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Insert Coin to continue: games go full circle

retro-consolesGames have been a hobby of mine for as long as I can remember, my earliest memory is playing Mario Bros on the NES on a friends rear projection screen. Not only were the graphics amazing, the screen was nothing short of massive. I held the stubby controller with a death grip and for my shame got into a fight with my brother when it was his turn – ah youth.

Since then I’ve owned a plethora including: NES, Master System, SNES, Megadrive, Mega CD, 32X, Multimega, 3DO, Amiga 500+, Sega Saturn (PAL), Sega Saturn (JPN that played video CDs), Dreamcast (JPN), Dreamcast (PAL), Gamecube (PAL), Gamecube (JPN/NTSC), PS2, Xbox (NTSC) Xbox (PAL), Xbox 360 (x3 due to RROD), Gameboy, Gameboy Pocket, Atari Lynx, Gameboy Advance, DS, 3DS and a brief flirtation with a Barcode battler.

And although my collection is a lot smaller these days and I don’t play nearly as much as I used to, I still love it. I am also fortunate to live near Southend seafront, which has ‘The Golden Mile’ a strip of arcades. Now in the heydays of the late 80s and early 90s, the arcades were the place to be. Cutting edge hardware and cabinet designs drew players from all around, I have many fond memories of playing hydraulically assisted  games like Afterburner 2  and Chase HQ.

Big screens, big graphics and big noise, to a youngster this was Mecca.

It was even reasonably priced to keep people coming back, 10/20/50p a go depending on the game, but this was not to last.

The rise of the consoles

The Arcade as a concept was on borrowed time, its main appeal was that it offered a something you simply could not get a home. Like any new technology, it emerged on the market and was so far ahead that people had no choice but to come to the arcade to get  access to it. Profits soared. However consoles soon began to catch up and games such as StarFox on the SNES offered a glimpse at what was to come, 3D graphics, once the domain of the arcade, were coming into the home.

With the advent on the PSX (soon to become the Playstation) and the Saturn, things began to change these consoles offered serious graphical power in compact environment. The Saturn handled competent Model 1 arcade conversions, the board that powered such classics as Virtua Racer and Virtual Fighter.  Not content with hosting home conversions of arcade boards, System 11 and ST-V offered console hardware as an arcade board. Offering arcade developers a juicy extra revenue stream once their game had run its course in the arcade.

But the consumer began to ask a question, why go to an Arcade when I can play a similar game at home. More importantly why go to the arcade and spend a lot of money each time, when I can buy the game and use it at home forever?

The arcade had become a commoditised technology, consoles had caught up to such a degree that the consumer saw little benefit to arcade games. So arcade manufacturers began to try anything to get consumers attention – Dual Cabs, Quad Cabs, Specialised controllers (basic pistols in Lethal Enforcers to shotguns in House of the Dead and MP5’s in Virtual Cop 3). 18 Wheeler by Sega offered consumers a Deluxe cab decked out as an American haulage truck, replete with massive steering wheel.  To cover costs, prices spiked to £1, £2 even as much as £5 for super deluxe cabs, forcing consumers to pay inordinate amounts for a short term hit.  Unsurprisingly, this approach did not succeed as it failed to address the underlying issue. Although the “tinsel” was better, the gaming experience was much the same as the cheaper, more convenient and cheaper consoles.

Consumers stayed away and one by one the arcade’s died, to be replaced with gaudy gambling machines surrounded by cabs that quickly fell into disrepair.

Consoles rule the world

In the mid 90s, as the arcades around the world crumbled; we entered what the golden age of gaming with that of the Playstation/Saturn. The reason for this simple, stepping from a SNES or Megadrive to CD based polygon based graphics, with CD quality sound and FMV felt like you had the arcade right at home. Playing arcade conversions of games Ridge Race and Sega Rally simply was not possible until that generation. The world had opened up for gamers, it was an amazing time for gaming as each new release sought to out do the last. Consumers bought them in droves, and continued to do so throughout each subsequent generation, until now.

Consoles now face the same problem that the arcades did so long ago, a new challenger has arrived to disrupt the status quo.

A new challenger appears….Smartphones

In the late 90s and early 00s the mobile phone offered little that compete with the power of home consoles (Nokias N-Gage gaming phone gets an honourable mention). Snake or breakout could hardly hope to best the likes of Metal Gear Solid or Panzer Dragoon Saga. However the clock was ticking and by late 2009 we started to see games explode on mobile, some offering “close to console” graphics. Phones and tablets now had the power to offer quick fix gaming anytime, anywhere. You were no longer required to stay in one place to get your fix and it was also a lot cheaper (sound familiar?).  For the casual gamer, there is little need to invest in a home Console, when they have everything they need in the palm of their hand.

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We are yet to see the long term ramifications of this, but looking at the dismal sales of the Wii U they must worry not just Nintendo but Microsoft and Sony as well.  If you look at the Wii U its main selling point is a tablet controller that seems to say “Hey you like tablets? Don’t leave, we got tablets!”, it stinks of a company trying to shoe horn in a competitors feature. It feels like a Hail Mary. Microsoft and Sony are also making ‘innovative controllers’ a big part of their next gen systems with Kinect 2.0 and Move both to be included in the box. Yet for all its initial charm ‘waggle’ has never really held my interest and I feel that due to the amount of shovelware for both the Wii and Kinect plaforms the consumer is also burnt on the concept.

A perfect storm?

With the Xbox 360 generation of consoles one of the main selling points was HD gaming,  like the switch from 2d to 3D there was a clear easy to digest benefit to switching. However with this new generation there is not that clear, killer feature – sure the games will look prettier but I am still amazed at what they are pulling out of the current 360 (have you seen Halo 4? That is one damn good looking game!). Rumoured specifications, the consoles themselves are not as powerful as expected compared previous generations you would normally expect a power leap of 10-15 . Compare Ps1>2>3 or  SNES > N64 > Gamecube, when comparing them side by side it was instantly obvious which was the more powerful console.  So to review, a weaker than expected console, comes to market against a faster, cheaper competitor platform that is already in the hands of millions of consumers and has an consumer upgrade cycle of  18-24 months.

This in itself would present a challenging situation, but not insurmountable but add in the fact of global recession and the situation looks bleak. If consumers finances are under pressure already, spending upwards of £399 on a new console and games is unlikely when the consumer has a decent gaming device for ‘free’ on their phone.

The consumer wins? Not so fast

Free gaming platform, no need to buy another box and a wealth of games to play, this a good thing right? Yes and no. We are at a dangerous transition point and it runs the risk of doing serious damage to games (both mobile and console)

I am talking about Free to play and In App Purchases.

Free to play games offer a low barrier to entry but then ask the player to purchase in game items to progress, in app purchases are the method of acquiring said items. All fine in theory with the occasional game but it now feels that every game (indeed free or paid) is moving to this new model of  ‘buy now, pay later’. Boy do they pay!

Real Racing 3 is a beautiful game, almost console quality and its free to play. However if you are expecting to get through this game without reaching into your pocket you will be sadly disappointed. 148Apps has looked into how much money it would cost your to complete Real Racing 3:

To earn enough money to buy every car in Real Racing 3, what would it take? Our numbers show that it would take over 472 hours to earn enough money to buy all of the cars in the game. Or to purchase all of the cars with real money via in-app purchase, it would cost $503.22 at the current best rate.

To earn all of the cars in the game rather that buy them with real money, a player would need to finish 6,801 races with an average (per our RR3 stats) of 4:10 per race earning R$3,700 per race. That would equal 472 hours to earn the R$25,163,573 it would cost in the in-game currency to buy all 46 cars. That does not include the cost for repairs, maintenance, or upgrades which can be rather expensive.

If a player wanted to take the shortcut and buy all of the cars in the game with real money, that would cost $503.22 in in-app purchases. That’s assuming the current best rate of R$50,005 per US$1 when buying R$5,000,000 at a time.

Let’s compare the cost for Real Racing 3 to modern day console games, what could be purchased for that $503.22. For one example, a player could get a 4GB XBox 360, Forza Horizon (one of the newest racing sims on the 360), all of it’s DLC including over 127 cars, and a 22″ Vizio flatscreen LED TV. And still have $17.22 left over.

$503.22, granted most players will never pay that but the fact that its even possible worries me and the F2P model is already having negative consequences. Elmo from Joypod mentioned on this weeks podcast that when playing a free to play game he is instantly suspicious of when and where the game will tell him “no that’s enough gaming for you!” and ask you to pay up. F2P gaming is beginning to make the player suspicious about where they will get screwed, no matter how well its handled a pay wall (you may call it something else, but lets not kid ourselves) is a game breaking experience and that is a universally a bad idea. I’m sure that games companies will shout “but people don’t want to buy games anymore! What can we do?” well who’s fault is that? By flooding the market with free games consumers are now conditioned to think that games are a commodity or to use another word – worthless.

This is a hell of their own making.

In app purchases may offer a way out to beleaguered developers keen to generate revenue in difficult times. If that’s the case I have a question for you: when a gamer spends time thinking about when or where they will have to pay up instead of enjoying your creation, does that create a relationship based on trust? I think that, in desperation games developers are trying to make money at all costs, even if it burns the user because they have no where else to go.

Want to play one more time? Insert coin to continue – after all it worked for arcades right?

I think people are missing the point on how to use Surface

As you probably know, the Surface RT and Pro have integrated kick stands that prop the tablet at a 26 degree angle, this has proved to be a controversial addition. The case made out in many reviews is that the kick stand is fine and dandy when you are using it on a table but makes the Surface impossible to use on your lap.

Now, call me crazy but I like to make fair comparisons, and so in the interest of fairness I tried using my HP Touchpad without a case in the same circumstances:

  • Seated: worked fine, slides about a tad
  • Knees up:  worked fine

Amazing insight right? Now I tried doing those again with but this time using a bluetooth keyboard and it was a major PITA. This should not shock you, just because its possible to use a bluetooth or external keyboard on your knees, does not mean you should. Just as you might be able to use the Surface Kickstand and touch cover on your knees (or not as the case may be), doesn’t make it a good idea.

In fact, I would argue that most people would know this, so why is it being used to bash the Surface?

Surface at its core is a convergence device – full power pc when you need it, tablet when you don’t, so it begs the question – why use it like a laptop all the time?  It seems to me that people are stuck in the mindset that you can only use Surface with the touch cover and kickstand, but Windows Store apps can be used with the on screen keyboard. Sure if you want to use desktop apps on the go, then you will most likely need to use the touch cover but think about the use case for a second: what are you doing and do you really need to use the desktop app?

I would argue in most cases that you could use Windows Store apps for the majority of mobile situations, unless you need to spend serious time typing.

My typical usage of a laptop covers these sorts of apps:

  • Evernote
  • Mail
  • Chrome
  • Keynote/Pages
  • Tweetdeck
  • Some form of IDE (Visual Studio etc)

Now, apart from IDE’s everything else is covered by Windows Store apps and if I was on the train, tube or in a cab I would default to metro apps first. If want to spend time writing long form entries or messing around with APIs I would do it somewhere more comfortable i.e. a table and chair. Everyone makes a like for like comparison with the iPad but they seem to be forgetting that typing on a naked iPad is fine for around the house, but on the go it can slip and sometimes fall off. Which is why 99% of people have invested in some form of smart cover as it stops the iPad slipping around and gives you angled typing position.

Which, funnily enough are starting to become available for the Surface:

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http://www.ebay.co.u…t-/181024698002

It’s “worth to have apparently” but offers a decent solution to on the go usage i.e. RT Apps and on screen keyboard on the move and then keyboard goodness when you have a table.

Or to put it another way, exactly how you would use an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard.

September Mobile madness

September.

One of the most cherished months of the year, as it presents clear skies and the last of the warm weather for the year.

It also seems to be the month where every mobile provider reveals their new hardware, on the cards so far:

5/9: Motorola

The current rumour going is that they are to announce an ‘edge to edge’ screen (think no bezel on the side) that will no doubt be attached to superlatives such as ‘engrossing’. My hope is that Motoblur (Motorola’s Android UI layer) is further improved, perhaps further in line with Google’s Android HIG.

5/9 Nokia

The phone maker from Espoo has really taken a pounding over the last year, dumping Symbian, Meego, Maemo has cost them market share and revenue. It needs to show some fantastic devices that grab both the industry, consumer and carrier mindsets like no other.

6/9 Amazon

The Kindle fire was a small success, estimated at 5 million sold in the USA, it was a fairly decent first attempt at a tablet and the high quality Android tablet to compete on price. It was hamstrung by a lack of international presence and a poor OS as a starting point (Android 2.2 Froyo). I am hoping that the devices (I am aiming for two) revealed offer competitive specifications, a fair price and is available in more than just the USA. The main thorn in Amazon’s side? The Google Nexus 7, which at £159 is a quality device from a known brand at a great price. All statements that we used when the Fire launched last year. One thing is clear – Amazon will need to show something more than just price to maintain interest in its tablet line.

12/9

Apple

Want to know why everyone is suddenly announcing hardware in the first week of September? Look no further than the undisputed king of the revenue ring, Apple. Next week they will be unveiling their latest iPhone and perhaps a new iPad Mini (though the iPad might be revealed at another event this month), with a rumoured 4 inch screen, micro dock connector and slimmer profile, the next iPhone is all about refining the concept of what Apple think is the best phone.

19/9 HTC

2011 was a Tumultuous year for HTC, from massive profits to disastrous losses, 2012 offered a new vision focussing on core handsets tried to stem the tide but failed to ignite consumer demand. Choosing to anounce in the same week as Apple is a risky move, anything unveiled could get drowned in the coverage of the next iDevice. Personally I hope that they continue the unique design philosophy set out by the One series of phones combined with a new streamlined Sense UI. As the only way they can succeed in this crowded market is by  showing users a distinct reason to invest.

Regardless of what platform you support, the next few weeks will offer something for everyone.

I love September.

RIM still has a chance with Blackberry but it needs to move fast!

Typing RIM into Google News makes for nasty reading. If you are unaware of the current situation for the Canadian phone maker, here are some choice headlines:

And that’s just a snapshot.

If I was Mike Lazaridis or Jim Balsillie, I would be wondering two things, one where did it all go wrong and what can be done about it. The world isn’t interested in the first question and deeply concerned about RIMs’ plan to answer the second.

Continue reading at PostDesk!

What kind of fish do you want to be?

I’ve been wanting to get back into development for a while now and I’m been mulling over what platform to target and I’ve decided on Window Phone. Now some of you maybe wondering why would I target a platform with few customers and limited market share,  there are two driving factors behind my decision.

The first is the learning hurdle, two years ago I used to be a .net developer, creating superawesomesauce applications for teaching and learning and although this was in VB.net (dont throw things). This means that although C# is a different (and vastly superior) language, it isn’t too much of a leap.

The second reason is more pragmatic, namely App discovery.

I meet a lot of developers in my day job as a developer evangelist and they are all beginning to face the same problem, standing out for from the crowd.  At time of writing the most popular App store have over five hundred thousand Apps available for download, how does a developer get noticed? More importantly how does a customer notice a developers work?

Sure if you’re lucky you might get featured on the front page of an App store, but the odds are slim. If you’ve got a lot of VC funding (or a big company behind you), you can afford to pay for advertising and marketing, but this is difficult path with no guarantees of success. If you’re really lucky you might get social media working for you, that quintessential business driver, word of mouth. I trust my friends more than I do advertising (even though they themselves may be recommending based on awareness created by an advert), as there is little chance of their recommendation being anything but genuine.

Indeed Matt Mills co founder of usTwo, creators of Whale Trail spoke to the Guardian on the importance of word of mouth for their revenue model now that Apple’s ‘New Game Of The Week’ promotion has finished:

“We’re hoping that if somebody’s downloading it, they’ll be talking about it, and there are 2-3 big updates planned over the next 6-8 weeks,” says Mills. “We need to get to the people in the pub. Game Of The Week is fantastic: it tells us we’ve made something special. But my wife, mum, dad or sisters don’t really look at the App Store in that way. They find out about new apps when somebody tells them.”

But getting people to talk about your App is very, very hard (but not impossible) so most developers have no choice but to upload and cross their fingers.

So my question to you is this If you are working on your own, is being another item in an overstocked store the best way to get noticed?

I don’t think it is, certainly if you are just getting started in the App industry.

Which is why I am looking at Windows Phone, yes it may only have 5% market share at time of writing and an under developed App store but I see that as an opportunity. The recent Mango update, the Windows Platform has had numerous improvements and it has been well received by industry pundits and consumers alike. The most notable addition has been Nokia’s conversion from Symbian, which has now begun to energise both Windows Phone developers and, perhaps more importantly other hardware partners. Indeed, on watching the unveiling of the Lumia 800 and 710, and the subsequent revelation that these phones would have Nokia’s largest marketing budget ever HTC and Samsung confirmed that they would increase their marketing budgets to compete. Which means that we’ll be seeing a lot more Windows Phone devices around, especially if they can get the price point so that they can offer most Windows Phones free on contract.

But thats the future, in the short term there is still an App store that needs developers, customers that wants to buy Apps and most importantly a provider that is actively promoting developers.

In the end it comes down to this, do you want to be a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond?

And for that reason, I’m out…..

Commuting into London with my girlfriend is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my day, as before I used work from home so would ‘lose’ about four hours of us time. We normally talk about plans for the day, news items, things of interest on twitter – the usual stuff.

Today was different.

As I missspelled yet another tweet I decicded that it was time to install a new keyboard; namely Swiftkey. Swiftkey is a popular replacment for the stock Android powered by an AI engine that helps predict your intentions with greater accuracy. Accuracy was something I dearly needed, as since moving to Android I felt like I had regressed to my early dyslexic days getting words and letters all wrong.

So off I went to the marketplace, thinking isn’t it great that I have the option to replace something as fundamental as the keyboard. Perhaps Android isn’t so bad after all.

Installation and setup was fairly simple, and soon enough I had a shiny new keyboard to use. Which promprly started to bog down my system and hold on key presses. Now some of you may have stuck with it, but this really rubbed me up the wrong way and after ten minutes of not much improvement I made my way to the uninstall menu.

Big mistake.

After uninstalling Swiftkey my keyboard defaulted to the chinese/english layout with no obvious way to change it back to the stock keyboard. At this point my girlfriend asked me a question about a tweet of mine, deep in thought of how to sort out this problem I responded with an irritable “What?”.

Afterwards I put the phone away and we continued our normal commute, but I did mull over the problem. As I was walking towards TechHub, it then hit me, that I wasn’t getting annoyed over a keyboard, it was the operating system.

The Android keyboard is a microcosm for the overall platform, the very nature of android and the fact that you can replace something as important as a keyboard is used as excuse for a substandard effort. The mindset feels like (and this is just my personal opinion) that the feeling is that its ok, not bad, satisfactory. Not good enough? Don’t worry install something else!

I fail to see how making the user apply plasters, bandages and gauze to a platform to correct its faults,  is not only acceptable but lauded as a unique selling point.

Android and I are getting a divorce, it isn’t amicable.

Why 2012 will be the most exciting year in mobile yet

The rapid change in technology over the last five years has been nothing short of astounding, we have seen established brands such as Blackberry and Nokia go from market dominance to struggling underdogs. We’ve seen the dominance of Apple, the beauty of the multitouch capacitive screen and the lightning in a bottle that is the well developed ecosystem. As exciting as they have been, I don’t think its going to hold a candle to 2012.

I say this for a number of reasons:

  1. It has taken time for smartphones to be ready for consumers
  2. It has taken time for consumers to be ready for smartphones
  3. Platform App stores are now the defacto content delivery mechnisim
  4. Developers are now empowered with tools and easy (ish) languages and more importantly are finally getting the respect and recognition they deserve.

We now have an educated consumer base, who want to purchase apps and services, demand more from their phone and expect it to be delivered faster. We have a mature ecosystems where you can buy movies, tv shows, games, utilities and more all under one well designed roof.  But more importantly all companies understand that they need to have a mobile strategy and continue to invest in it.

Now it would be foolish to not to mention the most dominant force in mobile today, Apple. Apples’ success has been nothing short of phoenix like, from being 90 days from bankrupcy in 1996, to being one of the worlds richest companies in 2011. Its products are beautifuly engineered and executed, popular and aspirational. The App Store is the number one player in the game and to some the only player. Its users buy more and spend longer using their apps. Apple will not be dislodged from its position in 2012 or 2013 for that matter.

However to modify a phrase used by Steve Jobs: For other companies to win, Apple doesn’t have to lose.

Android
My thoughts on current versions of android arent all that positive, versions up to 2.3 (gingerbread) feel rough around the edges, a powerful but somewhat blunt tool when it comes to the user experience. However, Google understands that it can’t succeed if it delivers a sub par user experience and with its next release Ice Cream Sandwich it is improving all aspects of the User interface. Android is already well on its way to becoming the most popular (by units sold) platform, but with ICS it will finally have a response to the long standing criticisms. Combine this with the number of hardware partners and a well established eco system it becomes more than just a cheap alternative to iOS.

Blackberry
Rim has had a tough couple of years, all of which are its own fault for ignoring the market. It has rushed to catch up but faltered at each step, its tablet dreams fell short of market expectations and users have been leaving in droves. All is not lost as they have begun a platform transition away from current operating systems and are focussed on trying to improve all aspects of pretty much everything they do. People also forget the huge presence in emerging markets like Latin America, how RIM seeks to bolster its marketshare will be crucial. They have started delivering handsets that people want and like, have set out a clearer roadmap and begun new developer initiatives to keep their Eco system alive. 2012 is make or break for Blackberry, hopefully that will lead to some interesting developments

Windows Phone
Now this is the dark horse, released last year to a smattering of applause was Microsofts scorched earth policy to its previous mobile platforms. It has started from scratch and developed an interesting take on the user interface, forced consistency from its hardware partners and strived to court developers to create apps and services. Most importantly it has convinced Nokia to sideline its Symbian and Meego operating systems and concentrate on developing Windows Phone handsets. In short Nokia is fundamental to the success of Windows phone, it brings brand value, high quality production capabilities and manufacturing and delivery infrastructure like no other.

Nokia is committing a huge spend to marketing of its new Windows devices (three times larger than any other Nokia marketing budget), which is getting the platform visible in new ways. Microsoft has a small but growing App store, and with Nokia seeding 25, 000 developer devices to developers worldwide in 2012 it is only going to increase in size. A major side effect of Nokia working with Microsoft is that it is forcing the hand of other Windows phone licensees to up their game to compete. From marketing to device design there is now a premium level Windows phone handset which opens up new options for manufacturers.

In summary we have multiple ecosystems that have matured, devices that put customers first, platforms that are despearte to win and customers who understand the product.

2012 has the makings of the perfect storm and I cannot wait to see what happens.