Tech + Lifestyle

games, gear, and googleplexes (joke)

State of the System, Part II

This article was first published on the iPhone Games Network. To view my original article, click here.

In part one of this article, I discussed where the iPhone/iPod Touch platform is at in terms of things like visuals, controls, and gameplay, and what gamers can expect for the future.

Today we’re wrapping up with Part II, where I’ll be covering some of the more abstract qualities of the platform – specifically game updates, replay value, multiplayer, and the App Store back-end.

Game Updates:

It’s almost a fact of life for App Store users that when you buy a game, you aren’t actually getting the final version. It’ll be updated, and probably more than once. Whether or not you like the idea of buying something before developers have finished tweaking it, the practice is here to stay. In fact, it isn’t even all bad. Many games have dramatically improved since their original release, and the simple nature of the App Store’s system means that all users have the chance to get a more polished, hopefully bug-free product. While this isn’t a perfect standard, it’s still much, much better than buying games for your average cell phone, which usually goes something like this:

1. Give in to temptation and purchase a game through your network’s server.

2. Play game.

3. Realize it’s complete crap.

4. Delete it from your phone in disgust.

5. Wait two or three months, then repeat.

It’s still possible for this to happen with the App Store, but it’s also likely that a developer with a bad game will work to fix the problems. User-submitted reviews and the opportunity to rate a game before deletion give users some degree of influence. Mighty developers, hear our cry! Listen to our gaming woes! Fix your buggy product and add content, returning it to us in better condition than when we originally bought it!

As much of an improvement as the App Store is over the previous status quo, there are still some significant improvements that Apple can make in regard to updates and changes in pricing. PC game distribution model Steam has shown that substantial content and feature updates boost sales and overall profits significantly. That’s a win for everyone – users get new content, developers extend the life of their product, and Apple gets a boost in their cut as sales skyrocket. Toward that end, I’d like to see a News or Recently Updated section added to the App Store, which would be of great benefit in promoting updated titles. Also, it would be great if Apple did a better job of testing applications before approving them for sale. Too many games are released with significant problems; Apple should send these back to the developers with notes on what to fix. Right now, end users are acting as the quality assurance team, which they shouldn’t be responsible for.

Replay Value:

This goes hand in hand with the points I’ve made on game updates. There’s a lot to be said for developers providing continued support for their products, even including releasing additional content. Some developers are really good about this, and to them I extend a sincere thanks. As for the rest of them, get with the program! It’s all well and good that so many games only cost $.99, .59p, etc., but some of them aren’t even worth that much. I expect a title to do more than only entertain me for fifteen or twenty minutes. That’s the result of poor gameplay (covered in Part I), and it’s inexcusable. If nothing else, developers should be willing to throw in things like multiple game modes and high scores, which go a long way toward increasing a game’s appeal.

After ragging on the slackers, I’ve got to point out that there are plenty of games that already do an excellent job of this. Two of my personal favorites are Aurora Feint 2 and Fieldrunners. I’ve been playing Aurora Feint since last summer, and developers Danielle Cassley and Jason Citron have done an excellent job of improving the game, from upgrading visuals to adding the Arena, an online asynchronous MMO component. Fieldrunners, a tower-defense game, is something I’ve played since December. Developer Subatomic Studios has been releasing additional maps, towers, and bug fixes since the game’s release. I play both of them regularly, and I’ve yet to tire of them. Any game that holds my attention for as long as these have is a winner and my hat goes off to their developers for a job well done. I’ve got my fingers crossed that more developers find that elusive combination of ingredients that allows them to do the same with their own titles.

Multiplayer:

While single-player gaming is certainly fun, multiplayer provides a social aspect that playing by yourself just can’t replicate. There’s a reason services like Steam or Xbox Live are so popular; we like doing things like matching wits with others and killing our friends in heated battle. It’s fun to trash-talk each other, or develop strategies with your teammates, or simply joke around while you play. Multiplayer gaming has unique social elements that AI just can’t replicate.

One of the best things a developer can do right now is to incorporate some sort of multiplayer or MMO component into their games. That being said, the inclusion of multiplayer capabilities into mobile games has been rather sporadic up until now, and I can understand why. The fact of the matter is that not everyone has access to Wifi or a 3G signal robust enough to support a smooth experience. There are, however, ways of working around the problem. One of the more notable examples is the previously-mentioned Aurora Feint 2. Instead of matching up players in real-time, the multiplayer component downloads a “ghost” of another player’s performance, allowing to compete against it without requiring a perfect internet connection. Another game, Leaf Trombone, allows users to perform compositions for others via its World Stage mode, with listeners judging and providing input on the performance. The popularity of applications with social or multiplayer aspect can’t be denied, and I believe more games will begin to incorporate some sort of equivalent in the future.

You know what the best way would be to accomplish this? Apple should provide a single, unified server system for App Store games to use for multiplayer. Heck, they could even build code for accessing it into the developer SDK, making it easier for independent outfits to use. Even if games don’t have true multiplayer or MMO capabilities, it would be a great way for them to provide scoreboards on a local, regional, and global scale.

Conclusion:

I’ve covered a lot of ground in my analysis of Apple’s iPhone/iPod Touch platform. We’ve gone over everything from how well controls work to the current state of the updating system. I’d like to close with one last topic, not so much a prediction as a vision for what the App Store could be. Don’t get me wrong – it’s good, and it’s pretty far ahead of the competition for online mobile game sales. I just think there’s a lot of potential that isn’t being tapped right now.

Think about this – Apple is already all about the social side of things and finding ways to make people more and more dependent on their products and not somebody else’s. What if they took that to its logical conclusion in the App Store? I’d love nothing more than to see Apple make a hardcore social back-end for both the mobile platform and the App Store. Add a system for achievements, rankings, user profiles, in-game messaging, etc – build a full-blown community around the games in the App Store, with access optimized for both the small screen of an iPhone/iPod Touch and the larger screen of a computer. There’s already a hint of this with the user reviews and update system already in place; Apple should flesh it out.

Does all this sound familiar? It should, because it would be very similar to what Steam and Xbox Live currently offer, and why not? Their systems work incredibly well; there’s nothing wrong with Apple admitting it and incorporating those features into their own social platform. Combined with the server system I brought up in the Multiplayer section, Apple would create an unbeatable mobile gaming experience. The hardware might not ever be comparable to what Nintendo or Sony have to offer, but as a whole product there would be no competition.

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May 30, 2009 - Posted by | Gaming, iPhone/iPod Touch, Tech | , , , , , , , , ,

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