On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Sometimes the best topics come stright from the news of the day. This week’s episode does just that. CryEngine on SteamOS, a Crisis for the console market, and a handful of PC and iOS games fill out the discussion.
A couple of weeks ago, the usual suspects were abuzz with a new app. I’ve made it a point to take a look at releases like these, as they often come with a lot of fanfare, praise, and even a few pledges to replace coveted home screen real estate. This time, the app is Checkmark 2, a to-do list with focus on location-based reminders.
First off, and honestly the bit that I think garners Checkmark a place in lists like these to begin with, is the visual design. Animations are smooth and lively; check circles (instead of boxes) swivel like spun coins, strikethrough lines sweep across the item cell, colors shift subtly to indicate state. By most measures the app is beautiful. But that isn’t enough. This is a to-do app. And in such a popular category, the bar is already high.
Next is Checkmark’s most impressive feature. Location-based reminders. Regardless of the rest of the app, and the rest of this review, no other app I’ve used even comes close here. In fact, were Apple to add the same functionality to its own reminders app, I can think of no greater single way that they could improve it. Here, the most important feature is the ability to add a location by dropping a pin. It’s quick, easy, and so brilliantly obvious that I find it difficult to understand why Apple hasn’t been doing it this way all along. On top of that, when you add a location, a selector comes up at the bottom of the screen indicating the size of the geofencing area. I found this incredibly useful when needing a reminder for “when I get into town.” Location based reminders are the reason I’m still using Checkmark and why I will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
I do have a couple of criticisms, however. There’s an issue (or at least I’m assuming that it isn’t intended) where the map view readjusts to a too-near zoom level when selecting the area for a new location. It’s an annoyance more than anything, but one that users will encounter frequently when first starting out with the app. The more locations added, the more unwanted zooms and re-zooms.
The second issue I had was with location groups, a great feature with which you can select several related locations that trigger a single reminder item. The best example is the grocery store. There are likely several in your town or city, and all of them likely sell milk or eggs or whatever it is you need to pick up. With groups, Checkmark will remind you when you arrive at any store that’s grouped into that category.
My issue was with understanding this functionality without having read a review like this one. In the app, location groups appear to be a way that you can organize your locations. For instance, I tried to drag and drop all the locations in my town into one group labeled with the town’s name. Needless to say, the behavior didn’t align with my mental model. A hint, triggered upon first use, would go a long way in remedying this situation; or, if that seems too ham-fisted, a visual cue that suggests these items will trigger together rather be grouped in a folder, sub-folder sort of way.
Lastly, I find myself jumping around in the app too much. Most of my time is spent navigating from one section to the next when it should be a simple, drop in, check an item, drop out process (a recent update greatly improves this).
So, I’ve labeled this post with consider rather than recommended not because I think Checkmark isn’t worth your time or money. On the contrary, it is. Just be sure you know what you’re getting: a beautiful app, like most apps that hit the usual Mac nerd blogs, but one that’s a bit high-maintenance for certain situations. If location based reminders are a staple for you, it’s easily worth the purchase price.
For my everyday reminders, I’ll still be using Fantastical.
I don’t see an easy way to solve this problem. It seems users have this conflicted nature of wanting both simplicity and complexity, and app developers can’t keep both sides happy.
A great article and idea from Linus, but I found myself shaking my head by the end, not because I think it’s a bad argument (I don’t, of course) but because I see this “churn” as a blessing rather than a problem.
Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.
As it is with life, so it is with software. The cruft of the old is swept away by the new and fresh, “unbruised” as Shakespeare might have said and unburdened by the cares of the past.
But unlike life, at least unlike human life, software evolves at breakneck speed. The accruing complexity of an app like Castro or an operating system like iOS, is near enough to the mistakes of its forebears to learn from them.
Simplified writing apps (about which I know a little) tend to add complexity just like any other app does. But not even the most complicated and poorly managed will ever end up with the monstrosity that is Word’s Ribbon Interface. And even though my guess would be that most of Microsoft’s designers hate the Ribbon just as much, they are faced with being the crufty and old. Their customers would never allow even a mild simplification, let alone the steps necessary to make Word into a pleasant user experience. Look no further than Windows 8 (and furthermore 8.1) for your evidence.
It took the compound complexity of Windows and OS X to spur the development of iOS (and Windows Phone). Designers must follow the branches of the complicated in order to create the essential versions that come later.
When I’m not writing this site or teaching high school students, a large portion of my time is given over to fiction. After several years’ work, I have a novel (possibly two, depending on what one considers appropriate length) which I’ve been shopping around to agents for the last six months or so.
In writing said novel, I primarily used three1 applications. Two of these I could hardly consider writing another book without. One is Scrivener. No review I could write would do that program justice. Let it suffice to say that Scrivener is the tool for serious writers. It has a significant learning curve, but the capabilities are well worth the investment of time and laughably small (relative to its utility) amount of money.
The second app essential to my fiction writing process is OmniOutliner. And though Scrivener has an outline function that I also use, sometimes a tool built for a specific task is just the right choice no matter how good your all-purpose tool is. With the recent release of OmniOutliner 4, now seems like a great time to give a recommendation.
Some minds think linearly while others are more spatial. I’m a linear thinker. If you’re anything like me, you’ll likely find OmniOutliner an indispensable application. Take a look at the last piece of fiction you wrote. Sure enough, there’s likely a timeline in the notes. Whether it came into being as the words flowed onto the page or was painstakingly constructed before the drafting process began, every story has a point A from which to begin and a point B at which to end. OmniOutliner helps writers plan the spaces between.
Essentially, OmniOutliner is a program that creates topics and subtopics. Like most well-made software, it boils down easily to its primary elements. Why would you want a tool that seemingly does so little? Well, as ever, it’s all in the details.
Navigating lists and topics happens quickly and fluidly. The new version leverages many of the graphical bells and whistles of modern OS X applications, though never just for the sake of the flourish. Sub categories slide in and out of place, aiding the user in visualizing hierarchy and order. Controls for customizing the look and feel of each item and sub-item do everything from color code for organization to stylize for print or electronic publication.
The entire list system is drag and drop friendly. Just click an item and place it anywhere within the outline at any hierarchical level. In fiction, this is an incredibly useful feature. For every planned story beat, a half-dozen more sprout up as the characters move through their journeys. In such cases, a quick drag and drop reorders the events and helps to visualize areas of the story that drag or are unnecessary. Sort, resort, collapse, expand. Everything is smooth and serves the purpose of the writer.
OmniOutliner surprises as note-taking application as well. Items can even be assigned check boxes for task-oriented users. In addition, any list item can take on an attachment: an image if you happen to have a photo or video to take the place of a description, even an audio note recorded on the device or attached from elsewhere. Personally, my outlines are text only, but the app allows much to be done by those who would utilize all of its features.
And though it’s been a pleasure to use, and a tool I’d rather not write without any time soon, there are some shortcomings. The Omni Group’s applications tend to stay fairly close to the Apple defaults; Outliner is no exception. Unfortunately that means window placement is only stored and refreshed if the user has opted to restore all windows from the previous session in the OS preferences.
I use OmniOutliner for fiction primarily, but I also have a handful of documents that I use in my job as a teacher. Restoring from last session is useless for me, causing far more grief than convenience. So I turn it off. Then, when the weekends come along and I have more time, I open up my writing environment (which an Automator script handles as there are a number of applications and files). Before version 4.0, I was able to keep my several Outliner windows positioned such that I could easily switch between current story outline, timelines, character spreadsheets (in Numbers), and others. Now that positioning has to be laid out each time I sit down to write. It’s an annoyance more than anything, but a seemingly unnecessary one. Even Apple’s own iWork apps remember window state. It’s an extra inconvenience for the user, and a company as good about user experience design as The Omni Group should recognize this.
Despite this, and a few other lesser quibbles, OmniOutliner is still an excellent application and downright essential for writers who think and write well in a classic category-sub category format. Pick it up for $49.99 in the Mac App Store2.
The third is Pages, but Scrivener has fully taken over as the app where I do all of my drafting and editing. ↩
Or for iPad, though I do not own and have not used this version. ↩
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Time will outlast us all, if it even exists, but in gaming, time is often a tool or a feature or altogether absent. What happens if games focus on time in a different way? In life, we grow, we live, we build families and communities, and then we die. The story doesn’t end there. Future generations carry on the legacy. Could the same be made true for our in-game selves?
Over the last week or so, the conversation around podcasts turned to the question of ads and editorial integrity. I’ve stayed mostly out of it, but then I read Jaime Ryan’s impassioned piece from this weekend. In his own words:
Much of the conversation centred around podcasts and whether or not the host(s) of a podcast would be able to freely discuss a topic that may potentially paint a sponsor in a bad light. As far as I’ve seen this is all still hypothetical because nobody actually has a solid example of where this has already happened.
As he explains further, I don’t have any skin in the game insofar as Critically Speaking doesn’t run ads, but I do in the sense that I record a show every week, consider my audience, and hope some day to generate income from my online content creation efforts.1
For me this argument is not, and never has been, about editorial integrity. Audiences are difficult to acquire, difficult to maintain, and extremely fragile. The trust a writer builds with his or her audience is possibly the most important factor in creating a successful online presence. Betraying that trust is very different from when similar conflicts happen in other media. Often in such cases, show hosts, reporters, and columnists have massive audiences maintained by the monolithic, old-media outlets for which they produce content. Unless the whole audience (or at least an enormous segment) is offended, these producers have little to worry about. This is not the case on the web, especially with podcasts.
In podcasting, the audience shows up every week for the particular voice of the host(s). And not just in the physical sense. The best shows, the ones that not only make it onto my devices but those that actually get played, have a personality and connection to the audience unlike any other medium I’ve ever experienced. In addition, aside from a few massive shows, the audience numbers are much smaller overall with podcasts, so each individual is more present as an audience member than with other forms where the subscriber count is higher.
So what does that mean for ad-driven podcasts vs. ad-free? It boils down to this. It is my opinion that some people simply hate ads. They spoil site designs, add elements of unpredictability from a user (and sometimes creator) perspective, are often repetitive or only loosely connected to the content of the show, and generally represent the established, click-obsessed web. The question of integrity is merely an additional item in this list, another reason for certain creators to keep ads at arms length—especially when they hate all of the others listed above.
In the end we’re dealing with a question of user experience. As a content creator, podcaster or otherwise, do you want your audience to hear a handful of (sometimes overlong, sometimes repetitive) ads in return for a viable monetization strategy, or do you want to preserve the (perceived) cleanness and clarity of an ad-free production while somehow generating money through other avenues or by producing your show for free? Either way, the acceptance of ad revenue does not implicate any sort of editorial bias. It does create the possibility, just as it creates the possibility of a listener dropping the show on account of ad fatigue. And, it does not mean that the ad-free show chose to stay as such solely because the host is afraid of having their editorial voice placed in jeopardy (whether they claim it or not).
The possibility of bad behavior does not guarantee its inevitability. Both models are design choices and, as long as the producer has the audience in mind (and the importance of audience trust only further ensures that it will), both can provide great material.
All things I assume we have in common, though he is already generating revenue. ↩
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: In life everyone has their pet peeves, and the same is true with videogames. Whether it’s piles of junk everywhere or slow travel from place to place or stilted dialogue, game designers should keep an eye out for the things that bring their audiences to nails-on-the-chalkboard levels of irritation.
At the University of Idaho, where I earned my undergraduate degree, there’s a room with two floor-to-ceiling glass-paneled sides. One of its three entrances connects to the Einstein Brothers bagel shop (which in my day was simply a campus cafe called Common Grounds). I spent many afternoons in the glass-paneled room; it has a name, but I always preferred to call it the Quiet Room. There was a no talking policy, no noise at all in fact, except for the baby grand piano in the corner, often played beautifully by an elderly man who stopped by for fifteen minutes or so every couple of days. I never asked his name.
One day, ensconced in one of the faux-leather chairs, PowerBook in my lap, unfinished literary essay in a long since forgotten version of Word for OS X open behind my web browser, I paged idly through Slashdot or Digg or MacRumors. Glancing up from the screen, I saw a young man making his way across the room towards me.
"So, you’re a Mac guy?" he asked, but it wasn’t really a question.
Now, I am not what you might call comfortable in social situations and even more so with a stranger approaching me in my silent sanctuary.
"Uh, yeah." I tried to smile in the way an affable, approachable Mac user might.
"Nice, man." He flopped into the chair next to mine, rummaging through a messenger bag (a rarity at the time), finally producing a thin black USB hard drive, the cord wrapped in a snarl around its center. "I got into ‘em because of the music. What about you?"
I said something about ease of use; at the time I couldn’t say what I know now—that I love hardware and software that pays an unusual amount of attention to details that average users rarely, if ever, notice.
“We gotta stick together, you know? Check this out,” he continued.
With a flick of his wrist, he popped open his computer (a white plastic iBook), plugged in the portable drive, and brought up the Finder. Inside were folders and folders of music, easily thousands of songs. He aimed the screen at me. “See anything you like?”
Now it’s important to remember that this was many years ago. My thoughts on pirated music or software have shifted greatly since then, mostly in response to my desire to become someone who makes a portion of their income from content creation. But on that day in the Quiet Room, I was a cheap, naive college student in a bizarrely high-pressure social situation.
Whether I took the guy up on his offer or not is beside the point. We went on to talk a bit more about the Mac, until we started drawing looks from others in the room. Naturally, I wasn’t the only person who came to this place in order to get away from the noise. Eventually, he packed up his machine and headed out with a wave and a smile.
To this day I wonder if he would’ve approached me had I been typing away on a Dell or a Sony or a (then IBM) ThinkPad.
During the summer months I still take classes at the University of Idaho. It’s only a short walk from my house, and the course content still teaches me something new every time. And some days I sit in the Quiet Room in the same chair, wondering if someone were to come through the glass doors with a MacBook under their arm, would they see the Apple logo on my iPad and strike up a conversation? Or, in light of Apple’s recent popularity, would they see not a kindred spirit—another person who gets it—and instead see nothing at all, just a student (a little old for the university scene these days) hunched over a glowing screen, like everybody else.
Isn’t that what 2003 me wanted? An Apple computer in virtually everyone’s hands, a diminished Microsoft, computers thin and light enough that you’d hardly notice them in a backpack, battery life that lasts all day. It was. But now, instead of being “the Mac guy,” I’m just another guy with a Mac.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Sometimes our characters talk, and other times we make them talk. What happens when our choices mean as little in the first case as they do in the second? Can a game take away player agency and still be better for it? For character dialogue, that just might be true.
In our case, given 39 years of success, it’s more about reinvention. We’ve had great successes, but our future is not about our past success. It’s going to be about whether we will invent things that are really going to drive our future.
Well, that’s certainly a nice way to begin as Microsoft’s new CEO. It will be interesting to see if this self awareness translates to the products and services that reach their customers. Though I’m not and haven’t been a big Microsoft supporter over the years, I do want to see significant competition for Apple and other tech companies. It’s easy to forget that Apple interested me in the first place because they create amazing things with technology. The more companies doing that, the better.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Nothing is a pure original, but if that is true, then what does it mean when videogame protagonists are so homogenized that they can be boiled down to a series of journal entries of no more than a paragraph?
You have to be able to open the creaking door to your own personal archive, fumble for the light switch, then stroll in and rummage around until you find something that helps illustrate a certain point, or drives a particular narrative. It’s a perverse, backwards process, because that’s not how our lives work. Those experiences are writing us.
And then the author—a character himself—his story written by his own experience, pens a fictional entity, a representation of his feelings toward the events which started it all.
It is here that we advance our understanding. Authors serve to filter a nonsensical reality into clarified commentary, producible only through the combination of experience and reflection.
Nothing crazy about it though, the iPad and iPhone, seem to me to be the perfect writing machines. They are regularly always with you so they allow you to start writing almost anytime and anywhere. When one can let go of the fear and let built in tools like auto-correct help, you might be surprised how fast one can become on the built in keyboard. But, as explained, part of the benefit is that it also can slow one down just enough to be more intentional with the words they choose and careful about the accuracy of the typing. I actually find I make less typos and am more quick to catch those I do when doing so in this way. In short, the iPad and iPhone help me write more often, in more situations, and write better.
I wish I could communicate this convincingly in my day job. The iPad often requires a reconsideration of one’s approach to a task, not a limitation to whether that task is possible. And as time goes on, more and more tools appear to do incredible things with computing devices that are light, friendly, and infinitely more accessible than their forebears.
Next week, Critical Distance will be running a special edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging in honor of Black History Month. Similar to how our Women’s History Month roundup worked last year, this special will exclusively feature work by and curation from black writers.
I worry I might eventually get lost along the way, not able to keep up with the rapid pace of ever changing networks the same way as when I was younger. I’ll get stuck in some dying network, while people younger than me will continue to adopt the newest and shiniest networks. By the time I catch on to those new networks, they will already be in decline and on their way out. I’ll never be able to catch up.
I think I’ll be alright to watch the throng kids—with their wild haircuts and indecipherable slang—as they stumble their way home from some trendy new nightclub while I head to the diner for my morning coffee with the guys1.
But as a reader, I only use my phone to read when I’m in between places. And that reading is very shallow, a cursory look at items that would be consumed in more depth at some later time. So I had hoped that there would be an iPad version as well.
I feel the same way. Though I like Unread on iPhone, I think I’d love it on the iPad.
Every few weeks, a well-known indie developer releases a new app. You’ve seen it. Twitter timelines fill with links to reviews or 140-character praises or the grinning confessions of beta testers. They mention each other, and you gape on, thumb hovering above the install button—just a password or fingerprint away from becoming one with the stream.
The latest in this phenomenon is Unread by Jared Sinclair, an iPhone RSS client of quiet clarity and express purpose.
"Read, don’t skim," it seems to say. And so went the chorus through the echo chamber to which I now add a reverberation of my own.
And a touch of criticism. Ok, mostly criticism.
You’ll see I’ve labeled this post with “consider” rather than my usual, “recommended,” and that’s because I can’t wholeheartedly encourage a purchase just yet. Unread is a good app (maybe even a great one), but it’s not for everyone.
Unread begins with feed presentation that will be unfamiliar to many longtime Reeder users (like myself) who are accustomed to seeing only the feeds that remain unread. Instead, Unread shows all feeds, even when they have no new items. I found it very off putting at first and am only now, after a few days usage, coming around to the idea of focusing on my unread list at large as opposed to working my way through categories and individual feeds. A few days is probably much longer than the average person would subject themselves to a design difference which causes any amount of friction at all. This may be just such an example.
Next, read items persist even after they have been marked as such, which further increases the resistance certain users feel when moving through item lists, especially if you prefer to sort by oldest first. Doing so means scrolling through a number of unread items before you reach new material. There’s a setting that remedies this—and which puts an ugly red box around unread counts—but even then, the feature isn’t immediately understandable by its description. I tried it because it was one of the few things I could change. Luckily it did the trick.
As far as I can tell, there is no option for adding and removing feeds at this time, an unfortunate feature omission when Unread seems to encourage users to reduce their number of subscriptions and focus more on the best sites. Over the last few days, many of the people in my Twitter stream are dropping subs like they were Apple shares after a quarterly report. I’m as much a victim of this behavior as anyone. My list needed pruning, and Unread provides the necessary nudge.
Further, the app doesn’t include an inline Readability text-only view (by design) which means that on a number of sites, you’ll spend your time in the in-app web browser. That on its own would be fine, but Unread’s web view is kind of a mess. Others won’t say it, but I will. Perhaps Sinclair over-designed or under-designed here, but it’s just not working as is. Pages stay on the browser until a new one takes their place. It’s jarring to be reading about app design, only to tap a link and see the screenshots from the game review I was reading earlier in the day. That experience alone seems counter to the focused, thoughtful reading environment that unread provides most of the time. The web view toolbar is even rougher around the edges. The back and forward buttons, and their neighboring lines (which apparently remind the user of Unread’s gesture navigation), look somehow less polished than the rest of the app and only serve to duplicate the gesture functionality.
Now of course there are some positives to Unread, and if your internet sources are anything like mine, you know them already. There’s the article list, with its long previews and precise use of white space. Hopefully it’s a bug, but currently the preview does not match the format of the actual site, smashing block quotes up into the intro text on many posts. Above all however, is the full screen reading view, which is light and peacefully focused. Something about the font that Sinclair has chosen just begs to be read. It makes me wish I could custom typeset more apps to match.
For now, I’m heeding the call of the bloggers and indie developer cheerleading squad that praises the newest app as the one to take the place of “X” on their home screens. But I do so tentatively. I want to like Unread. I really do, and there’s so much of it that I prefer over all other RSS apps. If you’re reading this and haven’t yet decided to pull the trigger on a purchase (I mean, it’s only $2.99 during launch), I don’t know how much help I can be. I will say this: if you like the screenshots of the full screen reading view and the large-preview article list, it won’t be a wasted three bucks. In other words, consider it.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Without action there can be no stealth. Or is it, without stealth there can be no action? Either way, sneaking, hiding, and gathering information in order to get the upper hand on NPCs or other players is a fascinating and thrilling experience when done right.
Rumors and opinions abound concerning a larger iPhone and its importance to Apple. I’ll say it right now. No fake financial analysis or amateur design tips (though I’m usually happy to give the latter). No historical Apple ethos justification. Just this.
I don’t want one.
In the fifteen or so years that I’ve been following Apple, there are fewer than a handful of products ever released that I didn’t want on some level. This would be one of them. I’m not suggesting that Apple shouldn’t make such a device, or even that other people wouldn’t want it, just that I don’t think Apple will make one. I don’t see the utility, the benefit, the ergonomics, nothing.
So why take such an unabashedly narcissistic stance? I mean, Apple doesn’t exist solely to fulfill my over-privileged technology desires. For one, with rumors and predictions, virtually everyone is just going with their educated gut instinct. Mine says that Apple tends to make products I like and want time and again. Even the square iPods or the Mac Mini held some sort of allure, but a 5” phone? Every version of such a thing that I’ve come into contact with is unwieldy and seems trapped in the not-a-tablet, not-a-smartphone wasteland similar to the space occupied by the Microsoft Surface.
Now, if there were a larger iPhone option, I wouldn’t turn up my nose for no reason. It’s the 5+ inch rumors with which I take issue. Unless Apple is able to defy physics, making a device that’s physically smaller than its screen, an extra large iPhone would simply be too big for a device used mostly in one hand that spends the rest of its life placed comfortably in a pocket.
Honestly, I’d love the fabled and oft concept rendered edge-to-edge iPhone with a larger screen. I just don’t think it’s worth growing the device’s physical size more than a few millimeters at most.
Everyone, in other words, seems to have strong opinions about what Apple should be doing. And a remarkable percentage of the people who share their thoughts state them not as a suggestion or a preference but as an imperative so absolute that ignoring it could plunge the company into crisis.
I try to do my best to avoid prescribing courses of action for companies. And though that is my intent, I’m sure intrepid archive searchers could find instances where I haven’t qualified my opinions. However (and McCracken does this himself in the article) when giving opinions on technology, it’s difficult not to frame some of it as advice.
The section I agree with least, though, comes in at the end of the piece. McCracken mentions that Microsoft has recently received a rush of similar must advice and that the company still keeps its head above water. This is true, but it seems that Apple draws this kind of story in anticipation of the company faltering, whereas Microsoft has several measurable places in which the company is already having difficulties.
Perhaps it’s only my opinion and perspective, but of the two companies, Microsoft seems the better candidate for suggestions on what it should do to remain successful now and in the future than Apple. And above it all, it’s important to remember that the opinions of tech writers (professional and amateur) are of no consequence to these companies, though readerships often show up for just this sort of commentary.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: special guest Ryan Payton of Camouflaj joins us for a discussion on his studio’s new iOS game, République, as well as the Kickstarter process that led to its development and release.
It’s a good one. If you haven’t listened to Critically Speaking yet, this would be a great episode to get started with.
Against all the advice for boosting page-views and amplifying social engagement, I refuse to stick to a single narrow topic, like tech (or like writing fiction). I just can’t do it, because – like you – I’m interested in so many damned other things.
Matt is one of my favorite writers on the internet, no, just one of my favorite writers, period. For now, this post is my paltry contribution to his endeavor. As another writer with a passion for fiction and a novel in pursuit of a publisher, I have nothing but the best of wishes for him.
Click through to his article if you haven’t yet read it. Like virtually all of his work, it’s worth reading all on its own. No life-changing decision necessary.
When I go to a social gathering I’m the guy who sits or stands on the outside edge of conversation. If no one is around who I know well, I tend to find a couch or corner seat somewhere and blend in. When I do try to initiate conversation or join one already in progress, I feel like that sitcom joke where the crowd keeps turning its back just as the guy gets a word in. Or worse, the one where those already engaged look at him like he’s from Mars.
But just as important as finding that community is becoming an active and contributing member…
The problem was that even though I had found the right community that would be interested in my blog, I wasn’t really interacting with the community, and basically just spamming the big names. After I realized this, I cut down on sending out links and instead started interacting with interesting people, people that weren’t the big names. I began to take part in discussions, comment on other people’s work, and generally focus on others above myself. I still would share my work sometimes, but it became secondary to actually being a member of the community.
I’m all for community. In fact, thanks to a link on VintageZen, the very same people that Edwards references are now connecting and interacting with me. The problem though, is that these interactions, especially the ones that I initiate, take a concentrated effort of the same category, if not the same degree, as courage.
Suddenly I’m that guy seated in the corner seat or on the edge of the circle, waiting to become the victim of a cockeyed gaze, waiting for the inevitable, “Are you sure you’re supposed to be here?” Now, in reality that never comes. It’s an unfounded fear (though the internet equivalent might be never receiving any kind of response at all). But I wonder, as I tap out a tweet or a message or a blog post response, if somewhere on the other end I’m receiving that eyebrows-lifted look.
Whatever the response, community (or whatever you want to call it) is one of the most difficult yet rewarding parts of sharing one’s thoughts on the Internet. A passive audience is great, but doesn’t usually give feedback in the thoughtful, personal way that a community will.
And yet, every community interaction is a risk, a chance taken in which the carefully constructed persona crumbles bit by bit with each rapid-fire response, retweet, and spur-of-the-moment idea, until one day there’s just one thing left.
As an example, Apple at this time requires all controller manufacturers to source their pressure-sensitive buttons from a single Apple-approved supplier. If these manufacturers were able to use their own suppliers, they’d likely be able to save some money in the manufacturing process. Coupled with the license fees associated with getting approved as an MFi controller from Apple, it’s no wonder these things are in the hundred dollar range.
Ugh. Apple at its worst. That is, unless they have something up their sleeves that causes this garbage to make any sense at all.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Does gameplay, real gameplay emerge? Or, does a designer have the final decision? Whether a guiding hand or a free for all, the discussion around the best way to design games continues toward better products for all. Nate and Scott weigh in on this as well as gaming related news from CES.
Geekdom is not a club; it’s a destination, open to anyone who wants to put in the time and effort to travel there. And if someone lacks the opportunity to get there, we geeks should help in any way we can.
I spend a lot of time, effort, and words on videogames. Exclusionism is one of the biggest problems facing that community. For all their clamoring in the name of cultural acceptance and recognition, gamers—more than any other group I know of—bar the gates to newcomers. Often their discussions hinge on how to make the medium less accessible, more exclusive. We should welcome those who would show an interest in the things we like, not push them away.
A long time ago, when I felt like an outsider most of the time, I overheard two people that probably did (and likely still do) self identify as geeks, talking about computers, specifically computer games. I tried to join in.
"This is an A B conversation,” one said.
“C your way out,” the other.
It was childish, hilariously so when you aren’t a junior high kid, as we were at the time. Regardless, those words and that moment stuck with me.
Nearly twenty years later, I still do my best to encourage interest in the topics I enjoy, and I hope that my friends and fellow geeks will make room, expand the equation, to account for the widest possible array of alphanumeric variables.
Having used so many computers over the years, I’m pretty sure I know what my ideal machine would be now. The 13-inch MacBook Pro with a Retina display is very close. But the 11-inch MacBook Air I have still easily trumps it in size. However, that screen is a little small and blurry for my taste… As so I believe a 12-inch MacBook Air with a Retina display would be the perfect computer.
If such a machine magically appeared in my life, I believe I could get rid of all of the other computers I now use without any reservation. And again, I think it may be the last computer I ever buy.
I’ve wondered for quite some time when this would come to pass. The MacBook Air I purchased just over a year ago is a good machine, but some of its trade offs bother me from time to time. Siegler seems to think that a 12” Retina Air would be just right.
I’m inclined to agree, though I think the end-game is simply a better iPad. Siegler seems to think so, too. He predicts such a device is still a couple of years out. But it may be possible, and soon, for a near-future iPad to take the place that the general purpose laptop has occupied for a decade.
Let’s be clear. I’m not expecting tablets of any size or capability to take over for the PC. It’s in the general purpose computing category that I think they make the most sense. So, though Siegler mentions he doesn’t sit at a desk anymore, the likely future is that the desktop PC will be the last bastion of the computer as we know it.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: When all the gaming outlets are discussing Game of the Year, does it make more sense to consider Game Played this Year? Scott and I take a look back at not only the year in games, but the year in games played and enjoyed.
Opinionated design may be a buzzword, but as far as I’m concerned there’s no better way of describing the software made by Information Architects. Writer Pro, like iA Writer before it, is extremely opinionated in the way that its designers think the task of writing should be accomplished. And it’s that last word that is the most important. From the first startup to the finished product, Writer Pro does everything it can to keep the writer focused on accomplishing the specific task of creating better prose while other apps pile on settings or cover the screen in a detritus of rarely-used, but always visible, options and control panels.
If you’re not the kind of person who would tell people out loud that you are “a writer,” then you probably shouldn’t bother with Writer Pro. iA Writer’s design prioritized simplicity and typography. The strengths of Writer Pro are the same—with the addition of a focus on the writing process. To my knowledge, no other iOS app is this intent on catering to people who produce text (On the Mac, though philosophically opposite, Scrivener is still the king). If you do call yourself a writer, in public or private, Writer Pro can significantly improve your day to day experience.
So how does Writer Pro pull off the trick of being a serious tool while restraining its feature set? It begins with the workflow. The organizational model is divided into four modes: Note, Write, Edit, and Read. The process starts with Note, signified as all the modes are, with a colored cursor. In this case, green. Along with cursor color, the font has been carefully selected to connote (especially after using the app on multiple projects) the beginnings of an idea. From there, as I often try to explain or demonstrate to my high school students, the process shifts to one of drafting. Write mode presents a very similar experience to iA Writer: blue cursor, courier-reminiscent font, and basic word count statistics. From there, things get interesting (again, if you’re a writer, or a teacher of writers).
The next mode is Edit. My tendency is to shift into this stage when the text has a complete beginning, middle, and end. Here—as well as in the Write mode—Writer Pro opens access to the much debated Syntax Control feature. With this tool, sentences and the various parts of speech can be highlighted. As a teacher, this is a game changer. It’s one thing to teach students to recognize adverbs in a lineup, but something entirely different to point out virtually every adverb in a text with the touch of a button (or a nudge of a slider on OS X). Not only students, but professionals can easily benefit from seeing the forms, word types, and sentence structures that they rely on or repeat too often. I want every single one of my students to have this power on their next assignment. Editing is hard, no matter who you are. Writer Pro makes it better; it’s as simple as that.
The final stage is Read, and it’s the one that both makes a great deal of sense and yet seems unfinished. On iOS, the Read mode takes away some the composition features, limiting almost everything, including (oddly) “Select All” but not “Copy.” Having a finished, read-only stage is a great idea; however, my instincts felt like the mode should do two things that it doesn’t. First, it should show the document as a Markdown preview with all the links and various stylings represented and all of the markup removed. Since Markdown is the only way to style text using Writer Pro, it only makes sense to have a mode that shows the final product. Second, the Read mode should allow for publishing features (even if that simply means “Open-in” or copy all text). If there’s a stage that feels unfinished, at least for now, it’s this one.
I do have some personal quibbles with Writer Pro as it stands in addition to the seemingly incomplete Read mode. Multiple notes cannot currently be connected to one another or collected for a project. There is no Dropbox support, though after using the app for a couple of weeks, I find the built-in iCloud storage simpler, and thus better. Like many of Writer Pro’s features, it just gets out of the way. I don’t have to think about storage. I type, Writer Pro preserves it with some sort of iCloud magic, and my document is (in my experience) instantly available on all of my devices.
The most controversial elements of Writer Pro are pricing and patents (or lack thereof). I won’t spend too much time on the patent situation, as I don’t agree with others that it should be relevant in your purchasing decision. Writer Pro is a very good app for a narrow set of users, and iA’s desire to protect their work does not change the quality of their software. That leaves only price, which is a bit of an issue for me. The pitch is professional software at a professional (by App Store standards, anyway) price point. The Mac and iOS versions are $19.99 each, and to truly get the full value of the organizational structure as well as the convenience of syncing to the Mac, you’ll want them both. So, effectively it’s a $40 “truly universal” app.
It’s becoming as much of a cliche to tell people to forget about tools and get back to work as it is to release distraction-free writing apps for iOS. And the advice is true. No app will turn you into a writer; only writing will do that. But if you’re looking to make the act of composition smoother, more refined, and more focused, Writer Pro could be just the thing.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Avatars represent more than just our preferences in character design. Statistically, players choose characters that resemble themselves, and often characters that represent idealized versions of themselves. What goes into the avatar selection process? Scott and I discuss and vaguely disagree.
I was an early and vocal supporter/backer of République.
iOS is a promising games platform. Since the 2008 introduction of the App Store, mobile has been home to some truly revolutionary titles, and revolutionary in the sense that unsettles expectations. Games like Angry Birds, Letterpress, Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja, Flight Control, and many others would be nearly impossible to replicate on other systems. Certainly a developer can try, but the end result would likely be something akin to an RTS on a console (possible but missing the point). What these games get right, is the interaction method for the platform. There are no virtual D-pads or console controller “buttons.” What they don’t do well, however, is provide rich, in-depth and extended gaming experiences along the lines of quality PC and console titles.
In industry terms, AAA has become the categorization that means quality. Though, this is increasingly not the case—many of the year’s best games are not AAA—Camouflaj, République’s developer, aimed to capture the look and feel of AAA on iOS. The game’s opening shows off not just an incredible level of graphical polish, but a strong directorial voice. AAA games on other platforms have this quality implicitly: camera angles that create tension, screen shake and tilt that force perspective, visual effects that enhance the character of the viewing experience and not just technical prowess. All of these and more reveal the difference between mobile up till now and mobile from now on.
After visuals, République’s interactivity is the next signifier of quality. The overall conceit is that the player does not control the game’s main character, Hope. Instead, he or she (and the player could truly be either) guides or directs Hope to the next area, suggesting places to hide and pathways to take. If the player puts Hope into a risky situation, she will adjust her position in an effort to stay hidden, a feature that could be exercised more often, as it enriches the illusion that Hope is a person to be guided and not an avatar to be controlled. Throughout, the game’s One-Touch controls work accurately and intuitively, though reactive play is ineffective both from a control as well as gameplay standpoint. As Hope’s helper, you won’t be instructing acrobatic escapes. Each situation, patrol path, and security checkpoint must be carefully considered before nudging Hope out of safety and into danger.
In the spirit of fair critique, sometimes the camera controls feel too slow. The limited range and velocity of the cameras make perfect sense from a narrative perspective, and for the most part the game gets it right. The resistive servo-driven motors whine along, giving the player a sense that the only window into this world is through the security camera network.
While visuals are clearly a priority for the team at Camouflaj, the voice acting transcends anything I’ve yet heard on iOS. The all-star cast just keeps on kicking, and every line is worth hearing. As a player, do yourself a favor and heed the game’s suggestion to wear headphones. Despite the universally excellent delivery, the voices do have some uneven bits, especially in the pronunciation of “Republique,” but also in some seemingly botched lines. I once heard “preserve” when I’m fairly certain the writer meant “persevere.”
I won’t spoil any of the plot details, but the ending for Episode 1 is a lesson in cliffhanger delivery. From the initial moments, the game weaves an intricate web of intrigue and atmosphere. Standard stealth action tropes dominate the story, but there’s enough of the unusual (if not wholly original) to keep the discerning player asking questions and discovering answers. The cliffhanger itself, of course isn’t unexpected, but the particular way République goes about it reveals the team’s experience and vision.
Another place where the game shines brighter than anything I’ve seen on the platform to date (or in any game I’ve played recently, for that matter) is in its collectibles. Endless nicknacks and doodads litter plenty of games; such items are often useless aside from the achievement of having collected them all. République refuses that tired mechanic and, while still providing plenty of collectibles, gives each of them a purpose in the narrative. The most tenuous connection to the story, the various Atari cartridges that Hope can pickpocket from guards, is actually my favorite. Each cart Hope collects is an iOS game recommendation by the game’s designers. Never have I seen a game so supportive of “competing” titles. It’s something I hope continues through subsequent episodes and finds its way into other games on the platform. Clearly, Camouflaj cares about not only its own iOS game but the platform itself.
Graphically on the iPhone 5S, the game’s a stunner, easily among the top five iOS games. On the third generation iPad, it’s a slightly different story. The CRT effect layer is gone, as are the vignetting and rounded screen corners. Lighting suffers as well, but the trade offs are worth it. The framerate stays smooth, though everything feels plastic and flat. Even on the older hardware, though, the game looks great, and the fluid motion helps to keep the player immersed in the onscreen action. It’s a great strategy, executed to the right degree, and with attention to the right details.
Having been a backer of the project, already shelling out more than the purchase price plus the season pass, I find the game to be inline with my best hopes upon seeing the Kickstarter trailer. In the amount of time I spent playing the game (about four and a half hours for a fairly completionist play through), I would’ve had to purchase two movie tickets, or at least rent two movies from Redbox. It has always been my opinion that people who enjoy great software—not just games but all software—need to be the ones diving in wallet first. The more we support developers like Camouflaj, the more games like République we’ll see on the App Store.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: No matter the topic, occupation, or activity, rarely do people want to feel like outsiders. With the games industry expanding in content and subject matter, the old identifiers (namely “gamer”) no longer seems accurate in great many cases. And yet, how can we create meaningful identities for ourselves without some kind of identifier?
The world is a disgusting and disappointing place, and nowhere is that more evident than on the Internet. But at some point, the scales tip, old truths become sad anachronisms, and the vile stream of hatred and useless tantrums recede to the fringe.
Gaming, and the surrounding community, has been creeping toward this line. It’s time to cross it.
In June (a relative eternity ago in internet time) Anita Sarkeesian posted a series of tweets directed at her concerns that Microsoft’s press event for the Xbox One, featured no games with a female protagonist. The tweets in response were stomach-churning, infuriating, depressing. This week, the post appeared again in the brilliant (and thus equally depressing) The Gamer Girl Project. Here’s the truncated post:
Thanks #XboxOne #E3 press conference for revealing to us exactly zero games featuring a female protagonist for the next generation.
— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq)
June 10, 2013
Above is a tweet I made this afternoon in reaction to the fact that none of the games presented at Microsoft’s Xbox One E3 press conference featured female protagonists. Below are some of the Twitter replies to that observation which exemplify the male privilege and male entitlement endemic in the gaming community today. This is also a window into what it’s like to be a female video game critic on twitter.
How can such behavior persist? For one, it seems that somewhere these screeching, childish voices (the responders, not Sarkeesian and those who would speak out) are finding reinforcement from their peers or others in their own isolated community haunts. And what could be more childish? Look at the language these people choose. The original tweet was a simple statement. It was aimed directly at criticizing the AAA tendency to ignore half the gaming population—and yes, of course women are half the gaming population. They make up half the planet’s actual population! And wouldn’t you want games to be designed for as much of humanity as possible? Doesn’t it benefit all people who play games when the pool of content is broader, deeper, and more diverse?
Yeah, of course it does. But these stunted, close-minded half-children (and in some cases, actual children) need an education, and not in the here-read-this-longform-article way. These clever responders are likely unable to engage their limited attention for long enough to fully process any kind of nuanced discourse. Instead, the required education is one of simple demonstration. If a large enough collection of reasonable individuals simply begin intellectually shoulder-checking these voices every time they appear, their position, and its casual acceptance amongst their peers will first erode, and finally crumble, at last relegating them to the fringe areas now occupied by conspiracy theorists, secessionists, and various other misguided and now defeated cultural viewpoints.
So when you see this behavior, don’t ignore it. Don’t just roll your eyes and say “boys will be boys” or some other lie we so often tell ourselves, because certainly those boys will continue on just as they always have if the world does not—repeatedly—remind them that their actions are unacceptable. Don’t hope they’ll someday realize what they’re doing is wrong. Don’t ignore the next article you see that sheds light on some damp, shadowy den of the intellectually shriveled. Instead, share that blog post in as many places as you can think of, reply to that next tweet spewing angry, bigoted venom, ask a pointed question of the next person to tell a kitchen joke. But don’t expect to convince the teller. The hope is that with enough frequency, the onlookers will slowly grow to understand that misogynist behavior can no longer be accepted in our modern society.
Now, in no way could I possibly believe the I’m the first to say any of this. Just last week Matt Gemmell made some similar observations. The change has been coming for quite some time, and the supportive voices have accumulated quickly all around the gaming community. These words, my words, merely add one more voice, a voice calling for more voices, and more again, until the collective din drowns the red-faced, puling hatred and washes it into irrelevance.
Thanks #XboxOne #E3 press conference for revealing to us exactly zero games featuring a female protagonist for the next generation.
— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq)
June 10, 2013
Above is a tweet I made this afternoon in reaction to the fact that none of the games presented at Microsoft’s Xbox One E3 press conference featured female protagonists. Below are some of the Twitter replies to that observation which exemplify the male privilege and male entitlement endemic in the gaming community today. This is also a window into what it’s like to be a female video game critic on twitter.
Reblogged because everyone who cares about videogames (hell, the treatment of people in a supposedly civilized society) should call this behavior out with the biggest megaphone they can find.
Longer post to follow. I can’t just let this go—and neither should you.
Gemmell’s take sums up nearly all of my feelings on the subject—in wonderfully clear and concise prose—as usual. And though I still have my own locality-based reasons for hanging onto the “gamer” moniker, I’d gladly heave the term into the flames in order to bring about solutions to the myriad problems this article illuminates.
We’ve all heard it, or at the very least thought it. On some frigid morning we’ve all put one foot out the door while still clinging to our summer shorts in hopes that it’ll warm up later in the day. Or, we’ve stepped into the spring sunlight in that favorite sweater and know within five minutes that it was definitely the wrong call. And yet we try. It seems like every year I try. Why is that?
Comfort. Convenience. Probably a great deal of sentiment. I love that sweater or that pair of jeans or that t-shirt. Even the forces of nature can’t change that. Now, in the world of clothing and fashion, I don’t have much of a choice but to surrender. One day it will simply be too hot outside to justify that favorite jacket. And so it goes back in the closet for another time.
My technology, however, doesn’t have to be this way. I can select a general purpose computing device that accomplishes all (or nearly all) of my current and even possible goals. Up until a few years ago, the choice was even more clear cut. But with tablets and smartphones closing the performance gap, there seems to be fewer and fewer reasons why our mobile devices should not be capable of completing the same tasks as a laptop or desktop.
In his article, “An iPad, a Computer, a Holy Grail,” Linus Edwards makes the case for simply settling for a coat closet full of tools that only come out for their specified purpose:
Anytime you consolidate devices, you are making compromises. If you decide to get rid of your camera and only use the iPhone to take photos, you are getting a lesser experience, as most stand-alone cameras can take better photos than the iPhone. If you get rid of your Nintendo 3DS and only play games on the iPhone, you are missing out on a more specialized gaming experience.
These would all be true if I were the kind of person that would carry each of these specialized tools. In reality, I’d say it’s more likely that most would prefer to just have one device fill the place of three. Before the iPhone, and even as an avid gamer, I never owned a handheld gaming device. Before the iPhone I never (or very rarely) kept a camera on me. I have countless images of my children, or just the scenery around me, that I’ve shot on the iPhone simply because it was there. In its absence, I wouldn’t have taken a better picture with a point-and-shoot or DSLR, I would have taken nothing. The moment would just be gone.
So there are obvious utilitarian reasons for going with a smartphone or tablet, but what about my earlier comparisons to fashion? That sweater I just want to keep wearing? That’s the iPad. It’s comfortable, predictable, fun, and pleasant to me in a way other devices aren’t. I want it to be the device I get to use, just like I want the weather to be right for that sweater. The difference comes in the application.
Weather is weather, but digital tools and digital tasks are not the same as the physical problems of hammering nails, driving screws, or staying cool on a hot day. At this point, the processing power of the A7 rivals that of laptops from only a few years ago, certainly not the pinnacle of computational performance but clearly enough to get most jobs done in a reasonable timeframe. Even so, we are forced to deal with workarounds and awkward situations to accomplish some of the same tasks on a tablet that would be much easier on a traditional desktop operating system.
The two just don’t make sense. Physical limitations, such as Edwards’ example Swiss Army Knife used to build an entire house, are virtually insurmountable. Building a house with a Swiss Army Knife is never going to make sense, but each year, building and operating a website using only an iPad makes more and more sense. The capability is there, the implementation just hasn’t quite made the leap. And if people like Federico Viticci and others who try to be exclusive iPad users don’t push the limits, who will?
The right tool for the right job is a nice sentiment if you want to carry around a sack full of toys like Santa Claus. But when the hardware is growing more and more capable every year, why not consolidate as much as possible? It’d be like getting to wear your favorite sweater every day of the year.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Where were you in 1998? Games were in a state bound to the rules of the tabletop RPG, and though on the surface things seem to have changed a great deal since then, many of gaming’s traditional roots still hold fast.
The same can be said with technology, as a person might realize the $1,000 MacBook Air is the superior product, but simply don’t care enough about computers to spend that money and are fine with the $300 Dell that lets them check their email and Facebook.
An interesting point, and he goes on to compare fashion (which some people care a great deal about while others do not) to technology:
How many geeks out there will insist on the top of the line Mac Pro, yet go outside wearing an old t-shirt and cheap pair of sneakers?
Edwards is right on both counts. Geeks often do place a high value on their areas of interest; it’s part if what makes us geeks. But the difference that I see between the fashion example and technology is that the Mac Pro geek who spends $20 on the cheapest clothes he can find, will rarely complain about how terrible his clothes are. The fashionista who end up with a $300 Dell inevitably whines about how it’s slow or “broken” or “getting full of too much stuff.” If not, they simply ask about the Mac when they run into their techie friend who already owns one.
And then we have to answer, all the while keeping in mind that they don’t care the same way we do, yet often want the same experience (and at a fraction of the cost).
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: You may, in fact, only live once, but what happens when a game only lets you die once? Whether it’s an arcade shooter with a steadily increasing swarm of enemies or a quiet hiding place along the tree line in Day Z, permanent death in games is growing ever more popular.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Game after game after game, sequels in this and other entertainment industries seem never to end. Are the audiences the better for having another title in their favorite franchises, or are we just lining up for another helping of the same old rehash?
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Mario and Michelangelo, Zelda and Zefferelli, either way discussions of games lead inevitably toward the mature analysis of other media. But how do we increase the range of intelligent criticism and discussion surrounding these interactive experiences? Scott and I discuss the staying power of the gaming classics, Path of Exile, and the upcoming console launches.
Another good article by Linus Edwards, but it leaves out a very important point. Battery life may be fairly stagnant over the past twenty years, and we certainly could use a technological leap ahead. However, when you look at the gains in device capability, the fact that such limited tech still gets us 10 hours or so is impressive.
Imagine how much more gas your car would burn if it had 10,000 horsepower. That’s the kind of power increase we’re dealing with in our computers and mobile devices since the 80’s.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Entertainment knows no age, right? Some might say that games, as a medium, lend themselves to a certain demographic. Increasingly, the population of gamers is growing older and older. With that age comes a shift in preference. Is the medium broad enough to support older gamers? And what if it’s not?
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: There comes a time when the number of times a person can play a single game takes a back seat to the number of games a person wants, and has the financial resources, to play. Scott and I discuss replayability, and a plethora of news from the XP mechanic in the upcoming Thief to the Nvidia G-sync announcement that claims to eliminate the bane of PC-Gaming: screen tearing and stutter.