Muting Messages in iOS 8

One of the most useful (and hidden) features I’ve come across in iOS 8 is the ability to mute IM threads in Messages. Think of it like Do Not Disturb but on a case by case basis. I first noticed it by accident when a tiny crescent moon icon appeared next to one of my IM threads and so I Googled it to figure out what exactly it was.


When do not disturb is turned on for a particular message thread, you won’t be notified when that person(s) replies via text or iMessage. This can be really great if you want a way to ignore a person or group discussion that’s gotten out of hand. It can also be really frustrating if you happen to activate it by accident as I apparently I did without realizing it (or perhaps a bug in iOS 8?).

To turn Do Not Disturb for individual message threads on or off, tap the Details text at the top right of the Messages window to open that thread’s detail view. Next, scroll down to Do Not Disturb and toggle on or off as desired. When this feature is turned on, you won’t receive notifications when the person sends text messages or IM’s and you can go about your life notification free.

The Details view also gives you quick access to all the images that person has shared with you, as well as the ability to share your location information with the people you’re chatting with which is a nice feature as well.

The more I play with iOS 8, the more little things I find that truly set it apart from iOS 7. It’s wonderful that Apple is giving us more control over our digital world, I can’t wait to see what else is in store.

PS – I love Louie to death and would never mute his IM’s. He was gracious enough to let me use our conversation as an example. Thanks Louie! :-)

iOS 8 Favorite Features

On the surface, users coming from iOS 7 may not notice the myriad of changes and improvements Apple has made in their latest mobile operating system, iOS 8. Visually, iOS 8 is almost identical to its immediate predecessor, but under the hood there’s a great deal to like and even some to really love.

Much has been written about the new OS, but now having used it for a few weeks, I thought I would write about my own personal observations from the user’s perspective. I could write an entire other post about the good and bad parts of iOS 8 as they relate to developers (and perhaps I will), but for now, here are the parts of the new operating system that I’ve been enjoying the most.

3rd Party Extensions

Without a doubt, iOS 8′s single greatest feature is the ability to extend the system via 3rd party extensions. Early iPhone adopters will probably remember what the device was like before the advent of the App Store – it was cool, but killer apps made it a “must have”. I liken extensions in iOS 8 to that early invitation of 3rd party devs to the iPhone party. The most well received extension so far as been Agile Bit’s amazing security utility, 1Password. Thanks to iOS 8′s extensions you now can access your secure passwords directly within apps reducing friction and making your information more secure.

Other notable extensions include PCalc’s Today View which gives you handy computation abilities right from your iPhone’s lock screen and another personal favorite of mine – Add to Wunderlist which lets you add web pages directly to new or existing lists. Perhaps the most exciting part is that we’re just in the early days of iOS 8 extensions so we’re only seeing a fraction of the potential that 3rd party extensions represent. More great stuff is sure to come and I for one am very excited.

Directly Replying to Notifications

Swipe left on a notification on your device’s lock screen or downward from a notification within iOS 8 itself to reveal the ability to reply directly to instant messages. I have to admit that I’ve found myself using this one more and more. It saves so much time being able to reply directly it’s incredible. This is one feature I really wish Apple had implemented earlier, but I’ll surely take it now that it’s here.

Siri’s Visual Feedback

Apple’s digital assistant, Siri, has taken a cue from other popular voice-activated services like Google Voice Search and now displays helpful visual feedback when dictating text or commands in iOS 8. This really comes in handy when you have long blocks of text you want to enter and can see in real time how well (or how badly) you’re doing. It’s still not as fast or precise as Google’s version, and I don’t know how Siri stacks up against Windows Phone’s new assistant, Cortana, but it’s a big improvement none-the-less. Siri’s real-time dictation even works within 3rd party apps like Twitterrific, which was an unexpected and delightful surprise!

Perspective Zoom: OFF

Remember the old “Genie Effect” from Mac OS X where minimizing an app would make it snake down into the magic lamp of the Dock? It was kinda neat the first few times you tried it, but if you were like millions of other OS X users, you probably turned it off pretty quickly. The 3D parallax effect in iOS 7 was the Genie effect reborn for iPhone and was one of the very first things I turned off when I went from iOS 6 to iOS 7.

Now, thankfully in iOS 8 you have even greater control over the parallax effect and can turn it on or off for just the Lock Screen, the Home Screen or both. When you go into Settings > Wallpaper and choose an image to use as your Lock or Home screen, iOS 8 gives you the ability to turn Perspective Zoom on or off when you confirm the choice. Why anyone would choose to leave it turned on is beyond me, but at least now you have granularity when it comes to these cutting-edge, effects that can cause motion sickness in some people. Yay!

Recent Contact List

With fewer and fewer people using the built in Phone app, Apple wisely added a row of recent & favorite contacts to the top of the multi-tasking view. This handy list of people and places you’ve called, IM’d or written is a great way to initiate contact with them quickly and easily.

The only downside is that since I’m seeing their faces a whole lot more, I feel compelled to assign all my contacts decent looking photos for their avatars. Needless to say, not all of my friends have great pictures of themselves and this, as they say, has proven to be “challenging” to say the least. I guess we can’t all look like models from a GAP ad :-/

There are still more than a few rough edges that need sanding in iOS 8. Transition animations can be jerky, apps are prone to crash more often than in iOS 7 and devices can have problems staying connected to local WiFi networks. If history is any indication however, Apple should iron out these wrinkles in pretty short order. In the meantime there’s plenty of cool, useful new features in iOS 8 to keep all of us busy for some time and we haven’t even experienced Apple Pay or Continuity yet. The best, I suspect, is yet to come.

Star Trek: Next Gen Wallpapers for iPhone 6

UPDATE: Both the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus versions have been updated to correct some minor alignment issues, took a shot at a version for Windows Phone as well as added a new more “authentic” Next Gen color scheme to choose from.

If you enjoy Star Trek as much as I do then you’ll love these free, Next Generation mobile wallpapers I designed for use with iOS. I’ve updated my original LCARS Star Trek lock screen for the brand new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus so you can be the geeky envy of all your friends. For those of you still running the smaller iPhone 5, don’t worry, there’s even a version here for you!

I’ve been a huge fan of Star Trek Production Designer, Michael Okuda since day one and this project was my way of saying “Thank you!” for the wonderful, futuristic operating system that Next Gen fans know and love as LCARS. With the iPhone 6 Plus approaching the size of actual padds from Next Gen, it only made sense to bring this amazing aesthetic to the palm of our hands.

How to download and apply the wallpapers on iOS 8:

1) Click to view the wallpaper that best fits your device:

• iPhone 5 Series – Original / TNG Colors
• iPhone 6 – Original / TNG Colors
• iPhone 6 Plus – Original / TNG Colors

• Windows Phone – Original / TNG Colors
I don’t own a Windows Phone and make no promises about how this version will work for you. These are provided as is!

2) Tap & hold on the image in mobile Safari & save it to your photo library

3) Open Photos, view the image then tap the Share button in the lower left

4) Scroll to the right in the Share menu and tap Use as Wallpaper

5) Pinch Zoom OUT on the image to size it exactly to the screen

6) Turn Perspective Zoom OFF

7) Tap Set > Set Lock Screen

That’s it! Sleep/lock your iPhone and the next time you activate it, you can pretend you’re Captain Picard himself receiving an important message from Starfeet Command. I hope you enjoy this fun treat & help spread the word via Twitter and Facebook. Engage and enjoy!

The Only Thing I’ve Ever Wanted

As the days and hours march inexorably towards the launch of Yosemite and iOS 8 this fall, I find my thoughts turning more and more to the fabled and much-rumored iWatch. I’ve been trying to think of what Apple could possibly offer in such a wearable device that might get me to jump in and buy one if it will indeed exist. I don’t need a time piece, I haven’t actually worn a watch in years. I stopped wearing them around the time the iPhone came out, as I’m sure many people did. I’ve read the pitiful reviews of Samsung’s early efforts with smart watches and unsurprisingly was less than impressed. Even if the design of these devices was more elegant and sleek than they currently are, the feature sets just wouldn’t be enough for me to wear both a smart watch and carry around my trusty iPhone.

In order to be desirable, Apple’s iWatch has to fulfill a need that I currently don’t know I have. While this sounds like typical Apple fanboy BS, strangely enough it actually does make sense. Steve Jobs once famously said “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” and I firmly believe this. One thing that Apple does, perhaps better than any other company on the planet, is to elicit desire in people for their products. They do this by identifying key customer needs, and then meticulously design a simple and elegant solution. One so beautiful and easy to use the public doesn’t understand why it hasn’t been there all along. I really think this will be the case with the iWatch. Some of these feature sets have been speculated since day one. Perhaps some kind of intelligent notification system, health monitor or location aware smart assistant are in the cards but again, I’m not sure any of these would make me crave it.

I am sure the iWatch will not replace a user’s iPhone. The margins on these devices just won’t be high enough for that kind of strategy. Logically, a wearable iDevice would extend the functions of your iPhone (or Mac) to give you more control over your digital life. I just sat down at my Mac, so don’t send that IM to my iPhone, iPad and Mac, just my iPhone. Wouldn’t that be great? Yeah it sure would but it could also be done by simply making your iPhone smarter. My phone goes everywhere I go, I don’t need something like an iRing for that.

Unfortunately that leads us back to square one and perhaps it’s for the best. Trying to outguess Tim Cook’s Apple may be a fun diversion for bloggers and tech mavens but personally I’d rather give the talented folks at Apple the benefit of the doubt. I’m confident that if and when the iWatch does arrive it be simple to use, beautiful to look at and most of all make perfect sense. As Futurama’s Philip J. Fry once said, “Whatever is in there, it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted!” You took the words right out of our mouths, Phillip.

Lost Cities Tips & Tricks

Lost Cities is a new game for iPhone from TheCodingMonkeys, publishers of the hugely popular Carcassonne. Based on the award winning card game by Reiner Knizia, Lost Cities takes elements of solitaire and combines them with vibes of Uno and Go Fish into a compelling game for two people or a single player vs any one of four AI opponents.

The game is easy to learn (I won’t go into the full rules here) thanks to the wonderful spoken in-game tutorials, but the basic object is to score points by playing cards of increasing value in any one of five, colored channels. Whichever player has the most points when all the cards from the draw pile have been played, wins. Since the Iconfactory did much of the graphical work for Lost Cities, I was generously given early access to the pre-release and have been playing a great deal this past week. I’ve learned a lot in that time and I wanted to share some of the insights I’ve had with would-be challengers.

Practice Against the AI

It may seem straight forward but playing the various computer opponents is a great way to get a feel for Lost Cities. Playing the AI means the game proceeds quickly since you don’t have to wait for a human friend to move. Getting into a rhythm in LC really helps you to understand how points are scored, cards are held or discarded and what to watch for.

Watch the Draw Pile

The game continues only as long as there are cards to draw so keep a close eye on the number of cards left in the pile in the lower right of the interface. When that number reaches zero, the game is over so it’s important to know how many turns are left. Don’t wait until the last few turns to play your big cards if you can help it. Also, remember that the number of turns is just about one half of the number of cards left in the deck. It’s easy to look at 18 on the deck and think you have that many turns left, but you really don’t, you have approximately 9!

Ditch the 2′s and 3′s

Unless you’re trying to make a run and score 8+ cards in a channel, you might want to start a channel with a 4 or even a 5. Low cards don’t yield many points anyway and probably won’t make a huge difference in the final outcome. This isn’t always the case of course, but games can easily be won by just playing the higher number cards alone.

Remember to Look Up

It’s easy to get so focused on what cards you have in your own hand that you forget to pay attention to what your opponent is doing. You’re not the only one at the table who has a strategy! Don’t forget to pay attention to what cards she is pulling from the discard piles or what color channels they seem to be favoring. You may be holding some great cards, but always remember Lost Cities isn’t just about scoring your own points, but also trying to block your opponent’s as well.

The Nitty Gritty

Don’t forget that you can re-draw from the discard pile if a card you previously got rid of is now needed. This can come in quite handy when cards of certain colors start to present themselves. Also, listen for the audio cues in the game like the little “tink” sound that lets you know a channel has just crossed the boundary from negative to positive point totals. Lastly, when playing the AI, don’t forget you can pause at any time and take a break. Maybe a refreshing drink or walk around the block will clear your head and help you crush Ms. Lindenbrock.

I love games like Carcassonne and Lost Cities because they combine elements of skill and luck in fun and engaging ways. They are also played at your own pace which is wonderful, especially in the age of first-person shooters and nerve-wracking puzzlers. TheCodingMonkeys have gone above and beyond to make Lost Cities both addictive and fun to play. It takes all of the best elements of Reiner Knizia’s original card game and adds wonderful features like automatic score keeping, tough AI opponents, beautifully rich graphics and and soundtrack that feels like it belongs in the cinema instead of a game. If you enjoy turn-based strategy or card games, I urge you to check out Lost Cities for the iPhone today. Enjoy!

The Murky Future of 3rd Party Twitter Apps

Magic 8-Ball, it’s been a while but I have some questions about Twitter’s recent blog post. You know, the one where they talked about “stricter guidelines” for how the Twitter API is to be used by third party apps. Since Twitter isn’t talking, I was hoping you might be able to clear some stuff up for me. Can I ask you some questions now?

Yes

All this talk about stricter guidelines and a “consistent Twitter experience” seems pretty ominous, should developers of 3rd party Twitter apps like me be worried?

Reply hazy, try again

I mean some people are calling Twitter’s non-announcement a “bombshell”. Are things really that bad?

Better not tell you now

What do you mean? Are you saying that 3rd party apps are about to become extinct or that Twitter just wants each app to display the timeline in a similar fashion?

Concentrate and ask again

I know Twitter’s got to start making serious money to pay for it’s massive overhead, are we talking about ads in the timeline?

Outlook good

If we’re talking about ads, I can deal with that. I’d rather have promoted tweets in Twitterrific than being forced to stop developing it completely.

What about expanded tweets, will Twitter force us to build some form of them into our apps?

Signs point to yes

If we don’t, do you really think Twitter would restrict API access and hang 3rd party apps out to dry?

Better not tell you now

That’s very comforting, thanks.

Don’t you think Twitter’s users would revolt if they took away our Tweetbots, Hibaris and Twitterrifics?

As I see it, yes

Damn straight they would. There are many developers and companies who have build their livelihood around the Twitter API since 2007. We even helped Twitter evolve and grow to where it is today. Are you saying none of that matters now?

Without a doubt

Frak.

Some developers are already suggesting we start creating a web-based, open alternative to Twitter using something like RSS. Would that really work? Would users really switch away from Twitter for a grass-roots service?

Don’t count on it

Do you think it’s a good idea for developers like us to keep coding away on their apps for now?

Most likely

Could the folks at Twitter have done a better job with their blog post to help stop the spread of paralyzing FUD?

It is certain

You really haven’t been much help to me. One last question…

Is the golden age of 3rd party Twitter apps over?

Ask again later

Meh! What do you know, anyway!

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!

Review: Paper for iPad

There are literally dozens of drawing/painting apps for iOS. Some of my favorites include Procreate, Penultimate, ArtRage and now Paper from FiftyThree, Inc. This new app burst onto the App Store recently and has been receiving a great deal of attention for its fresh approach to the genre of the sketch app. Much has already been written about Paper and so I’m going to try and cut right to the chase with my review by detailing things the app does well and areas where it’s lacking. If you want to know how Paper may or may not fit into your work flow, then by all means read on.

The Good

Simplicity

Above everything else, Paper keeps the interaction between the app and the user simple. This design decision is by far its greatest asset, but it is also its greatest weakness (more on this later). Getting into your sketchbook and starting work is dead simple. Thumb through drawings, access tools, and draw away. You can also add pages to your sketchbooks and share your work via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or email. There doesn’t seem to be a way to send drawings to the camera roll, but taking a quick screen shot does the job in a pinch. The entire app feels light, easy to get around in and, for the most part, doesn’t suffer from being over-designed.

Brushes

Paper has one of the best media engines I’ve ever encountered in a painting or drawing app. The pencil tool as well as the watercolor brush behave almost like their real world counterparts and are a sheer joy to use. Drawing speed helps determine stroke width with certain tools, and opacity with others. The overall effect is wonderful.

In-App Purchases

Some will say this isn’t a plus for an app like Paper. Many users don’t appreciate having to unlock functionality inside of an app that they thought was initially free, but Paper’s implementation of their in-app purchases is extremely well done. You buy only the tools you want and the app even lets you test drive the brushes prior to purchase so you can get a feel for them. Finally, there is an “Essentials” bundle that gives a small discount compared to buying all of the individual tools separately. If I find an app compelling, I certainly don’t mind paying for it and Paper’s in-app purchase model lets me pick and choose the parts I like most.

The Details

Customize the cover of your sketchbooks. Blend colors with the paint brush. Effortlessly flip between drawings that beautifully highlight your work. The devil is in the details and Paper does a deft job of getting them right.

Could Be Better

Rewind/Undo

The two-fingered gesture to step back (or forward) through your drawing is clumsy. Often times it takes me far longer to get to just the proper undo point with the gesture than it would if undoing was a simple button. I also sometimes make stray marks on the page when attempting to make the undo gesture. In addition, the number of undo states is far too small, especially when using techniques like cross-hatching. I also wish that rewinding would take you back through drawing a stroke little by little, but it doesn’t, it removes the last stroke in its entirety.

Colors

The selection of colors in Paper is extremely limited. There are a total of nine to choose from and of those, none of them are any shade of blue. The developer encourages users to go old school and mix colors to form new ones but the inability to select custom colors is a major deal breaker. I can’t use the app to sketch concepts for clients (or even myself) if I don’t have access to the entire range of colors I need, especially ones like blue and red.

Landscape

The app is perpetually locked in landscape mode and it’s extremely frustrating. I presume the developers did this to accommodate the wide screen design of the main menu, but I sincerely hope they add the ability to use Paper in portrait eventually.

Immutable Drawings

Unlike many other drawing/painting apps, once you place a mark on the page, that’s where it stays. There is no way to re-position a drawing or even a portion of one once it’s made. Some would say this simply echos a real-life sketch pad, but if I wanted a real sketch pad I would use one. I use Paper and apps like it because they give me additional flexibility when creating. Not being able to re-position elements on the page is frustrating and feels antithetical to the app’s overall design.

The Bad

Zooming

I want the ability to be able to zoom in and add details to my sketches or out and fill larger areas with colors quickly. Adding zooming would almost eliminate the need for various brush sizes, so if I had to choose between the two I’d take zooming. In addition, my brand new retina iPad has millions of pixels at its disposal. Paper’s lack of pinch zoom means a good many of them are going to waste.

Fills

The app desperately needs a fill tool. The watercolor brush does an inadequate job of filling large areas with solid colors and sometimes that’s just what you need. I’d love to be able to sketch in white pencil on black paper, but that isn’t possible in Paper. A fill tool would rectify this glaring deficiency rather nicely.

Sortable, editable layers would have been nice here.
Layers

Adding layers ala Photoshop would significantly increase the app’s complexity and FiftyThree may be unwilling to go there just yet which is fine. I do hope it comes eventually however because I often wish for the ability to erase or tweak individual elements of a sketch independently of the rest. I’m sure the talented folks there could find a way to add drawing layers to Paper in a simple and elegant fashion. I’d also like a way to lock a sketch once it’s done so I don’t accidentally add stray marks, which seems to happen often.

Conclusions

If you’re looking for a simple, straight forward tool for sketching you’ll probably find Paper both fun and elegant. I suspect this is what Daring Fireball author John Gruber meant when he said the app was “Exquisitely well-done”. I wouldn’t go that far but there’s a great deal to like in FifthThree’s initial effort. The app is a testament to beautiful user interface design, unfortunately it lacks too many features in my opinion to be used as anything more than a simple notebook. Paper’s limited undo states, narrow color palette, in-ability to re-position elements on the page and lack of zooming all force me to turn to other drawing apps when I want to truly create.

The good news is that Paper is a 1.0 product and as such I’m confident that improvements will come quickly. If the app simply added a long tap on color wells to bring up a picker and the ability to zoom in and out of a drawing, Paper would instantly become about 10x as useful as it is now. Since the app is free to try with the built-in quill pen, there’s no reason not to download and check it out yourself. I’ve definitely enjoyed exploring the app and it’s given me new reasons to try drawing with various styluses, but that’s blog post for another day.

My friend Dave Caolo recently told me that his kids love Paper. They each have their own sketchbooks and enjoy doodling and coloring very much. This comment is telling because right now Paper feels very much like a kids app. It has lots of potential but it’s too immature to really be useful. In their quest to make a dead simple iPad sketch app, FiftyThree may have sacrificed a bit too much functionality. Paper may be just what you’re looking for to jot down notes and quick sketches on the go, but I personally hope FiftyThree eventually lets Paper sit at the grown-up table.

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]

Charadium II, I Love You!

There are only a handful of games on my iDevices that have withstood the test of time and clung to my home screen. Some of these games include Carcassonne, Plants vs. Zombies, Orba, Tiny Wings and now Charadium II. Charadium is a classic Pictionary type game where players take turns drawing a word and guessing each other’s creations for points. There are a bunch of games of this genre in the App Store, but Charadium is far and away the best of breed I’ve played, and much of that is due to the attention to detail developer On5 has put into the app.

There are two main modes of play, Classic and Ping Pong. Classic lets you join a room with other random players or friends and compete in a round-robin, timed competition to guess words. The play is fast and furious and tons of fun. Drawings don’t have to be pretty they just need to communicate quickly. The faster someone guesses your word, the more points you will score. The other mode, Ping Pong, is my favorite when playing Charadium. Here you play with a friend and take turns drawing words from a list of three choices (easy, medium and hard). The harder the concept to draw, the more points you’ll net, but you also risk your opponent not guessing correctly at all. Incorrect guesses hurt your overall point total and can push your opponent to victory. I love Ping Pong games because they are not timed, you can play multiple games at once (like Carcassonne), and you get to choose the difficulty of the word to draw. Also, you’re not usually playing against random strangers so cheating (drawing words) is not an issue.

On5 makes a free and paid version of the app so you really have no excuse not to give it a try. Of course even the $2.99 iPad version is well worth the price and gives players full access to fun extras like more colors, more brushes and of course, no in-app advertising. This is a similar model we use at the Iconfactory for Twitterrific and it really is the best of both worlds. Charadium is also a great example of an app that improves measurably with each new update. In recent point releases, the game has added new brushes, new colors, the ability to play back all drawings (LOVE THIS), saving drawings to the camera roll and much more. There are still a few features I hope On5 adds like a paint bucket to quickly fill large areas with color, and a “Redo” command as well as undo, but overall the game play can’t be beat. Perhaps the App’s biggest failing, if there is one, is the need for greater stability. Ping Pong games sometimes get stuck and won’t advance, drawing previews are not always available or in-game chatting won’t dismiss. If the developers can find a way to make Charadium a bit more reliable, it would become one of my all-time favorite games for iOS.

If you love to draw, are looking for a fun, social game you can play in your spare time or like seeing how other players solve visual problems, Charadium II is for you. I enjoyed the game so much I bought a Cosmonaut Stylus from Studio Neat for my iPad just so I could draw better while playing. No matter what your level of artistic skill, there’s something for everyone to love in Charadium. Check it out!

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Screen

Well not necessarily a *bigger* screen, but you will need one that sports more pixels per inch. That is to say if the predictions about the iPad 3 are true then your current desktop setup is about to feel very inadequate when developing for Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS. How so? It turns out that the new iPad’s predicted native screen resolution of 2048×1536 is larger than will fit comfortably on any of Apple’s current desktop hardware. At the Iconfactory I use a dual-display setup of a 30″ Cinema display and a 27″ iMac. Even my 30″ doesn’t support enough pixels to view the iPad 3′s screen (particularly in portrait) and that’s a problem.

When designing or coding for the iPhone and iPad, it’s critical to be able to view your work at a 1:1 ratio. It’s best not to view a Photoshop mockup or Xcode simulator window by zooming out, or compressing the pixels to fit the screen. Doing so makes it difficult to tell when interface elements like buttons, tabs and fields properly align or are positioned correctly. I could go into a long explanation of how the math for all of this works out, but TUAW’s Richard Gaywood and App Cubby’s David Barnard have already done that in fine style. If you’re interested in the ins and outs of screen resolutions then head on over and check them out. For my part, I just want to know how long I’ll have to limp along designing for a screen resolution I cannot see 1:1 without having to scroll around. David suggests that Apple won’t be in any particular hurry to bump up the resolutions of their desktop offerings and I have to say I agree with him.

To Apple, the customer comes first not the developer, which is how it should be. Higher resolution displays will eventually be a great selling point for new desktop Macs (and will solve developers’ iPad 3 problems), but they will undoubtedly take time to bring to market. Recent discoveries in Mountain Lion bolster the theory Apple has been planning higher density displays for some time but that doesn’t mean Tim Cook will be announcing them on March 7th. So if you’re a developer like me, be prepared to feel a bit cramped for a while. How long is anybody’s guess but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

For a Small Fee

There’s been increasing talk about how unscrupulous developers have gamed the App Store in recent weeks. Typically, shady devs will submit apps to the store that have similar names and app icons to top ten titles and in the confusion (and perhaps the additional hype from all the attention) users download these “scam” apps and push them ever higher. For honest developers who play by the rules, it’s a serious problem, and one that Apple needs to do a better job addressing.

There’s another way to get your app into the App Store’s Top Ten list however. With enough money, and a faulty ethical compass, you too can be sitting pretty atop the mountain of App Store competition. This morning the Iconfactory’s webmaster account received the following email from an address in China. The person (or persons) purported the ability to get your app to the top, fast. We were just one address of perhaps 100 or more in the “To” field including lockerz.com, skout.com, tumblr.com, okcupid and many more. Why they didn’t bcc the list is beyond me, but at any rate for a mere $10,000 USD, using thousands of “legally” registered iTunes accounts, they will download your app and help boost it into the top ten. How long it stays there just depends on how much you’re willing to pay.

We have large quantity of USA ,UK,CA itunes accounts, registered legally, we can promote your free app in the US, UK, CA store.Don’t waste time in promoting,leave it to us! We are professional team for you and we are the most powerful team for app promotion in China.

10,000 downloads in one store, need 1000USD

If you want the ranking, here is the price list for weekday only,please check:
—————iPhone app———————
US top10 24 hours 10000USD
US top10 48 hours is 15000USD
US top10 3 days is 20000USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 5,000, up to 5 days,only for weekday

UK top10 24hours 3000USD
UK top10 48hours 5500USD
UK top10 3days is 8000USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 2,500, up to 5 days,only for weekday

CA top10 24hours 2500USD
CA top10 48hours 4500USD
CA top10 3days 6500USD

————–ipad app only for separate app———————
US top10 24 hours 4000USD
US top10 48 hours is 6000USD
US top10 3 days is 8000USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 2,000, up to 5 days,only for weekday

UK top10 24hours 1200USD
UK top10 48hours 2200USD
UK top10 3days is 3200USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 1,000, up to 5 days,only for weekday

CA top10 24hours 1000USD
CA top10 48hours 1800USD
CA top10 3days 2600USD

Weekend day, subject to 20%

The problem of scam apps seems like a relatively easy one to solve compared to this sort of App Store gaming. Apple should simply do a better job identifying and rejecting offending scam apps at the review level. But with enough legitimate iTunes accounts there’s no real way for Apple to identify “fake” downloads from real downloads and keep bogus apps from rising to the top. Perhaps if it happens often enough Apple can develop algorithms to help identify offending accounts and close them, but I’m skeptical.

It seems clear that a re-work of the entire top ten system is in order, and not just because of the recent rash of scamming. Some apps like Angry Birds can stay atop the Top Ten list for months on end making it harder for other awesome, smaller apps to see the light of day. Perhaps Apple’s recent purchase of Chomp will help solve the problem of discoverability, but until then unfortunately there will always be shady individuals willing to prey on people’s greed and desire to succeed.

UPDATE: Matt Ryan over on LockerGnome reports a possible explanation for how these app “promoters” can secure thousands of iTunes accounts to artificially inflate apps – they steal them. Both Ryan’s PayPal and iTunes accounts were hijacked and then used to download copies of an app called iMobster. It should come as no surprise that when the promoter says he uses thousands of “legally registered” iTunes accounts, he means it except they’re not his. So not only do devs fork over tens of thousands of dollars, they’re most likely doing so to criminals who hijack legitimate iTunes accounts and milk them dry until they are caught and shut off. Alarming to say the least.

Tiny Wings: Tips & Tricks

Tiny Wings is an iOS game for the iPhone and iPod touch by programmer and artist Andreas Illiger. When it was released in February of 2011, it immediately earned praise as one of the most fun and addictive games to ever hit the App Store. Being a developer of iOS games myself, I’m always skeptical about such claims, but after having spent some quality time with Tiny Wings over the past few weeks, I have to say I agree.

The game is not without some level of frustration which is made worse by the fact that there is but a single interaction method – Touch the screen or don’t. Given such simple controls you’d think the game would be easy to master. Not so. The player slides over hills and vales and either taps to increase their decent or lets up to slow their decent to the ground. Where they land on a slope depends on how well they slide up the next hill and back into the air once again. Tiny Wings is a “height climber” style game ala Doodle Jump where the player tries to get as far as they can in a single session. When the game ends, the player must return all the way to the beginning and start over. The great thing about Tiny Wings is that it’s so engaging and addictive you really don’t mind starting over each time.

By far the greatest challenge in Tiny Wings is mastering the art of sliding. In order to succeed in the game, you’ll need to practice and become really good at hitting just the proper point on hills in order to achieve maximum momentum. Learning this skill can be tricky and when I first started playing I was so frustrated I was minutes away from deleting the game. Trust me when I say stick with it because once you figure out how to slide properly, the entire game’s fun quotient gets amped up by a factor of x1000.

Each hill has a small landing window on the backside that you can hit which results in a perfect slide. This keeps your momentum going and if you stack three perfect slides in a row, you’ll enter fever mode where every point you earn is doubled. Mastering perfect slides is key to climbing the leader boards in Tiny Wings. The more perfect slides you make in a game, the faster you’ll go, the more likely you’ll be to touch the clouds (bonus points) and the longer you’ll be in fever mode. All of these factors add up and when combined with coin collection, result in a higher final score.

In addition to mastering perfect slides, there are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned that may help you get further and score higher in Tiny Wings. As with anything, your milage may vary but as School House Rock taught me, knowledge is power, so here you go:

Nest Up - Take time early on and knock off some of the game’s achievements in order to “Nest Up” to the next level. Every time you increase your nest level you increase your score multiplier. For the first upgrade, you will need to perform 7 Perfect Slides, gather 100 coins in total across all games, and reach the fourth island in at least one game.

Touch the Sky - Try and touch the sky as often as you can because doing so earns you 20 points times your multiplier. Each touch represents an ever-increasing award of bonus points towards your final tally.

Reset Button - If you don’t leave the first island in fever mode, start over. In fact, if I’m not in fever mode one half way through the first island I usually kill my game and begin again. Since you’re so close to the start you don’t lose a lot of time for trying this technique. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Play on an iPad - If you own an iPad I urge you to play on it instead of the iPhone. As of this writing, the game isn’t universal but it doesn’t matter. The iPad’s large, roomy screen makes seeing the oncoming terrain much easier and gives you plenty of space to place your finger that’s out of the way.

The main thing to remember when playing Tiny Wings is to try and stay calm and remain focused. If you miss a slide and start to lose momentum don’t panic just keep at it and get back into the groove as quickly as you can. If you spot a speed coin, gobble it up to quickly get air back under your wings and get going again.

All in all, Tiny Wings is a masterful creation that is sure to give you hours of entertainment and enjoyment. I have to hand it to Illiger because there aren’t many iPhone games that hang around on my home screen for more than a few days. Tiny Wings has joined Parachute Panic, Orba, Plants vs Zombies, Hot Plates and Carcassonne as one of my all-time favorite iOS games. Have fun and fly far my tiny-winged friends!

The Art of the Ringtone

Although modern smart phones can play a wide variety of musical and audio files as ringtones, very few work well. Popular songs are great for entertainment but aren’t written as attention getters from inside your pants pocket. Ever since the iPhone debuted, I’ve been using Marimba as my ringtone. Not because I’m a technophobe who doesn’t enjoy customizing his phone, but because nothing I tried managed to catch my attention like Apple’s default setting.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a brainstorm to ask friend and one of the composers behind Ramp Champ, Mike Weiser, to create a custom ringtone for me based on Marimba. I asked him to take the main theme from one of my favorite films and “Marimba-ize” it, with the following awesome results:

Please don’t ask me to post the Marimba-TRON ringtone. It’s based off music by Wendy Carlos written for the Disney movie and I had it made for my personal use. The last thing I’d want is to get myself or Mike in any trouble by re-distributing it. If you’d like your own custom designed ringtone, be sure to head on over to Mike’s website and learn all about the music-based services he provides, which now includes ringtones. Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to go watch that TRON Legacy trailer for like the 50 billionth time. Is it December yet??

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.

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.

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.

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!

Mr. Jobs, Domino’s Calling!

I’ve recently discovered creating a successful iPhone application is a lot like baking a pizza. Take the best ingredients, like skillfully crafted code, bold and flavorful interface design and combine with a dash of love and you may end up with a delicious dinner. Unfortunately for App Store developers, once you’ve rolled the dough, spooned the sauce and added the toppings, the delivery process itself can often be frustrating.

Apple’s process of getting apps reviewed and posted to the App Store leaves much to be desired. Once submitted, we developers must sit back, cross our fingers and hope everything is in order so that the “pizza” makes it to your device in a timely fashion. One of the criticisms of the App Store in recent months is that it can take more than 2 weeks to have an app make it’s way through the review process, sometimes only to end in rejection. When this happens, the problem must be corrected, the app resubmitted and the developer goes to “the back of the line” and starts all over again.

Since most developers would rather have too much feedback rather than too little, one way to ease the pain of the review process would be to add more feedback. Developers love feedback, whether it comes in the form of bug reports, reviews, emails or simple sales figures. In the world of home pizza delivery, when it comes to awesome feedback, no one beats Domino’s.

When a customer orders a pizza from Domino’s online, they receive instant feedback on the status of their order via Domino’s über-cool pizza tracker. The tracker tells you where in the cycle of delivery your pie is, what time it started the last phase and who’s currently working on it. It may sound corny, but this is exactly the kind of feedback developers need when submitting software to the Apple App Store. Imagine a meter that outlines each part of the approval process with time and date annotations for each step. The App Tracker would be of enormous assistance to developers, ensuring proper completion of each part of the submission process. A developer could track their “pizza” as it made its way to the store and get a better sense of when to expect final delivery. It could also help Apple internally so they know what phase a particular application was last in if a problem arises.

Such a system would allow companies to better plan their product’s marketing efforts and direct their resources more efficiently. Not to mention reduce the level of stress associated with being left in the dark regarding your application’s approval. Apple recently implemented a small counter for developers to let them know what the average approval time for their applications are in iTunes Connect. This was a great first start, but I suspect that with a bit of love, and a few lessons from the folks at Domino’s, getting through the app store approval process could be as easy as pie.

A Bird in the Hand…

The recent release of Twitterrific 2 for the iPhone has reminded me that software development is replete with truisms. The primary thing I have to constantly remind myself is that, no matter what you do, or how hard you work, you simply cannot please everyone. Anyone who works in a creative field knows that there will always be those who are unsatisfied with the result.

For iPhone developers, these people usually fall into the “if it just had feature X, I would use it” category, but every so often you get someone who just poo-poos your efforts. It’s easy for devs to fall into the trap of trying to keep everyone happy, but years of experience have taught me that this is a losing battle. Development quickly builds into a sort of “features arms race” that usually ends with bloated software and burnt out programmers. No, the answer is to design first and foremost for yourself. If you can produce a piece of software that you are happy with, then chances are the majority of your users will be too. The trick is trust your gut enough to tell the difference between constructive feedback and the nay-sayers so you can move beyond them when it’s appropriate.

The other truism I’ve found is that there’s always room for improvement. The new posting user interface for Twitterrific 2 demonstrates this point perfectly. All through beta testing, the posting UI was the same as it was in version 1. If you wanted to change your update from one type of tweet to another, you had to toggle the tweet type using a single icon on the post bar. Although this method had served well since our initial launch, neither us nor the beta users were satisfied. Their feedback, combined with Louie’s desire to improve the posting experience challenged us to do it better. The result was a re-designed UI that fulfilled user’s desires for posting clarity while giving the Iconfactory a big new feature to tout. The amount of work required to pull off the revised posting interface so close to the end of the beta was intense, but ultimately worth it.

Lastly, if there is one axiom that Twitter has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt it’s simply that if you give an inch, the Twitterverse takes a mile. Lately I’ve been seeing more than a few requests for Twitterrific to support Twitlonger, a service that allows you to “expand” on the 140 character limit that is at the very heart of Twitter. The argument goes that allowing long updates to be read directly in-app is preferable to having to post multiple tweets. This may indeed be true, but I hesitate to support any service that, for lack of a better term, subverts Twitter. Brevity is the soul of wit, and in Twitter’s case, its lifeblood.

In my opinion, any update that can’t be held within Twitter’s 140 character limit should be taken offline to email, Facebook or Friendfeed. What’s the harm in supporting a great service like Twitlonger you ask? Seemingly none, except that Twitlonger is a very slippery slope. Imagine typing a tweet of any length right in Twitterrific. When the message length exceeds 140 characters, the app automatically creates web page entry where your followers can read your magnum opus. Sounds great, except its no longer Twitter, it’s called a blog. Given how easily such a feature would be abused (as is evidenced by the Twitterverse’s aggressive adoption of RT), I don’t see Twitlonger support in Ollie’s future.

As developers, all we can do is our best. Sometimes our best is good enough and sometimes it doesn’t cut the mustard. I’ve been very pleased with the positive reaction that Twitterrific 2 has been receiving from the Twitter community. There are updates coming that address some of the most requested issues from the initial 2.0 launch, but I have no illusions that even these updates will satisfy everyone. Not to mention all those people out there who are patiently waiting for an update to the Mac version of Twitterrific. To them, I offer one last proverb – Good things come to those who wait.