed for every major site out there. While TouchArcade wasn’t the first site to pay me to write about mobile games, it was an integral part of my development as a writer. It felt so much more freeing in many ways, and I feel like I got to build up more of a unique voice than I had before.

I kind of fell into writing to begin with, at a time in my life when I felt directionless. I spent some time writing as a hobby. Then it turned into paying work with 148Apps, and other freelance outlets came along. And even during TA, I’ve contributed elsewhere. But TA always felt like home, and it was tough to write elsewhere because I enjoyed doing so under the TA banner. It was a tough decision to cease spending the majority of my time with 148Apps, because you never know how a new outlet you spend a lot of time working for is going to turn out. Are you going to mesh well with the editors? Will you get the support you need? I’ve made some people mad with some of my opinions here at TA, but I’m proud to say that Eli and the crew have had my back. And I have been thrown under the bus before.

Folks, please support TouchArcade. I know that myself, Eli, Jared, and everyone on staff has put in a lot of hard work, and have done things that we love. There were times we could have pulled punches, or done shameless clickbait. It’s funny to see how many weird haters TouchArcade tends to have, when behind the curtain I know that this is one of the most honest operations, working because we love mobile games, that I’ve had the privilege of working for. And it would be terrible if it ever went away due to the uneasy market that is internet advertising. So however it is you can support TA, please do so, because the mission of the site and the principles of the people running it deserve to be supported, and TA deserves to survive for a long time. I’ve only been here as a short part of TA’s history, but I’m proud of the mark I’ve left and that it’s left on me. As easy as taking a full-time writing job ? for mobile games, even! ? should be, it was a tougher decision to leave TA and the freelance life than you could imagine. Plus, I’m sure my new office will have a far stricter policy on pants than my home office does.

But this isn’t the end of TouchArcade or for me, this is just a splitting off point. I’m sure there’s some other rad contributors who can help to fill the void that I’m leaving. And this is just a new chapter beginning for me. Please follow me on Twitter as I start up my new line of work over at PVPLive, and help to spread the word of mobile games at new space. It’s makes me sad to be leaving TA, but I’m excited about the potential of what I can do with spreading the word about mobile games further out there in the gaming world.

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For folks who enjoyed my Twitch streams, I’m planning on doing some streaming once I get situated over on my personal Twitch channel someday, so follow me and keep an eye out. I have one more stream on the TA channel, here Friday night at 7pm central. Come on by and reminisce about the good times.

Thanks for all your support the past three years, folks. Thanks for reading, thanks for the comments both supportive and angry, thanks for watching my streams, thanks so much. It’s silly to say, but mobile games and being able to talk about the world around them has given a lot of meaning to my life. And it’s so rewarding to see people enjoy what I do. This isn’t the end, and I hope to be talking about mobile games for a long time in the future. It’s going to be elsewhere for now, but I’m proud of my time at TouchArcade, and will be a proud reader and supporter from here on out.

Thank you. It’s been a five-star time.

– Carter Dotson

The Carter Crater: The Human Cost of Apple’s App Store Decisions

The Carter Crater: The Human Cost of Apple’s App Store Decisions

Apple does a lot of baffling things in the way they run the App Store. It’s easy to just sit there and be frustrated with the way that Apple makes decisions and then cuts off any sort of alternative for users to counteract that. But I think we aren’t considering the human cost of what these decisions do. Perhaps the most extreme example is the case of I Am Level [$ 1.99]. This Metroidvania-style pinball game is an underappreciated gem, but it is set to disappear from the App Store in the upcoming 32-bit purge, where apps that haven’t been updated with 64-bit compatibility will either be removed from the App Store entirely, or just stop working on future versions of iOS entirely. This is a problem for I Am Level as its developer, Stew Hogarth, passed away in 2015. While the app looks to have been transferred to a relative, this means that one of Hogarth’s final significant works is will likely vanish from the App Store unless someone updates it. It’s unfair to ask a deceased person’s family to go in and update their old work, no? And considering there’s all sorts of new rules and dependencies with software, it’s likely not just a one button fix, either.

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Now, 32-bit app compatibility being removed in and of itself isn’t a grand evil. I can see where Apple wants to clear out a lot of old, ineffectual apps that shouldn’t be on the App Store any more, that aren’t going to be touched. Heck, one developer is happy about their app being removed. Plus, 64-bit processors are standard for iOS apps now, and Apple themselves have warned developers to compile for 64-bit for a while now. But, it’s not like other platforms haven’t found a way to keep 32-bit programs compatible with their operating systems, either. What if developers wanted to build emulators, like Windows has, to run 32-bit apps? I just made myself laugh at the idea that Apple would allow that. So many apps that work with no issues on iOS 10 are bound to be unavailable and nonfunctional soon because of Apple’s policies, and there’s nothing users can do about it even if they wanted to do something.

While there’s hopefully few cases like I Am Level‘s Stew Hogarth, there are plenty of reasons why an app might not be updated. The company that originally produced the app has been dissolved, and the rights situation may be complicated. The people who could fix the app might not have the ability to, legally. Partnerships between indie developers can dissolve as human drama plays a role. A developer who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into making something, perhaps to have it not live up to their expectations in some capacity might not have the desire emotionally to update their apps. And for many developers, updating their library content is not financially viable. There’s little incentive to do so. Plus, if it works fine, then why does it need to be updated? Surely, Apple, which made over $ 45 billion in profit in 2016, can find ways to ensure that decrepit, nonfunctional apps are removed while functional and significant titles remain on the App Store.

This affects the users, too. Obviously, products that people paid for will be no longer playable due to these policies. There’s the potential that a person with a disability might lose an app that helps them interact with the world if the developer has abandoned it, and there isn’t a suitable replacement. On a different scale of importance, Apple killing old apps will have terrible effects on history. Think about it: if you want to play a game from the formative era of gaming, such as Super Mario Bros or Pong, you can play it in some form. Heck, you can go get an original NES and play the original Super Mario Bros. if you wanted to. These games have been able to be preserved, though this is in part due to the physical nature of most of gaming’s history. What Apple is doing is making it incredibly difficult to preserve these games and allow later generations to revisit them. Not only are many games nonfunctional on current operating systems, but Apple makes it difficult even to play them in any kind of legitimate method. if you wanted to install an older operating system, even on iOS hardware that could run these apps, you can’t. Apple requires that all firmware upgrades be signed by their servers. So there’s a chance that if Apple ever goes defunct someday, this software will be unable to be installed even on still-working old devices. This was implemented in the days of iOS 4, specifically because jailbroken users were installing previous iOS versions to maintain their jailbreaks. The apps themselves require DRM removal, too. While this is admittedly trivial considering how much piracy goes on, it’s still a negative factor, and removing that DRM decades from now could prove to be difficult based on the state of computing.

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Imagine if you couldn’t listen to the music from your childhood. Or read a book that had a major influence on you. Sure, some works will be lost to history no matter what, and some media you will just have had to be there for. Apple, in a desire to control their platform in a way that is not user-friendly, is unnecessarily exacerbating the problem. There are kids for whom Rolando was their Super Mario Bros., and they won’t be able to revisit or share those experiences any more. It’s a nightmare entanglement where Apple continually cuts off any avenue that someone might have to help preserve some of the history of the platform. A significant era of gaming history will someday be lost because Apple wanted more control of their ecosystem because they could find ways to make more profit off of it. Sure, Android games are thankfully easier to archive ? piracy, it turns out, is good ? but a lot of iOS exclusives will be lost to history. Let’s not be wishy-washy here. Apple is going to cause some games to be abandoned and unplayable by future generations because of their obsessive nature to control the platform.

If Apple was applying these rules fairly, then I could understand it at even the basest possible level. But it turns out that the rich play by a different playbook! Take the case of Uber, which managed to spy on iPhone users, majorly breaking Apple policies. If a small developer had done it, no question their developer account would be nuked, and an Apple death squad sent for them. Uber, because they’ve got more investor money than God, and lawyers out the wazoo, was able to get away with a slap on the wrist. It has to sting for developers who often have to deal with asinine app rejections for dubious reasons.

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The problem isn’t just one of these elements, it’s all of them. It’s not just that Apple is killing 32-bit apps, it’s that they’re not allowing 32-bit app emulators to work on the App Store. It’s not just that they keep tight control of the App Store, it’s that they significantly misuse it and won’t keep abusers of their users in control with the power they have. Apple has created an environment on iOS that is often quite hostile to the users and developers who provide the revenue and content for them, and helped turn Apple into a global corporate behemoth.

It’s just sad because it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s App Store history that doesn’t have to be lost. People don’t have to lose useful tools just because Apple wants to remove 32-bit compatibility from their operating system, or do an automated sweep of old apps. Moving to Android isn’t that simple, and has its own drawbacks, though archiving mobile games will be easier thanks to the platform’s open nature. And while I can rant about Apple as an unfeeling megacorporation, there’s certainly a giant list of theses that can be nailed to the door of Google/Alphabet, too.

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All we can really do is raise awareness of this issue. Despite how this all affects people, many folks are unaware, or put these issues far below other factors. And I don’t have a good answer for what we can do as mobile gaming enthusiasts, as people who care about the platform even despite Apple making App Store gaming hard to love. The App Store, and mobile gaming, are great because of the great games and creators making those great games. Apple is a facilitator of that, and I think their failings have a deep human cost. We have to catalog it, and demand change. I believe our outcry can reach someone that’s listening and wants to do the right thing for the people that have helped make them what they are. And maybe we can remind Apple, and all the other mega-corporations out there, that the backbone of their platforms are the users and creators, and their decisions should come with as little cost to us as possible. And this 32-bit purge, along with many other questionable App Store decisions? The cost is too high.

Why Game Distribution Shouldn’t Be More Expensive – The Carter Crater

Why Game Distribution Shouldn’t Be More Expensive – The Carter Crater

The gaming world was abuzz recently with the news that Steam would be killing its controversial Greenlight program in favor of Steam Direct, where developers would pay a one-time fee to just get their app on Greenlight. But that fee has been discussed as being up for debate ? and it could be as high as $ 5,000. This is horrifying to me, as it has the potential to scare away a lot of developers who have more talent than resources. And crazily, I’ve seen people say that they want a similar system on the App Store to help with the problems that come with shovelware plaguing the stores. But I don’t think shovelware is quite the crisis other people say that it is, and I fear any move to curtail it by making it harder to access stores will have negative consequences. Plus, I think there’s a moral objection to the idea of being an even stricter gatekeeper.

First off, I am skeptical that making it more expensive to submit apps/games will help quality at all. It’s not like every scammer is a broke jerk. Seriously, you’re telling me that there’s not some rich jerk kids out there who are producing bad games or copyright scams? Or people with more money than ethics or sense? Maybe higher fees for submission, or a per-app submission fee will catch a few more bad actors, but do not assume that access to funds and quality products are directly correlated.

Second, higher prices will have the unintended consequence of chasing out independent creators who aren’t making a lot of money. There are developers on the App Store who make decent apps that sometimes don’t make the $ 100 per year back. Their work deserves to be on the App Store, they’re not low-effort junk. Increasing the developer fee or introducing draconian submission fees would chase out more people who would just simply say that it’s not worth it to even try and break the lowest threshold for what could at some point be considered breaking even. Raising per-app submission fees would hurt prolific creators of smaller apps and games. Steam and Google could at least use the excuse that they’re not the only distribution option on their platforms. Apple would have no excuse, it would just be an incredibly toxic move.

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Third, is low-effort shovelware really that bad of a problem? Yeah, all the digital distribution stores are full of it. You know what they’re also full of? Fun, high-quality games that were not feasible to make when tools and distribution were harder to come by. And with the major distribution stores having easier refund policies, all that a bad game could cost is just some time. And with the wealth of coverage and YouTube footage for games, it’s far easier to tell what looks unacceptable and what doesn’t than in days of old, where there were fewer games and information on them was more tightly controlled. Yeah, there’s a lot of shovelware out there, but the costs to players are often just a few wasted minutes instead of being stuck with a bad game on a cartridge that you can’t return.

Fourth, this is some no-good exclusionary crap. I’m fine with nominal fees to get onto marketplaces, if only as an idiot tax. There are some people who shouldn’t have unfettered access to the App Store or Google Play. I’m fine for very baseline gateways because I may be idealistic, but I’m not an idiot. And if Steam Direct isn’t too expensive for developers, especially if smaller ones get access to the store, then that’s an acceptable set of circumstances. There are bad actors out there and a simple screen door like a nominal fee helps out a lot. But if these fees increase to even greater amounts, then what happens is that more and more legitimate developers will get caught in the net.

Yeah, there’s people that are putting up low-effort content. But are you willing to trade off shutting out some of these low-effort titles in exchange for all the genuine content that you’re shutting out from creators that might struggle to pay more than the current fees? Students can make quality games, and if there’s anything you should know about students, it’s that they don’t generally have a lot of money. Even just as a PR move, if submission fees get to be prohibitively expensive, then it’s going to look terrible when some low-effort garbage gets through and a genuine quality game from a developer living paycheck to paycheck just trying to pursue their dream can’t get on to the major stores in the first place. I have a severe moral objection to the idea that we should make it more expensive to distribute games on the platforms that people are using. Open digital distribution is a very, very good thing.

What is really the issue with access to current distribution models, anyway? Greenlight’s complaints seem rooted in 2012’s problems, when it was tough to get through Greenlight. But that was as much a byproduct of the early rush onto the Steam marketplace. Considering the current batch of games you see on Steam, I think And honestly, if a developer can’t scrounge the votes together for Greenlight, then the number one reason to be on that store in the first place, finances, kind of disappears. At least PC gaming has platforms like itch.io and self-distribution so nobody’s truly shut out. Google Play’s limited approvals means that unless your app is undercutting Google’s business model, such as ad blockers, then pretty much any developer can get on. For better or for worse. And some developers prefer Google Play to iOS because of the platform’s greater freedoms.

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Yeah, discovery sucks right now, but it also seems like an impossible problem when quality can be so subjective and there’s so much to recommend, too. And considering that we live in an era where part-time creators can make games and apps that belong on these stores, I don’t know if it’s getting better. It’s tough out there if you’re trying to make a living in any form of media when you have thousands of worthy competitors.

So let’s at least look at it from a question of shovelware. The answer might be for multibillion dollar corporations to start putting more effort into curation and approvals. Curation can be tough: working with knowledgeable influencers and media can be helpful. You, as a reader, should try to support the influencers, media, and curators that you trust in whatever way you can, whether that be us, a YouTuber, streamer, whoever. But as far as quality policing goes, there’s part of me that empathizes with the difficulty of sorting out the terrible from the at least acceptable. I could see where, especially on the App Store, it can be a difficult problem to figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t. But when I see preventable mistakes get through with shovelware, and I see Apple’s not exactly a struggling startup, nor is Google, nor Valve. They have the resources to figure things out in order to improve consumer confidence, possibly drive more business, and make their stores better. And if you think I’m wrong on Valve and Steam, I’m not the only one saying they have the resources to fix Steam: John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun makes this point.

I get that it’s not easy, but I think there are methods to get rid of some of the absolutely unacceptable titles: the copyright infringement, the offensive beyond being worthy of being even on the fringes of public discourse, and the extremely low-effort titles. There have to be ways to do all this without raising the barrier to entry for game developers. Lowering them created a world where we have countless great games. Niche genres and fresh takes on existing ones appear on a regular basis. We cannot harm that part of the gaming world.

I know the status quo for games and discovery feels suboptimal. But maybe it’s the best we have right now. Every form of media is dealing with the issue of having colossal amounts of content, especially on the music and television sides of the industry to go along with games.

‘Super Mario Run’, ReplayKit Live, and The Tech Death Spiral – The Carter Crater

‘Super Mario Run’, ReplayKit Live, and The Tech Death Spiral – The Carter Crater

carter_craterNotice something missing from Super Mario Run [Free]? It’s ReplayKit. You probably didn’t, which is a shame because Super Mario Run would have been a fantastic flagship game for ReplayKit Live. This was the first Mario game released on a non-Nintendo system, after all. This was a watershed moment for both Nintendo and mobile gaming history. And it was a perfect moment to get people hooked into streaming from their mobile device using a feature specifically introduced in iOS 10 to do just that. Instead, we get nothing. And it’s become the sad state of affairs for gaming features on iOS.

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Doesn’t it seem nonsensical that on a major release that Apple partnered with Nintendo to promote in a way that they have done with no other game, a major gaming feature for iOS was roundly ignored? Well, in a normal universe, it would be nonsensical. But we live in a universe where Apple, the world’s most reluctant gaming company, often leaves features like this to languish. I want to believe that cool gaming features introduced by Apple could work out, but with frightening regularity, they do not. Even from inception, ReplayKit Live seemed to doomed to failure ? it was barely mentioned at all at the WWDC keynote, only winding up in the Platforms State of the Union! ReplayKit in a recording facet has largely been ignored after it got a similar introduction at WWDC in 2015. And much like ReplayKit video recording, ReplayKit Live has not seen much in the way of implementation at all. It gets to a point where I am surprised when a game features either function! And I don’t blame developers for not implementing ReplayKit, if Apple’s not going to put their weight behind the feature either.

ReplayKit Live is set to go down the technology death spiral. What happens is that a format is introduced that requires both user support and a good content supply. What happens is that when the content supply is low, people stop using the feature or product, and even worse, stop expecting support for it. Then developers and other content creators de-prioritize support, because the users aren’t there. And with less content support, users choose not to use or expect support, until it all evens out or the product/feature dies. Would it shock you if ReplayKit’s API was abandoned at some point in the future? Game Center isn’t dead, but Apple sure didn’t make it a priority when it was a default app. Heck, I remember talking to the developer of Zen Wars [$ 0.99] who talked about how adding voice chat in online multiplayer through Game Center required only a few lines of code. If this was an available feature, why did so few developers actually use it? Because Apple does a terrible job at ensuring there’s a good supply for any gaming features they introduce.

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Of course, a big reason why the technology death spiral happens is because often times, the creator of that product or service doesn’t have the resources to make it work. Think about a multiplayer game from a small studio ? I’ve seen countless fun games fall apart because they don’t have the resources to get the playerbase to make the game a popular, ongoing product. But resources are not a problem for Apple. If anything, they have too much money. The fact that anything they create would fall to the technology death spiral is a sign that they probably don’t believe too much in what they’re creating. Apple TV gaming has fallen to this affliction as well. Developers took an early risk in making software for Apple TV, but the users weren’t there, now the developers are going away, and users who do stick around have less content to check out on Apple TV because they can’t reasonably expect any game to release on Apple TV. Why should they? If Apple had a coherent plan (maybe supporting controller-only games would have helped from day one), and was willing to throw resources behind developers to make sure there’s content when the content can’t support its creators by itself, well, maybe Apple TV gaming wouldn’t have flopped so hard, much to my chagrin.

Look at the virtual reality space. We’re still well away from a time when VR pays for itself for creators across the spectrum. But this is where the infinite funding mechanism works perfectly: for VR to be viable, it requires those with resources to support VR content creators. VR won’t pay for itself for a long time, if ever. But if it ever is going to work, it’s going to require appealing content, and a lot of entities are willing to take early losses to ensure there’s the possibility for future gains. Imagine if Apple was that way with anything gaming-related, willing to use their resources for more than just a few select apps to ensure that there’s great gaming content across a variety of platforms.

Now, while I’m using Super Mario Run‘s lack of streaming as a point of condemnation for Apple, this could be on Nintendo, who didn’t want to implement the feature. After all, they have a weird relationship with video content. But the fact is that of every other major release on the App Store this year and even last year, so few games feature ReplayKit, so Apple has not earned the benefit of the doubt at all. Apple plays a major role in featuring game releases, and word I’ve heard is that including certain features is a great way to get featured. So it’s not like Apple is remaining entirely hands-off! Apple could easily start making supporting features like ReplayKit a virtual prerequisite to a valuable feature slot. So, Apple doesn’t exactly get the benefit of the doubt here. It’s just as likely that they introduced the feature because someone at the thought it would be cool, but nobody thinks it’s important enough to really promote.

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And that’s the problem ? the feature is so inconsistently implemented, that no user can reasonably expect to have it available in a game they want to record or stream. I anticipate the counterargument of “Mobile gamers don’t care about streaming!” It’s a chicken and the egg problem ? maybe they don’t care because there hasn’t been an easy avenue to do so? It’s far more difficult to stream a mobile game of any sort compared to a console or PC game. I also believe in the possibilities of itinerant mobile streaming, i.e., impromptu live streams, often of short length, shared on social media. This sort of itinerant streaming is rising in prominence through Facebook Live, Periscope, and [even Twitch is adding this to their app. But not as gaming content, as just standard video broadcasting. Why shouldn’t fun mobile games, which could work as fun short-term streams, be part of the equation for itinerant live streaming?

Super Mario Run would have been perfect for this sort of streaming. Stream yourself going after those tricky black coins. Taking on a friend in a Toad Rally? Stream it! How many more people would buy the $ 9.99 unlock if they felt like they were missing out because their friends were sharing their gameplay, especially of locked-away parts of the game? Unity offers ReplayKit support and remember that Super Mario Run is a Unity game. I’m not asking for anything ridiculous here!

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While perhaps any avenue for a game-level API making streaming/recording working is doomed unless or until Apple decides to make it happen, I think there is hope for mobile game streaming. What Apple would ideally introduce is a system-level streaming/recording function in a future iOS version. Considering Android can do it through even third-party tools, Apple should look to implement something similar. Streaming from devices would be easy use for casual streamers and could get even professionals doing casual streams. Again, that’s what Twitch is doing, and they’ve shown little interest in iOS streaming. There was that mobile streaming API with TouchFish [Free] and a couple Gameloft games, but that was it. People expect to stream/record whatever they want. They do so on the Xbox and Playstation, why can’t they do so on mobile?

The thing that’s annoying about all of this is that once again, I see real potential for mobile gaming, when playing to its strength as short-burst entertainment, that is being held back because Apple can’t launch a successful gaming feature that’s more than just a mild curiosity.

The Carter Crater: The Nintendo Switch is One More Step Toward the Great Gaming Convergence

The Carter Crater: The Nintendo Switch is One More Step Toward the Great Gaming Convergence

carter_craterThe great gaming convergence just took one big step closer to reality with the Nintendo Switch. For a long time, I’ve been predicting that gaming will advance to a point where the divides between mobile, console, and PC that we have now will just kind of fall away. Eventually, playing a game will just be a thing in the same way that any other form of media is increasingly not locked down. Games have for too long persisted on the difference between platforms, between desktop, console, portable, and mobile. And Nintendo has made a shockingly future-forward move to create a system that is both portable and console. The convergence is coming, and Nintendo is set to hasten it.

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The thing that people don’t fully realize is that we’re living in an increasingly post-TV world, where watching TV doesn’t means actually watching on a TV. Movies and TV shows are available on our phones, tablets, and TVs. We’re beyond the days in music of where you were locked into one device, one copy of your music ? now the entirety of recorded music is available to you within seconds wherever you want it. And it’s why traditional cable TV is in a risky place, what’s happening is that streaming methods are picking up major steam. And it’s not hard to imagine that the flexibility that something like Netflix has, where you can watch an episode while working out at the gym, and then continue seamlessly when you get home, impacts why people like the service. Other forms of media are converging to this point of decentralization, breaking down the barriers between arbitrary distinctions between screens, and it’ll be only a matter of time before cord-cutters miss out on literally nothing.

Games have been slow to hit this point of convergence. Games are still rather rigidly locked to one screen. Part of it is because of decent reasons, namely that there are interface differences between console/PC games and touchscreen games. But this problem always exists between different hardware formats. For example, there are plenty of people who gripe about controllers as compared to keyboard and mouse with first-person shooters. And often, just having the ability to select between cross-platform games with multiplayer or not a la Critical Ops [Free] ensures that players can get the same experience between platforms, but don’t have to worry about one set of players having an unfair advantage. In the convergence future, it will be about figuring out workable solutions, not about thinking that a particular interface type is an impassable barrier.

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But I think that the convergence in gaming is already well underway and mobile has driven it. Mobile games have the advantage that they don’t tether you down to one spot. You can check in on the guild in your favorite mobile game between commercials of a sporting event, for example. You can play your favorite game while waiting in line. And while I think longer-form games are not as viable on mobile as I would like, those experiences do exist! There’s a lot of good ones! It’s just that right now, mobile games don’t let you take advantage of large displays in the way that the convergence future would really allow for. I blame Apple in many ways for not making the Apple TV 4th Generation the ideal gaming platform for the convergence future yet. And it’s why there’s still so much room for Google, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony, to operate in this future.

And the other companies are trying to achieve convergence. Nintendo already had off-TV play with the Wii U Gamepad, and the Switch is basically just that extended to its logical conclusion. Microsoft pitched the Xbox One as a multimedia device, and its HDMI input functionality is really cool, but when multimedia streamers are so cheap nowadays, why would someone need to buy an expensive console unless they were in it for those games specifically? Really, I think it’s just a matter of time until media streamers of various sorts make playing games of console caliber easier than ever. This is where streaming efforts like Sony’s Remote Play and PlayStation Now have been smart bets. While I’d like to see internet speeds get faster to accommodate game streaming, the technology exists, it just requires the content and infrastructure. The day Sony starts putting modern games on PlayStation Now will be a momentous one indeed, especially as their game streaming service exists on so many operating systems and pieces of hardware right now. Even Microsoft is advancing towards a decentralized, convergence future with features like streaming from Xbox to Windows 10, and making their big titles available for download on both platforms.

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And that’s the thing: you can look around and see many major players in the industry involved with gaming hardware making plays to spread their wings beyond where they have been established. The convergence future is inevitable, it’s just that nobody’s gone all-in yet. That’s the thing that makes the Switch so compelling but also kind of frustrating: it’s Nintendo making the biggest bet that convergence will happen. The experience you get on the go and at home is identical. There’s no streaming to deal with, no partial experience, it’s a system that you can play the exact same games on the road as you do at home. The lines have been blurring for a while, but Nintendo just erased part of them.

But not all of those lines are erased. The issue with the Switch is that while it’s certainly classified as a portable device like the 3DS, it might not actually be a mobile device. It might not even have a touchscreen. Now, it would make sense if games had to work without it, because Nintendo would want to make sure players could carry their games from portable to the television and vice versa without a hitch or without losing anything in the experience along the way, sure. But what about the aspect that the Switch might not have the ability for shorter-form, traditionally mobile games to exist on the platform?

That’s the ultimate dream for the convergence. See, when people hear that mobile’s taking over, they fear that all games will be Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga. That doesn’t have to be so. There’s no reason why the short-form games have to exist separate from the larger experiences. Perhaps an attitude adjustment is key. Mobile was founded on short-form experiences, and the long-form experiences have been more akin to games that are played in incremental form over days, weeks, months, as regular experiences. The idea of sitting down for a while on a tablet just hasn’t quite taken off (perhaps the universal app was a mistake), but if the big experiences are made the core usage of something like the Switch, then the short-form games can exist alongside.

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Perhaps the Switch’s dubious ‘mobile’-ness is because Apple and Nintendo have a relationship where Shigeru Miyamoto got on stage at an Apple keynote for Super Mario Run. If Nintendo is hedging their bets, I’d be disappointed. Given the Tegra internals (and the possibility that the Nvidia Shield Tablet X1 was canceled), and previous rumors that the NX was going to run Android, one could imagine the Switch being basically an Android fork. Which would get a ton of developers to release on a Nintendo platform if they could do so with ease. The familiar internals are sure to be accessible to developers, but I would love to see Nintendo make a system that incorporates ‘mobile’ in some form. Perhaps it will. For any sort of portable media usage, touch would be perfect if not required. Then again, Nintendo is known to make strange design decisions. And Apple’s weird policies could be a problem too. Apple is not a great gaming company, and it’s worrying because it’s an attack vector for other companies whose survival may rest on being established when the great gaming convergence happens. Perhaps Apple needs Nintendo more than Nintendo needs Apple to promote their games. If anything, Nintendo showed on mobile with Pokemon GO [Free] that the rules don’t apply to them…yet.

All I know is that the Nintendo Switch is the first console I’ve been really excited for in a while. Mobile has spoiled me with a wide variety of experiences that I can enjoy whenever and wherever I want. I have a laptop with a dedicated graphics card, but I might not always have the controller I would want. I have been ready for the gaming convergence for a while, and I think whoever figures out how to make gaming transcend the differences between its myriad form factors in the best way will reap the greatest rewards in the coming years. Nintendo is taking a big step ? but I am ready for the convergence, and am growing tired of half-measures toward that goal.

Why Removing the Headphone Jack in the iPhone 7 is Stupid – The Carter Crater

Why Removing the Headphone Jack in the iPhone 7 is Stupid – The Carter Crater

carter_craterApple removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 has me unhappy, but the misconceptions around it have me angrier. I thought trying to read Polygon talking about mobile games made me angry, but then I read tech journalists totally flounder when explaining what Apple going to Lightning for audio would mean, and it has me furious. Claims of “infinite improvements in sound quality” and that the 3.5mm jack was a “bottleneck for improvements in audio quality.” Look, I accept that there are potential benefits to digital connections for headphones, but I am not for intellectually dishonest arguments. And when it comes to removing the headphone jack, there’s a lot of garbage being spewed. When Phil Schiller says that it took “courage” to remove the headphone jack, maybe that should have been the thing that convinced you that it was stupid. Or maybe it was the fact that his brain didn’t immediately escape his body from having said something so stupid. It’s because I think too many people misunderstand the nature of how headphones and digital audio work, making it easy for companies like Apple to claim that removing the headphone jack is somehow better for people. And I don’t think that people, even tech journalists that you hope would know better, are idiots. Understanding digital audio and headphones are difficult unless you dive deep into the topics like I have been doing the past year or so, and even audiophiles have plenty of debates over sound-related topics to where getting a clear answer on anything is nigh-impossible. But it’s because of this confusion that nobody but mad geeks like me understand why people are getting screwed over, and that Apple can get away with it. Removing the headphone jack isn’t all bad, there are some benefits and if you don’t mind the drawbacks of Bluetooth audio, it’s okay, but people ought to be mad about this.

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For starters, going to Lightning won’t inherently make headphones sound better. There’s certainly a theoretical advantage to separating audio components from the noisy internals of the modern smartphone where interference can have an impact on sound quality, but it’s certainly possible to make a good-sounding smartphone. Apple did it with the iPhone 6 Plus, after all. It’s a reasonably powerful, low-noise audio source.

This isn’t like moving from floppy disks to CD drives, removing optical drives entirely, or even like the transition to digital video and HDMI. The 3.5mm jack, antiquated though it may be, can handle 32-bit, 384 kHz audio, even non-standard audio formats like DSD. All the 3.5mm jack does is transmit power to headphones in such a way that the drivers generate the sound waves at the volume (which is just power) that you want to listen at. It’s not magical. All that Lightning audio is doing is offloading the digital-to-analog conversion and headphone amplification to offboard components. That’s it. There’s always going to be the digital-to-analog converter (or DAC) that turns digital data into physical sound waves, and the amplifier that provides power to the transducers that create sound on the other end. Lightning audio is no magical advance in technology, it’s just rearranging where the audio components are. And the analog jack itself has no inherent quality bottleneck. You can buy what well-respected headphone expert Tyll Hertsens calls the world’s best headphone for $ 4000 in the Focal Utopia. Not only will it work with a 3.5mm headphone jack (like many high-end headphones, they come with a 6.3mm plug, but 6.3mm to 3.5mm connectors are easy to find), but an iPhone can drive them to great volume. Sure, you’d want to use high-quality DACs and amplifiers with them to provide more accurate and/or more pleasing sound, but you don’t have to. You could plug $ 4000 headphones into your current iPhone and have a great time, because the most important part of great sound is the device that’s providing the sound. The 3.5mm connection has nothing to do with audio quality, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used for another hundred years.

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You might see comparisons of video’s transition to HDMI with digital audio. And yes, going from analog video to digital video connections made a lot of sense! It enabled for crisp transmission of high-definition video (and audio!) through a single cable. Here’s the thing though: audio already had its big digital transition when the Red Book audio format was first introduced in 1980. It standardized 16-bit, 44.1 kHz digital pulse code modulation audio for storage on compact discs. And that format represents the entirety of audible frequencies, and 16 bits of resolution are more than enough dynamic range for practical purposes. There is virtually no practical benefit to higher bit depths or sampling rates for the average consumer. 24-bit makes sense on a consumer level for digital volume control without losing audio resolution, and for audio professionals to work with digital effects that may generate noise that can be shaved off when producing the final 16-bit product. But it’s literally impossible for digital-to-analog converters to actually render all 24 bits of audio resolution, at best right now you can get 21 bits of resolution from high-end components using military-grade chips. And it’s possible that at worst, higher sampling frequencies provide worse sound quality through trying to render ultrasonic frequencies. If you’re curious to read more, this article says a lot. It was written by Chris “Monty” Montgomery, who invented the Vorbis audio codec, so he knows a thing or two about digital audio. Plus, all the music you buy through virtually every digital retailer is 16-bit, 44.1 kHz, often just compressed for digital distribution. Compression has gotten so much better since the days of 128 kbps mp3s on Napster to the point where detecting the difference between a well-encoded compressed music file and lossless CD-quality file is difficult to do in a double-blind A/B test. Lossless audio has benefits for archiving, and perhaps compression artifacts like pre-ringing echoes before cymbal hits become more apparent with music that the listener is highly familiar with, but that’s picking nits. As an audiophile, I can speak from personal experience: that kind of nit-picking is not a worthwhile road to go down.

Plus, the very nature of using mobile devices in noisy public spaces means that chasing additional sound quality over say an ideal-sounding iPhone headphone jack is full of rapidly diminishing returns. To quote Chicago-based sound designer George Hufnagl, “arguing for better sound quality makes sense when listening in isolation, nor for a mobile device directly affected by ambient noise.” As a personal example, I was using some Audio-Technica ATH-IM02 in-ear monitors that are rather sensitive to noise and provide 31 dB of noise isolation. I was using them with a Fiio Q1 combo DAC and headphone amplifier for the longest time, until one day I was using them at home, and noticed a very low level hissing from the Q1 that I couldn’t hear when I was at Starbucks. It took me months to notice this micro-detail that I could hear at home in a much quieter environment. Essentially, from a mobile device, there’s only so far you can go with sound quality improvements versus an at-home setup.

Hufnagl continues in discussion of mobile audio quality: “Audio quality as a feature makes great sense as a bullet point. I’d argue, however, that our perception of it is affected not only by environmental circumstances, but by Apple’s incredible branding. Of course, we want to reproduce source audio faithfully, but the average listener does not critically listen to audio in the same way a sound engineer has been trained to do. Unless the new iPhone is marketed towards audiophiles (it’s not), then for me, the argument for the removal of the headphone jack as an increase in audio quality is moot.”

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In fact, it’s quite possible that personal audio will get worse thanks to the transition to digital. Apple’s DACs are generally considered to be pretty good. Not super-great, but of acceptable quality. A standalone DAC might have less noise from electrical interference, lower distortion, and perhaps a particular tonal balance to it. But the reality is that an iOS device does a better job than many consumer-grade, non-specialist electronics at converting the ones and zeroes of digital audio into the analog signals that represent sound. Now, more than ever, DAC and amplifier work is being shouldered onto companies that have less experience with designing good-sounding components in tight spaces like Apple does. At least with an internal headphone jack, and an annoying dongle, there’s the potential for a good baseline of quality. Something that’s good enough for even many audiophiles like myself to prefer the simplicity of an iOS device’s onboard headphone jack to an external solution when convenience is more important.

When it comes to stuffing electronics into headphones, it’s worth considering that headphones are a unique audio challenge compared to freestanding speakers. They’re very difficult to tune well not only of the small space even the largest over-ear headphones have to work with, but also because headphones have to compensate for the acoustic effects that sounds have on your head, ears, and even your torso. Basically, sound entering the ear canal is transformed as it goes in to your ears, to where sounds from speakers with perfectly flat frequency response (in theory) will sound different from headphones with the identical frequency response. It is possible to tune headphones to compensate for this with head-related transfer functions (HRTF), but there are several competing theories on HRTF compensation, and every ear is different, so any compensation is bound to be imperfect. Regardless, headphones will never offer the same physical effects that good speakers can have as far as spatialization goes because when you hear stereo speakers, the left ear hears some of the right speaker and vice versa. Simulations of this through virtual surround and crossfeed exist, but nothing perfect has been invented yet.

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Headphones also present unique acoustic design challenges before you talk about adding additional electronics to them. The best, world-class, cost-is-no-object headphones are open-backed, meaning they leak sound and aren’t meant for public usage. Closed back headphones present unique challenges for making good sound, as the rear driver coverings can have audible effects on ringing and resonance, though they do have a benefits when it comes to bass. Now, if headphone designers, already contending with the intrinsic challenges of closed-back headphones that many consumers want, have to deal with tuning sound around built-in electronics, sound quality is going to suffer when closed-back acoustics are an issue as it is.

For the acoustic reasons mentioned above, Bluetooth is often a challenge to make sound good. For example, V-Moda makes a great basshead headphone in the M-100. They made a wireless version of the headphone in the Crossfade Wireless, and it has sound flaws that the M-100 does not, such as a more uneven frequency response, plus it had to sacrifice features like the folding mechanism that the wired-only M-100 has. As well, Bluetooth itself has inherent sound quality issues, as Bluetooth audio is compressed itself. So, you’re taking compressed audio, and compressing it even further, and transmitting it to headphones that have made acoustic sacrifices to fit in the Bluetooth receiver, digital-to-analog converter, amplifier for the headphones, and microphone in them. Not to mention that you’re often getting high-latency sound that doesn’t work well for games and movies, and Bluetooth pairing still sucks. Apple’s solution for pairing? A proprietary wireless chip.

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And that’s the thing that’s annoying about the wired alternative now being Lightning: it’s a proprietary connector. If Apple had announced that they were going USB-C with the iPhone 7, that would be fine. It would be pushing toward a new universal standard for mobile and desktop devices. You could theoretically buy a USB-C audio adapter and have it work wherever you go. The transition to USB-C would rough for a few years, but I imagine by 2020 nobody would be complaining becuase USB-C would be ubiquitous. But by going Lightning, Apple’s making it so that any headphone that wants to interface with an iOS device has to have someone pay an Apple tax somewhere along the line.

And there’s reason why companies might be skittish to deal with Apple, which requires companies to submit electronic schematics as part of the “Made for iPhone” licensing program. So, if you’re a headphone manufacturer that doesn’t want people to have to use a dongle with your headphones, you have to submit to Apple, and reveal your electronic schematics to Apple. Apple, as you may well know, owns the headphone company Beats. Apple has a tendency to copy companies that make products for them to the point that the term Sherlocking exists. So if you’re a company that invents an effective solution to get technology in a headphone with few acoustic drawbacks, or got a way to get a low-power, high-quality sound component developed, you could be handing your detailed designs to Apple, who could easily steal them. Chord, a high-end audio company, cited this as a concern in not making their Mojo DAC/amp go through the MFi program, especially since they use a custom design built on an FPGA board.

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I’m not going to completely dismiss the benefits of going to digital connections with headphones. Features such as digital sound processing could become in greater use in wired headphones if manufacturers get direct access to the digital signal with ease. Headphone manufacturer Audeze includes a DSP chip in their Cipher cable headphones that connect via Lightning. Noise cancellation headphones could exist without external batteries, instead getting power straight from the device. Fitness sensors in headphones could directly communicate with devices. Headphones with microphones that could perform head-related transfer functions on a per-user basis could exist in audiophile-friendly wired form for mobile. Something like the Ossic X only reaches peak performance on PC. I am excited by the potential with in-ear monitors (which are often colloquially called earbuds but are different from earbuds by way of going into your ear canal) in particular. The Revols that use a power connection to form a custom foam mold for your ears similar to what custom in-ear monitors do for superior fit and isolation compared to universal IEMs. If this technology could exist with high-end custom IEM manufacturers, it would be exciting. Instead of having to go to an audiologist to get molds made and mailed off, anyone could have custom IEMs made in a minute. Right now, to do this all in a wired fashion is difficult, which is why the Revols use Bluetooth, in part because they already have the battery right there. With a single digital connection for power and audio, perhaps a wired variant could exist. As well, many in-ear monitors often are made in such a way that they are sensitive to the output impedance of audio devices, where the frequency response can be negatively affected. With digital connections, IEMs could be made to have perfect frequency response from any device they can connect to. Just a shame that you could have a pair that only works with your iOS devices, as opposed to everything you own that plays audio.

And don’t believe the lie that the headphone jack had to be removed to make the phone waterproof. Did anyone see the Samsung ads where Lil Wayne pours a bunch of champagne on his phone to show how waterproof it is? Spoiler alert: it has a headphone jack. As TrustedReviews explains:

“The S7 has a rubber seal around the charging port and headphone jack to keep water out. To prevent water ingress through the speaker holes, Samsung has added a screen behind the holes that stops water getting in but still allows sound waves to get out.”

Maybe Apple needs to steal from Samsung for once.

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I suppose it’s not all bad, we’ll all just acquiesce to the new reality of having to buy $ 9 dongles and $ 40 charging adapters like this Belkin one that splits a Lightning port into two Lightning ports. But what sucks is that it’s another trade-off in the world of audio being made for the benefit of corporations with the “courage” to cut costs in their phones and induce more spending into costly licensing programs where the costs will be passed on to consumers. Already, the dynamics have been sucked out of music thanks to the “loudness war,” and the need to make music sound good when it’s being compressed for digital distribution, to be played back on devices with weak speakers and headphone amplifiers, often with pack-in earbuds and IEMs of questionable quality. Now, companies are trying to make it harder than ever to just use any headphones that they don’t profit off of because, well, they know they can get away with it.

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Maybe you say you’ll be fine with it. But I remember when the Game Boy Advance SP came out without a headphone jack and I had to use a dongle to get headphone audio? It was annoying, and as a charger jack was being used as a dual-purpose audio jack, it was not the most ideal solution. And nowadays, if I ever want to play my GBA SP, I can’t do so with headphones as the dongles I had were lost to history. And I had forgotten to bring the dongle with me plenty of times before. And that was with a nonessential, secondary device. The day’s going to come when maybe you just want to take a pair of earbuds with you heading out the door, and you’ll forget the dongle. Or you’ll bring a laptop to a coffee shop and you pull out your headphones, and you only have ones that work with your iPhone. Or you want to play music in your friend’s car and they don’t have a dongle, so too bad! And even with Bluetooth headphones, who hasn’t forgotten to charge them before, and then suddenly they died while out on a walk? And do you really trust that the Lightning headphones you buy today will work with iOS 11, or 12, if the manufacturer decides to stop updating the firmware? Are these grand crimes against humanity? No. But they are annoyances that you will be made to put up with only because enough people at Apple thought they could get away with it.

So here’s the question: will you let them get away with it? There’s a lot of great new features in the iPhone 7. But is it worth the new annoyances you’ll have to put up with, where the solutions mostly benefit them? Unless they decide someday to push for the universal USB-C standard, then I say no. I know there are many people who don’t care, but I think they should because this is as blatant an anti-consumer move that Apple has ever done. And I hope enough people say to Apple that this is unacceptable that they have to think carefully not only about bringing the headphone jack back in the 7S, but about any potentially anti-consumer moves that they consider in the future.

The Carter Crater – Can the Apple TV be Saved?

The Carter Crater – Can the Apple TV be Saved?

Foolishly, I believed in the power of Apple TV gaming. Whoops! The number of 4th generation Apple TVs that have been sold is not known ? and if it was any kind of earth-shattering amount, Apple would probably let us know. As of now, they’re seen as running in 4th in the streaming device market. As well, developers informally polled have given zero indication that Apple TV is a moneymaker for them at all. There’s little sign that the Apple TV, nor gaming, has done well. I was perhaps the biggest cheerleader for TV gaming, and, well, I might have bet on the wrong horse. But like a gambler who thinks that the next hand is the big score, I remain somewhat optimistic of a future where Apple TV gaming is a viable force for developers, even if there would have to be some major changes in Apple’s tactics.

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First off, Apple has to convince people to actually buy the damn things. It turns out that Apple can’t just release an intriguing product and have it sell at this point in time. That, or they just released a product with no actual market. To be honest, it’s easy to see why someone wouldn’t buy the Apple TV. Cheap streaming sticks like the Chromecast, Fire TV Stick, and Roku Streaming Stick exist and cost a fraction of the Apple TV. If you need advanced features like Ethernet, SPDIF audio output, 4K and HDR support, the Shield TV, Fire TV, and Roku 4 are in your orbit. Even Amazon and Roku in the cheap end of the market have the benefit of the Amazon Prime access that Amazon has restricted from Google and Apple’s TV products. Heck, the 2nd and 3rd generation Apple TV models still play Netflix well enough.

So, the reasons to buy an Apple TV are basically the Siri Remote, being tied into the Apple ecosystem already, and perhaps needing AirPlay? But AirPlay has its shortcomings, particularly in comparison to Google Cast where the mobile device is independent from what’s being casted. Google Cast even has advanced features like high-resolution audio support, where many AirPlay devices are left to CD-quality audio. Again, Apple has created a product where there’s no obvious standout feature to buy it. It’s a power-user product without power-user features.

And if you are a power-user wanting advanced features, the Nvidia Shield TV has been the leader there. It’s not really lacking anything in terms of features or content that you can’t get on Apple TV. Even on the gaming side of things, where there’s plenty of controller-compatible games…and oh yeah, emulator support. Plus, there’s the PC game streaming feature, and the recently-added Plex Media Server support is a killer addition. Nvidia has been supporting the Shield TV with various ports, and while it’s possible these are a loss-leader for the platform, at least Nvidia is putting effort into getting content on the Shield TV. More importantly, it’s a visibility factor ? people considering the Shield TV know that Nvidia is going to support it. With the Apple TV, there’s little visible support from Apple. Nvidia is more of a ‘gamer’ company, and that shows. The Android TV ecosystem has its flaws ? some apps work, others kinda do for no particular reason ? and it seems like there should be more hardware out there. Though, expensive streaming boxes start to get into the range of the Xbox One S in price. But still, however you shake it out, the Apple TV is in a weird, lacking middle between mass market attractiveness and appealing to power users with a more capable product.

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So how does Apple change their fortune? The first step is going to be getting exclusive content that can sell Apple TVs. There’s word of television productions that Apple is doing, but they’re playing from behind in comparison to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. They may have to work to convince major services to give up Apple exclusives. My hypothesis is that if they could convince ESPN to launch an HBO NOW style over-the-top service, it would be a titanic move. Perhaps not as big as it once was, with Sling having ESPN, but still. Live sports are often the big sacrifice that cord-cutters have to give up. Live sports draw massive ratings still, in part because by their nature, people can’t skip them. Make a cable-free ESPN an Apple TV exclusive, and see what happens. Drawing exclusive streaming rights to some shows, or even getting live NFL games, as a way to bolster a TV service might be a good start too. But the point is that while it might not be the most consumer-friendly move, Apple needs to bolster the Apple TV userbase for their own sake. Get the users there, and I think a trickle-down effect can happen with getting people to play games on Apple TV. Hey, it worked for mobile gaming, where few people bought them specifically as gaming devices, but now Candy Crush Saga [Free] is major business.

Second, Apple needs to fight in the mass market with a streaming sticket. The fact is that all their competitors in the TV box market have a budget-priced, entry-level option that work really well. Apple is completely punting on this market by not making a streaming stick that would get people in the Apple ecosystem. This doesn’t preclude games from showing up on it, either ? the Fire TV Stick has games and is compatible with controllers. Getting even a less-powerful mass-market box out there would be helpful to Apple’s standing in the TV box market, and to the developers releasing apps.

Third, I think Apple needs to break down the barriers between games and media. Apps are in a separate section from TV shows and movies on the Apple TV. Now, I’m in a weird position because I’m media and have my finger closer to the pulse with when games launch. But I will say that I rarely need to open the Apple TV App Store. The idea needs to be that when people using the Apple TV to be entertained, games need to be served up as an entertainment option.

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Fourth, Apple needs to cultivate the games market. This is perhaps my most outlandish idea ? Apple has shown little interest in doing this in an outward way. But working to get exclusives, even timed exclusives, and making a big stink about them, perhaps by investing in intriguing indie games in exchange for limited-time exclusivity, could help. Get the Apple TV on the radar of everyone as a gaming product. Even the mobile gaming media, sparse though we may be, we have little reason to care about Apple TV gaming right now as a practice instead of as a theory.

I will admit that all of these things are likely a pipe dream. The introduction of Sling at WWDC was a major warning sign that a rumored exclusive TV service wasn’t happening. And rumors are abound that Eddy Cue was not good at working with studios in getting that content. And Apple, really, became a major gaming company somewhat by accident with the App Store, where they’ve largely reacted to trends rather than acting. But the thing that’s scary for them is that it’s easy to see where a future rises up where all the key players in the TV space providing the content that people want don’t need Apple. Users have shown that while they’ll buy into the Apple ecosystem if need be, it takes more than a fancy remote to convince them to keep buying Apple products. And ask anybody producing the content, even if they have qualms with Apple, would they rather make apps and games for the cohesive platform solutions they offer, or for the chaotic situation that is Android…or even a non-Android solution? It’s quite possible that gaming’s future would suffer, or that possible advances in gaming culture ? even possibly the idea that you have to own a particular piece of hardware to play a game ? are set to suffer because Apple can’t figure out how to sell their TV boxes. And really, I can’t give you a good reason to buy one, either.

Carter Crater Counterpoint: Surprise Releases are Great, it’s Visibility and App Store Featuring that’s a Problem

Carter Crater Counterpoint: Surprise Releases are Great, it’s Visibility and App Store Featuring that’s a Problem

Logo_on_whiteEarlier today we posted an editorial from our old pal Carter “3.5 Stars” Dotson where he argued that surprise releases, like Pokemon GO [Free] and Day of the Tentacle Remastered [$ 4.99] as recent examples, are hurtful towards other developers who are carefully planning their release strategy. I actually agree with everything Carter says in his piece. Woe is the developer who has a release date planned well ahead of time only to see some mega superstar game pop up on the scene out of nowhere on the same day and soak up all of the attention. However, I have a different perspective on all of this. I love surprise releases! It’s one of the things that drew me into mobile gaming (and TouchArcade itself, for that matter) so many years ago. There’s nothing like waking up in the morning and firing up the forums to see dozens of people freaking out because some interesting or noteworthy game unexpectedly hit our beloved mobile platform.

I also think that sort of thing keeps mobile gaming sites like ours more organic and interesting to read. There’s nothing more boring than learning of a big game coming out but having to adhere to the same embargo time as every other site, so that when the game finally does come out everyone has the same sort of cookie cutter coverage as each other. When a game launches out of the blue, there’s an excitement surrounding that, and an urgency to write about and share in that excitement with our readers that I feel is lacking when we’re well aware of something in advance. I don’t think Carter would necessarily disagree with that, either, as aside from all the negative points he mentions in his article it’s a lot of fun to see a game pop up out of thin air.

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The bigger problem is how Apple goes about featuring games, and in a much broader sense, the App Store approval system itself. Visibility has been the number one problem with developers being able to make money putting games on mobile, and Apple doesn’t do much to solve that problem. In fact they make it worse every day by letting open the floodgates of subpar clones and reskins. Why would anyone want to spend any significant amount of time or money developing a cool mobile game when on the very day they release their baby into the wild there are literally hundreds of other games of questionable quality being released at the same time, burying their hard work? We do our best here to highlight the good games from the daily deluge of crap, but even then there’s tons of stuff that falls through the cracks. Great games going almost entirely unnoticed and never even having a chance at life is a daily occurrence in the App Store. It’s really depressing.

This is definitely not an easy problem to solve, though. Part of the reason there is so much crap on the App Store is because the barrier to entry to game development has never been so low, and a big part of that is thanks to Apple and digital app stores. Some amazing games would have never even been made had that not been the case, so I certainly don’t want to take a step backwards and go back to the more corporate-controlled method of making games. At the same time, because that barrier is so low, lots of unscrupulous developers are using that as a means to make a buck by flooding the market with crap. There’s far too many games submitted to Apple for them to look long and hard at each one, and the approval process is mostly on autopilot from what I understand. I doubt any of that is going to change anytime soon.

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I don’t know what the solution is. All I know is that a little over a week ago I did not have Day of the Tentacle Remastered on my phone, and then in the blink of an eye, just like magic, there it was, and it’s hard to describe how exciting that was at the time. I don’t want that feeling to ever go away. On the other hand, it’s hard to see so much negativity towards developing for mobile. Gaining visibility is next to impossible unless you win the Apple featuring lottery, and the “race to the bottom” mentality of the past several years makes it that much harder to earn any money even if you do have the visibility part down pat. Like I said, it’s really depressing, because the mobile platform has the potential to be the greatest thing ever.

I’d love to say that Apple is aware of this issue and working on a solution as we speak, but that seems pretty far-fetched. They’ve never shown much interest in gaming, and they love touting the total number of apps in their App Store as a badge of honor more than they care about the actual quality of all those apps. I just hope that somewhere in the world someone is trying to figure out how to Make the App Store Great Again before every developer has finally had enough and abandons the platform altogether.

Why Did ‘Pokemon GO’ and ‘Clash Royale’ Have to Be Surprise Releases? – The Carter Crater

Why Did ‘Pokemon GO’ and ‘Clash Royale’ Have to Be Surprise Releases? – The Carter Crater

carter_craterOne of the great quirks of mobile gaming is the way that so many games can come as surprise releases to everyone. In fact, the two biggest games of 2016 so far were both complete surprises when they were revealed. First you had Clash Royale [Free], which was revealed and soft launched on the first Monday of 2016, with its eventual launch coming unexpectedly on the first Wednesday of 2016, with no warning whatsoever. Then, Pokemon GO [Free], which was quite known, had a surprise rollout, and the eventual world domination that ensued was without warning to seemingly anybody at all. Not even Apple, who had none of the featuring you would expect from a major game like this. While surprises can be really interesting, they have a very interesting secondary impact that I don’t think people really consider that impacts the mobile gaming landscape.

One recent case is Super Stickman Golf 3 [Free]. I don’t know the full extent of the relationship between Noodlecake and Apple, but considering how often they get featured, and that they have an Apple Design Award on their portfolio from Chameleon Run [$ 1.99] which they published, we can assume that it’s pretty good. And that the release of Super Stickman Golf 3 and its potential as that week’s Editor’s Choice was probably not a secret to anyone at Noodlecake. Should be a great week for them, no? But, because of this standard of chaotic, unexpected mobile releases, what happens is that Pokemon GO releases in the USA without warning to anyone (the game still hasn’t gotten any sort of featuring from Apple) and suddenly Super Stickman Golf 3 is suddenly going up against The Devourer of Worlds.

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Another potent example is Days of Discord [Free]. I visited the studio, and chatted with the key principals behind that game. They had big plans, and some interesting ideas for streaming and competitive play. But unbeknownst to them, and few people outside of Supercell, Apple, and Google, Clash Royale released the same day that they did. It hit them in a big way ? they only got 5000 players and shut the game down a month after launch. Sure, you could debate the merits of a Hearthstone [Free] style CCG and how well it would do even if Clash Royale didn’t exist at all. But I’m pretty sure that if they had any idea Clash Royale was launching on that day, they wouldn’t have done so!

The problem is that these situations that could sink developers without even knowing could easily be avoided, and are avoidable in every other form of media! Movies, books, music, other forms of gaming, release dates are well known in advance. This means that everyone involved when they can strategically avoid releasing during a bad time. But not on mobile, where so many publishers and developers keep secrets as to their release windows, to a point that any developer has to be scared that at any moment, a major, earth-shattering release could drop and stall any momentum they would otherwise have.

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And you wonder why developers might be scared to release on mobile? We can debate the value of specific release dates on a platform where physical supply is not an issue, but a reality where blockbusters release without warning is a not healthy one for anyone involved, especially smaller developers. Maybe that puzzle game you’re releasing, and are counting on a big launch week for, gets undercut by the sudden release of a new King puzzler going global. Or a console port in a similar genre as your game releases without warning that very week. Even Apple themselves got burned by the surprise Pokemon GO launch affecting the potency of their features that week. In fact, the chaotic release timing of mobile games being the norm has even messed up Pokemon GO ? the surprise Canadian launch wound up messing up the major Chicago meetup for the game. But the idea that mobile games can be released just whenever without any sudden warning creates problems for everyone.

This isn’t to say that it’s all bad. The hype cycles that surround major AAA games and the fixed targets of game releases have their own issues. When a game has to release at a certain time, it can lead to games that aren’t quite ready because of the need to hit that release date, not to mention the human toll of crunch time. And the extended hype cycles means that games have to be flashy to get people to care about them a long ways out. And I’m kind of glad that crowdfunding doesn’t really work for mobile games. Do we really need a disaster on par with Star Citizen? But then again, it’s sad that something like Hyper Sentinel can struggle with its reasonable Kickstarter. And for free-to-play, mobile is so much about the long tail, to make money not just on one day, but weeks and months after that, to where the first day of launch isn’t necessarily that important. Plus, it’s kind of cool to suddenly get like a Crypt of the NecroDancer [$ 4.99] port on mobile out of nowhere, no?

It’s quite possible that mobile’s release patterns are a net positive, but there are lots of drawbacks. If you’re a developer releasing a paid game, you’re still worried about that initial launch timing, and mobile is impossible to time right because you can get so easily undercut. For players, you have no idea if any given release week is going to keep you busy or not. And for the media, it’s not the ideal set of circumstances. It’s weird to fire up the TouchArcade work chat when I wake up and suddenly realize everything’s on fire because Clash Royale or Pokemon GO has released without warning. I envy the console and PC gaming press to a certain degree, because it’s not like Fallout 5 is going to suddenly release overnight. And I think it makes covering mobile for press that isn’t immersed in it so much more difficult, because mobile has this chaotic flow to it that requires a lot of effort and an affinity for the platform to talk about it well. And why spend your time on that when the established audience wants more of the same content?

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I don’t know if there’s much of a way to improve the drawbacks here. How much of a role Apple or Google plays with influencing the current circumstances is a good question ? those in the know are not likely to say much, and Apple insiders often have contradictory things to say to developers they talk to. Maybe mobile is just the canary in the coal mine for the way that games are talked about and consumed in the future, where the hype cycles and launch dates are relics of the past. Particularly with the free-to-play long tail, this could happen. It’s tough to deal with for everyone, but it might be just the reality of games culture in the future. But I’m not convinced that it’s the best possible reality for developers, enthusiasts, and commentators to have literally zero idea when major happenings are set to go down.

The Carter Crater: ‘Pokemon GO’ Shows Why Nintendo Needs to Go Mobile-First Now

The Carter Crater: ‘Pokemon GO’ Shows Why Nintendo Needs to Go Mobile-First Now

carter_craterNintendo should cancel the NX and go exclusively mobile as soon as possible. I admit that is a hot take after a few days of Pokemon GO [Free], but why shouldn’t they be making a major mobile push right now? The Pokemon Company releases an app that has server issues, eats your battery, has loads of concerns as to its long-term depth being a more shallow experience than Ingress [Free], whose database it capitalizes on. That’s not to mention that the game has had tons of server issues, is only available in a few countries, is a privacy nightmare that’s probably sending all your embarrassing photos to your exes, oh and it has gotten absolutely zero acknowledgement of its existence by Apple nor Google. If literally anyone else released a game in this state, it would be a massive failure. None of that mattered: the app shot up to number one in downloads and grossing in the US, and it became a massive cultural phenomenon literally overnight. Nintendo is so popular it doesn’t play by any of the rules that everyone else in the market has to play by. Why is Nintendo wasting time trying to sell hardware when they can print money on mobile without even trying that hard?

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The thing is, no company is as perfectly suited to the mobile, free-to-play future as Nintendo is. Mario is a cultural institution, as is Pokemon (as you’ve seen), The Legend of Zelda is much beloved, as is Super Smash Bros., which is literally “let’s put all our characters in one game fighting each other.” Even Nintendo’s secondary and tertiary franchises have a love for them that is tough for other companies to replicate. But that love doesn’t always manifest in sales direct to Nintendo. It’s often emulating the classic games, or buying merchandise, watching Smash tournaments, things that don’t necessarily put money direct in Nintendo’s pockets, but reinforce the power of their brands. Heck, I’d wager part of Flappy Bird‘s appeal was that the pipes were obviously inspired by Mario’s pipes. They were a clever little subconscious aspect to appeal to people. But for the longest time, Nintendo has used this ubiquitous love to try and sell their own hardware, but that’s been a bit of a declining proposition as of late. The Wii did well, but that was an anomaly thanks to Wii Sports and the excitement over the motion control gimmick more than anything else. Nintendo’s other mass-market systems since the SNES have all been runner-up to someone else.

Yet, when Nintendo gives the people who love their stuff a taste of it on a platform that everyone has access to, people eat it up. Nintendo doesn’t have to have a coherent launch plan or a well-made app. Miitomo [Free] had a confusing premise, was a bit disappointing for Nintendo’s first mobile release, and had a clunky and slow interface…but it still drew a ton of attention. Sony can’t do the same with their properties on mobile, or at least haven’t yet. Their mobile tie-ins, including that recent Uncharted: Fortune Hunter [Free] game haven’t exactly set the mobile world on fire the way that Pokemon GO drove pepole into a frenzy. And the Halo dual-stick shooters on mobile haven’t really been massive performers either. This isn’t to say that Uncharted and Halo don’t have mass appeal, because they do. It’s just that Nintendo has a special appeal to people who don’t care about video games that they can uniquely capitalize on.

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So, here’s the question: when will Nintendo realize that it’s worth capitalizing on their position in the cultural zeitgeist. That making console hardware is a risk, and handheld hardware is a declining propostiion? Especially when Nintendo has now shown that they don’t have to do a launch well to draw massive attention to themselves? That it’s not worth making hardware when they can release stuff to their audience directly, and they will eat it up? I know Nintendo has been called to go third-party before, but now is the perfect time. Sony and Microsoft rule the console roost ? and it seems like they’re transitioning to a more evolving platform with upgrades to the PS4 and Xbox One (though I’m skeptical about their viability). Nintendo’s working on the NX, but we don’t know what it is, and perhaps if it combines portability with console gaming in a meaningful way, it might be worth pursuing. But it’s still a massive risk, and we have proof that Nintendo can put something out to mobile gamers, and create phenomena in a snap! Their stock price skyrocketed after Pokemon GO released! They can cut to the top of the grossing list without the months-long campaigns that something like Mobile Strike [Free] has to go through to succeed in a similar way.

Why not capitalize on that? Why spend the investment of money and R&D into manufacturing gaming hardware when a platform full of your fans ready to devour your content, not to mention a new generation that could fall in love with it, is ready for you? We have evidence that Nintendo fans don’t love Nintendo enough to go and buy a Wii U or a 3DS. But they love Nintendo enough that if a cool-looking Pokemon game comes out, they’ll download it right away. Now imagine if Nintendo shifted their development efforts to focus on mobile. Do you think people wouldn’t go crazy over Mario games on mobile? A more traditional Pokemon game on their phone? Animal Crossing?? Even Zelda games, Metroid games, Smash Bros. games…people would play them. And with the right approach, Nintendo could make mobile work for them.

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So here’s what I say: Nintendo should cancel the NX. Make the bold move now, write it off a sunk cost. Maybe it’s even too early to do so ? like when Netflix tried to spin their DVD business off into Qwikster ? but it’s the right move long-term and something that needs to be done someday. It’s clear where the future is, and investing into the hardware space feels like wasted efforts. Nintendo doesn’t have to kill off the Wii U or 3DS right away ? let them run their course, I say, though unless Nintendo is really confident about the NX providing something that nothing else in the gaming world can provide, it feels like a high potential for failure and/or sunk costs. And while perhaps the mobile-powered console box space is flawed right now, I imagine giving Apple a call about putting Nintendo games on the Apple TV might get them to make a few deals ? and convince some people to pick up controllers and TV boxes that they otherwise were on the fence about buying. Nintendo does not have to go full free-to-play, nor should they: a Square-Enix-esque strategy where they try to both tackle high-priced premium games along with free-to-play games as appropriate would be perfect to appeal to both the mass market and dedicated market that wants to pay for premium experiences. Maybe a new Zelda game wouldn’t work as free-to-play, but I think Nintendo could get away with selling expensive games when you have a market that often would buy the games, but had zero desire to own a console with them.

No matter what Nintendo does ? and admittedly, The Pokemon Company’s quasi-independent status has perhaps allowed them more latitude to tackle mobile ? the ideal strategy has to include mobile as a core platform of their future. It’s quite clear that there is a desire for Nintendo products that other companies can’t replicate. And there’s no reason why Nintendo shouldn’t start trying to capitalize on that demand as soon as possible.