Obligation games

Written by David Frampton @ 12:45 am, May 3, 2010

As a user I have stayed away from all these games. I’ve still never played Farmville, and I didn’t play ‘We Rule’ for ages. I could see what they were about, and knew they were just a drug.

But as a developer, I should have looked at them a lot earlier. I have spent hours over the past few days using We Rule and GodFinger. It has been a real eye opener, so I thought I would share some thoughts on them.

I’m going to call them “obligation games”. I’ve heard the words “social obligation” thrown around about these types of game in the past, and while it does apply, I think the genre is better defined by the word “obligation” alone.

The main obligation is to come back and stay a while. They prey on the deeply rooted human need to care for things so they grow, and to not let things die. Stuff grows quicker if you spend more time in the game, and If you don’t start up the game within a certain period of time, things die.

The user part of me, who gave up smoking a year ago, sees this as another smoking habit. It’s a bit nasty to start with, then once you get the hang of it, you feel unfulfilled without it. At a level below the conscious and reasoning mind, you simply have no choice other than to start up the game to harvest the onions you sowed 1 hour ago. Imagine the horror if those onions went bad. You’d lose like 7 fields worth. And that would be 1050 gold, shit, then I wouldn’t be able to sow another 40 fields of onions.

So you spend hours a day looking after your virtual farm. That is the “killing yourself” part of smoking. You are spending hours a day accomplishing absolutely nothing. That farm will not teach you useful skills, it will not help you to create meaningful new relationships, or put food on the table. The hours a day you spent harvesting virtual onions could in fact have been used in the real world achieving all of the above.

But as a developer, I think it’s brilliant. People are hopeless at seeing the real world. People smoke even though it kills them, they gamble even though they will lose over time, they get insurance even though on average they pay more than they get, and they buy on hire purchase even though in the long run they’ll get less stuff as a result.

It’s perfect. Hook people by praying on their most primitive urges, offering them primal candy and punishing them if they don’t come back when they said they would. Make the gaps between the candy slightly larger each time, so just like a real drug the user plays for longer and longer to search for that elusive first buzz. Then once you’ve got them completely and utterly addicted, start charging them.

I’m sure most people who know me would expect I am about to take the moral high ground here and dismiss the whole obligation game genre as evil.

Well I’m not going to.

People have to take responsibility for their own lives. If you’re an alcoholic gambling smoker with insurance playing ‘We Rule” on your credit-card bought iPad, you deserve the consequences. Now all ngmoco have to do is make the games actually fun (they’ve got the addictive part nailed, but the gameplay is poor), and we’ll all be doomed.

Put links in your lite versions

Written by David Frampton @ 10:15 pm, April 6, 2010

I hope I’m preaching to the converted here, but I made the mistake, so chances are someone else might too.

Chopper Lite has been available for nearly a year now. It is getting between 1000 and 3000 downloads a day, has been for months, and before that it was getting many more.

How many sales does that amount to? I don’t really know. I have seen echo effects in my stats, which suggested maybe 20-50 sales a day or so at various points, but I really don’t know.

But here is the crazy thing. Until just days ago, I had no up-sell in my lite version. Nothing explaining what the full version offered. No links to the full version. The lite version was stand-alone – I assumed people knew what ‘lite’ meant, and would hunt for the full version.


This happened because at the time I released it, lite apps were getting rejected all over the place for selling too hard. I decided to err on the (extreme) side of caution, with the intent to add some links in my next feature update. But a feature update never came.

So that’s my lame excuse.

Turns out though, that putting a few links and a sales pitch in the lite version has contributed to a 300-500% increase in sales of the full version. Unfortunately, the same updates that introduced these changes also made Chopper universal, and coincided with the iPad launch, and I cannot fully isolate this effect from the iPad effect.

However, I have seen that in the past 5 days or so just over 10,000 people have clicked on one of these links. That is 10,000 more than before. Hundreds have bought the full version of Chopper as a result, though just how many, I don’t know. And I don’t know how many of those people would have just bought it by searching in the App Store.

But 10,000 clicks! 300-500%! Hundreds! Fuzzy stats that indicate something good!

So that is my pitch to you. If you don’t have links to your full version in all the right places, and some stuff saying what you are missing out on in the lite version, do it. Now. And be sure to use LinkShare when you do it, and add a signature thing to each link so you can see where in your app people are clicking.

Movies are awesome but…

Written by David Frampton @ 9:54 am, March 27, 2010

Movies are awesome to watch in the theatre… but…

Why make all the effort to go to the movies, when you can watch HD Blu-rays at home a little later, only a little worse, and eventually a little cheaper. A PS3 and a decent sound system isn’t far behind.

But I don’t pick up many Blu-rays. They often cost more than the cinemas, and sometimes don’t play without a player update, or take forever to load up. Does anyone understand those insane menus? And DVDs are way cheaper, play on more systems, and are not much worse.

I hardly ever watch DVDs though, they are full of piracy warnings and I have to go to the store to get them. They get scratches and skip or don’t play. iTunes movies on an AppleTV are much more convenient.

But I don’t download many iTunes movies. The selection is crap, and bandwidth charges really add up. The AppleTV has DRM and such too. It’s easier and cheaper to just torrent them.

I don’t torrent much stuff though, it takes forever, uses up my bandwidth and it’s often shit quality. And I worry that my ISP might be watching me.

I’d much rather just go and watch the movie at a decent quality in a theatre.

App Store gifting scam

Written by David Frampton @ 2:13 am, March 26, 2010

UPDATE – I had made the incorrect assumption that apps could be gifted using an account balance loaded from gift cards. This is not the case. Gifted apps require payment by credit card, as kindly pointed out in the comments by Zeno Popovici and verified by myself. I regret the error, and have modified this post accordingly. I would actually go as far as to say without this part of it, it’s no longer really a scam. I’d now call it ‘gaming the system’.

UPDATE 2 – It has now been discovered that gifting does not affect ranks. So the scam doesn’t exist now (it may never have) and I regret doing this whole post. I’ll leave it here however, as a reminder to wait until all the facts are known before ranting about what could be. Lesson learned. Now move along :)

Earlier this week, Apple opened up app ‘gifting’. Anyone can give any app to anyone else as a gift. This has been available for music for a long time, but it has only been applied to apps this week.

So that’s great right? Perhaps, but it opens up the potential for a pretty big scam.

The first thing to note, is that developers will still get 70% of the purchase price of gifted apps. So developers can gift their own apps to anyone, and in the end, only pay 30% of the purchase price to do so.

OK, but why would developers do that? Well, doing bulk giveaways was not possible before. Developers had 50 promo codes per update, and that was it. Now developers can do big giveaways of 1000 apps+.

So why do that? The obvious answer is to gain press and interest. Large scale giveaways attract attention, so for $300, a developer can give away 1000 copies of their app, and lavish in all the attention this creates.

But it gets better. To gift an app, you need the email address of the recipient. This is how Apple knows who to credit the app too. So not only does a developer get hype and press, but 1000 email addresses to stick on their mailing list, and announce new products to.

And it gets better still. At this point, no one is certain of whether gifted apps affect ranks in the top 100s. But unless Apple are displaying an uncharacteristic bout of careful App Store planning, they almost certainly will. So currently, there is a very good chance, that the day a developer gifts those 1000 copies, their app hits the top 100, and gets all the extra eye-balls such a placement receives.

The developer need only sell 300 copies due to the higher top 100 placement, and this little scam has paid for itself.

But wait, there’s more.

Developers needn’t pay full price when they gift their app. Right now in New Zealand you can buy 2x$20 iTunes gift cards for $30. I have heard of similar specials being held in the US at places like Best Buy.

So at 25% off, you’re paying only 5c per 99c app giveaway. And in New Zealand’s case, and no doubt some other locations, you’re paying GST for the card, but not on the app purchase. So apple end up actually paying me around 5c (tax free) every time I gift an app.

So, I get press, a mailing list to spam, a shot at the top 100 with the associated extra sales, and Apple pay me $50 to do it.


Except I won’t do it. If it’s not legally wrong, it’s certainly morally wrong. I’m posting this as it is interesting, and perhaps as a warning to Apple, but I hope developers won’t do this. It would make a mockery of the store, and is unfair to Apple, and unfair to honest developers.

Unfortunately, some developers will, and some are already trying it out to some degree.

I just hope Apple close the loophole before this gets out of hand. A limit to the number of gifts you can send per account per month would probably do the trick.

Universal iPad Apps

Written by David Frampton @ 10:03 am, March 24, 2010

As I am writing this blog post, the iPad is less than two weeks from launch. Developers have three days to submit iPad apps if they want them considered for the ‘Grand opening of the iPad App Store’. But us developers are a little unsure on one thing.

To be universal or not to be universal. That is the question.

There are a ridiculous number of apps in the app store, and a decent number of those apps will have native iPad ports available on April the 3rd. Some of them will ask the user to pay for the native iPad version if they already have the iPhone version, some will not.

Some will unfairly demand payment for the same app with twice the pixels. Some will fairly ask for a contribution to the large amount of work involved in tailoring an experience for a uniquely new device.

How developers’ decisions to go universal or not are perceived by the public is currently an unknown. It largely depends on how Apple implement the iPad App Store, and change the iPhone App Store, as well as what other developers decide to do.

But my apps will be universal. Apple are encouraging it, and customers will vocally prefer it.

And though I may halve my sales, I also may double the number of devices I have apps installed on. The maths of this is all a bit beyond me, but a hunch says that the day one iPad users will sell my apps better than anyone else ever will. I want them all, and making my apps universal is a good way to get them.

UPDATE – It has been pointed out to me that Apple are requesting that submissions of universal updates to current apps be left until after April 3rd. See about half way down this page: http://bit.ly/cSmog7 – “Don’t submit a universal app as an update to your existing iPhone app until after iPad ships.”

This sucks, as I’ll be missing out on the launch, but I’ll be going universal anyway, and most of this post still stands. I guess we’ll just see substantially less universal apps at launch.

Ubisoft’s backwards DRM

Written by David Frampton @ 4:21 am, February 18, 2010

Ubisoft recently announced a new digital rights management system for their PC games. Ubisoft publishes Assassin’s Creed 2, and though not yet available on the PC, some reviewers have now received copies of the game.

These pre-release versions use the new DRM system, and early reports are that it’s worse than at first feared.

So what’s the problem? The big technical issue is that the game requires an active internet connection. Not just for multiplayer, or for installation, or even for launching the game, but always. If you unplug the cable or the network goes down, the game actually exits. It even loses some game progress, making you start again at the last checkpoint.

It should be pretty obvious why this is a bad thing. You can’t play the game if your PC isn’t on a network for one, which in the case of my Windows machine, is always true. Perhaps others aren’t as paranoid about XP’s security flaws as I, but it also rules out playing it on most flights, or when out of wifi range on a laptop.

And then there is the whole ‘what if their server goes down’ thing. And the ‘what if they change the DRM later and stop supporting the old one’ thing. Which happens, BTW. Google ‘drm server down’. The internet is littered with such stories. Also, imagine trying to play if your connection is at all unreliable.

I should briefly mention, that as these products are still not released, Ubisoft has a chance to fix things. They’ve made it pretty clear they don’t think anything is broken though. As can be seen in the quote at the bottom of this PC Gamer article.

So until they change their tune, I am boycotting all Ubisoft games, on all platforms. You should too.

This isn’t just about the problem itself, or how it will effect you or me, this is a clear signal from a games publisher that they don’t trust customers, and are quite prepared to offer a lousy experience to prove it.

Don’t believe them when they tell you it will actually solve the piracy problem, either. I’d be surprised if this new DRM wasn’t cracked and rendered useless within a day or two of going live. It won’t stop the pirates at all. It’s just a pointless gesture, pushed on customers without any regard for how it will affect them.

This isn’t good for anyone, and if we let them get away with this behavior now, it will stick around. We’ll see it picked up by other companies too.

So don’t buy Ubisoft games. Buy something from Blizzard, they’re doing it right.

Why I pay for software

Written by David Frampton @ 10:42 pm, February 16, 2010

On twitter recently I mentioned how I had once or twice been in the unfortunate situation of having to use GIMP and/or Inkscape. I also said they are fine if you have nothing else available.

This, of course, led to an amount of outcry from a few people defending these two software packages. It was all very civil, and actually kind of not as vocal as I had expected. But it was there. It’s always there. Then, of course, I was asked to explain what the usability issues are, and to file bug reports.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of what it is that makes me want to throw my computer out the nearest window whenever I have to use these applications.

And not having to explain this, is exactly why I pay for software.

I pay for someone else to tell the people who make it why it sucks. And I pay the people who make it to fix it.

Photoshop might be insanely overpriced, buggy, have an unnecessarily steep learning curve, have no free bug fix updates, an arcane copy protection system…. but at least I don’t have adobe on my back demanding I tell them about it. Or telling me to fix it myself.

A developer’s thoughts on the iPad

Written by David Frampton @ 1:31 am, January 29, 2010

Much has been said already on the iPad, but I thought I’d chime in. I’ll try to keep everything I say very clearly from a developer’s perspective. I’m excited to get one for my own use, but won’t go into the details here.

To understand exactly where I am coming from, here’s a little background. I have released apps for both the iPhone and the Mac, mostly games or entertainment apps. I am nearing completion of the biggest project of my life, Chopper 2, which will be released first on the iPhone/iPad, and later on the Mac.

So first, the thing I am most surprised and happy about; it’s dirt cheap. I, like many others was expecting a price point of $999, and to see the entry level model at $499 Is incredible. This is fantastic news, as it means more people will be able to afford it, which is more people who can play my games on it. At this early stage in the game it seems to me a very wise move, I just hope they are generating enough devices to satisfy the demand.

And yes, I think it will sell that well. Even in the very short time since it’s release, it has become clear that the hardcore geeks don’t tend to like it, while the general public will be lining up the day before. Exactly the way it should be. Like it or not, geeks do not make up the majority of the population. This is a device for the masses, as much if not more so than the iPhone. And for a game developer, this is a very very good thing.

This won’t be like the App Store gold rush though. When the App Store launched there were already millions of devices ready to rush in and snap up one of the couple of thousand apps available on launch day.

This time, there will be zero devices, and over 140,000 apps that already run. People will still look for iPad specific apps to run on their devices, but it will be a slowly rising level of sales. Sure Apple might sell a million devices on the first day, but it still pales in comparison with the App Store launch. App price expectations are also far lower now, and thousands of developers know how to code for the device, and have iPhone apps ready to port over with a day in Photoshop and a few clicks.

On a more technical level, the up scaling of iPhone apps doesn’t look very good. It simply takes every pixel you’d see on an iPhone, and makes it occupy 4 pixels on the iPad. No interpolation, no cleverness in it’s scaling. This is completely understandable, but means that demand for native/universal ports will be very high. I find it impossible to ignore a flood of emails requesting something, so know already that I will be doing an iPad version of the original version of Chopper.

So it is my belief that developers everywhere will be forced to upgrade their apps. Perhaps not initially, but as the iPad user base grows, it will be hard to ignore. And Apple have made it very clear that their preference is for a ‘Universal’ app – one that runs natively on both types of device. This has a couple of repercussions for developers (and customers).

Firstly, iPhone apps are going to get larger. With the larger display of the iPad, developers need higher resolution graphics to occupy all the pixels. They can’t just double the size of everything though, as that would look bad (and run slow) on the iPhone. So they need to provide two versions of most resources in their app. One the standard iPhone size, and one twice as big (4x the pixels, 4x the MB) as the iPhone version.

If the majority of an app’s size is imagery (which is often the case), this could mean the app is now up to 5x the size of the pure iPhone version. Actual sizes will be a bit less, but even 2x an 8MB app now means your app can’t be downloaded over 3G. And if a customer doesn’t own an iPad, it’s a lot of wasted bandwidth.

Secondly, as a developer, how am I getting paid for this extra effort, porting to the iPad? Some kind of in app purchase thing could theoretically be set up, but customers aren’t going to like that. I don’t really see that as an option. So it’s potentially a lot of work, that we pretty much have to do, for no extra revenue.

Personally, not getting paid for it may not be an issue. I fully expected Chopper 2 to run on a tablet, and have been planning for it since I started last year. With Chopper 1, I may just make the buttons smaller and call it an iPad version. Not sure yet, but perhaps it’s not a big deal.

But, I can definitely see how it could be a big deal for others. With a little foresight, 3D games are easy to port, but some applications are going to require some serious redesigns and graphical overhauls. And all this for zero devices on day one, and zero extra revenue? I’m not sure everyone will be jumping at the opportunity.

But overall, it’s awesome, I’m stoked. This is a device that will be sticking around for a long while yet, and I feel privileged to be able to offer my software on it.

Launching on the App Store – It’s simple physics

Written by David Frampton @ 1:55 am, November 27, 2009

I’ve been asked a little about my thoughts on marketing in the App Store lately. Back in the early days I felt qualified to say a lot, and did, but not so much anymore. However, I am very aware of just how difficult it is to get any kind of traction these days.

Word of mouth is king on the app store, but how do you get enough people using your app to start with so your good app can turn into a recommendation dirty snowball?

There is one important thing I feel developers can do but often fail at. So I’ll share this little tidbit of opinion, you can take it for what it’s worth.

Quite simply, it is: Do all your marketing at once, the very best you can.

That might seem obvious, or might not, I’m not really sure. But I often see developers launch an app with not a lot of fanfare, then when it doesn’t do very well, they try every different marketing method under the sun, one by one.

This is bad.

People are far more likely to notice a launch with an explosion of press than one with a puff here and there, and the press itself is more likely to notice the explosion too.

Basically it’s like a game of Crash Lander where instead of landing, you have to get off the moon. Earth is a far better place anyway. But on your earlier journey to the moon, Bubbles kept accidentally strapping the wrong tanks of gas to the side of the rocket, so now you have a dozen tanks of rocket fuel lying around, but you don’t know how full they are.

Do you:
A) Try them all one after the other, to see which one runs long enough to escape the moon’s gravitational field, or
B) Strap em all on and light em at once.

It’s simple physics. Do everything you can to get your app noticed on day one. If your launch fails, you’re going to have a hard time finding an alternate escape plan.

Web Apps Suck

Written by David Frampton @ 6:23 am, November 14, 2009

I know I’m going to get hate mail for this one… but here goes.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about user interfaces. I became enraged by the terrible user interface of Daz Studio, and then had the pleasure to use Motion. I have generally been using a large number of applications lately, and am currently creating my own fairly complex level editor for Chopper 2.

I could write many blog posts about all the different lessons I have been learning recently, but one in particular stands out.

Web apps suck. I’m talking about the web interfaces to the google suite, the photo editors, the facebook website. Apps that run in web browsers, any app that requires an internet connection to function at all, and does most of its work on a server somewhere.

Of course web apps have their uses. I don’t think they should all just go away, it’s nice to have a web app when nothing else is available. But what I’m saying here, is that compared to a native application, web apps are very much worse, for many reasons.

In the most simplistic sense; you need an internet connection, so your ability to access it is unreliable, you get presented with foreign looking – and behaving – buttons and sliders, and the service could go up in price, or simply disappear on you at any point.

But even if that is OK to you, and you like living on the edge, there is still the yucky user experience due to client-server communication. This is what I’m focusing on here.

The latency between action and response in web apps can be horrible, and this fundamentally comes down to the latency between the client and the server. A problem that I can’t see any solution to in the next decade or two.

Currently, the internet can be a little slow at times. It doesn’t matter if it’s due to server overload, bad local wifi or network, slow or misconfigured databases or whatever… there are many, many reasons why a ping to an app server might take a while, and it always seems to take ‘a while’.

Clicking a button in a local/native application, doing a minor computation, returning and displaying the results takes no time. I mean you simply cannot perceive the time it takes for the button to flash, simple data to get computed, and the result to be displayed. It’s stupidly fast.

Clicking on any button in any web app could take any amount of time. Usually it’s fast-ish. Sometimes it even appears to be as fast as a local app. But it’s not, and sometimes it is far worse.

So every web app, no matter how much it tries to pretend to be a native app, is reliant on the connection to its server, and hence can’t rely on some data being available. If you change some state, you can’t guarantee the state change was valid until the server responds. If you scroll down a list, you can’t guarantee that the new items being revealed will be available, or even still exist.

Most of the time it kind of works, kind of a bit slow, but OK. Every now and then someone turns a microwave on, and you wait. Every now and then someone changes a standard or a server config file, or you upgrade your browser, or the database overloads, and it all goes to shit. You might even lose all your data, despite your everything-in-triplicate local backups of your own machine’s data.

This is Bad. It will always be bad. As technology improves, the technology that uses it also improves. And web based apps are a step behind. Web apps will always have higher latency, more interface issues and a less ‘native’ experience. They will always be a worse user experience than native apps, with less user control.

So why make web apps? Because it is easier. Because a developer made a website, and suddenly it turned into a web app. Because a developer wanted to make something simple for Windows and Mac and iPhone and Linux and couldn’t afford to do it properly. Because a developer intends to inject advertising into the experience at a later date.

Most web apps don’t even have a revenue model. Those ones are figuring out how to capture people so they can spam them or sell their details later.

Web apps suck. They are a poor substitute for a native app, and will continue to be so, for many reasons, for many years to come.

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