Audacious Fox

PlayStation Plus (PS+) fees now matches that of Xbox Live Gold. Starting September 22, PS+ will cost $59.99 for a year (up $10) and $24.99 for three months (up $5). The monthly plan will stay the same at $9.99.

Here’s Greg Lewickyj, writing for the PlayStation Blog, in not a new post, but an update to an article from last month:

This marks the first time that PS Plus membership prices will increase in the U.S. and Canada since the launch of the service in 2010. The new pricing reflects the current market conditions while enabling us to continue providing exceptional value to our members. As a member, you will continue to enjoy the benefits and features that enable shared experiences, such as online multiplayer, free games, and exclusive discounts.

The new tiers are fair; an extra 83 cents per month is certainly justifiable for what PS+ offers. Folks will complain, but it’s amazing we’ve had lower prices than Xbox Live Gold for this long.

This pricing change may also remind a lot of PS+ members how little of their library is actually theirs. Since 2010, subscribers have been allowed to download full games for free, from a rotating selection of titles. As of today, over 400 games have been made available: 215 for PS3, 86 for PS4, and 108 for PS Vita. However, you’re only allowed to play them if you have an active PS+ subscription.

I do find it somewhat concerning that this news was delivered as a 200 word update, tacked to the top of a month-old blog post. Pricing changes should always warrant their own announcements, especially for services with over 20 million members. Anything else feels disingenuous.

Update: Not ten minutes after hitting publish, I received an email from Sony announcing the pricing change. Still doesn’t make the let’s-use-an-old-blog-post method any less strange.

Speaking of apps that are going away, next up is Vesper, an iOS note taking app from Q Branch. Reading through the release notes, it seems Q Branch itself — comprised of well-known writer John Gruber, developer Brent Simmons, and designer Dave Wiskus — will also be shutting down within the next month.

I stopped using Vesper about a year ago, but it was a well-designed little app. I really dug the typography, and it’s syncing engine was fast and superbly thought out. Somewhat bizarrely, Vesper’s launch even got a decent amount of coverage from Microsoft, since the syncing engine was built on Azure’s cloud service.

Vesper’s development came to a halt after Mr. Simmons departed for the Omni Group. Mr. Simmons was never replaced, and future releases, including planned Vesper for Mac, were assumedly shelved. So it goes.

Update: Per Mr. Gruber, there should be a full post mortem tomorrow.

Sydney Ember, reporting for the New York Times, on the shuttering of NYT Now:

But the app never quite took off as The Times had hoped, and last year, it transitioned from subscription to free in the hopes that the new model might give The Times more of an opportunity to expand its audience. [..]

At its peak, in May 2015, NYT Now had 334,000 total unique users. The app averaged 257,000 unique users in the last three months.

NYT Now did a lot of things right, but making money was not one of them.

Aside: Because NYT Now was free and supplied plenty of articles, my wife and I had decided to cancel our New York Times digital subscription. However, in order to cancel, I had to call the Times and request a cancelation. As I was finishing up with the woman who was handling my call, she asked if I had a reason for canceling my subscription. When I told her that I got most of what I needed from the NYT Now app, I swear I heard a sigh from her end of the line.

Elizabeth Jenson, NPR:

More than half of all comments in May, June and July combined came from a mere 2,600 users. The conclusion: NPR’s commenting system — which gets more expensive the more comments that are posted, and in some months has cost NPR twice what was budgeted — is serving a very, very small slice of its overall audience. […]

Other organizations such as The New York Times manage to keep their comments relatively civil. But they use heavy in-house human moderation that costs far more than NPR currently spends on its outsourced system, according to NPR executives who are familiar with the numbers. The Times also opens only 10 percent of its articles for comments (but is working to increase that percentage), and keeps the comment threads open for just one week. NPR currently allows comments on all articles for two weeks.

I’m not sure why NPR didn’t try rules similar to The Times before completely axing the comments section. Not that I blame them, though. Online comments, particularly ones you display right next to your content, can (read: will) become a cesspool for trolling and hate. If you don’t have the human-power to keep discourse civil, better to just shut it down.

I found Ms. Jenson’s mention of cost interesting. NPR is using a third-party commenting system from Disqus, and it’s running at “twice what was budgeted”. This is unlike the NYT, which appears to use their own in-house commenting system.

Reading through the comments on NPR’s article, it’s hard not to empathize with some of the users. There are a fair number of folks who appear to be genuinely saddened by the loss of their forum.

No Man's Sky Review

In 1969, the world followed Apollo 11 as it ascended into our atmosphere and transcended our perceived notions of American achievement.

Despite the eventual success of that mission, President Nixon was not aloof to the potential for tragedy. In a speech titled, “In the Event of a Moon Disaster,” Nixon’s speechwriter Bill Safire penned the following lines:

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Which brings me to Hello Games’ most recent video game, No Man’s Sky.


There are no boxes into which one can put No Man’s Sky (NMS). A mixture of survival and adventure, NMS is fun and frustrating in ways that I’ve never really experienced before.

One of NMS’s most hyped features, the procedural generation of the game world, works as advertised, and you are able to travel from planet surface to space and back without any loading screens. It’s not just open world, it’s open universe, and I’d love to see other games take advantage of this type of technology.

Yet, the luster of procedurally-generated worlds quickly wears off after a few hours. As you explore planet after planet, you realize that the gameplay becomes incredibly repetitive and mundane. There are a quintillion miles of worlds to explore, but the experience on each is only an inch deep.

In short: You will marvel at parts of NMS, but you will enjoy them much less at its current $60 price.

Opening Shot

When you launch the game, you’re greeted with NO MAN’S SKY in black against a white background. What I love most about this title is the capital S letterform, where the bottom tail of the spine is shorter than the top. Typically, when creating a typeface, the designer will attempt to instill a sense of symmetry, of balance. But this S, should it be rendered into a physical form, would most surly topple over.

All that to say: I think this letter represents a large part of the NMS experience: unbalanced, yet unique.

After making your way through the title sequence, you’re presented with a white screen and prompt to Initialize... by holding down Square. After a few more seconds of blank screens, you’re thrown into the game.

With no backstory, you awake next to your damaged ship, and you’re tasked with finding the materials needed to make repairs. This process doesn’t take long, but it does give you an opportunity to become accustomed to the somewhat unintuitive control scheme.

Brief interpolation on menu UI — The interface of NMS isn’t great. Although you adjust to the menus and the convoluted way they have you managing inventory, the whole system leaves a lot to be desired. I also can’t ignore the blatant similarity of NMS’s user interface to the one Bungie designed for Destiny. Both use a freely moving cursor for navigating menus, but Destiny’s implementation is far more usable and typography conscious. I don’t mean to bash an indie studio, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with copying Destiny’s approach, but if you’re going to copy an interface that won an AIGA Cased 2015 award, make sure you copy the right parts. — End interpolation

Whatever preconceived notions you have regarding pace of play, forget them immediately. After 15 minutes of NMS, the most common complaint will undoubtedly be the severe case of whiplash that occurs when you play a game that gives a damn about time and space.

As you navigate the planet surface, you’re allowed limited use of sprinting and a jet pack, but it almost doesn’t matter. These planets are to scale, and everything takes a couple of minutes to reach. It’s not as annoying as it sounds, and once you adjust to the speed, it becomes relaxing. Strange, yet enjoyable and cathartic.

Survival

To me, the most undersold feature of NMS was the element of survival. Leaning how to keep your gear and ship maintained is critical to any form of success. Can we even call it success? You survive because you have to survive. There are no bonuses, better gear, or awards, other than you getting to continue on living. Survival, in this way, feels alien. Alien because survival games rarely make the survival process feel as nonchalant and deadly as NMS does.

Even though keeping yourself alive requires somewhat constant maintenance and monitoring (a process that is significantly lessened by what can only be the most annoying and overprotective personal notification system ever), staying alive and managing resources becomes key influencers in where you go and when.

Alone

Planets, although numbering in the billions, begin to feel the same after a while. Go to a planet, strip mine it for resources, and then leave. The game tries to provide incentives for sticking around, like achievements for finding all the species on that planet or learning all of the current alien dialect, but the payoff for accomplishing those things pales when compared to grabbing resources and leaving.

The planet design is varied, but often only slightly so. I’ve visited a dozen or so planets, and they’ve all been similarly barren and bleak. They’re not the sort of worlds you want to stick around, and I’m thankful I could leave.

But one planet was beautiful. So large that it was perpetually night, the faded neon colors and lush landscape around me were calming. Small particles drifted through the air, and reflected the light coming from two different white moons. I found it hard to believe this was generated by an algorithm and not painstakingly drawn up by a designer. I spent a good five minutes just walking around, looking at things.

I wish I could have stayed there. I wish the game gave me a reason to stay there.

However, this style of play is not meant to be. In this game, you’re perpetually a visitor, never a resident, and it’s this sort of superficial gameplay that leads to mundane repetition. Look, touch, leave. Now do it again for every planet in the universe.

Additionally, NMS feels constantly at odds with itself and what it wants you to focus on. First go collect these two elements, now travel a few million miles to another system, now visit this small, abandoned outpost, only to immediately leave the entire planet and go to the next. This cadence of play would occasionally leave me in a state of continual low-grade anxiety.

Descent

About an hour into my journey with NMS, I was given access to the galactic map, which you can use to plan out jumps between star systems. However, by gently pulling back on the left stick, your field of view will begin to expand, and galaxy after galaxy will zoom past. Two minutes later, should you continue holding down the left stick, you would still be hurtling through space as an unfathomable amount of galaxies, planets, and species you will never see fly by.

This is NMS at its best. A seemingly limitless potential for exploration and never knowing what lies ahead all culminate in one emotion: wonder. Unfortunately, this wonder never gets fully realized.


At $60, I can’t recommend NMS. Although, we’ve finally been given the endless, no rules sandbox gamers have been waiting for, it’s evident the number of galaxies don’t matter if the actual gameplay isn’t compelling for more than a few hours.

NMS is an incredible tech demo from a small indie studio, and it would have been a great $20-30 digital title. It’s not a bad game, just overpriced and overhyped.

It’s rare to find a game with no villains to hunt down, people to save, or leaderboards. It’s just the universe and you. And yet, despite this banishment to a seemingly unescapable oblivion of relentless, forced discovery, I feel a small sense of pride whenever I open the galactic map and see the planets I’ve visited.

A small corner of the universe, now forever mankind.

This year’s Ookla Speedtest Market Report:

The data from the first six months of 2016 is in; the internet in the United States has gotten faster. Fixed broadband customers have seen the biggest jump in performance with download speeds achieving an average of over 50 Mbps for the first time ever. This improvement is more than a 40% increase since July 2015.

Any progress is good news, particularly for the U.S. broadband market. We can thank increased competition from players like Google Fiber and the promising potential of public utility broadband, which we’re seeing in Chattanooga Tennessee.

Download and upload speeds aren’t everything, though. Anyone who’s done a live video chat or played video games has probably felt the pain of a high latency (lag) connection. Back to Ookla, here’s Joel Hruska, for their Speedtest blog in 2015:

Latency and ping are two closely related concepts that have a huge impact on how fast or slow your Internet connection feels, but are rarely mentioned in ISP ad copy. Cable and telephone companies sell their services solely on the basis of bandwidth, typically expressed in megabits per second, or Mbps.

The problem with emphasizing bandwidth is that it’s just one component in the perceived speed of an Internet connection.

I also like his water and pipe analogy for illustrating bandwidth vs. latency. I’ll probably steal it the next time I need to explain the difference:

Bandwidth is the total amount of water that can flow through the pipe in a given period of time (typically expressed in gallons per minute or gallons per hour). […] Latency, in contrast, is the amount of time it takes for the water that enters the pipe at one end to exit at the other.

Latency is often equally, if not more, critical to your internet experience than total bandwidth. As many AF readers probably know, competitive online video games are particular sensitive to high latency connections. When your performance depends on fast reaction time, even a hundred milliseconds of lag can leave you looking stupid.

Sean Clever, GameSpot:

With the FIFA series moving to a new engine, EA’s franchise is in a transitional year. This means PES has the first chance since its PS2 heyday to become the most popular football game. The decision not mess with what works means PES 2017 has a strong foundation, and the new minor adjustments look to be strengthening it. This could be the year.

Maybe, but I doubt it.

I prefer PES to FIFA. I’m not put off by the lack of licenses, kits, and players; I want the best soccer simulator on the market.

I might be in the minority, though. For most fans, gearing up as your favorite player or team is half the fun. If you’ve grown up a Liverpool FC fan, playing as Merseyside Red just feels less exciting. Additionally, FIFA has supplemented their core gameplay with several other game modes, which have amassed huge followings. Yes, FIFA Ultimate Team, I’m looking at you.

All of this to say some things never change. Even if FIFA 2017 takes a nosedive, it’ll still have all the licenses, which is more than enough to sell millions of copies and outsell PES.

Yet, an updated version of our status quo isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Last year’s PES was a great soccer exhibition simulator, and 2017 looks like it’s bringing more of the same.

Most “Learn X thing in Y minutes” articles are crap, but this one from Jeremy Thomas is well done. I like how the page design evolves as you move from topic to topic.

Contextual, in-depth look at the URL and its failed alternatives. Zack Bloom, writing for the Eager company blog:

In the world of web applications, it can be a little odd to think of the basis for the web being the hyperlink. It is a method of linking one document to another, which was gradually augmented with styling, code execution, sessions, authentication, and ultimately became the social shared computing experience so many 70s researchers were trying (and failing) to create. Ultimately, the conclusion is just as true for any project or startup today as it was then: all that matters is adoption. If you can get people to use it, however slipshod it might be, they will help you craft it into what they need. The corollary is, of course, no one is using it, it doesn’t matter how technically sound it might be. There are countless tools which millions of hours of work went into which precisely no one uses today.

As a URL nerd, if there is such a thing, this fascinated me to no end.

Nick Bilton, for Vanity Fair:

It doesn’t take a political scientist to see that the world is on edge. And technology, we often forget, undergirds this political reality. The Internet and innovation have made cultures around the globe collide with historically unprecedented force. With the exception of perhaps a handful of rogue states, like North Korea, we all now eat at the same McDonald’s, use the same iPhones and discuss the same hot-button topics on the same social networks. Every corporation on the planet can do this thanks to—not in large part, but in all parts—technology.

I’ve seen a cyber World War either dismissed or sensationalized, but I think Mr. Bilton does a good job at providing a realistic view of what future warfare could (will) look like. Interesting read.

Joseph Berger for the New York Times:

Elie Wiesel, the Auschwitz survivor who became an eloquent witness for the six million Jews slaughtered in World War II and who, more than anyone else, seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world’s conscience, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. […]

“He raised his voice, not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms,” [President Obama] said Saturday in a statement. “He implored each of us, as nations and as human beings, to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real that pledge of ‘never again.’”

Set aside a couple of minutes, find a quiet spot, and read through this whole piece. Among many, many, other things, Mr. Wiesel’s life is a testament to the awesome power our words can have.

On Removing the Headphone Jack

The Wall Street Journal reported two things: 1.) Apple will be moving to a two-year cycle for major iPhone hardware updates, and 2.) the next iPhone won’t have a headphone jack.

And then a majority of the tech press lost its mind. Not so much about the two-year thing, more about the ditching of a 50 year-old standard. It reminds me of when Steve Jobs put the nail in the coffin of Flash on iOS. The industry’s visceral response has been nothing short of fascinating.

However, almost two weeks out from the WSJ’s report, we don’t know what we don’t know. But it’s summertime, a holiday weekend, and my coffee is strong, so let’s try and break this down a bit.

Losing the headphone jack would hurt. It’s everywhere: planes, clothing, and almost every electronic device that can play audio. To even broach the subject of removing this port has your regular, non-technical person asking “why?” or “are you shitting me?” Literally. I’ve asked a number of them.

The headphone jack is the absolute epitome of “it just works,” and that’s what makes Apple’s supposed planned abandonment so jarring. What could be simpler than this?

Well, at the moment, we don’t have an obvious replacement that is both simpler and has more benefits. Wireless headphones are nice, once you get used to them, but now remember to keep them charged and get frustrated whenever you try to pair them with a new device. Adapters are annoying to keep track of, and the same goes for dongles. Also, I’m sure people are less worried about the size of a Lightning-to-audio jack adapter and more concerned that Apple would sell such a thing for $14.99.

No obvious replacement, and an adapter-ridden or Bluetooth-pairing hell. So why replace the headphone jack at all?

Well, let’s take a step back and ask another question: will the headphone jack be around forever? Is that our premise? No, I don’t think so. Eventually, something better (or just more modern) will come around to replace it. But who’s going to be the first to do it? Here’s where we’re going to play the Apple card; because they’re the only ones who can actually try.

Apple might be the only company that has the ethos and brand capital to actually pull this sort of transition off. Changing our de-facto audio interface is no small task, and whether the replacement is wireless or some other proprietary method, it’s going to hurt. But Apple can push through. The fans will follow first; then, after a year, the redesigned iPhone will pull in a calmer, more adjusted public; and finally, in a few years, we’ll look at the headphone jack fondly, but without the reliance we currently have.

Additionally, and what some people have missed is, if Apple is planning on removing the headphone jack, this is, initially, only going to affect people who use Apple products. If history holds true, PC and Android users have nothing to worry about in the short-to-mid term. Even Samsung, who at times has blatantly ripped off the iPhone hardware, might sit this particular design decision out. Apple users will get hit first and need to live with the change for a while.

As a longtime Mac and iPhone user, I’m OK with that.

To hear that Apple is considering removing the headphone jack gives me pause, but it’s also not out of line with who they are as a company. They want to offer the simplest hardware and software possible, and because they own the whole gamut, it enables them to keep pushing the envelope of what “simple” means. Over the years, I’ve come to expect this particular form of innovation from them.

And yes: Apple hasn’t always innovated well, and I can’t say that removing the headphone jack isn’t user hostile and stupid. But similar things were said about removing the VGA port, the DVD drive, and Flash. Yet, when we get through the transition, things are generally both better and simpler.

To that end, I think a reasonable view of the situation is this:

Apple doesn’t think the future of getting audio into our ears is reliant on a 50 year-old standard. I imagine most innovative technology companies think that way. However, while the headphone jack is incredibly simple, cheap, and permeated throughout society, Apple is one of the only companies who could actually orchestrate the move to the next thing. An audio interface that can do more in different and better ways.

If Apple’s decided to do this, it’s done. The next iPhone is already well into production for release in the Fall. Now we just wait and see.

DuckDuckGo, the privacy-focused search engine, just announced a new partnership with Yahoo. This partnership isn’t necessarily new, perhaps more renewed, as DuckDuckGo has utilized Yahoo’s BOSS (Build Your Own Search Service) API for years. That said, I wasn’t sure what DuckDuckGo was going to do when Yahoo announced it was discontinuing the BOSS API earlier this year.

Now we know.

DuckDuckGo will continue to get results, and a few extra features like date filtering on results, from Yahoo by way of a custom integrations between each service. Here’s the text over on the Yahoo subdomain duckduckgo-owned-server.yahoo.net:

This DuckDuckGo owned server is operating on a subdomain (duckduckgo-owned-server.yahoo.net) that has been delegated to DuckDuckGo via DNS by Yahoo so that we can continue to protect your privacy. In accordance with our privacy policy, we never share any personal information with any of our partners, including Yahoo. To make that crystal clear, Yahoo itself published a privacy statement to that effect. For more information, you can read about our partnership with Yahoo and its technical implementation.

Essentially, DuckDuckGo gets to control the core components of the integration, which should allow them maintain their previous privacy commitments. I’m not sure if DuckDuckGo is the only service to get a deal like this, but their 335 million search queries last month probably didn’t hurt negotiations. If you read between the lines, Yahoo needed this more than DuckDuckGo did.

A year ago, Facebook announced a new News Feed that was completely redesigned to focus on content–it had large photos, big user icons, better integration with Facebook messenger, and it brought Facebook’s website into closer alignment with its mobile apps. It was beautiful. During the few months I was able to use the new design, my Facebook experience was significantly better. Here’s what it looked like:

That’s Dustin Curtis, back in 2014, in a post titled “Whatever goes up, that’s what we do.” His title refers to how Facebook (supposedly) kill really good designs if they don’t increase engagement. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the idea; if the numbers don’t go up, neither will the design.

I was reminded of the above piece because, announced today, Facebook is shutting down Paper, an alternative to their main iOS app. Here’s Casey Newton, reporting for The Verge:

Facebook is shutting down Paper, a bold reimagining of the company’s flagship app for iOS that impressed critics but failed to attract a large audience, the company said today.

[…] Paper signaled the beginning of a design renaissance at Facebook. The look and feel of the app were orchestrated by Mike Matas, whose design firm Push Pop Press was acquired by Facebook in 2011. Paper was notable for the novel animations it used to guide you through the app — tap on a link and it would unfold like a letter; pull down on the story and it would fold back up, returning you to the feed.

Mr. Matas’ influence in Paper was obvious to anyone who followed his work at Push Pop Press. Each animation and interaction felt intentional. It was one of the most enjoyable apps I’ve every used on iOS. Facebook felt fundamentally different when viewed with Paper.

Back to Mr. Newton, Facebook’s Instant Articles feature (the near-instant loading of news stories that Facebook pre-caches for you) borrows a number of design elements born from Paper. Finally, here’s Facebook:

“Our goal with Paper was to explore new immersive, interactive design elements for reading and interacting with content on Facebook, and we learned how important these elements are in giving people an engaging experience.”

Engaging isn’t the right word; emotional is. Paper was that good.

Interview: Loren Brichter

After noticing that Letterpress had been sold to Solebon LLC, I reached out to Atebit’s founder and sole proprietor, Loren Brichter. After we waited a few weeks to let things settle down, Mr. Brichter agreed to do a small interview over email. What follows is our conversation about selling Letterpress, iOS, and developing on the web.


K.Q. Dreger: Hello, Loren. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I’ll cut right to the chase: Why decide to sell Letterpress? From my correspondence with Solebon, I know that they originally approached you in early 2015, but you weren’t interested. What changed from 2Q to 4Q?

Loren Brichter: For the last few years(!?) I’ve been trying to find some time to invest in the game, but other projects kept getting in the way, I ultimately realized that it would be a long time before I could get around to doing all the things I wanted to do, and these folks had the time and motivation to work on it right now. Just seemed like the game deserved some love, and I couldn’t give it.

Gamecenter + 2.0

Dreger: Solebon recently released version 2.0 of Letterpress, their first major update since the acquisition. Two of the headlining features are a new user account system, as opposed to Game Center, and a new “secured” copy of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, which they’ll use as the database for playable words.

Both of these changes are in stark contrast to your original approach: matchmaking and user accounts were managed entirely by Game Center, and the entire Letterpress dictionary was available to the public on GitHub. Were these changes something you advised, or were they already in Solbon’s roadmap for Letterpress?

Loren Brichter: I had actually looked into licensing an official dictionary. Maintaining a word list is tough, loads of gray areas, impossible to make everyone happy, so I understand why they did it. (Super super happy they re-added the ability to play bad words though, I would have been fucking bummed otherwise).

Switching off Game Center was priority #1 for me, and when they said they could build a new backend for the game it pretty much sealed the deal. Game Center was rough. It was my mistake to use it. The game had always been cross-platform (Mac+iOS), but there were so many bugs in Game Center for Mac that if I had launched it I would have been crushed under the weight of tech support.

Dreger: In the past, you’ve not been shy about poking fun at Game Center. Indeed, even though Letterpress launched to critical acclaim, I think a good number of early players ran into the infamous SILLY ERROR -1001, 23. Many speculated that it was Letterpress’s popularity that was highlighting the limitations of Game Center.

Brichter: Yep. Nobody could play the game for a while after it launched. If I cared to track attrition rates I’m sure I would have crawled into a hole.

Dreger: Last week’s service outage notwithstanding, if you were developing Letterpress today, would Game Center still be a part of your original stack?

Brichter: Nope.

Dreger: Shareable replays were one of my favorite parts of playing Letterpress. Reliving victories and analyzing defeats became a core part of my, and I’m sure other’s, strategy. Shortly after launching sharable replays in 2012, Macstories’ Federico Viticci interviewed you about the feature:

But I [Viticci] also wanted to ask Brichter about the technological component of Replay; he told me that, with this technology in place, he could now consider other neat visualizations for Letterpress games: for instance, he mentioned charts for scores and word lengths as possible implementations of the Replay webpage, which simply requires server-side updates. Brichter is also thinking about documenting the data format to allow other developers to build analysis tools for Letterpress.

We never saw some of these ideas come to light, but did any of them make it into any sort of development?

Brichter: Hadn’t gotten that far, sadly!

Design

Dreger: How do you feel about the design direction of iOS, now that the flat, simplified aesthetic of iOS 7 has had a couple of years to mature?

Brichter: I’m surprised it hasn’t changed much. And every iPhone user I know over 40 has all those visual accessibility features (button shapes, etc) turned on, and those are an ocular abomination (and shouldn’t be necessary at all).

Now, if some of the Apple TV aesthetic makes it back to iOS, whoooomama, then we’d be talking.

Dreger: Even though the aesthetic of Letterpress was a precursor to what we would see with iOS 7, one of the big differences was your use of shadows and animation to help illustrate depth. Looking at it today, Letterpress seems to share more in common with Google’s Material Design than it does with iOS. Would you agree with that?

Brichter: Absolutely! When Google announced Material Design I was very excited that somebody was attempting to formalize a wholistic approach to modern software design. It wasn’t precisely what I would have done, but definitely had a familiar vibe ;). Overall I thought it was a fantastic step in the right direction.

Dreger: In a 2012 interview with Gigaom, Erica Ogg wrote about how you “built his own version of the user interface framework,” when designing the graphics for Letterpress. Today, that sounds a lot like Metal, the low-level hardware-accelerated graphics API that debuted with iOS 8. Had Metal been around back when you were developing Letterpress, would that have changed how you approached developing the UI?

Brichter: Probably not. Metal is awesome (ditto for Vulkan), but draw calls were never my bottleneck. Plus I tend to err on the side of using things that aren’t blatantly proprietary, GL was good enough, despite the huge warts.

Atebits

Dreger: This is going to sound a bit odd, but I’ve always wanted to ask: you tend to use a lot of “us” or “we” on the Atebits site. Are you still the sole employee at Atebits?

Brichter: Mostly just me, there were a few periods where I’d have people help with tech support and whatnot.

Dreger: I love your use of Museo Sans Rounded on Atebits.com and in Letterpress itself. Any particular reason you went with Museo Sans over another family that offers a rounded variant, like Proxima Nova, Gotham, or FF Din?

Brichter: Just liked it. Seemed friendly and casual.

Dreger: You’ve mentioned in past interviews that Letterpress was “a testbed for more stuff.” Any chance I can get a hint at what that stuff might be? Can I assume that it’s going to be iOS related, or do you see yourself playing more with web-based products (considering your experience building shareable replays)?

Brichter: I haven’t launched Xcode (on purpose) in a long time. My work for the last few years has been on the web, and honestly, it’s a breath of fresh air. Instant refreshing, surprisingly good debugging / perf tools, intrinsically multi-platform, and most importantly, open.

Web tech gets a lot of shit from native devs (some of it deserved). But the alternatives are worse. I find the entire concept of App Review morally questionable despite Apple’s good intentions. So I sleep better at night not being part of that anymore. Sure, the web is messy, and it’s delicate, but it’s important and good and getting better fast.

Wouldn’t be surprised if I never went back.

Dreger: Are there any games you’re playing now that you really enjoy? iOS or otherwise.

Brichter: I started playing Threes again. It’s still amazing.

Dreger: Current iPhone model? (I have my money on iPhone SE)

Brichter: I clung to my iPhone 5 for as long as I could, but some iOS update made it unusable (if you accidentally touched an iMessage notification the whole UI would lock up for a minute or two), so I succumbed and got a 6S. Definitely going back to the 4” form factor the next chance I get.

Dreger: Last one, and it’s a surprise question: will I ever get to see an update to Scribbles? (Yes, I still have a copy, and yes it’s still excellent.)

Brichter: I’d love to do it! But it will definitely be a web app.


Thanks again to Mr. Brichter and Atebits for doing this interview.

A Small Exchange with Solebon LLC

A couple of months ago, I noticed that iOS word game Letterpress appeared to have changed owners from Loren Brichter’s Atebits to Solebon LLC. After some time had passed, I reached out to Solebon to get a little more information about the acquisition. We had a short exchange of emails, and that conversation is below.


K.Q. Dreger: What can you tell me about the acquisition of Letterpress?

Solebon LLC: Solebon acquired Letterpress from Atebits in December 2015. We had approached Loren Brichter in 2Q of 2015 but he wasn’t interested in selling at that time. We revisited the topic with him in 4Q and agreed to move forward.

Solebon has acquired all the assets and intellectual property related to Letterpress with the exception of any open source code as noted within the credits in the app (standard stuff). Loren remains involved as an advisor providing feedback on our development roadmap and related design and technical issues as requested.

We can’t speak to what Loren is up to these days as we don’t know. We can tell you from experience that Loren is very sharp and creative as you would expect from his reputation but he is also just a very thoughtful and all around good guy. No doubt he has plenty of opportunities on his plate.

Going forward, we just released the 2.0 version of Letterpress which utilizes a new game server. Not only does this lay the groundwork for new features (like chat) but it enables expansion to other operating systems down the road. This update has been a bit bumpy due to a small bug impacting a few players and last week’s big outage with many Apple services. Things are smoothing out.

Dreger: Considering your portfolio, which consists exclusively of card games, what drew you to a word game like Letterpress as a potential property to acquire? 

Solebon: Great question. Our interests are more broadly aligned with what we consider as “unique casual evergreen” titles that we believe everyone should have on their devices. Solebon was the very first solitaire app on iOS. It was recruited by Apple to launch with the app store. Currently, it’s not the biggest player in the card game space but we believe it is the best and that it will grow with continued investment.

Letterpress has a unique story as well among word games and we are both honored and excited to make the investments required for it to grow. We own some other interesting apps that are in varying stages of investment including sudoku, chess and puzzle titles. Admittedly, we have our hands full right now particularly with iOS 10 and new devices coming in the next few months.

Dreger: Great, thank you for your time!

Not Yet

Ben Brooks and Michael Rockwell both brought up the topic of going iOS only, and the maintenance that goes into tuning and running macOS (née OS X). Brooks:

I lost 30 minutes to just managing my Mac that morning.

Yet my iPad was just there, did it’s job and stayed the hell out of my way, and never once demanded I do housekeeping on it. The apps update in the background. The devices backs up each night automatically. It’s just always ready to go. That’s simply not the case with my Mac.

Rockwell:

Managing a Mac requires a lot of overhead and I’m doing almost everything in my power to minimize the chore associated with them.

Within Apple circles, going iOS only is a fairly common topic. There are enough apps, workarounds, and community involvement that if the Mac disappeared tomorrow, most people could get their jobs done with iOS.

However, iOS isn’t there yet for a lot of people. Namely, developers.

Writing code, managing servers, and deploying builds — i.e. building the things that make the iOS-only world possible — is just not something that we can get done on iOS yet. Arguably, iOS may never support some of these things. Root access, installing command-line tools, piping terminal commands into a local output file all fly in the face of security and ease-of-use, both of which are iOS cornerstones.

And yes, I could hack together a solution for some of these things by setting up a remote server, SSH, and VNC, but the switching cost in terms or productivity is just too high. Additionally, why should I need to buy or rent another machine just to do all these things that macOS can do out-of-the-box.

iOS can be powerful and simple because macOS is powerful and complex.

Yes, macOS takes more maintenance than iOS (to which I say “duh”), but those are tradeoffs that give me access to the full machine in front of me.

iOS does an excellent job at abstracting the messy details and maintenance of running an operating system, leaving us with an experience that’s simple and safe. But we still need folks who build the things that everyone else is using, and to build a lot of those things, iOS doesn’t make the cut yet.

“I prefer not to use the generally used term ‘open world’ when developing software, but we used this term [at E3] in order to make it easier for consumers to understand. This term means that there is a large world in which players can do numerous things daily.”

That’s Shigeru Miyamoto at Nintendo’s latest shareholders meeting, reported on by Lucy O’Brien, for IGN.

With this said, Miyamoto does not hesitate to call Zelda’s new world “vast.”

“Open world” might be one of the most tortured terms in gaming today. I’m not crazy about “vast,” but good on Nintendo for attempting to draw a distinction. In fact, I’m glad they did; an open world Zelda title wouldn’t be a Zelda title.

There's more good stuff in the archive.