NYT on “pay up or wait” freemium games

In my prior post, I detailed how (from my perspective) Rovio has managed to just about ruin what had been one of the best game franchises in history: Angry Birds. The crux of the problem was the introduction of in-app purchases that are now required to get the best scores — combined with incessant nagging during game play to get you to spend money on these purchases. This strategy may be working well for Rovio’s short-term profits, but it comes at a cost that may well have a long-term negative effect.

As gamers no doubt know, this is not just restricted to Angry Birds. As it turns out, the front page of yesterday’s New York Times ran an article about increasing complaints regarding the spread of “freemium” games — where you download the game for free but then have to shell out significant money to actually play it:

…the freemium model is encountering some resistance. Regulators here and overseas are taking a closer look at whether some free games mislead consumers about the true costs of playing them and whether vulnerable players, like children, might be duped into spending money.

I don’t entirely oppose the idea of freemium apps. They can even be a good way to allow a “try before you buy” method for distributing a game. For example, after downloading a free game, you could play the first 5 levels, but then have to pay a reasonable fee to unlock the remaining levels.

What I object to is, as described in the New York Times article, more like the situation for the recently released Dungeon Keeper app:

The free mobile version of the game began its solicitations for in-app purchases early and with gusto. Players faced waits of 24 hours to dig out sections of earth to create their dungeons unless they spent real money to accelerate the process. A demon character taunted them to pay up.

Let’s hope that game developers, such as Rovio and Electronic Arts, begin to see their miscalculations here and that the pendulum begins to swing back in the other direction. I doubt freemium games will vanish from the landscape, but they can be made much less annoying, misleading, demanding and intrusive.

Posted in Games, General, iOS, Technology | Comments Off on NYT on “pay up or wait” freemium games

Ruining Angry Birds: In-app purchases and top scores

The following is a slightly modified version of something I originally posted as a comment at the Angry Birds Nest website. Angry Birds Nest (which is not affiliated with Rovio) is a site devoted to all things Angry Birds. One section of the site includes Leaderboards, where members can post their top scores. As Rovio has added features to their games, especially ones that require in-app purchases to obtain items that may improve your scores, there has been an ongoing debate on ABN as to whether such “enhanced” scores should be allowed in the Leaderboards. Purists (including myself and apparently most of the site’s members) want them kept out. But it’s been increasingly hard to enforce such restrictions. As a result, the site has gradually loosened it rules.

My posting was a response to this loosening. If you’ve never played Angry Birds, this may be of little interest (and some of it may be a bit hard to follow). Even if you have played the games, this may not be relevant if you don’t care about high scores. However, many people do play Angry Birds and do care about high scores. Also, I believe the basic arguments have relevance to many other competitive iOS games. So I thought I would repost the comment here, where it may get a wider audience.

“I wanted to offer my two cents regarding ABN’s policy of allowing scores achieved via character swaps (an option that ultimately requires in-app purchases and allows for higher scores than could be otherwise obtained) on the Leaderboards for Angry Birds Star Wars II.

In brief, I support the decision. But not because I think it’s a good idea. Rather because, given how Rovio has structured the game, ABN really had no other choice.

Here’s the dilemma from my perspective:

Completing any Angry Birds level is about achieving two related goals. The first is to get the highest score you can. The second (which doesn’t get mentioned at ABN as much) is to solve the puzzle.

To explain what I mean by “solve the puzzle,” I go back to the original Angry Birds and Angry Birds Seasons games. Here, all players were restricted to the same level playing field: the set of birds assigned to each level. There was an unstated assumption (which turned out to be true) that Rovio had designed each level so that it was possible to get a top score that was significantly higher than the minimum needed for three stars. To achieve these top scores, you needed to figure out how Rovio had designed the level to be best played. That was the puzzle to be solved.

Often there were non-obvious semi-hidden paths to success. Figuring out what best to do was similar to solving a maze game or a crossword puzzle. This aspect of Angry Birds was always the most fun and challenging for me. There was the joy of that “aha” moment when you suddenly realized there was a totally different way to play the level than you had been doing, one that achieved a much higher score.

That’s why, when I checked the Leaderboards and saw some top scores (or worse still, average scores) that were significantly higher than my best effort, I knew it was time to head back to the drawing board — and figure out what I was doing wrong. Eventually, occasionally only after hours of experimenting, I almost always solved the puzzle and joined the group of top scores. As a last resort, I checked the walk-throughs to discover what I had missed. For me, going to the walk-throughs was an admission of defeat. It was tantamount to going to the solutions page for a crossword puzzle to find out the answers to the clues that had stumped me.

Taken together, this all made Angry Birds and especially Angry Birds Seasons two of my all-time favorite games.

But now, with things like the character swaps (and even worse, the horrible “Last Chance” option) in Angry Birds Star Wars II, all of that is gone. Solving the puzzles have been largely supplanted by an assortment of gimmicks that allow you to get “enhanced” higher scores. All of these gimmicks encourage you to spend money on in-app purchases, something that the game continuously and annoyingly prompts you to do. The Last Chance option is especially irksome, as it entirely abandons a critical aspect of the game: the limit on how many turns you get before a level is over.

To be fair, solving puzzles is not necessarily gone. You can still play the game as if all those gimmicks do not exist (which is what I do). But it’s gone if you want to compare your scores with the Leaderboards at ABN or in Apple’s Game Center — because those boards contain the “artificially enhanced” scores.

This became especially apparent in the Rise of the Clones levels. There were levels that had top scores between 20,000 and 45,000 more points than I had been able to achieve. I was almost certain there was no way to get those scores with the default set of birds. Mystified as to how these scores had been obtained, I went to the walk-throughs. Sure enough, I discovered that these scores were made possible only via character swaps. The purist in me rejected this as a solution.

Now, I suppose one could argue that figuring out which characters to use and how best to use them is just another type of puzzle to be solved. I might be persuaded to agree with that, but only if the swaps were truly part of the game — meaning that players had an unlimited permanent pool of all the characters to draw from. That way you could experiment and try different strategies — just as you can do with the default set of characters.

This is definitely not the case. Inevitably, to experiment with an assortment of different characters, and especially to try low probability of success maneuvers, you will have to spend money to purchase additional character quantities. This erases the level playing field of yore. Those with more money (or at least a greater willingness to spend money) will wind up with a significantly better chance of attaining high scores. And, without checking the walk-throughs (which, as I said, I like to avoid), there is no way of knowing how the listed high scores were achieved — especially if or how character swaps or last chances were used.

Let’s be frank. The reason Rovio put all these additional options into their games is not because they thought it would improve gameplay or add to a player’s enjoyment. If that was the case, they could have included the options for free or perhaps for a one-time upgrade fee. No, Rovio is looking for every way it can to squeeze more money out of its user base. And a never-ending stream of in-app purchasing is, from their perspective, the perfect way to do it. Combined with the incessant unavoidable advertising (and “Stuck?” screens and “Carbonite melting” messages) that keep appearing, my personal enjoyment of Angry Birds Star Wars II has deteriorated to the point that I almost ready to abandon it altogether.

So yes, for all these reasons, I would prefer if the Leaderboards remained free of character swaps and such. However, I recognize that enforcing this, especially for a game that had these options built in right from the start, is all but impossible to do. As I see it, the ABN site was in a rock vs. hard place position and made the best decision they could. It’s just too bad that Rovio put them in that position.”

Update [July 2014]: Rovio has somehow managed to make a bad situation worse. In the Master Your Destiny section of the latest update to the Star Wars II game, there are no provided birds at all! Instead, you have to use saved characters for each and every toss, drawing down your storage. This effectively means that getting a top score will require spending money, as there is no way to sufficiently experiment with different strategies given the limited amount of birds you can acquire for free. For example, I typically play a level several hundred times before assuming I’ve got my best score. There’s no way I could do this with spending a lot of money here.

I checked the reviews of the game on iTunes. There are now many one-star reviews expressing this same sentiment. As for me, I have dumped this game and will never play it again. I only hope that Rovio does not wind up doing something similar to Angry Birds Seasons, my favorite of the Rovio games.

Posted in Entertainment, Games | Comments Off on Ruining Angry Birds: In-app purchases and top scores

The 3 biggest takeaways from WWDC keynote

Dreams really do come true.

That’s the mantra I kept repeating to myself as I watched this year’s WWDC Keynote. Make no mistake: this was a historic keynote. It’s hard to overstate what Apple did today. An incredible number of groundbreaking features were revealed for both the OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 — due out this fall.

Consider this for starters: Apple announced Health (new iOS “health and fitness apps that can communicate with each other, with your trainer, and even with your doctor”), HomeKit (software that provides control of home automation devices from your iPhone or iPad) and an entirely new programming language (Swift). These announcements alone (actually, even just one of them) would be sufficient to satisfy most companies as the entirety of a media event. And yet, for this year’s WWDC, Apple only had time to briefly mention them. If you blinked,  you missed the topics altogether. That’s how much was going on here.

But I digress (which is very easy to do with today’s announcements). Back to my dreams coming true. Of the new features Apple announced, three in particular stand out for me. That’s because they each represent Apple delivering on items that have been on my wish list for more years than I care to count.


Over the years, I have written numerous articles about the potential “iOS-ification” of OS X. Loosely defined, the term refers to making OS X run more like iOS. As I pointed out, this could be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Apple could have chosen to make OS X increasingly mimic iOS system attributes — such as a lack of access to system software and the removal of the Finder. To me, that would be a disaster.

The better side of iOS-ification is to have OS X work ever more seamlessly with iOS, while not changing the basic OS X structure. This is the direction Apple has been going in previous iterations of OS X. Maps is a perfect example — with its ability to send a directions map directly from OS X to your iOS device. Another example is the similarity of interface and shared content of Notes across both OS X and iOS apps.

My dream was that Apple would continue down this road and avoid the dark path altogether. Happily, this is precisely what Apple has done. With OS X Yosemite, Apple not only expanded similarities of apps across platforms, but doubled down with the introduction of an entirely new set of features called Continuity.

One aspect of this (called Handoff) allows what you do on one platform to be instantly picked up on another. This means, for example, you can start working on an email on your Mac and finish it up (and send it) from your iPhone.

Via Continuity features, you can also access capabilities from one platform to use on the other. For example, with Yosemite and iOS 8, you’ll be able to answer and make phone calls on your Mac via a connection to your iPhone. Your Mac can also make an instant Hotspot connection to your iPhone, for online access when no Wi-Fi is available.

[Update: Almost forgot to mention: AirDrop will finally work between iOS and OS X devices.]

This is potentially huge for Apple. If all of this works anywhere close to as well as it appeared in the demos, it will have the added benefit (to Apple) of selling more Macs. If you currently own an iPhone and a PC, it forces you to consider how much better your workflow would be if you instead had an iPhone and a Mac.

iCloud Drive

At least since 2010, I have been complaining about iOS file-sharing — especially sharing documents between Macs and iOS devices. I have lamented about how complicated (and sometimes impossible) it has been to make such transfers. More recently, while noting improvements to document sharing, I still lamented remaining limitations — such as that files saved to Documents-in-the-Cloud are accessible only from the app that created the document. This meant, for example, that there was no way to take a TextEdit document saved to iCloud on your Mac and open that file in any iOS app.

My dream was that Apple would someday relent and provide Dropbox-like access to files in iCloud. With iCloud Drive, Apple appears to have granted my wish. [It’s sort of a mashup of the now extinct iDisk with iCloud’s Documents in the Cloud.]

Although I still have questions about how exactly iCloud Drive works, it is at least a welcome step in the right direction. On the Mac, it appears that you drag documents to the iCloud Drive window/folder. Having done that, you can work on (and save changes to) these documents directly from within that location. More importantly, iOS apps can bring up an iCloud Drive panel to have access to (and thus be able to open) these same files, regardless of the app that created the file on the Mac. At last!


Over the years, one of the most frustrating features of iOS has been the inability to extend the reach of third-party iOS utilities system-wide. Two obvious examples: Wouldn’t it be great if you could easily access TextExander shortcuts from any iOS app? Or access 1Password’s data from within Safari?

I have maintained hope that, despite the restrictions due to sandboxing, Apple might some day allow such options. With iOS 8’s new extensibility, Apple appears to have delivered on this third dream of mine. I’m not yet certain whether it will allow TextExpander or 1Password to do what I want, but it’s definitely moving in that direction. As demo-ed at the Keynote, you’ll certainly be able to do things like add filters to the Photos app, add your own choice of third-party apps to Shared sheets, add custom widgets to Notifications, and even (trumpets blaring here) add system-wide third-party keyboards!

This is huge. Mega-huge. It will take awhile before third-party developers update their apps to take advantage of all of this. But it could well turn out to be the most significant new feature in iOS since the App Store opened.

Wait! There’s more…

So those are three items at the top of my WWDC announcements list. But they are hardly the only ones that generated excitement. Here’s a sampling of other features that are sure to generate buzz in the months ahead:

• With the new Messages app, you’ll be able to speak a message and have it delivered as audio to the recipient. No need for you to type or even dictate your text message.

• With Family Sharing, you can share data with up to six other people — allowing all to automatically share photos, calendars, reminders, music, movies and more.

• With QuickType, iOS devices will predict, based on your prior typing, what you intend to type — before you even enter the first letter of the next word.

• Among the expanded options in Siri, you’ll be able to use Shazam to analyze and recognize songs.

• With Apple’s new Metal SDK, games will be able to process information up to 10X faster, allowing for true console-level performance in iOS.

..and on and on.

Apple didn’t address every item on my wish list. Multi-tasking (as with a split-screen) and simplified copy-and-paste (especially across apps) remain as big items for the future. But I’m fine with that. When I look at all Apple delivered this year, I’m more optimistic than ever about what Apple can do in time for next year. At this rate, I may even be able to throw out my wish list altogether in a year or two.

I know there are nay-sayers out there, grumbling that Apple did not announce any new hardware at the Keynote. I admit that this surprised me as well. At least it did until I considered the full weight of what Apple did announce. Given the scope of what was covered in a fast-paced two hours, there was no room for new hardware. I’m not worried. Before the year is over, I am certain we’ll see new iPhones and new iPads, and almost certainly a new Apple TV, new iMacs, and some sort of wearable technology.

WWDC started the ball rolling with its almost overwhelming number of software announcements. The hardware will soon follow.

No other company besides Apple has such complete control over both the hardware and software ends of the market. This is what allows Apple’s devices to work so well together. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the product integration we saw on the WWDC stage today. That’s why I believe today’s announcements will allow Apple to go beyond its current lead in innovation and lap the competition altogether. They are that significant.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Technology | 5 Comments

Cosmos and God

It’s easy to understand why Creationists are not pleased with Cosmos: A Space Odyssey. After all, the show’s host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, emphatically and repeatedly states that the universe is billions of years old — in contradiction to the Creationist’s calculated age of less than 7,000 years. The show unequivocally supports a Darwinian view of evolution, another anathema to Creationists. To top it off, the show occasionally takes on religion more directly — noting the pagan origins of Christian holidays and the church’s historical persecution of heretics.

However, the primary challenge that Cosmos presents to religion is more far-reaching. It’s one that extends beyond a minority of people with extreme religious views. By explaining the physical and biological bases of our universe in terms of “natural laws,” it implies an absence of God’s role in their creation and maintenance. Most particularly, the evidence presented on Cosmos represents a challenge to a commonly accepted core religious tenet — the one that states God takes an active interest in and intervenes in our lives, that humans are a central focus of God’s attention, that we should “rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth,” and ultimately that we are in some sense “special” and are the reason behind the very existence of the universe.

How exactly does Cosmos challenge all this? Here’s how…

The science

From the viewpoint of science, humans “arrival” in the universe is hardly special. While the universe is almost 14 billion years old, humans did not appear on earth until the very very end of this enormous stretch of time. As an analogy, if you compressed all of time into a “cosmic year,” humans would not appear until about 8 minutes before midnight on December 31. Christ was  born only 5 seconds(!) before midnight. The American Revolution happened during the final second (the clock tick we are currently living in).

Further, although we are now here, our continued existence is far from guaranteed. For one thing, changes in the size and temperature of our sun will almost certainly destroy the earth within several billion years. Unless we have found a way to colonize other planets by then, humans will disappear. But we needn’t wait that long. Due to both natural and human-caused changes in our environment (such as global-warming), our species is likely to go extinct well before that far-off catastrophe. This should not be a surprise. Extinction is a natural part of life on earth: it’s estimated that “99.9% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct.”

For those who want to cling to the notion that humans represent some sort of pinnacle of creation, the news gets even worse. Most views of the evolution suggest that the very existence of humans is an unlikely occurrence that might well have never happened. By this I mean, if we could rewind the tape of evolution, and allow for different random events to occur as the tape replays, it is quite likely that humans would never appear.

One episode of Cosmos beautifully demonstrated this point. It showed how the earth is not at all the static object that it appears to us to be. It only seems static because the time scale of  change far exceeds our life spans. At the appropriate larger time scale, we would see how the movement of tectonic plates separated the continents and created oceans. These movements continue today and may yet reverse, eventually bringing the land masses back together.

In another example of cycling, repeated minor wobblings of the earth’s orbit over thousands of years result in ice ages. The polar icecaps grow, extending much closer to the equator than they are now, only to recede again as the ice age retreats.

In other words, the human-friendly earth that now exists may not remain in the future.

Not every big change occurs in cycles that take thousands of years to transpire. Our planet’s evolution is occasionally altered by dramatic one-time random events — such as the giant meteor that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. If that meteor had not landed, it’s quite plausible that dinosaurs would still roam the earth and humans would have never evolved.

Finally, there’s the matter of the earth’s place within the vast scope of the universe. The earth is one of several planets orbiting the sun, the collection of objects that make up our solar system. The size of our solar system is immense. In fact, it has only been in the last year or so that Voyager 1 managed to become the first human-made object to exit our solar system. It took years of travel to do so. Members of our species may never travel much beyond the borders of our solar system. It would take 4 light-years, for example, just to get to our nearest star.

And yet, the size of our solar system is dwarfed by the rest of the universe. Our solar system is just one of billions of such systems in our galaxy. In fact, if you were to look at an 8×10 photo of the Milky Way galaxy, our sun would be too small to distinguish, buried in a tiny unremarkable corner. And our galaxy is just one of about “100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.” Put another way, if you held up a grain of sand to the night sky, the patch that it covers would contain about 10,000 galaxies. The universe is so large that, even if we could travel at the speed of light, it would take about 93 billion years to travel from one end to the other.

The story may not end with our universe. Most recently, astrophysicists are coming to the conclusion that there are multiple universes. Ours is merely one of many.

Viewed from this pan-universe perspective, the “pale blue dot” of earth is infinitesimally small. It is of no consequence to our universe, certainly not to a multi-verse. If the universe can survive supernovas that destroy entire star systems, it can certainly survive without earth. If you metaphorically thought of just our universe as equivalent to a human body, the earth’s destruction would be about like the death of one sub-cellular structure in one random unimportant cell.

The questions

Returning to the matter of religion, the immense size and time scale of our universe would appear to pose some problems:

If we egocentrically maintain that humans are the crowning achievement of God’s creation, a primary reason for the very existence of the universe, how does it make sense for the universe to be so large that most of it has no direct bearing on our existence? And, conversely, that we have almost no influence beyond our planet? What’s the point of having solar systems so far away that we can never even know of their existence? Why wouldn’t an omnipotent God create something on a more human-like scale?

Similarly, why create a universe in which humans did not even arrive until billions of years after the birth of the universe, at the last few “minutes”? Wouldn’t it make more sense for an omnipotent God to bring humans on the scene much sooner?

Given that we are likely to go extinct as a species, how can we be central to “God’s plan”? From a religious perspective, what is the “purpose” of a universe existing after we are gone? And what would have been the purpose of a universe where we, as a species, never even appeared?

Finally, given the immense size of the universe, it’s likely that there is life, perhaps life similar to ours, on at least a few other planets out there. If this is so, what are the implications for a “special creation” of humans on earth? Are these other life forms on other planets just as important to God? If not, why not?

Taken together, it’s hard to comprehend how all of this can fit within a view that places humans at the center of God-directed existence. Not impossible, granted. But very hard. Cosmos’ creators may or may not have intended to raise these challenges. But that is the effect the show has had on me, and I presume many others.

The answers

One response to these challenges is to assert that science is simply wrong. Despite all the contrary evidence, for example, one might still contend that the earth is less than 7,000 years old. Why? Because the Bible says so. This is the Creationist view.

Nothing I or anyone could say will affect people who hold such a view. At the same time, it’s relatively easy for the rest of us to dismiss these extreme views. The contrary evidence, from geology to evolution to astrophysics, is too overwhelming. That’s why I am instead appealing here to people who are at least willing to consider alternatives.

So what about a less extreme view, one that is more consonant with science but still maintains humanity’s central position? One could accept certain facts, such as the billion years age of the universe, and yet largely ignore their implications. If evidence or logic makes a religious view seem implausible, the explanation is that God’s reasons are unknowable to us. In other words, one resorts to the familiar adage: “God works in mysterious ways.” Perhaps the answers will become clear years from now. Perhaps they never will.

By this view, we needn’t explain why a human-focused God created such an immense universe that existed for such an immense stretch of time before humans arrived. We simply accept it as true and assume we are too ignorant to ever know God’s rationales. Similarly, God may yet intervene with a miracle and prevent the events that would otherwise lead to our species’ extinction. We can’t know.

Unfortunately, “mysterious ways,” “unknowable futures” and miracles are the weakest cop-outs of arguments. They are non-explanations which can never be proven or disproven. No amount of scientific knowledge can ever call such “explanations” into question. As such, they are useless.

This doesn’t deny the possible existence of some “higher power.” After all, the creation and scope of the universe are indeed hard to fathom. “Why is there anything?” remains an almost impossible to answer question.

That’s why I’m not trying to mount a philosophical argument to prove or disprove the existence of God here. If that’s what you want, there’s plenty of material out there for you to digest, written by experts with much more knowledge than I have (although I did take a brief amateur’s stab at the topic several years back).

Rather, I am suggesting skepticism at the idea of an interventionist God, one that answers prayers and metes out punishments, one that performs miracles, and especially one that places earth and humans at the central core of existence. If you can temporarily suspend any a priori belief in such notions, I believe an Occam’s Razor test would lead to the conclusion that such a view of God doesn’t fit with our scientific understanding of the universe.

The universe, as viewed through the lens of modern science, is no less amazing and awe-inspiring than a Biblical universe. It is simply one that does not place humans at its center. It forces us to accept that we are not anything close to as “special” as most religions would have us believe.

While some religious groups may thus view science as a threat, I prefer to view science more optimistically — as a light that illuminates the darkness that would otherwise surround us, a light that provides the means to understand the wonders of our world and offers our best chance for continuing to survive on this earth and within this universe we call home.

Posted in Evolution, Religion, Science | 8 Comments