Young hearts run free

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Mark Sorrell wrote a piece for the Guardian this week, Freemium games are a chance to teach kids how to manage their money. The tl;dr version: he argues that the public resistance to sprinkling children’s apps with in-app purchases and deceptive pseudocurrencies is predicated on a mix of mass hysteria and ignorance. What’s more, he says, by denying kids access to the joys of the freemium model, we’re leaving them ill-prepared to navigate the complex financial landscape that they will face as adults. The whole article is self-serving horseshit. 

Sorrell has, by his own admission, a significant conflict of interest when he calls for us to look fondly on freemium games for kids. He earns a living as a “freemium game design and behaviour change consultant”. Just so everybody’s clear, the behaviour that he wants to change – in the context of free-to-play games – is your reluctance to hand over your money for in-app purchases or other microtransactions. The claim that he’s looking for ways to do that that aren’t “evil or silly or bad” looks shaky a few paragraphs later when he refers to children, only half-jokingly, as “tiny, poorly-behaved salespeople inserted deep into customers’ homes”.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with freemium games, but their current market domination – go take a look at the top grossing charts on the App Store – disproportionately rewards publishers who spend a lot of development effort honing their psychological manipulation techniques to coax cash out of a small minority of users. The child-monetisation-industrial complex hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory when it comes to self-regulation either, as last year’s Office of Fair Trading report showed when it threw up plenty of examples where “children’s inexperience, vulnerability and credulity” were being gleefully exploited. 

Full disclosure: my feelings on this topic are also highly compromised, given that we develop up-front paid apps, aka “Ye Olde Worlde Weirding Way” (© 2014 Barry Meade). We looked at in-app purchases and decided early on that they were by and large a shitty thing to put in apps for kids. There are exceptions, and some developers do it well enough, but we’re a bunch of stubborn old geezers and it really didn’t make much sense for us. 

The centrepiece of Sorrell’s argument is society’s supposed double standard when it comes to real-world physical collectibles like Panini sticker packs on the one hand, and digital unlocks on the other. He says they both teach kids important financial lessons, so why do we tolerate one and revile the other? I see them both as pretty exploitative ways to strip-mine children for revenue, but my pompous do-goodery aside, he’s missed a crucial educational difference between the two: the potential for trade. Kids can set up spontaneously complex marketplaces when faced with sweets (or Panini stickers or LEGO minifigs or loom bands) that they want from the tiny freshly-minted broker on the other side of class. Good luck trading an in-app purchase.

The notion that the best route to teaching children about the manipulation and exploitation that they’ll eventually face in the adult world is to manipulate and exploit them is dishonest garbage. For an antidote to Sorrell’s cynicism, check out this polemic call to prioritise creativity above profit maximisation (HT to Mark O’Gara) – Mobile is burning, and free-to-play binds the hands of devs who want to help

App of the Day: MTN

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MTN is not a product of focus groups or exhaustive quantitive research into unmet consumer needs. The answer to “what’s missing in your life?” will never be “a mountain simulator”. And yet. MTN has hovered around the top 30 paid iPhone apps in the US App Store since its release, which means that a kerbillion (± 1Kbn) people are getting their rocks on right now.

MTN’s creator David O’Reilly is an artist/animator best known for his work on Adventure Time, Spike Jonze’s Her and the demented brilliance of his short film The External World (whose title card echoes the zoomed-out cosmos view in MTN). He’s also done music videos for Venetian Snares and ‘The Irish Venetian Snares’, U2.

When the app launches for the first time you’re asked to draw a couple of pictures of ‘Afterlife’ or ‘Beauty’ and your mountain is procedurally generated from these scrawls. At least, that’s the idea. There’s no way to relate your pictures to anything that happens from that point on, so it might as well be random. Serious spoilers follow, so consider yourself well warned. Your mountain appears and rotates slowly. Sometimes it rains; sometimes it snows. Foliage appears; it gets dark. Every once in a blue moon, something crashes into the mountain. You can spin the view or zoom in and out, or play a little tune on an invisible keyboard at the bottom third of the screen. Oh, and your mountain occasionally chirps pseudo-profundities every once in a while. That’s it. There’s every chance that something revelatory happens after the promised “50 hours of gameplay”, but I won’t be among those sticking around to find out. [Edit: Eli Hodapp beat MTN and captured the ending on video.] It should be noted that the sound design is nice in a luxury spa resort soundtrack sort of way.

There’s little of The External World’s dark subversion on show here, unless you count the fact of millions of people watching a low-poly mountain spin on a screen for hours at a time, consuming vast quantities of megawatts to no real end.

In summary, then: MTN is either a timely satire on a vacuous consumer culture obsessed with novelty, or a pointless waste of your dwindling hours on this planet. Get it for iOS, Mac or PC if you must.

Warpcore: the 5 best ambient spaceship noises on YouTube

In July 2010, YouTube started to allow users to post videos that were longer than 15 minutes. This kicked off a whole new upload genre of super-long endurance/ambient loops whereby you can watch Nyan Cat for a full day, or the William Tell Overture barked by dogs for 12 hours. I’m going to assume that nobody outside of the ‘professional torturer’ demographic has watched either of these videos in their entirety, because that would be terrifying. 

Ambient spaceship engine noises though – they’re a different matter altogether. You can use them as white noise generators to help you fall asleep, or you can just pretend you’re hurtling through space while you’re sitting in your office veal-fattening pen. Here are five of the best that YouTube has to offer. 

The USCSS Nostromo:

The USS Enterprise:

Battlestar Galactica:

Discovery One:

The Death Star:

Plants by Tinybop – a review

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With their impressive first app The Human Body, Brooklyn app studio Tinybop proved, free of the dead weight of a print textbook legacy, that they could take on the might of the fusty old education publishers and comprehensively destroy them in the App Store. According to Tinybop themselves, it’s notched up a dizzying 4.9m downloads to date. As an ethical company that concentrates on quality and refuses to talk down to kids, this is the sort of success that parents, educators and developers should be celebrating. Earlier this week they released Plants, the second in their Explorer’s Library series, and happily it’s up to the same high standard. 

The app presents you with an interactive diorama with two biomes, forest and desert, to explore (two more, tundra and temperate grasslands, will be added in a future free of charge update). It’s great fun to muck around in – dragging animals around, making it rain, planting acorns and, to my eternal conflicted shame/pleasure, causing wildfires. Although I did learn that fires are much less destructive in a grasslands context, so do make sure to concentrate the bulk of your virtual arson there. As frequently happens with well designed educational apps, any learning that happens sneaks up on you when you’re busy having fun. You can pull a scrubber across the scene to reveal an underground cross-section of roots, soil, rocks and animal warrens, and activate a time controller to fast-forward through the day/night cycle and move through the seasons. Naming labels can be toggled on and off, or scattered if you’d like an identification challenge. Here and there you can select specific plants to see details of their life cycle, which is great but these are few and far between and, for now at least, that side of things seems a little undercooked.

The illustrations by Marie Caudry are crisp, appealing and beautifully coloured – as you’d expect they’re at their best viewed on a larger iPad screen. The sound design is admirably restrained. Most of what you’ll hear is like a good field recording: birdsong, crickets, the rustle of animals in the undergrowth and a little bit of wind and rain, all of which adds up to a pretty soothing experience. Tinybop also deserve credit for their muted typographic sensibility, a rarity in the generally hideous eyejumble of fonts that litter children’s apps.

Plants’ parental dashboard is best in class, allowing kids to record questions (or, should they so decide, fart noises) which parents can access and answer later on. 

As I did with The Human Body, I find myself wondering if Tinybop’s ultra-minimal UI is sometimes a little too clever and unobtrusive for its own good. Even if you’re used to prodding and poking away to find out how things work, there are quite a few actions that you’re unlikely to discover unless you dive into the well-produced companion handbook, available here. A few simple prompts for first-time users would go a long way towards ensuring people know what they can do with the app.

Quibbles like this are somewhat beside the point, though. Once you get a handle on what you’re doing, this is a gorgeous little sandbox app, packed with detail and surprises. Plants looks like nothing else in the App Store, and it’s a brilliant way for kids to explore the foundations of ecosystems, biomes and season change. Download it on the App Store here.

Made It: how to build an app

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Myself and Simon will be speaking our brains out at the first in a new series of talks called Made It at the Twisted Pepper on 22nd May. We’ll be joining Microsoft’s Clare Dillon, The Summit’s Tony Ennis, DIT School of Computing’s Susan McKeever, Redwind Software’s Conor Winders and Doortonic’s Shane Linehan to talk about our experiences making apps out of rusty old tins and bits of string.

Like a lot of developers we tend to work away by ourselves for long stretches of time, so it’ll be nice to get out and talk to other pasty weirdos in a reassuringly dark room for a change. Props to the Made It crew for a nifty bit of Dublin community building. 

Get your tickets here: Made It 

Think more, design less

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This piece by Mills Baker,  Designer Duds: Losing Our Seats at the Table, hits a few nails on the head when it comes to the rise of design in the tech industry. He critiques 3 apps developed in settings that are notionally “obsessed” with design – Dropbox’s Carousel, Facebook’s Paper and Biz Stone’s Jelly – that are performing poorly in the App Store. Path, too, gets a repeated pebble-dashing for wilfully ignoring actual user problems in favour of imagined ones: “the problems with Facebook do not actually have to do with how pretty it is.”

Most of what he says is spot on. The pernicious, tedious rise of design that is decorative and shallow above all other considerations, that doesn’t bother with the heavy lifting of solving problems for people: this is stuff that needs robust criticism. 

On the other hand, to lay all responsibility for business failures at the feet of the designers involved is kinda nuts. There are so many other areas where things can go wrong in projects of this scale, and when it comes to App Store success, you ignore the role of dumb luck at your peril. 

If the project is ill-conceived in the first place (as certainly seems to be the case with Carousel) then the primary role of the designer should be to say “that’s a really stupid idea” at a very early stage. Watch Mike Monteiro’s brilliant polemic, How Designers Destroyed The World, for more on this.

Update: Goran Peuc questions Baker’s central premise in The Real Problem Behind ‘Designer Duds

Ban everything. All of it

The Huffington Post published a gross advertorial an article by Cris Rowan last week, in which she argues for a ban on all handheld devices for children under 12. Rowan blames touchscreens for a dizzying list of societal ills – aggression, addiction, obesity, mental illness – but is conspicuously silent on whether they can teach children to critically evaluate attention-seeking hogwash dressed up as academic rigour.

David Kleeman quickly responded with this rebuttal of Rowan’s conclusions. Melinda Wenner Moyer jumped in too, asserting that Rowan makes “vast generalizations and extrapolations that are anything but scientific.” The tl/dr summary of these responses: correlation is not causation; please stop trolling for hate-clicks.

So should we be satisfied with this as an example of the internet’s ability to correct shrill scaremongering with the healing power of nuance? As I write this, Rowan’s original piece has a staggering 1.1m Facebook likes, whereas Kleeman’s rebuttal has just 3,900. When you talk to parents about this story, it’s always the former they know about. We like to read scary things that seem to confirm our own anxieties about the world. We’re not quite so fascinated by boring old follow-ups that challenge the alarming headlines.

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Check out the brand new trailer for our Lonely Beast ABC app, put together by the very lovely Dave Chapman. It’s a little over 2 years after its release, but better late than never, right?

We wanted to give people a better idea of what to expect when they buy the app – screenshots are great but they only say so much. We hope you like it.