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iObservations

This week I finally upgraded to a brand new iPhone 5c after almost 2 full years of use on my trusty iPhone 4s. I’ve now spent a couple days with the new device running iOS 7 and wanted to share some random observations (both good and bad) for what they’re worth. As with anything, your milage may vary.

The Good

AT&T LTE – I mean just look at it!

Siri’s new voice – It’s so much better than before. Feels very Star Trek.

New ring and alert tones – There’s been some fun made of these but overall I really like them. The majority have a light, fun feel that seems to fit perfectly with the new iOS 7. My ringtone is currently set to Sencha and my alert tone is Chord. Groovy!

OS 7’s folders – Worlds better than the one in use in iOS 5 & 6 the new folders are clean, easy to manage & hold more apps.

Background refreshing – We implemented it in Twitterrific and I can already tell it will be one of my favorite features of the new OS. Having content ready for you when you wake the device is killer. Jury’s still out on how it will affect battery life however.

The feel – The feel of the 5c in the hand is just as I imagined it would be. It has the smooth, comfy feel of the 3gs without the extra bezels. It feels rock solid in your hand, not like you’d expect from a plastic phone.

Use of color – Much has been made of the, let’s just say “bold” use of color in iOS 7, some good, but mostly bad. Personally I love it. I love the way your wallpaper setting for instance changes how interfaces like the dialer screen looks. Make an overall change here and the whole user experience feels fresh. Bravo Apple.

Command Center – Being able to turn off blue tooth at will as well as quick access to a flashlight (don’t laugh, it’s useful!) is just great. I can’t wait until I have a use for sharing a file via AirDrop.

Multi-image emails – The ease of use selecting multiple images from your camera roll to attach to a single email is simply fabulous.

The Not-So-Good

Missing share buttons – Apple removed the ability to tweet and post to Facebook right from Notification Center for some reason. I’m not sure why, but this was a great way to quickly get a tweet out without any fuss. You can still do it via Siri, but it’s too prone to errors. Hopefully these controls will be coming back.

Multiple chargers – I like the new smaller, 10 pin charger but my iPad 3 still uses the old 30-pin version. This means I have to keep two different kinds of cords around my home to charge my devices. This stinks. Speaking of charging…

RIP iHome Clock – It will no longer work with my new iPhone 5c’s 10-pin charger port. This makes me very very sad.

RIP Olloclip – Designed for my iPhone 4, my Olloclip is now a useless hunk of metal and glass sitting on my desk. Again, sad.

The feel – Yes, I love the feel of the new 5c, but even though it feels super awesome, it’s also super slippery in the hand. As my wife said, it feels like it’s “coated in butter”. I immediately went out and bought an ugly Apple case for it simply because I just knew I’d eventually drop it. I hate to cover the wonderful plastic up but i’m scared it will slip right out of my hand. I sat it on the arm of my couch and watched it sloooowly slide right off into my lap. It’s crazy smooth.

Ugly icons – I realize I’m being a kind of icon snob here, but I just can’t warm up to the horrible Settings and Safari icons. The fact that they are two of the most important destinations on my iPhone means I have to look at them all the time and I just cringe when I do. Really hope the designers at Apple re-visit these at some point.

Overall I’m extremely happy with with my iPhone upgrade. There’s no doubt that it was time to replace my 4s. The only real choice was if I wanted to move to a 5s or a 5c. I’m extremely happy with how the new phone feels in my hands. The plastic case is top notch and doesn’t have the kinds of beveled edges that made my 4s hard to pick up and hold. Will I miss the finger print scanner, better camera and 64-bit processor of the 5s? Probably, but I’m betting a year from now we’ll see a new model that will have all of these things plus a larger screen and maybe the awesome case of the 5c. If you currently own an iPhone 5, then the 5c may not be the way to go, but if you’re like me coming from the previous model, you just might consider taking the colorful path to plastic town.

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Why I’m Buying an iPhone 5c

I’ve owned an iPhone 4s for almost 2 years now and had been patiently awaiting the successor to the iPhone 5 until this week. When the 5 was first introduced, I was off-cycle for a discounted upgrade from AT&T and when I finally was eligible I thought I might as well just wait and see. I was hoping the increasing popularity of larger-screened smartphones would encourage Apple to release at least an iPhone with a 4.6″ screen in their next rev, but as I tweeted this past week, it seems Tim Cook’s pigs have yet to fly.

Now I have a choice to make. I can go with the fancy new iPhone 5s, complete with 64-bit hardware, a greatly improved camera and a cool fingerprint scanner, or I can “settle” for a 5 wrapped in a lickable, candy-coated plastic shell, the iPhone 5c. The gadget freak in me says to go with the snazzy 5s. After all, its increased speed would hold up better over the next 1.5-2 years and the pictures I took would no doubt be greatly improved from those I snap now. The 5s is more expensive, but that wasn’t the deciding factor, at least not for me.

I’ve chosen to go with the iPhone 5c for a couple reasons, but mainly because of comfort. For my money, the most comfortable smartphone to hold and use was the iPhone 3GS. Its slightly rounded back, smooth plastic construction and tight edges made it a joy to hold and use. When the iPhone 4 was introduced, I really didn’t like the device’s form factor. The metal band creates sharp edges that fatigue the fingers and collect dirt. In addition, to me the device is *too* thin to hold safely without a case. The new iPhone 5c’s smooth curves, and seamless sides call out to the scifi geek in me and the colors, oh the colors! It’s much more streamlined, minimal in appearance and seems easier to pick up off the table. I must admit however, if I could have the 5s’ guts inside the smooth, plastic shell of the 5c, I’d opt for that in a plastic heartbeat.

I know that no matter which model I pick, either will be a great upgrade from my 4s. Although it’s served me well these last two years, I’m more than ready for the increased screen size, faster processor power and increased battery life of a new iPhone. With any luck, around this time next year Apple will be introducing a 4.6″ iPhone that will sport an all new form-factor as well as all the neat-o gadgets that are sure to make the iPhone 5s a huge success. In the meantime, unlike Kermit, it’s easy being green.

PS – iOS 7 is awesome, you’re gonna love it!

The User Interfaces of Oblivion

As an UI designer, I love seeing what artists come up with for fictional user interfaces. I’ve admired the work talented folks like Jayse Hansen has done for films like Iron Man and the Avengers for some time and secretly longed to do this kind of work. The latest work from Joseph Kosinski and Crater Lake Productions for the film Oblivion is pure magic. The level of detail, both animated and static, is staggering. I hadn’t intended to see Oblivion in the theater, but after seeing this wonderful work I just might. If you want to learn more, head over to GMUNK and check out their process.

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The Art of Doing ‘Nothing’


“When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” This line from Futurama perfectly sums up how I often feel about my job. Designing, if done right, takes the challenge of communicating a complex idea effectively, and turns it into something that can be easily understood by the masses. When designers do their job right, the overall design fades into the background and you just “get” what you’re looking at. It speaks to you on a fundamental level, things just click and you usually see big smiles on the faces of those who interact with your work.

Through the years, I’ve learned the job of the programmer is much the same. Although my programming abilities are limited to rough forms of HTML and BASIC (yes, BASIC), through my position at the Iconfactory, I’ve learned much about what goes into making a successful software application. I see the challenges that our programmers tackle every single day and I for one am always impressed. This is particularly true of our latest effort, the retina compatible version of xScope for Mac OS X.

When Apple’s stunning new display was announced, I was excited about the increased level of detail and clarity the technology would bring to the desktop. The images are gorgeous, text is as crisp as the printed words and colors are deep and rich. Designing for this display means tools that can work correctly with it, giving you accurate and flawless information from which you can build your designs. From the get-go we knew that xScope, our utility for measuring and inspecting the screen, had to be updated for this new display. What we didn’t realize when we began was just how complicated that update would be.

I’m going to be completely honest here and say that even today, after several months, I still can’t get my head fully around the concept of pixels vs window points. Oh, I know what they are and why they exist, but from the time I first learned how to use a mouse, I’ve always dealt with pixels as the unit of measure on the screen. My entire professional career has revolved around the humble pixel and as such it’s been difficult coming to grips with the fact that the days of seeing exactly what you get on screen are pretty much over.

But all of this pales in comparison to the work that my friend, our lead engineer Craig Hockenberry, had to do in order to get xScope working properly with the new retina display. Whenever Craig starts waxing programatic about his coding, my eyes usually glaze over. That said, there were times during the xScope retina conversion when I thought I was going to go catatonic. If you’re the type of person who loves coding, or maybe needs something to read to send them off to sleep at night, head on over to Furbo.org and read Craig’s technical post on the problems with coding for retina. Suffice to say it’s beyond me. Also beyond me – all the math, logic and problem solving needed to surmount this incredible challenge. I have tons of respect for anyone who finds mathematics fun and exciting, and even more for friends like Craig who wield it like a weapon in the service of their job.

When designers and developers use xScope on a shiny new retina Macbook, all they’ll know, indeed all they’ll care about is that the app works as advertised. xScope will give them the data they need to make their apps and designs the best they can be and that is all that matters. Because of the efforts of Craig and Corey Marion, xScope’s lead UI designer, the app just “works” and it works well. Users won’t know all the algebra and bug finding that went into creating it, but I thought it was appropriate to take just a moment and recognize the hard work that went into making it a reality. I sincerely hope you find the new version of xScope as powerful and useful as all of us have. But the best part is if we’ve done our jobs right, you won’t be sure we’ve done anything at all.

Ode to the Federation

Fashionably Geek is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs thanks to gems like this. This wonderful silver necklace is the perfect gift for that stylish Trekker in your life. Created by the Rice Hat Samurai Studio, the necklace is an elegant graphic translation of both the Star Trek combadge and the Vulcan Idic symbol. Their Etsy shop also offers something for Doctor Who fans as well, so beam on over and scoop these prizes up before it’s too late.

[Via Fashionably Geek]

All-Aboard for Tricky Tracks

Tricky Tracks is a stunningly beautiful and deceptively simple web-based game by Maxomedia Design Agency. If you’ve ever played with toy train sets, love building things out of LEGO bricks, or just appreciate beautiful game design, Tricky Tracks is for you. Sponsored by the SBB Swiss Federal Railway, the game’s 15 levels are broken up into groups or “boxes” of tracks, each set on gorgeous, 3D wedges of the Swiss countryside.

The object of the game is simple – Get your passenger train from station A to station B. You do this by simply pulling a pinball-style plunger in the upper-right corner of the browser window. Pull with too little force and your train won’t reach the other station. Pull too hard and your train along with all its passengers will fly right off the tracks in a spectacular wreck (yes, I’ve done this intentionally just to see what would happen). Points are awarded based on how many attempts it takes to complete a level, total time spent and special bonuses in the form of achievements that you rack up along the way.

As you progress through the beautifully rendered levels, you’ll encounter ever more difficult challenges such as railroad switches, car crossings, tunnels and steep inclines. Both the timing and power of your shot has to be perfect if your tiny train is to make it safely from one side of the level to the other. The game play is highly addictive, but for my money, the best part of Tricky Tracks are the visuals. From the moment the game loads, you know you are in for a special experience. The user interface is classic Swiss design – simple and elegant. The camera controls are easy to master and give you a soaring view of the tiny hills, valleys and towns that you’ll be visiting while you play.

I’m told that many of the locations used in the game are based on actual places in Switzerland, which after playing, just makes me want to ride the Swiss Railway even more. The scenes are gorgeous and the extremely narrow depth of focus is reminiscent of tilt-shift photography which enhances the illusion of playing with toy trains. Some levels like Genhimmelen (seen left) seem impossibly difficult, but with enough persistence and a little luck, you’ll be pulling into stations perched high atop mountain cliffs and braving pesky downtown traffic jams like a real pro.

Tricky Tracks makes use of the Unity 3D Web Player plug-in so you’ll need to download and install it for your favorite web browser before you can play. I’m not sure of the minimum system requirements, but I ran Tricky Tracks on my Core i7 iMac with 8Gb of RAM and the game played fine, at least until the last few levels. The complexity of the maps in the 3rd box of levels seemed to make camera rotation a bit jerky, but it was still very playable.

Perhaps the very best part of this wonderful effort is that Tricky Tracks is absolutely free to play. All of the initial 15 levels are included on the game’s website with the promise of a new box of 5 more “coming soon”. It took me about 2 hours to play through every level but it could probably be done in less time. Admittedly, I spent a much of my time enraptured with the look of each level. From the bright, overwhelming city lights of Knetikon (seen right) to the miniature majesty of Chateau Obersbach and the picturesque sea-side town of Sunnikon, the visual wonders in Tricky Tracks delight the eye and bring out the kid in all of us. I can’t wait to see what other challenges the game’s designers have in store, but in the meantime steam on over and give Tricky Tracks a go today. You won’t be disappointed.

Star Trek: TNG 25th Anniversary Posters

If you’re heading to San Diego Comic-Con this year, then be sure to stop by CBS’s booth (#4129) for some awesome Star Trek related goodies. To help celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Next Generation and release of season 1 on blu ray, CBS has released a set of graphic posters any Trek fan is sure to love. You can follow the official StarTrek.com twitter account for updates on when they’ll be giving away postcards and prints at SDCC or just order them online. The posters come in different sizes and although they seem a bit pricy, they just may be your cup of tea.. Earl Gray, hot. Engage!

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Ramp Champ’s Ticket to Ride

Back when Ramp Champ was released for the iPhone in August of 2009, it was one of only a handful of boardwalk style games in the App Store. Although it had taken much longer to produce than we had initially thought, all of us at the Iconfactory and DS Media Labs were proud of the effort. From its pixel-perfect artwork, and the fantastic original soundtrack to the design of Ramp Champ’s in-app purchases, every part was crafted with love. I wrote back then that the game was a huge risk for us as developers, but no matter what happened, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. All of us had tons of fun creating the game and the effort was hugely rewarding. Fans loved the rich graphics and cleverly designed puzzles that brought back memories of arcades and boardwalks long gone.

Shortly after Ramp Champ’s release, Skee-Ball by Freeverse hit the App Store and quickly stole Ramp Champ’s momentum. Skee-Ball was limited in its game play and far less graphically rich than Ramp Champ, but thanks to its straight-forward approach and realistic 3D physics, it became a huge hit. With Skee-Ball’s success, dreams of hitting the top 25 of the App Store quickly faded and although the game held its own, it never rose to the level that we had hoped it would. We produced several new add-on ramp packs for the game, but both the Iconfactory’s and DS’s resources were limited and we each turned our attention to other projects.

With the advent of the iPhone 4’s retina display 4 in June of 2010, Ramp Champ fans clamored for an updated version of the game with new high-resoultion graphics. The problem was that most of the content for the game was produced using raster (bit-mapped) graphics, not scaleable vectors and re-creating the entire game for retina proved cost prohibitive. For a while there was talk of a sequel that would be designed around all new vector graphics, and an internal prototype was even built, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Sometimes it’s difficult for small companies to devote time and money to a project when success is far from assured and such was the case with Ramp Champ. Its future seemed bleak indeed.

Then near the end of 2011, Ben Stahlhood and I started talking about DS Media Labs taking the reins of our favorite gaming son. DS had gone through some restructuring and was hiring fresh new talent to position themselves well for 2012. It’s always tough handing one of your most treasured creations to another to foster, but with Ramp Champ the move made sense. DS had been a fantastic partner in the game’s creation and we knew that if anyone was going to give Ramp Champ a bright future it would be them. With our development efforts focused on xScope, Twitterrific and the upcoming Astronut for iPad, we finalized the arrangement and I’m pleased with the result. I don’t know what’s in store for Ramp Champ any more than you do, but DS’s recent press release promises at least updated retina graphics, and I’m confident there will be much more to come after that.

All of us at the Iconfactory wish Ben and the gang at DS Media Labs all the best in their success. We look forward to rolling balls, knocking down those damn ducks and collecting tickets for even bigger and better prizes when Ramp Champ ultimately gets the update it so badly deserves. Good luck gang!

Retina iPad Roundtable

Rene Ritchie, Seth Clifford and Marc Edwards invited myself and App Cubby’s David Barnard to discuss the new retina iPad last week. Ep. 18 of the IterateTV podcast ended up being a smart discussion of the new devices’s strengths and weaknesses, tools and processes we use to develop for it and our take on the future of resolution independence. I spend some time talking about the Iconfactory’s upcoming retina work on Carcassonne and generally try to keep up with the huge brains of the fine fellows gathered around the microphone. If you design for iOS or just want to hear our take on Apple’s new hardware, check it out.

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Effortless Unboxing

Apple already has one of the best unboxing experiences of any company on the planet. The industrial, packaging and graphic designers have gone to considerable pains to make sure that customers are extremely satisfied when they first open and activate their new Apple hardware. With iOS 5’s ‘PC Free’ technology, in combination with iCloud, Apple’s customers no longer need to attach their new iPhone or iPad to a desktop computer to start using it. All this is wonderful, but could Apple’s unboxing experience be even better?

Yes it could.

Imagine opening your new iPad that arrives by FedEx this morning, turning on the device and finding it already ready to use. No input of your Apple ID, no syncing of contacts, bookmarks or even apps. You turn the iPad on and it’s ready to go. Using the online ordering service via Apple.com in conjunction with your existing Apple ID, this kind of effortless unboxing experience could easily become reality. Ask any Kindle owner how awesome it is power on their new device and find all their books already there, ready to read. I could easily see an option at the end of Apple’s online ordering system that would give permission to use your Apple ID to pre-sync your new iDevice with your iCloud content.

There’s something to be said for the actual process of setting up your gadgets. The geek in us loves the discovery and rush we get from seeing, touching and exploring new technology and in that way, perhaps the current unboxing experience is superior. It gives Apple a chance to highlight just how elegant the process really is. That said, Apple is always designing for the 80%, not the geek and if that means giving customers the ability to simply open the box and go, I’m sure we’ll see it in the very near future.

[Hat tip: @BigZaphod @dlanham and @TandyQ contributed to this post]

Snow Circles

It never fails to astound me what people can do given enough time and determination. In this case, take a pair of snow shoes and a fresh coat of powder and the result is one of the most beautiful outdoor displays you’re ever likely to see. These snow drawings by Sonja Hinrichsen take cues from their crop circle cousins sans the pseudo-science, to create a sprawling visual canvas. In a year when we’ve seen so little snow here in North Carolina, this video and the accompanying images over on Flickr are a sight for sorry eyes.

[Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan]

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Twitterrific’s Tough Love

When you love someone it’s hard to say no to them. You’ll usually do anything to please that person even if it goes against your better judgement. The inability to say no can also extend to the realm of software development. Companies can get so caught up in the desire to give users the best and brightest features they forget about the dangers of feature creep. They forget about good design. Such was the case with Twitterrific for the iPhone.

Somewhere during Twitterrific’s evolution from the desktop to the iPhone, we forgot how to say no. We said yes to too many of the latest features, 3rd party services and user requests. Eventually this “leap before you look” approach increased the complexity of the user interface and made the app’s settings too confusing for even us to figure out. A growing chorus of users told us the app was too hard to understand. We had lost our way.

The announcement of the iPad changed all that. Constrained by the 60 day launch deadline, we set about to create a fresh version of Twitterrific that would be dead simple, include all of Twitter’s core features and be a joy to use. The result was Twitterrific for iPad which is now available on the App Store. Many of the extraneous features from the iPhone version were initially removed including *all* of the app’s settings. There are no layout controls, body text compression, address book, themes and no tap shortcuts. What we present in exchange is simply the most friendly, easy to use Twitter client available anywhere. Like the iPad itself, Twitterrific is now designed for the masses. Those fabled 80% of users that Steve Jobs mentioned at the product’s launch are now our target audience. Early reaction to Twitterrific for iPad has been very positive. The app is decidedly easy to use and has a feature set that the majority of users want.

The result is a strong user experience that is influencing our efforts on the iPhone as well as the new upcoming Mac version of Twitterrific. Having eventual parity across all versions of the application will cut down on technical support requests and free up our development time, resulting in more regular updates and bring Twitterrific to a wider audience. Will we bring back some of the most heavily requested features? Yes, versions 1.0.1 and 1.1 for iPad have already added requested features like 3rd party push, reply all and picture uploading.

Twitterrific 3 for iPhone benefits from all the work that has already gone into the iPad including: proper retweets, lists, saved searches and more. Add to this the long-awaited full landscape support that our users have been crying out for and Twitterrific is a whole new experience on the iPhone. All these things aside, rebooting the app in this fashion has allowed us to evaluate each feature on its own merits. Free of the pressure to include everything but the kitchen sink, Twitterrific now starts fresh and will gain new users. Once all the versions are in sync, we can concentrate on bringing updates to Twitterrific across all platforms simultaneously. This will hopefully allow us to avoid the pitfalls of having one version wildly out of sync with the rest (like the current Mac version).

In the end, this approach benefits both the customer and the Iconfactory and makes for less frustration. We realize that some current users of Twitterrific for the iPhone may lose a few of their favorite features as we move towards these new versions. Some may even seek out other Twitter clients as a result and if that’s the case, I’m okay with it. It’s impossible to please everyone, so we’ve decided to focus on those like us who want a streamlined and straightforward Twitter experience. Our days of trying to be the everything-under-the-sun Twitter client are over. Tough love has taught us saying “no” leads to beautiful things. The best is yet to come, I hope you’ll join us.

Related posts:

For more information about the changes coming to Twitterrific, be sure to check out David Lanham’s post on optimizing the user experience (including more screen shots from version 3 for iPhone) as well as Craig Hockenberry’s piece on why simplifying a design is so important. Thanks!

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iFavorite Things

Unless you’ve been living on the far side of the island for the past 3 months, you’ve probably heard of the iPad. You’ve probably already read more than your fair share of reviews of the device and what to expect from Steve’s latest magic marvel. Two of my favorite reviews so far are Jason Snell’s wonderfully complete write up as well as Sean Blanc’s take on the iPad. However, rather than pile on my own full review I thought I’d go with the “less is more” approach. Here, in no particular order, are my favorite and least favorite things about the iPad. You’re milage may vary.

Good – The screen. It’s sharp, lush and super crisp.

Bad – The smudges. This thing shows fingerprints like a poor man’s crime scene.

Good – Speed. Holy crap this thing is fast. Apps launch, Safari scrolls and zooms, home screens load all tremendously fast. If you own an iPad and yours isn’t blazingly fast, you’ve either jailbroken it or offended it in some way. This thing flies.

Bad – The weight. It weighs about .5 – .75 more lbs than I would like. It’s not a huge deal, but holding it in one hand will quickly give you a workout. This is undoubtedly the handiwork of the super-long battery life which helps me deal, but I hope iPad 2.0 weighs less.

Good – Did I mention the battery life? It’s like crazy nutty awesome. I sat with my iPad on last night for about an hour using Twitterrific and Safari and went from 100% to about 97% battery. The iPad is doing some crazy ass power management.

Good – iBooks. The application is beautiful, thoughtfully designed and a joy to use. Almost makes me want to read more. Almost.

Good – Blue tooth keyboard pairing. This to me, is the killer feature. Once paired with my Apple wireless bluetooth keyboard my iPad effortlessly became a mini Twitter station next to my iMac. The keyboard can wake the iPad from sleep without the need to unlock and the function keys even control the iPad’s brightness, volume and media controls (play, ff, pause, rewind).

Good – Apps. There are tons of great apps out there for the iPad. In no particular order, my favorite apps so far include Articles, Things, Epicurious, At Bat 2010, Deliveries, Instapaper and my favorite of course is Twitterrific.

Holding and using the iPad makes all the difference in the world. Pictures, even video doesn’t do the device justice. It feels natural to manipulate and beats the hell out of a laptop for casual surfing, tweeting and replying to email. In the game department, the iPad will give all other mobile gaming platforms a serious run for their money. Watching movies & TV shows is light years better than watching them on my iPhone.

Overall the iPad is yet another feather in Steve Jobs’ and Apple’s cap. Even if I didn’t develop apps for a living, I’d still buy one for myself because its just so darned fun and effortless to use. The iPad is certainly a game changer and if nothing else has proven that despite Microsoft’s failed efforts to the contrary, tablet computing can be successful. Check it out.

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The Music of Ramp Champ

For designers and artists, the chance to collaborate with others who share your passion for creation is a wonderful event. Ideas feed off of each other and lead to new connections which can both surprise and delight. Such was the case while scoring Ramp Champ, the Iconfactory’s & DS Media Labs’ ode to the classic games of Skee-Ball and pinball for the iPhone. I’m pleased to report the game’s soundtrack was recently released on iTunes, something none of us at the factory could have dreamt of happening.

When we originally designed the game’s ramps, we knew we wanted the quality of the music to match the fidelity of the visual elements. Having a generic track repeat itself across multiple ramps, from outer space to under water, wasn’t going to be fun for the player. During the initial production phase of Ramp Champ, composer Noe Ruiz took the lead and created many of the tracks for the default levels such as Clown Town, Breakwater Bay and Space Swarm. Noe has a wonderful ear for rhythm and was able to incorporate these into the widely varied themes with ease. Of all the tracks he originally produced for Ramp Champ, Space Swarm (along with it’s dance and techno re-mixes) has to be my favorite of the bunch. Space Swarm is filled with old-school retro arcade sound effects that play perfectly into the look and feel of the ramp, helping to evoke the feel of a classic 80’s arcade game.

Atomicon’s David Weiner took up where Noe left off and came on board to help us produce the music for two of the game’s add-on packs. The Challenge Pack featured Molar Madness and Happy Place, both of which required a decidedly twisted approach when it came to the score. David’s work on Molar Madness is nothing short of brilliant. The samba-like piece he created for the ramp is both catchy and just the sort of thing you’d hear coming from the speakers of a dentist’s waiting room. Molar Madness is, without a doubt, one of my favorite pieces in all of Ramp Champ. Happy Place somehow managed to take the absurd notion of dolphins and unicorns floating in the sky and give them life. The track is zippy and light, but has decidedly dark undertones that foreshadows ominous events the player encounters within the level.

When it came time to write the music for our special Halloween add-on pack, David once again stepped up and gave us two wonderfully spooky tracks. When I approached him about Trick or Treat, I knew I wanted music that sounded both eerie as well as innocent. The ramp features children as they roam a neighborhood for candy on Halloween night. As we talked through our ideas, one of our inspirations was Vince Guaraldi’s classic Great Pumpkin Waltz from “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown”. David’s final piece has this jazzy feel as well as elements that remind me of the creepy TV cult hit Twin Peaks, which worked out wonderfully. The other piece in the Halloween Pack, Grave Danger, draws obvious inspiration from Disney’s classic Haunted Mansion with all kinds of over the top scary sound effects like thunder, ghosts and werewolves.

For our 3rd release, David Weiner was already busy scoring the Challenge Pack as well as our other iPhone title, Pickin’ Time, and so we turned to composer Mike Weiser. Mike has created music for many iPhone games including Stick Wars and Tower Land and I was fortunate to be able to work with him on Plunderin’ Pirates and Star Struck. Mike’s score for Plunderin’ Pirates, inspired by Disney’s famous Pirates of the Caribbean ride, is one of the funnest pieces in the game and does a great job of evoking the high seas thanks to the use of instruments like the accordion and steel drums. The sound effects I produced for the ramp added to the overall feel and makes for what many players have called their favorite level in the game.

On Star Struck, both Mike and I decided to create something that reminded the player of space exploration, like you’d hear sitting in a planetarium. The “computerish” tones that come in at the start and end of the track were originally an ode from one of my favorite films ever, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although Mike masterfully made them his own in Star Struck. The album version of Star Struck that appears on the soundtrack is a specially composed version of the game’s track and is my favorite piece in all of Ramp Champ. You’ll be able to catch more of Mike’s work in the Iconfactory’s next software title, coming to the iPhone in the second quarter of 2010.

Collaborating with Noe, David and Mike on the music for Ramp Champ was, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding things I’ve done during my time at the Iconfactory. The talent these guys posses to take one’s creations and run with them musically is nothing short of astounding. Their work made our efforts that much better and for that, we are all grateful. With Atomicon’s help, we’re proud to finally be able to bring you the complete original soundtrack. I really encourage you to check it out and hopefully you’ll enjoy listening to it as much as we had bringing it to you.

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All I ask is a tall ship…

Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I’ve been lucky enough to beta test the new MMO, Star Trek Online from Cryptic Studios. The game is set to launch in early February and at least for this Star Trek fan, it’s a winner. Playing around in Gene Roddenberry’s universe has given me a new appreciation for the art direction of designers such as Matt Jeffries and Michael Okuda. Designing anything is challenging, but designing interiors, user interfaces and uniforms of things that have yet to be must be especially difficult.

Most beloved of all the designs of Star Trek is perhaps the bridge of the Starship Enterprise itself. The bridge is the command center of the ship and is often the focus of action on both the big and small screens. Jeffries’ original utilitarian layout eventually gave way to more modern looking interiors, but the basic design (center command chair, flanking support positions) has withstood the test of time. The bridge is such an integral part of Star Trek that due to popular demand, the developers of Star Trek Online recently announced they were implementing them for individual ships within the game. Virtual captains told Cryptic they wanted their “big chair” and the game designers responded in kind.

All of this got me thinking about which starship bridge I liked the best. The answer has to be that of the Enterprise-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation. To many Trek fans this bridge seemed more like a hotel lobby than a high-tech command center, but I always admired its sleek curves, high-tech surfaces and muted colors. The original TV design was modified slightly for Star Trek Generations (seen here) to accommodate new science/tactical stations, giving the set a more cinematic feel.

Designed by Andrew Probert, the bridge of the Enterprise-D was the ultimate set for the weekly TV series. The layout was big enough to allow the actors room to move around comfortably as well as give characters space for private conversations, tucked away from prying ears. The raised back level provided an elevated platform that made Worf look even more imposing while offering Geordi and Data stations where they could work out solutions to the problem of the week. The set also introduced flanking seats to those of the Captain’s something that Star Trek Voyager would also adopt.

In contrast to The Next Generation’s warm earth tones, the bridge of the U.S.S. Voyager presented TV viewers with the cool grays and electric blues so often associated with science fiction. Created by production designer Richard D. James and illustrator Rick Sternbach, the interior design of the bridge of Voyager introduced subtle under lighting techniques that contributed to the “deep space feel” of the show. This design also reduced the traditional two-man con and navigator positions to a single console, putting emphasis on Captain Janeway.

I love the look of these two sets because they put the focus on the characters and their actions rather than the technology all around them. Some production designers tend to get out of hand with their creations and let the look of the set overpower its inhabitants. Voyager’s and Next Gen’s bridges are awesome examples of futuristic interior design precisely because they don’t go overboard. Compare these simple designs to the complex bridges of the Enterprise-E or the franchise reboot and you’ll see Star Trek art direction run amuck. Overlapping lines, textures and lens flares get in the way of the action and detract from the audience’s ability to focus on the characters.

Designing anything, even a fictional universe is an art form. More so when a large part of that universe’s appeal centers around details. Through the years, those entrusted with designing the bridges of Starfleet have evolved and molded it again and again. These talented artists have put their stamp on Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of the future and given Trek fans a place they could easily call home. Star Trek Online will soon give players a chance to roam the bridges of some of the most beloved starships in Star Trek history, all from the comfort of their computers. So until we can all afford to build a bridge in our basement, a virtual one has to be the next best thing.

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Orba: My New iPhone Obsession

Every once in a while you run across a piece of software that’s so elegant and well done it makes you smile from ear to ear. Orba, the new free puzzle game from Kieffer Bros. is such an application. Released for the iPhone and iPod touch in late November, Orba is a great example of casual gaming in the spirit of Bejeweled or Tetris.

I love games that can be explained in 25 words or less and Orba’s just such a game. Clear as much of the board as possible by tapping chains of three or more same-colored orbs. The bigger the chain, the more you score. The premise is simple, but after playing just a few games it quickly becomes apparent tap mashing won’t get you very far. Each game starts with only 3 colored orbs shown on the board, so creating long chains of like colors is relatively easy. As you progress, more and more colors are introduced and it becomes quite difficult to clear enough of the board to be able to continue. When no chains can be cleared, the game is over.

As is the case with much of the software that lives on my iPhone, I first discovered Orba via a tweet from a friend, Jason Snell of Macworld. Since I know all too well how important it is to get the word out about great iPhone apps, I’m only too happy to recommend Orba to all of you iPhone and iPod touch users out there.

The game’s user interface is drool worthy. Everything about the game’s design just seems right from the user interaction and the help screens to the friendly “Hello Again.” message that greets you every time you begin. The UI is minimal, but elegant and does a wonderful job of not getting in the way as you play while still looking freakin’ cool. About the only thing I probably would have done differently are some of the sounds. They too are minimal, almost to a point of being non-existent. Despite the audio nit pick, the designers at Kieffer Bros have a well-earned reputation for beautiful software and their work on Orba is no exception.

As a causal gamer, I was surprised and delighted to find that Orba was being offered on the App Store absolutely free. As a fellow developer of iPhone titles, I would have gladly paid upwards of $4.99 for this wonderful piece of art masquerading as a casual game. Since my parents always taught me never to look a gift horse in the mouth, I won’t say any more regarding the decision to give away Orba except to say “Thank you” to the folks behind the orbs. I’ve already gotten many hours of enjoyment out of the download, and that will most likely continue for some time.

I love that I can play this game for a few minutes or hours on end, pause and come back at will. Since there is no time constraint, the only pressure to achieve higher scores are the ones you impose on yourself. Orba doesn’t have online scoreboards or social network boasting, but it doesn’t have to. It is what it is. If you’re looking for a well designed, friendly and casual game for your iPhone, Orba just might be the game for you. Head on over to the App Store, download a copy and let me know when you break the million point mark.

UPDATE: Of course on the very day I decide to publish this post, Orba goes from free to 99¢. I’m actually glad they made it paid since it’s worth 4-5x what they are asking for. You can still try the first 12 levels for free by downloading Orba lite so no harm, no foul.

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The Domino’s Effect

Back in August I wrote a post about the need for increased feedback in the review process for Apple’s App Store. I made the thoughtful (and delicious, I might add) case for how the folks at Domino’s had the right idea when they unleashed their famed Pizza Tracker into the online world. The Pizza Tracker allows customer to see each step of the pizza making process thereby eliminating anxiety, fear and doubt in the mind of the hungry consumer. It stood to reason that one of the ways Apple could make the whole review process easier for the fragile psyche of today’s iPhone devs would be to supply more information when apps are submitted for review. I’d love to claim that it was my well-timed blog post that spurred Mr. Jobs into action, but alas I have no tangible proof.

What we do know however is that Apple has introduced a new status history to the review process thereby removing some of the mystery of where your app is on its road to public release. As Mashable reported this week, it may not tell you the actual name of the individual(s) reviewing your application, but it does let you know what stage your app is in, why it might have been rejected, how to correct and so on. This is certainly good news for iPhone developers like myself who no doubt take the change to mean Apple is listening to its critics. The change comes just a bit too late for famed iPhone developer Joe Hewitt however.

Hewitt, the noted dev behind the massively popular Facebook app, announced rather publicly this week he was abandoning the iPhone in favor of mobile web-based applications. Hewitt cited the restrictive policies of Apple’s app review process as the main reason he was leaving and it’s more than fair to say his departure has made other developers sit up and take notice. Overall I find Joe’s protest a good thing but considering his application had the App Store approval process wrapped around its little finger, more than a little ironic. At one point, the Facebook app had no less than 3 updates pushed to the App Store within 72 hours of each other. This is something unheard of in the iPhone development community, unless of course you’re a massive juggernaut like Facebook.

In the end, Apple’s addition of the new status history and even Joe’s rather public resignation from the App Store should help the platform. These developments can’t come soon enough. The staggering growth of applications for the iPhone has meant ever-decreasing visibility for publishers, longer wait times, mounting frustrations and increased competition. With this week’s update, Apple is doing what it can to help turn the tide of criticism before it snowballs out of control. I just wish they’d have delivered it in 30 minutes or less.

UPDATE: Add iPhone developers Rogue Amoeba to the list of developers who are quitting the platform. Four months of delays, roadblocks and black bag treatment by the App Store and it’s broken (yes, it really IS broken) review process has been enough for them. In my Losing iReligion blog post, I said that if things didn’t get better, we’d start to see developers head for greener pastures. Guess what? It’s really starting to happen. All those who commented that there’s nothing wrong with the App Store, go read RA’s post. Then read it again. Not surprisingly, it’s going to take more than a status history to make iPhone developers happy.

UPDATE II: Brett Archibald Jeff Lamarche offers a different view of the Rogue Amoeba situation and comes to the defense of Apple and the App Store. Jeff makes some good points, it’s certainly not a black and white issue. I think the thing that makes RA’s situation so bad is that it took 4 months to resolve. Three-four weeks inbetween submissions to know if your fix is correct is unacceptable in my book.

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Losing iReligion

A great deal has been written about the App Store, both good and bad, and much of it comes from developers I know and respect. It almost seems pointless to add my own thoughts to those who are more widely known and respected than I am, but given how my feelings have evolved regarding the App Store recently I think it’s worth a shot. If what I have to say gives a potential iPhone developer reason pause and re-examine their entry into the space then it will have been worth it.

The App Store is broken. I know from the outside glancing in, it may not look that way but it is. It also doesn’t seem like it’s broken from Apple’s point of view since the store and its tens of thousands of software titles have helped place the iPhone firmly at the head of the smart phone industry. But speaking as a small developer who’s been releasing Mac software for over a decade, the App Store is broken. The ironic part is that if you had asked me this a few months ago I would have denied it with my dying breath.

Since it first launched in July of 2008, the App Store has been evolving and changing to suit the needs of both Apple and consumers. Unfortunately for developers many of these changes have hurt more than they have helped. The utter race to the bottom of the pricing structure by thousands of developers has created tremendous pressure to set applications at either free or near free price points. I know this first hand because when Twitterrific for the iPhone first debuted we set it’s price at $9.95 which, by today’s App Store standards, is almost unheard of. It wasn’t long before lagging sales and increased pressure from competition forced the Iconfactory to lower the application’s price to $3.99, still “expensive” by App Store standards. Not only was the price lowered, but the feature set was more than doubled and yet many users still complain it costs too much. While these changes represent perks for users, it also means that sustaining profitability for a given piece of software in the App Store is nearly impossible unless you have a break-away hit.

This leads me to the next point of failure for the App Store – visibility. Everyone has heard about the so-called “gold rush” certain developers have experienced. Flight Control’s 1.5 mil sales record. Trism’s incredible $250,000 short-term bonanza. But for every one of these lottery wins in the store, there are hundreds, if not thousands of developers who see little if any return on their investments of time and money. What’s worse, the success or failure of a particular piece of software in the App Store depends as much on Apple deciding to feature your creation as the creation itself. One can shift the tables in one’s favor with a sizable advertising budget, but many of us like the Iconfactory don’t have such generous resources at our disposal.

When the Iconfactory & DS Media Labs released our latest iPhone game, Ramp Champ, we knew that we had to try and maximize exposure of the application at launch. We poured hundreds of hours into the game’s development and pulled out all the stops to not only make it beautiful and fun, but also something Apple would be proud to feature in the App Store. We designed an attractive website for the game, showed it to as many high-profile bloggers as we could prior to launch and made sure in-app purchases were compelling and affordable. When the moment came, Ramp Champ shot up the charts quickly but just as quick, it hit a brick wall. Within days the app that had peaked at #56 on the top paid chart fell off the top 100 despite receiving praise from users and reviewers alike. The lack of store front exposure combined with a sporadic 3G crashing bug conspired to keep Ramp Champ down for the count.

A new version that corrected crashing was completed quickly, but once again the App Store reared it’s broken head as the review process kept the fix out of user’s hands for almost two weeks. By this time it was too late and momentum had been lost. Despite a “What’s Hot” feature by Apple in the App Store, Ramp Champ’s sales have not lived up to expectations for either the Iconfactory or DS Media Labs. What’s worse, many of the future plans for the game (network play, online score boards, frequent add-on pack releases) are all in jeopardy because of the simple fact that Ramp Champ hasn’t returned on its investment.

In order for a developer to continue to produce, they must make money. It’s a pretty simple concept and one that tends to get lost in the excitement to write for the iPhone. It’s difficult for me to justify spending 20-50 hours designing and creating new 99¢ levels for Ramp Champ when I could be spending that time on paid client work instead. I would much rather be coming up with the sequel to Space Swarm than drawing my 200th version of a magnifying glass icon. But I’d also like to have some assurances from Apple about reducing the length of the App Store approval process, having the ability to respond to factually incorrect iTunes reviews, not be limited to 100 beta testers, or that large, prominent developers won’t always get preferential treatment. In short, I’d like to know things will be fixed and I don’t mean merely posting a page of marketing text in iTunes Connect.

It is a truism that everyone who creates content is a control freak. From fine artists that decide what gallery their work will hang in, to architects who scratch tooth and claw with stubborn clients about what materials will be used in construction. Software developers are no different. We all want as much control over our creations as we can possibly have and the App Store in it’s current state has removed a significant level of control from our hands. I’m not ready to throw my lot down with those who have renounced the platform just yet, but unless some significant changes come very soon, myself and others like me will have no choice but to focus our development efforts elsewhere.

UPDATE: Several developers have contacted me and told me privately that they think it isn’t so much the App Store that’s kept Ramp Champ from being a success as it is the game itself. Given the fact that Freeverse’s newly released and shallower ‘Skee Ball’ currently sits at #6 in Top Paid apps in the store, part of me wants to agree. I could second-guess myself about what didn’t go right with Ramp Champ but in my heart of hearts I know RC is better than 90% of the games that get to the top of the list. I have to keep telling myself that what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger in the end. Hopefully.

UPDATE II: Seems I’m not the only one cooling to the idea of developing for the iPhone. Macworld’s Dan Moren reporting from the C4 independent developers conference says many of the developers are frustrated at their lack of control in the App Store. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one.

UPDATE III: Marco Arment has written an excellent piece that addresses my post. I agree with much of the analysis there and tend to think that their may indeed be “two App Stores” so to speak. As a result of suggestions from both Marco and the commenters here, Ramp Champ’s vague app store description has been re-written and new screen shots posted to show more content. Thanks to everyone who suggested these changes, I think they will definitely help sales.

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Rolling the Hard Six

This week marks the release of the Iconfactory’s third piece of software for the iPhone platform, and only our second game – Ramp Champ. Ramp Champ is a fun twist on some of the carnival games you’ll remember from your childhood. The game was designed with love by the gang at the Iconfactory and implemented with skill by the talented folks at DS Media Labs. It’s been in the making for the better half of a year and the time has finally come to release it into the wild.

I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a huge case of stomach butterflies right about now. We’ve invested a ton of time and money in Ramp Champ and its relative success or failure will be determined within the next 2 weeks. I always get nervous before software releases, but more so when it’s something completely new. Unlike some other large developers, we don’t have a huge well of funds to dip into to develop our apps which makes writing for the iPhone something akin to playing the lottery. We always do our best to design and implement applications that we think people will use and love, but until you actually get real feedback from users, you just don’t know.

When it comes to the App Store, it seems that the success of a particular application has as much to do with luck as it does with blood sweat and tears. I’ve seen apps I never thought even merited being in the store rise to the top despite poor quality or being based on a questionable premise. Meanwhile, defying all developer logic, some of the very best applications never rise above the top 25. Some are sandbagged by the perception of being “too expensive”, others get obscured by the meteoric rise of novelty “ringtoners” who inevitably take the App Store’s coveted top slots.

Talk to a bunch of iPhone developers and they’ll most likely tell you that everything being equal, success in the App Store is a crap shoot. You can push the odds in your favor by producing a high-quality piece of software, as well as offering it for next to nothing, but in the end fate feels like the final arbiter. I’m very proud of all of the guys, both at the Iconfactory and at DS Media Labs for putting together one heck of a fun game. Hopefully you will enjoy playing it just as much as we enjoyed creating it. No one would deny that producing applications for Apple’s iPhone isn’t risky, but as I’ve told myself again and again lately, without risk there can be no reward.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go chug a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

UPDATE: Well, we’re over the release hurdle at this point and I’m feeling a lot better. Overall the reaction to Ramp Champ seems to be very positive, although we’re dealing with some memory issue that are causing crashes, particular for 1st Gen device users. The good news is we think we’ve ID’d the problem and should have a fix submitted to the App Store soon.

Thanks to everyone who’s posted or tweeted positive feedback about the game, it’s done my heart (and my stomach) a lot of good these past 2 days. If you’re interested in knowing what went into producing Ramp Champ, head on over to Louie’s blog for some insights. More to come!