Sunday, September 26, 2010

iPhone vs. Android: A Gaming Perspective

The hot battle in today's smartphone marketplace is iPhone vs. Android. Each has strengths and weaknesses and diehard fans will argue to the bitter end about which platform is superior. My experience with an actual iPhone is limited, but I have an iPod Touch (3rd generation) and a Droid X, so I have pretty decent experience with the two as gaming platforms. So, how do they compare?


This is a difficult category to compare simply because there are a variety of Android phones while there are very few iOS devices in the current generation (I'm going to ignore the iPad for this discussion because it's a different class of device, and I haven't had the pleasure of trying one yet). Consistency in hardware can give developers more control (consider that patches are relatively rare, and until a few years ago non-existent, for controlled hardware like game consoles, while PC patches and fixes in games are very common), though as more iOS devices keep rolling out each year some of that consistency starts to wane (do we support older devices or take advantage of new features?).

I'll let other sites talk about benchmarks, since in my experience both pieces of hardware can run top-notch games very smoothly (Need For Speed: Shift is an impressive game on both of my devices) and there doesn't appear to be a very noticeable difference in technical graphics between them. There are however two hardware differences worth noting:

- Some Android phones, like the Droid X, offer larger 4+ inch screens, which can make gaming a bit more engaging visually as you see more details and get a better view. However, a developer can't count on this, so it isn't really a development difference as much as just a nicer experience for those with larger phones.

- The newest iPods and iPhones include gyroscopes. As I've talked about in previous posts, I consider gyroscopes to be a huge leap forward in terms of potential gameplay. If developers leverage this, we could see some very cool apps that Android won't be able to handle (at least until it steps up to the gyroscope plate as well).

As of yet, I've seen one nifty gyroscope game (Eliminate: GunRange), but I imagine more will come. It's a neat demo of the tech, though really nothing ground-breaking. So, Apple edges this category out with the gyroscope, though I would be somewhat surprised if we didn't see them appearing before long in Android phones, especially since the Android OS appears to support it already.

Non-Market Games

By this, I mean games that you can play without downloading them through the platform's market system. Really, this category could be renamed "Flash games", since that's what we're primarily looking at. With the recent upgrade to Flash 10.1 in Froyo, Android users have a significant point of gloating over iOS users: they can play Flash games on their devices. Flash gaming sites like (and others, but I'm shamelessly plugging my own site here) have recently started creating mobile versions of their sites to allow Android devices to browse through the growing selection of mobile-enabled games. Hundreds of games have already been converted to work well with a mobile device in the last few months alone.

In many cases, these games actually run quite well. The most intensive games will slow the phone down significantly, but puzzle games especially seem to run extremely well in the embedded Flash environment. This opens up a lot of content for Android users and it looks to be an advantage that will continue to grow as more games are created and as Apple continues to pout with its fingers in its ears about keeping Flash off of their devices.

I've only had Flash on my phone for a few days (Droid X was the last major Droid to get it), so I haven't had a chance to get too far into this yet. Looking at some of our recent mobile contest entries though, this is certainly an emerging field with great potential.

Android wins this one heartily, though don't get used to that for the rest of the post.

Primary Market Application

Both platforms feature a mobile market that allows you to browse through various apps, look at screenshots, purchase, and download directly to your device. Both of these markets are fairly weak in my opinion - they make it difficult to find what you want thanks to a lack of ability to sort by date, rating, etc. In Android's case, the game categories are laughable and actually look like a typo: Arcade & Action, Brain & Puzzle, Cards & Casino, and Casual. Where's the rest of the alphabet? Are we really arguing that all games can be cleanly sorted into those four categories, one of which (Casual) has a ridiculous lack of specificity that bleeds over into the other three?

Android is further hurt by a complete lack of managing apps on your computer. They offer a web-based browser that lets you look at apps, but you can't even purchase and download from here - you are told to look it up on your phone. It's so bad that a 3rd party set up AppBrain as a way of browsing and managing your Android apps from a web interface.

Meanwhile, iPhones of course get access to iTunes. While hardly perfect (browsing for games there is even worse, with user-ratings bizarrely and frustratingly hidden until you click on a game), it offers a convenient way to back up, manage, browse, and purchase your apps (and media) on your computer. It's also easy to link to and recommend apps to your friends, which is always useful for word-of-mouth marketing.

In this category, Apple is the hands-down winner.

Software Selection

Here's where we start to see Apple pull away from Google. Yes, iPhone has been around longer, but the disparity is far larger than that. While Android has a great selection of social networking, local, and utility apps, close to rivaling the iPhone, when it comes to game selection it's an absolute joke.

The best comparison I can make is through this ironic analogy:

Android games are to iPhone games as Mac games are to PC games.

On the Android, we see a few iPhone games (MiniSquadron, Zenonia, Doodle Jump) coming out months later at higher prices, while the iPhone gets tons of exclusive killer apps. I can't think of a single Android-exclusive game that I would consider "must-have".

There is a huge disparity in the overall quality as well. iPhone, perhaps due to being first-to-market, has gotten support from big names like PopCap and EA, with a huge range of top PC games making their way over to the iOS. The only such game I've seen on the Android is the aforementioned NFS: Shift. Additionally, the independent developer games just seem to be of a general higher quality than Android games, most of which lack polish and look extremely amateur.

While Android may be catching up to iOS in terms of number of apps, when it comes to games there is simply no comparison - iOS beats the crap out of Android's selection in every conceivable way.

Market Attitude and Culture

There's a lot to be said with how a market treats its customers, and the difference between iOS and Android markets is huge. On Apple's market, we see constant sales and promotions, often fronted by companies like OpenFeint and FreeAppADay, bringing cheap or free content to gamers. I've yet to see any such activity on the Android market, so if it's there it is definitely not being advertised well.

My guess is that game developers are hoping that they can train Android users to spend more than iOS users are used to spending on games. It's true that most paid games on iPhone and iPod devices (iPads are a little more expensive) range between $0.99 and $1.99 - very cheap for a quality game. Even heavy-weights like Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies, selling for $10+ on the PC, go for a mere $2.99 on the iPod.

So perhaps developers are attempting to avoid the super-cheap price-points on the Android market. For those who only have access to an Android device, this could work, though I have to question just how well. I have yet to purchase a single game on my Android phone. I have spent probably $100 on games for my iPod. It's true that I haven't spent more than $3 on a single game, but in this case quantity over quality wins, especially when the quantity is 0 on the Android market.

For those of us lucky enough to have both an iOS and Android devices, we end up with rather silly pricing situations. I offer this example of just how absurd the difference is between the markets:

When I got my Droid X, I saw that they had "pre-loaded" (clever industry term for "bloatware") NFS: Shift onto my phone. Unlike my Blockbuster app that's also "pre-loaded", I was excited about this one. "Cool," I thought, "an actual benefit from Verizon and Motorola." Of course, upon getting into the game, you find out that it's just a demo and they want you to fork over cash for it. So I did some research. The game normally retails on the iPod for $6.99. It was currently on sale for $2.99, though I actually managed the nab the game a few months earlier for a fabulous $0.99. Still, I'd love to have it on my phone, and would be willing to spend $2.99 to grab it. I headed over to the Android market to buy it. Not only was this identical game not on sale at the $2.99, it was currently going for $9.99, three dollars over the normal iPod price.


While the hardware is very similar between these two platforms, the iOS market is much more mature, has strong developer support, and is more active in engaging users than the anemic and I would say even embarrassing Android market. I truly hope that Android developers, both of the market and of the games, can turn this around, but right now there's no question that the iOS devices aren't even remotely threatened by Android's gaming marketspace. For me, my iPod has actually replaced my Nintendo DS. My Android I only play games on if I've accidentally left my iPod at home (though that's changing now with Flash).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some further analysis of Kinect

So, after my last post, I started wondering if I was too hard on Microsoft's Kinect. The next day, I got a bulk email from Microsoft advertising their new 360 games and hardware from E3, with Kinect front and center. So, I clicked on it to see what their big promotional videos and landing pages looked like, hoping they were going to sell me on their new game-changing peripheral.

I was greeted with 8 launch titles, 7 of which had videos (apparently Sonic Freeriders didn't get their video in on time). So, what kind of completely original and crazy titles are going to convince you to drop $150 on a new camera?

Here are the eight that Microsoft is featuring:

- Dance Central: DDR with hands. Could be fun, but not exactly shocking.
- Kinectimals: Really pretty tamagotchi, clearly aimed at elementary schoolers.
- Kinect Sports: Wii Sports, only with a camera. Should be a fun tech demo. However, I have to say, Kinect Sports doesn't roll of the tongue nearly as cleanly as Wii Sports.
- Kinect Joy Ride: Crazy driving game where you drive with your hands. I have my doubts about precision, and as far as I can tell this could easily be played better with a controller.
- Your Shape: Fitness Evolved: Exercise "game". Wii Fitness was popular, but this isn't exactly a killer app.
- Kinect Adventures!: Looks to be a more "adventurous" version of Kinect Sports. More minigames, should be fun, but again not going to offer a lot of depth. I'm going to lump this in with sports minigames, because the gameplay really is similar.
- Zumba Fitness: Hey look, another exercise game.
- Sonic Freeriders: Don't know much about this one, but based on the title it likely will be a sort of racing game, perhaps having the players leaning to steer Sonic and friends through levels. Might be pretty, but I have my doubts about it being something you can't play with a joystick.

And here are the 7 additional launch titles that appear to have not made the previous cut, possibly by being too early to really tell much about. The comments below are based on a combination of information found and guesses from me.

- Game Party In Motion: This one will likely be terrible. The first three Game Party titles on the Wii have Metacritic scores of 25, 29, and 37 respectively. I suppose it's heading in an upward trend, so maybe we'll get a 45 from this one.
- Motionsports: Another collection of sports minigames most likely. Ubisoft sometimes puts out good stuff, but I doubt it's gonna really stand out from the other sports minigames.
- Biggest Loser: Ultimate Workout: Wow...3 exercise games out of 15 launch titles?
- Adrenaline Misfits: Some sort of extreme sports game. Perhaps of the mini variety?
- Deca Sports Freedom: Wow, this one is the definition of sports minigames. I'm sensing a pattern here...
- Dance Masters: Dancing game by Konami. I suppose this is DDR with arms, and Dance Central is just a poser.
- EA Sports Active 2: Oh, wow...sports mini games... At least the original one on the Wii was well-reviewed.

So, geez, let's do some summary statistics on that staggeringly varied collection of launch titles.

7 Sports Games (mostly mini-games)
3 Exercise Games
2 Dancing Games
2 Racing Games
1 Uber-cute, very shallow Tamagotchi Game.

I suppose it's not surprising that a peripheral named "Kinect" (a portmanteau of Kinetic and Connect, or so I assume) would generate a lot of motion-based games, and sports, dancing, and exercise are the most obvious ways to go. I think my disappointment is that there's just such a lack of creativity from developers. I'm sure some of the games will be cool and have some clever mechanics, but is this really all we can expect from the peripheral? How many different sports minigames is a person really going to buy? Honestly, the Tamagotchi game, as silly and boring as it looks to any post-pubescent player, is probably the most creative entry, allowing you to pet and play with your virtual pets, even having them mimic your movements.

However, this is the first generation. Games always get better with time (assuming they have time - this is year five of the 360 after all), and hopefully we'll see more creativity. But there was something else that was much more alarming to me in all of this. Go check out the Kinect Adventures! video on the Microsoft link I provided. Watch carefully as the little girl moves at the beginning, and at when the avatar moves. Yep, you're not imagining that: there's a very clear delay of somewhere around 1/4 to 1/2 a second. Apparently, the video processing is heavy enough that there's actually a noticeable delay in movement. I worry that this could spell doom for the peripheral reaching anything farther than the most casual audiences. The inability to control quickly and precisely, the loss of an additional 1/2 second of reaction time, is going to make precision and reflex heavy games almost impossible to play.

When I was pondering what to write this post about originally, my idea was to try to come up with some creative gameplay ideas for Kinect despite my negative review. I got sidetracked by the disappointment in the launch titles and the shocking delay in motion control. Perhaps next time I'll offer some new gameplay ideas - it should be a fun exercise if nothing else. I certainly can't do much worse than the current offering. Room for growth might be there, but a weak launch with no killer apps could doom the peripheral at the starting line, keeping us from ever seeing if it actually did have the potential to change the way we interact with our TVs.

(I feel the need to add that the peripheral is well-targeted towards younger gamers. My wife was impressed with the videos and could see family members really jumping into these games. So, from the perspective of Microsoft stealing some market share from Nintendo, Kinect could be a real win. My interest, academically speaking, is more from gameplay innovation. Keep in mind that the Wii is a huge financial success but I still consider it generally a failure from a gameplay perspective.)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Battle of the Motion Controllers

When thinking about where to go with my next blog post, it seemed that a logical follow-up to the previous post would be to look at what Wii MotionPlus has done and make some SWAGs (scientific wild-ass guesses) about where Kinect/Natal and Playstation Move (henceforth PSMove, since I'm lazy, and I'm betting we'll see that become an official name before too long since other gamers are lazy too) will take motion-based gaming.

So, first question: has Wii MotionPlus, the gyroscope add-on for the Wiimote, delivered on what I had hoped? The short answer is no. It has brought new levels of precision and motion control to some games (Wii Sports Resort had some very cool games in it, and golf is actually playable now!), but 3D motion tracking, on the macro scale, isn't happening yet. I'm not sure if this is a technological problem (perhaps a Gimbal Lock is cropping up from the accelerometers?) or just a lack of developer creativity. The design of the PSMove suggests that it is the former.

For those who haven't seen the PSMove, it's almost very literally a Wii controller with a big ball on the end of it.

So, what's the purpose of the big ball? I'll refer you to the Wiki page on the PSMove for more details, but it's actually an extremely clever idea. The short version is that the perfect sphere is a known size to the camera, and with an accurate enough image and some quick processing you can determine a fairly specific distance from the camera very easily. It's basically the opposite process of what allowed Ballz 3D to create a very convincing 3D visual effect without doing any actual 3D geometry calculations...

...and is identical to the technology that camera-based motion capture studios use (albeit usually with more balls and cameras). So, it has all of the sensors of the Wii MotionPlus, and adds an accurate distance calculator. While I still have to wonder whether or not this can be done without the ball, clearly this adds the macro-level motion I was looking for. More importantly though, it puts that type of motion into the minds of developers, so I'm actually very enthusiastic about the potential of the PSMove. It will likely have to break the stigma of being a Wii ripoff, and we'll need to see games that target the more hardcore PS3 audience (WiiSports won't cut it on the PS3), but if it has the games behind it this could be very impressive.

On the Xbox 360 side, we have Kinect (formerly Project Natal), which is a system that uses only a few cameras, and no physical controller. No accelerometers or gyroscopes here, just two cameras (for stereoscopic imaging) and a bunch of image processing to pick out humanoids moving in a scene.
Now, as an (embarrassed to admit it) EyeToy owner, I have some initial reservations because, let's face it, the EyeToy sucked. Still, let's try to ignore any initial feeling of EyeToy-induced nausea and make the assumption that technology and software has improved enough that this thing can actually provide very good tracking of humans with only the images. Under that assumption, what can we expect from the controller?

Even with near-perfect tracking, I still find the Kinect to be lacking in features and control. Yes, it provides lots of freedom and options for free-form, full-body capture. But at the same time, there is zero physical feedback (the Wiimote provides weight, vibration, and off-screen sounds), no buttons/joysticks, and constant opportunity for annoying friends/family to jump into view and confuse the camera. The only input you can provide is your skeletal position, and voice. While this is great for dancing games, I've yet to see any demos (yes, even the Star Wars light saber demo) that really convinced me of its potential.

Another interesting point in all of these cases is that traditionally speaking (since 1990 at least) we see a roughly five year life cycle on consoles, but these relatively major peripherals are being released nearly 4 (or 5 for the 360) years into the life of these consoles. Will the lifecycles be extended thanks to these peripherals, or are these just experiments that will help guide design choices for the next generation?

Either way, since we as an industry love giving scores and grades to things, I'll give the obligatory ratings based on my opinions of the future potential of each of these peripherals.

Wii MotionPlus: The Wii managed to have a double first to market, both with the original controller and the MotionPlus adapter. However, first to market rarely means top dog in the video game world, and so far, despite commercial success, we've seen very little truly disruptive gameplay innovation from the controller. That said, the audience is more casual and has already embraced the technology (and doesn't have to shell out $100+ to get a new peripheral), so adoption of the tech should continue smoothly, even if it doesn't innovate much farther. Future potential: B-

Playstation Move: The biggest hurdle that the PSMove will hit is getting people to buy the new peripheral. We've seen success with expensive peripherals with Rock Band, and if PSMove can have a killer app to go with it I have no doubt that people will stand in line to gobble them up. The technology is the most sound and well understood and offers the best combination of great motion controls and traditional button/joystick controls. This might get me to buy a PS3. At the same time, there's no question that it's a Mii-too product, and without a killer app or two at launch the PSMove has the biggest potential to face plant in a way that only Nintendo has been able to with past peripherals. Future potential: B+ / F (depending on launch software)

Kinect: The 360 will have a number of difficulties getting the Kinect into homes. It seems likely to be the most expensive of the three peripherals, is on the oldest system (meaning it might get lower support before long), has to fight the stigma of previous disappointing camera systems, and seems targeted at younger, more casual gamers than the traditional 360 demographic. It could have a few very nifty tech demos and minigames, but potential for really deep, innovative games to grow from it seems dim. I remain a firm skeptic and sincerely doubt that I'll be getting one, despite already owning a 360. Future potential: C-

Monday, May 31, 2010

What the Wii Could Have Been

I wrote the following essay almost two years ago (last save was June 20, 2008), before the announcement of the WiiMotion Plus. I'm sad to say that I never attempted to publish the essay, which sucks because I totally called this one. In any case, for my own amusement and patting myself on the back, as well as because it still contains some awesome ideas, I'm finally going to publish my essay, which is untouched since June of 2008. Enjoy the amazing prophesy that has already come true!

How Nintendo Almost Started a Revolution

As a recent college graduate hoping to eventually be gainfully employed, I’m in the midst of my search for a career. Video games are my passion, and it has always been a dream of mine to work as a game developer, so I began applying for positions in the industry, only to discover the age-old Catch 22: “Must have experience to get job, must have job to get experience.” Time for Plan B: Find a way to get experience without a job. For that, I needed an idea.

I had often said that I was disappointed with my Wii due to the lack of any games taking advantage of the Wii's unique capabilities. Don’t believe me? According to, the top 5 best-rated games at the time of writing, in order, are: Super Mario Galaxy, Twilight Princess, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Resident Evil 4, and Metroid Prime 3. Galaxy doesn’t make any real use of the Wii controller outside of some pointing capabilities (no, I don’t count “shake-the-controller-to-attack” as a technological breakthrough).Brawl is actually best-played with a Gamecube controller, and both Twilight Princess and Resident Evil 4were in fact released on the Gamecube itself! Metroid Prime 3 is just a first person shooter – perhaps with innovative controls for a console, but PC-gamers will laugh at anyone who finds a pointing device to be truly innovative.

The only ways that we’ve seen developers actually do some cool stuff with the Wiimote is through mini-games, or what I’m going to term “micro-actions”. Wii Sports, WarioWare: Smooth Moves, and Rayman Raving Rabbids are the only good games that stand out in my mind as really taking advantage of the true innovation of the Wii: motion sensing. In all of these cases, we have little micro-actions that the Wiimote senses and then projects to the screen. Pump your hands quickly. Swing your hand to hit something. Drop the remote at the right time. Fun? Sure. Huge-innovation-enabling-totally-new-types-of-gameplay-experiences-as-was-promised-to-us? Hardly.

My mission was clear: I needed to show these developers what they should be doing with Nintendo’s brilliant new hardware. Mini-actions are fine, but macro-actions - large, continuous movements over long periods of time - were the future. I had grandiose plans. I would develop a mind-blowing technology demonstration, submit it for a presentation at the next GDC, and then stun the audience with the amazing new gameplay I had created. After the presentation there would be thunderous applause, a shower of job offers falling from the ceiling like confetti, and Shigeru Miyamoto himself would come on stage and bless me.

Step one of course was to develop the technology demo.

I set out to find a good API that I could use to create the demo. After a bit of online research, I found one to my liking and began to delve into the details. I found a nice list of all of the motion data available to the programmer. It had acceleration in 3 axes, the X/Y coordinates of the IR pointer, and an estimate of the distance of the pointer from the TV. After reading this list, my jaw dropped. My dreams shattered. Miyamoto would never bless me in front of thousands of adoring game developers. Why? What’s missing from this list? Any sort of rotational acceleration! It turns out that Nintendo didn’t bother to include any gyroscopic sensors in their formerly (and now ironically) codenamed Revolution.

What does this mean? Developers have no way to track true position through 3D space. Instead, they must make assumptions about the way the player is holding the controller. Does this sound familiar? Yup: micro-actions. The motion-sensing only feels realistic and accurate when the developer can tell the player how they’re “supposed” to hold the controller. If we know that the player is holding the Wiimote like a steering wheel then we can make an assumption about the tilt of the Wiimote based on the acceleration provided by gravity. But this is a cheap hack, and doesn’t work if the assumptions are broken. For example, try playing Mario Kart holding the Wiimote like a big rig wheel and rotating it about the vertical axis. Nothing happens! The implication is that the Nintendo Wiimote is likely to never move past pointing at the screen and the use of contrived micro-actions.

Suddenly my blame shifted from the developers to Nintendo. How could you do this to us? You were on the verge of completely redefining video games, but you were too cheap to put in a couple of gyroscopes? I would happily have eaten the cost for the incredible possibilities that they would have enabled. Allow me to paint a picture.

Remember that rather absurd commercial for Red Steel with the guy hiding behind his couch to avoid enemy bullets? Perhaps it’s not quite so absurd. With gyroscopes, you could strap a second Wiimote to your chest and the Wii could calculate the position of you, and even your body orientation. You could actually be forced to dodge incoming fire in your living room! And heck, with a couple of positional clicks you could tell the Wii the exact location of your couch in real 3D space, which could then act as a barrier and provide cover for you as you fire from behind it. The possibilities are, or were, endless.

Fortunately, not all hope is lost. A little internet searching turned up a new product called Darwin from Motus Corporation that does have the proper sensors. It is aimed specifically at non-Wii hardware, and if it gains popularity (and more importantly, good games), it could drive quite a knife into the back of Nintendo’s newest child. Historically speaking though, a peripheral is not generally going to attract a large number of games that require it, but at this point I can only hope that this new device, or something like it, will give us the “Revolution” we were once promised. – Darwin

So yeah, maybe Darwin didn't do anything, but I did say "or something like it", which clearly meant "the WiiMotion Plus". We also have Microsoft's Natal to look at, though I remain skeptical after having attempted to enjoy the original Eye Toy. Perhaps the dual camera will really make a difference, but at the moment I'm firmly in the gimmick camp.

What is this blog?

I was trying to figure out what to do with this blog, so I think the best place to start for both any potential readers and myself is to simply lay out the intent and purpose. To be fully honest, the blog originated when I completed my first commercial game, CellCraft, and needed to put a website in the credits. I have a (somewhat neglected) blog called Pec's Picks, but it's primarily meant to be a fun and silly blog about whatever I happen to think is interesting. It certainly is not a professional website that I'd want to send people to if they were interested in working for me.

Thus, "Pec's Games" was born. For those who don't know, while my name is Anthony Pecorella, many of my friends (especially in band) referred to me simply as "Pec". I liked the name and so I've started using it occasionally. I'd actually love to build a sort of brand around it, so if people see the "Pec" monicker they'll know I'm involved in the project.

In any case, this blog is intended to be more focused on my professional interests, which are in the gaming field. It is not a game review blog, though I may do a few of those if I find a game to be particularly compelling or interesting. It is more of a blog for thoughts about game design, trends in gaming, the future of the games industry, etc. I hope to provide short essays with my opinions on various gaming subjects and would love if I could get discussions going in the comments. If nothing else, I can at least use the blog as a place to focus my thoughts and hopefully offer some insight to (and hopefully receive some from) other people in the industry.

So, without any further ado, I'll be posting my first essay (which is, incidentally, a repost from my other blog) shortly.