Archive for the ‘ iPhone ’ Category

Circa News (iPhone App Review)

Main news screen of CircaThese days I get my news mostly from Twitter and special-interest blogs. That doesn’t give me a very comprehensive picture, but it’s difficult to break the habits of our bite-sized info-culture. So I was very interested when I heard of Circa News, an iPhone app that promises to provide convenient news digests for the Twitter era.

It’s a very well-designed app, pulling the reader right in with large photos (beautiful in the retina display), and the story condensed into factoids one can flip through. Additional pictures and info boxes prevent the information feeling like a wall of boring text.

The first page of a story. Notice the “1 of 5” telling you the page count, and the top of the next page just barely visible to flick to. It does feel nice.

The news doesn’t satisfy me, though. It really doesn’t offer that much more depth than the Twitter culture I was hoping to go beyond. Circa’s editors summarize other news sites, sometimes with better success than others. Many articles lend themselves to a one-minute overview nicely, but others left me with no context to understand them. It turns out that there is a way to make the he-said/she-said style of political reporting even worse, and that’s to trim out all the facts for brevity. Circa provides links to the original articles, but that just eats up more time than it would to load the original in the first place. On balance, I did learn a lot, but I was also putting in a lot of time to give the program a chance. I didn’t see savings over going straight to a standard news site.

Circa’s editors do have a difficult task. I’m sure it’s harder than it looks to decide which stories make the cut, whether a certain factoid deserves its own story or should be part of an existing one, and when to link stories. But it feels rushed. It is just good enough to work, but you will still find the occasional typo, repeated item, or even false statement.

A couple of mistakes. The news feed shows one story twice. More seriously, the other article makes a claim (that the Pope’s tweets are infallible) directly contradicted by the first source article.

The other big selling point of Circa is that you can subscribe to a story that interests you. Updates will be added to the original story, so people who don’t care about it won’t have to see it again. While a good idea in theory, this again creates difficult choices for the editors. What deserves a new story and what should be added to an old one? In the end, it turns out not to matter: Most stories never get updates, and the ones that do usually (always?) end up back in the main newsfeed (sometimes with a new name) for everyone to see.

I’m also not sure what Circa’s business model is. It requires a paid staff to keep it going, but the app is free and has no ads. Either that’s about to change, or they have plans to gather your personal information. (You do need to sign up to subscribe to stories. Nothing seems too intrusive, though.) I know I’m in the minority, but I’d rather pay for a good service than get it for free and wonder when it will be ruined by lack of money.

Circa’s main advantage is the friendly UI and simple iPhone feeling, which will certainly make it easier for some people to keep up on news. For me, it didn’t pass a couple simple tests: It didn’t feel more time efficient than reading “regular” news, or more in-depth than following people with the right interests on Twitter. I’m glad to see people experimenting with ways to distribute the news, but that’s partly because I’m still looking for a solution myself.

Grade: C


10000000 and DungeonRaid: Dungeon-Crawling Puzzle Games for the iPhone

I’ve recently been playing two different iPhone games that mix casual game mechanics with a deeper dungeon-delving theme. 10000000 and DungeonRaid do very different things with this approach, but both of them manage to make something deeper and more interesting out of simple matching games.

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Letterpress (iPhone Game Review)

Letterpress in playThe new iPhone game Letterpress was just released last weekend, but it attracted enough players so quickly that people are wondering if it’s responsible for overloading Game Center. I wouldn’t be surprised: Game Center never gets much attention, and it’s an easily-ignored option in most apps that use it, so one big push may overload it. Personally, I think the fact that Letterpress requires Game Center is a major strike against it: The system feels a little sloppy, I didn’t like agreeing to the EULA for yet another information-gathering service, and as we just saw, the game is now at the mercy of hiccups in a service it doesn’t control.

Despite all that, Letterpress is worth checking out for its clever approach to word games. Players make words from the letters of a 5×5 grid, and each tile becomes “owned” by whoever used it last. But if a player manages to own a tile and every one it touches, it cannot be captured even if their opponent uses it. The unique thing about this system is that letters can be used without being adjacent, but the system of ownership and protection creates a map of shifting territories. You need to create a word not just from the 25 letters available, but using the specific letters that will most help your position. Another thing I appreciate is that the game rewards long words, which means that they’re almost always familiar to the players. It feels like a more natural use of language than word games that require you to memorize words like “QAT” and “XU” in order to be competitive.

The dark blue tiles are protected, as they are surrounded by light blue ones. The blue player is close to victory.

Also, of course, the quantity and positions of the letters change from game to game. A game with multiple ‘E’s, ‘R’s, and ‘S’s available plays very different from one with lots of ‘Q’s and ‘Z’s.  You’re never allowed to play a word if it has been used before, or if it is entirely contained within a previous word. This means that variations of words might come up repeatedly, but you’re forced to move forward without getting stuck in a repeating loop.

The app is well designed, but bare bones. That Game Center integration, for example, lets the game match you up to network opponents with little effort on the developers’ part, but adds a few seconds of delay every time you launch the app to play your next move. It has a clean interface that makes it easy to play, though I miss features like chatting. And given that this game works best when played quickly back and forth, this game screams out for options such as time limits and in-person games shared on one phone. (The app itself is free to try, and 99 cents for the “full” version which allows multiple games at once. The first time your game gets hung up because an opponent stopped responding for a while, you’ll realize how vital that multiple-game option is.)

I haven’t had any issues like the network trouble other people allege, but I have run into one annoying bug: Ever since a player resigned against me, the Letterpress icon on my home screen has told me I have one game waiting for my move. Even turning the phone off doesn’t make that go away.

As for the game itself, the beginning and middle are great (other than my aforementioned wish for time limits – this really is a game that demands to be played quickly). The endgame can be frustrating, though. Whenever all tiles are claimed, whichever player owns the most has won. Since the score tends to seesaw back and forth with every move, you’ll want to make sure you leave enough tiles neutral to keep your opponent from ending it. This is clever in theory, since your territorial considerations now include which tiles you need to leave untouched. In practice, though, that means that if players are fairly evenly matched, neither dares open an endgame opportunity for the other. It can be obvious who is going to win long before it becomes viable for that player to claim a victory.

Letterpress has the potential to become a great game, but it isn’t there yet. I’m not sure if the developers plan to keep adding to it, or if they consider it to be complete. Either way, though, it’s fast and free to try out, so it’s easy to recommend that you give it a chance. As long as you’re willing to give Game Center a chance, too.

Grade: B

Quick Update:One week later, I am still enjoying this, and have learned to play so that my issues with the endgame aren’t as significant. I also managed to get rid of that extraneous notification about a waiting game by deleting that one from the history of played games. I’ve run into enough other issues to reaffirm my belief that this feels rushed and incomplete: After the multi-second delay for the app to log you in to Game Center, there is another pause before your games are updated. Since there is no visual clue as to whether this is still loading, and also no hint about whether it is your turn in games other than the one you’re currently looking at, playing multiple games is frustrating. When a game ends due to my opponent’s move, it is moved immediately into the app’s list of my previously played games, and I won’t notice it ended unless I think to look for it. And this morning, I finally did experience several hours in which my games wouldn’t update even though I knew one of my opponents had moved.

My basic conclusion is unchanged: This is an addictive but clunky implementation of a clever game that would be best played in person.

Jason Shiga – Meanwhile (Comic, Game AND iPhone Review!)

Meanwhile cover

Jason Shiga - Meanwhile

After looking at the way that some computer games played with the Choose Your Own Adventure mechanics, I searched around to see what other ways the genre had evolved. For the most part, it was disappointing. Books in that format are strongly influenced by the original ones, and seem to be poorly-written and arbitrary children’s stories. But I did find one work worth noting: A comic by Jason Shiga named Meanwhile.

Meanwhile is structured so that each panel has a line leading to the next. When there are choices to be made, that line branches, presenting two or more simple choices to follow. Each page has a tab on the side, so that a line that leads off the page can easily be followed to a tab on another page. It sounded a little confusing at first, but turned out to very easy to follow.

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The Wormworld Saga: A Profitable Webcomic?

I just read the first chapter of the webcomic The Wormworld Saga. It’s too early to tell how good it is yet, but there is definite promise. The setup hits all the clichés of the “imaginative but damaged boy discovers a fantasy world”, but it has a great feel for the childish wonder that should drive such stories, as evidenced in the hidden room at his grandmother’s house. The painted colors are a little chunky and occasionally lifeless for my taste, but the art is undeniably skilled. And the real selling point is its infinite canvas, with each chapter being a single long, long page that the reader keeps scrolling down through. The first chapter doesn’t always take advantage of this, but it does create an absolutely stunning opening, as the downward scrolling leads from the sky to a kingdom below the ground, which morphs back into a real-world scene. And while that glimpse of the other kingdom is the only time this chapter leaves reality, I absolutely love this fanart which uses that same canvas to slowly reveal more and more of an impossible world.

But the content of the webcomic itself, whether it ends up being good or bad, isn’t what motivated me to write this. Instead, I’m fascinated by the way Daniel Lieske, the creator, is hoping to make money from his story.

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Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent (iPhone Adventure Game review)

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Telltale Games is the force behind a recent resurgence in adventure games, with quirky properties such as Tales of Monkey Island and Sam & Max. Graham Annable is an animator behind the quirky Grickle series. Both Telltale and Annable have found success not through mainstream hits, but by developing a strong cult following for their low-budget work. On paper, then, their collaboration Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent should work perfectly. The results are disappointing.

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