Archive for May, 2011

iPad @ home

Posted in Tales from the grind-stone on May 27th, 2011 by MrCranky

I must confess, the iPad we bought for device testing has migrated home to the flat, and now only makes its way back to the office for specific needs. Not for purely selfish reasons I hasten to add, although it is partly that. Rather it’s because when we first got it, I was unsure as to exactly how it would fit into the average user’s life. The iPhone was easy, within an hour or two of using it I could see it’s niche; a pocket sized, versatile device with good connectivity and an intuitive interface. The iPad, not so much. Too large to carry around without making a conscious effort; lacking the keyboard for serious work, and unable to run most of the existing software most users are accustomed to using on a laptop.

The real trouble is that we here at Black Company make terrible cold testers. We’re technical, so we tend to focus on the implementation details rather than the broader feel of the interface. We’re advanced users, used to knowing everything about the software we use; being forced to learn a whole new interface makes us grumpy, but not nearly as grumpy as having not having all of our usual tools to hand. So as I usually do with such things, I hand them straight to my wife without saying a word, and simply watch how she uses it. The question was, really, would it find a use naturally, or would we be using it for the sake of it? And what would that use be?

Put simply, it did, and the use is: content viewing. I had thought that my computer time was read-write, but in reality, outside of work, the majority of my time is spent consuming content and not creating it. Facebook, Twitter, blogs and RSS feeds obviously, but more and more with on-demand video services like iPlayer. The iPad keyboard is, frankly, not pleasant to use (I’m writing this blog post using it as a proper test), but for the majority of content viewing we do, that’s not an issue. In fact, in the few months we’ve been using it, the biggest annoyance has been the fact that much of the on-demand TV we want to watch is on Channel 4, and their web solution was Flash based (i.e. not available on iPad.

And it was what we had to do when we did want to watch those things that drove it home to me. The iPad lies around the living room happily. It’s discreet and portable. To get the laptop out, plugged in, booted, takes a good 5 minutes, not just because it lives in a bag in the other room. So it’s a new way for us to experience the content out there, that we just wouldn’t have done before, and I don’t think I would have appreciated that without properly field testing it (or at least, allowing Vicki to do that).

That’s not to say that there aren’t other lessons to learn too. The bad apps we’ve found are the ones which simply take an iPhone user interface and make it bigger. But the key thing to appreciate about the iPad is that there’s likely to be only one in the household. Whereas the iPhone is a naturally single user device (not just because it’s something you keep on you as you move around), the iPad is passed around amongst the household. So apps like Facebook and Twitter have to account for the fact that you’ll want to easily pop back to the top level and switch users; as well as some loose protection against accessing other people’s accounts. You trust the people you share the iPad with, but not that much. And of course, it’s far less likely to be moving around out in the world, so apps that focus on the geo-location data are far less useful. On iPad, the value is on it’s versatility to display content in a relaxed environment (not necessarily at a desk). The larger display is key to that versatility.

The trick will be to take the things we understand about how the iPad gets used, and use it to inform our app designs.

Portal 2 / Scope

Posted in Games, Industry Rants on May 17th, 2011 by MrCranky

I thought I’d add my voice to the rest of the gaming community praising Portal 2, which I finished last week. A great story, which made me laugh out loud at least a dozen times, which is rare in any medium, let alone a game. It’s not without its flaws, but all are minor and do not detract noticeably from the overall experience. It most definitely passed my usual acid test for quality: that I wanted to play it even when I didn’t have any free time, to the point where I was skipping sleep to play it some more.

I loved the original, even though I wouldn’t have bought it were it not tacked onto Half-Life 2: Episode 2. It always struck me as a wonderfully weighted title – just the right length, elegant in its simplicity, and with a level of polish that larger titles just don’t achieve. More than anything though, it was a title that left me wanting more, not because it was too short, but because it was so good. Much like a wonderful novel or film where I get immersed in the universe and characters, the end comes with both a warm glow of satisfaction at the conclusion, and an aching for more. More of the characters, more from the rich universe. It’s a rare creation that brings that level of quality to the observer, and both Portal incarnations have that quality in spades.

I’ve been ranting somewhat about the poor judgement of top-end games development recently. Quality of Life and financial issues are just one facet of a deeper problem: that we’ve been trapped into an arms race of scope. To justify a ‘full-price’ cost, developers feel they have to match or out-do each other. Worlds grow larger and larger, not even bound by memory constraints, since every large game streams their environments off disc. Stories grow more and more epic, and require game-play lengths to match. More characters are wedged in, even though there’s not enough time to get to know them in any great detail. Their voices are provided by more and more famous actors. Cut-scenes get flashier and longer.

The problem is that the underlying mentality to it all is ‘go big, or go home.’ Budgets spiral upwards, or if they don’t, then quality spirals downwards. Both hurt a title’s chances of success. But more quality doesn’t justify a higher price tag to match the increased costs. The players have shown in a wide variety of ways that they’re not prepared to pay any more for games than the already high cost. Second-hand sales and rental mean that the RRP quickly gets turned into the ‘real’ price – far lower. Popular titles drop slower than unpopular ones, so market forces still apply. But as an industry we still delude ourselves that we ‘deserve’ the RRP times the number of units sold.

That’s not the real madness though. The real madness is that despite all our profitability numbers showing the decline, developers and publishers keep on down the same path. They know how much more it costs to increase the scope of the games we make, but they do it anyway. Why? Because they know if they don’t invest enough in titles they flop, because they are competing with other titles on quality. But they don’t know how to turn investment money into quality. Quality is hard. It’s intangible, and you don’t always know it until you see it. So they put the money on things they can understand. More levels, more characters, bigger worlds. They set themselves a benchmark of their competitors, plus some. Because if X was a success, and we have more of everything than X, then we’re as good as X, right?

So when a title like Portal comes along, I regain a bit of hope for our industry. By showing that you can make a massively successful title, not by making it bigger, or more complicated, but by making it good, it’s a bit of ammunition for the decision makers. They can point to Portal and say “it doesn’t need to be big, as long as it’s fun”, or “let’s find a mechanic that works well, and just stick with that”. And maybe we can halt this crazy race to massacre our industry’s profit margins.

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