iPhone Game Reviews, Part 1 of 3

I’ve been a little disappointed with the fact that even though there are so many iPhones out there and so many folks are buying games through the App Store, there are few ways to see if a game is actually any good before taking the plunge. The star review system on the App Store is worthless since one can go in and bomb 1 or 5 star reviews without having ever downloaded the app. Granted, these are $5-$10 purchases instead of $50-$60 purchases as is the case with console-based games, but no one wants to waste time and money. Therefore, in the hopes that others will follow suit, I’m reviewing every single game I have on my iPhone. This is the first entry in a series as I go through the good and bad I have found.

Scrabble by Electronic Arts

Genre: Board Game
Price I Paid: $9.99

Lately, I’ve become a Scrabble junkie (15-4 record, woo!) thanks to the free Facebook version that arrived earlier this year. And since the iPhone and Adobe won’t man up and work together to get a version of Flash developed that can be used on the device, there’s no way for me to play my beloved Facebook Scrabble unless I am in front of a computer. That void has been filled partially by this handy iPhone app.

More or less, it is plain Jane Scrabble. If you don’t like the board game, nothing in this version will change your mind. You can play against the computer (which is moronic on Easy difficulty and still quite beatable even on Hard) and one can play over local Wi-fi. But I imagine there have been probably ten sessions played like this worldwide. Much more common likely is “Pass `n Play”, which is exactly what you assume it is. The girlfriend and I played a few rounds of this while waiting in some very long amusement park lines to pass the time and it was quite successful. There is a bare bones statistics menu that tells you your best score, win/loss record, etc.

One major complaint I have with the game is that they’ve added a “Best Word” option. You can use this four times a game which allows the computer to look at the board and your tiles and place the absolute highest scoring word possible down. The problem with this is that there is usually some arcane word possible that is worth 40+ points laying around and once you use the Best Word you have a huge lead on your opponent or the CPU. When you can use it _four times_ in a single game, it gets a little ridiculous. I wish they would have put a toggle in the options menu to allow you to select how many Best Word shots you get in a game (0-4). I have to use will power to avoid hitting the button when I am stuck, but it is usually a much closer game with the CPU when I manage to avoid the cheating. Other than this, there are no interesting design-related points if you are already familiar with Scrabble.

Unlike the Facebook version, the game has no searchable dictionary, no two letter word list and no way to look at letter distribution. While the first two aren’t parts of the board game, I can understand their absence, but in a game that looks exactly like the Facebook version, I’d expect the same functionality for simple things like this.

Minor gripe: why does it turn off my iPod music when I boot it up? Is it inconceivable that I’d want to listen to music while playing Scrabble?

What would make this an absolutely killer application is to actually be able to interface with the Facebook Scrabble games. As is, it is a nice distraction for us folks who already love Scrabble. It is competent.

Was it worth the time/money? Yes

Smiles by Sykhronics Entertainment

Genre: Match-3 Puzzle
Price I Paid: $4.99

As this article develops, you will come to understand that I am generally a big fan of Match-3 puzzle games, which I have been since getting addicted to Puzzle Quest on the DS last year (Side Note: It is coming to iPhone for $9.99. Will I resist?) Smiles is a match-3 game a la Bejeweled and a thousand others already on the App Store.

In Smiles you are swapping tiles from a holding area instead of swapping adjacent tiles, but otherwise you have your traditional Match 3 mechanic. The user can tilt the phone in four directions to have the tiles fall in the direction of gravity. This works much smoother than Safari’s page rotation, but isn’t nearly as useful. Frozen tiles increase the difficulty as you progress, but tile variety is otherwise slim.

I discovered by accident that Smiles plays different from a lot of other Match-3 games in that you can make matches while tiles are still falling. Thus Smiles hits a different play dynamic. Instead of the cautious and often plodding mechanics of a Bejeweled, Smiles is a nonstop barrage of searching for possible chains of three hoping that the tiles don’t stop falling while you search in order to grab a huge combo. This isn’t called out anywhere, but the play dynamic is what separates Smiles from every other Match-3 out there. Many Match-3 games institute a time limit, which is a terrible way to induce a frantic play dynamic. Smiles can be played as slow or fast as the player desires, but the fast method garners more points.

Where Smiles shines is in depth and polish. The interface is quick and responsive (as it has to be with the aforementioned play mechanic). The game features a number of modes (which are not adequately explained, unfortunately) and numerous achievements. I’m a sucker for achievements, so having them in this simple iPhone game helped to extend the longevity. Animations are cute and clever and the game never crashed or hung for me, unlike many of the others listed in these reviews.

Was it worth the time/money? Yes

Metasquares by MetaTools, Inc.

Genre: Board Game
Price I Paid: $2.99

Metasquares was a nostalgia buy. In earlier days, I played Metasquares as one of the first networked games available on AOL’s subscription surface. While AOL’s other offerings were either ugly 3D or incomprehensible text-based adventures, Metasquares shined as a aesthetically-pleasing puzzle game that is simple enough to pick up in minutes.

The game is played on a sort of Go-like board that is 8×8. Players take turns placing markers down. The object is to make as many squares (not rectangles!) out of these markers as you can. The catch is that the squares don’t have to be oriented parallel with the sides of the board – they can be tilted at any angle.

The strategy becomes intense at higher levels like with most decent abstract strategy games – do I try to score or do I block my opponent? Can I sneak in a clever move without him noticing? Am I missing any crooked squares he could be making?

It’s a brain-scratcher, so you have to be into these kind of games. Metasquares offers alternate board and piece themes, but there are no differing gameplay modes other than difficulty. One note on difficulty: you can only unlock higher difficulties as you beat lower-leveled AIs. The easiest AIs are ridiculously dumb and the hard AIs are incredibly difficult and nigh unbeatable. I wish there would have been more of these difficulty settings as there is one level that I beat without issue and the next higher one I never win against. If there was a level in-between it would be perfect for me.

Was it worth the money? Maybe, but since I’ve scratched my nostalgia itch, I don’t think I’d download it again.

Texas Hold ’em by Apple

Genre: Card
Price I Paid: $4.99

I’ll make this one simple: if you like Texas Hold ’em on even a casual level, purchase this app. Apple has produced the best poker application that I’ve seen on any platform and optimized the play experience for playing in a mobile setting with enough panache to show off the capabilities of the device.

It’s poker, so I won’t explain how the game itself works, but the polish and experience is exquisite. A simple tap of the screen forwards play to your next choice. You fold by pushing your cards in to the dealer. You check by double tapping the table. You go all in by pushing your chip pile towards the dealer. All natural, intuitive controls. Players can tap their hands to get a rainbow stripe around their hand that corresponds to the hand’s strength, allowing newbie players to get a quick grasp of relative strategy.

The “career” is the depth of the game. Play at tables in casinos with cheaper buy-in and get smaller rewards. But as you up the ante (so to say), competition gets fiercer and the payouts get higher. There are ten casinos in the game and each has its own environment. Play with the phone vertically oriented and each player is shown one at a time in full-motion video. There are at least a dozen different players, probably more. Hold the phone horizontally oriented and get the whole game from a top-down view. I recommend playing this way as the game goes much faster.

An issue I have is with the payouts at the different casinos. At almost all of them the payout is 10x the entry fee for first place, yet the competition stiffens and the number of players increases as you move up the pay scale. Since I don’t get a higher ROI on my games at high levels, I generally stick to the mid-levels where I know I have a chance and where I can finish quicker. It would have been nice to see the reward increase as a multiple of the buy-in to entice players to try to “go for broke” at the harder casinos.

Players control their own difficulty level by choosing the casinos that challenge them at an appropriate level. This game is nowhere near as miserly as Apple’s earlier Texas Hold `em game for iPods where it was next to impossible to win money and play anything but the free tournaments. It holds a wider variety of difficulty levels and should be challenging to any poker player.

Thanks to the speed with which one can tap through a tournament (everything is streamlined for speed in the horizontal view setting), Texas Hold ‘Em is perfect for when you are waiting for a meal at a restaurant or sitting in a waiting room at a doctor’s office. It is the perfect time-waster for Apple’s phone, provided you are entertained by playing hold ’em poker. It should have shipped free with the phone to entice people into the paid games space, but I had no problem dropping $5 for a game of this level of quality.

Was it worth the money? Enthusiastically, yes.

Lemonade Stand by Maverick Software

Genre: Business Sim
Price I Paid: 99 cents

Lemonade Stand is a remake of a simple business sim that came with Apple IIe computers. I never had an Apple IIe, but I did have a Commodore 64 that had a similar game. In the game I remember playing, one would read a weather report and then choose to buy cups, sugar, and lemons all with fluctuating prices. Then you could set your price per cup and (hopefully) watch the money roll in, making sure not to overbuy based on the economic and weather conditions.

This game is a little different. Your only inputs are the number of cups to make, the price you will sell the lemonade for and the number of advertising signs you will make for that day. You are given a vague weather report. However, in this version you cannot buy ingredients individually and they do not carry over from one day to the next. Your cost per cup goes from 2c to 4c to 5c on a fixed schedule. There is little uncertainty.

There are some random events. A storm can cause you to get zero sales for the day. When the traffic congestion event comes up either your clientele will disappear or the road crew will buy all your lemonade no matter the quantity or price. This allows an exploit where the latter happens so often that anytime you see the road construction warning, set your production and price to max and make an easy $40.00. Every once in a while, you will get the less traffic result which will cause you to lose $10.00. But since this has a >25% chance of the road crew buying your supply, it is always worth it to max out.

For nostalgia, one can turn on the original Apple IIe graphics in all their bland splendor. I found the sliders to be fairly unresponsive in either Classic graphics or Regular graphics modes, so it doesn’t seem to alter any functionality. At the end of 30 days of business you close up and put your profits on the high score board. That’s it.

I wish the game was a little deeper like my memories of the Commodore 64 version, but since it is largely a nostalgia sell, I suppose it had to be authentic to the original version. For 99 cents, I can’t complain, but I’d pay multiples of that for a fuller featured business sim.

Was it worth the money? For 99 cents? Yeah.

on iPhone app pricing


Games are a special case. You can sell a game for $9.99, but it’s much harder than selling a good app: games don’t solve most people’s problems, get them laid, save them time, make them money, or enrich their lives. Most have little lasting value: once you’ve beaten them or gotten sick of them, you rarely play them again. And the game market is absolutely flooded with cheap or free competition. But there’s nearly infinite demand for new games, and the potential market for a good game is much larger than the market for a good app. You can sell a great game for $9.99, but the bar is pretty high.

Here’s a fairly reasoned argument as to why most apps should be $9.99 (or higher!).

As I’m writing my iPhone games review omnibus, I keep thinking about one of the best games of the year: Professor Layton and the Curious Village for the Nintendo DS. The actual printing and shipping of DS games is much more expensive than its console counterparts because the cartridges are quite expensive, especially for games like Layton that require large carts due to FMVs or other high data resources. Certainly it would be cheaper for them to distribute digitally. How much would I pay for Layton on a phone?

While I would lose value by not being able to re-sell the game on eBay when finished, I’d gain the utility of having the game with me everywhere. Actually, the game seems like a perfect fit for the mobile platform. If the developers were to charge $19.99, that wouldn’t seem out of line. $14.99 I’d buy in an instant.

Of course, with the aforementioned fear in the App Store market, they would probably split the game into four $4.99 chapters, which just takes up valuable screen menu real estate.

We need a Killer App to prove this can be done. I’m no fan of paying more money, but we have no long-form games on the platform and won’t if there is a $9.99 price ceiling. Nosiy 13 year olds be damned.

Left 4 Bankruptcy

In the past 48 hours I’ve spent over $200 on games. First Left 4 Dead (awesome!) and then these:

I’ll give impressions when I’m good and ready. But my wallet sure feels lighter this time of the year. Good thing we are in a fundamentally strong economy.

I’m working on a long post in spare time of reviews of all the iPhone games I have. By the numbers, it is a huge market, yet very few sites talk about iPhone games, let alone have reviews. Touch Arcade has good coverage, but they keep their posts fairly opinion-free. Fingergaming covers the same ground. When downloading, I usually have to hope and pray that the game is any good. This is fine with $1 and $2 games, but I start to balk at $5 and $10 games.

In other news, gamesindustry.biz has the most obvious headline of the day: “Square Enix LA Studio to focus on digital titles”. Well at least we know they won’t be working on a game for a difference engine.

Being Engaged

– There’s a fantastic blog post up by Hugh McLeod that really has me thinking and inspired (momentarily, all fades in the shadow). Particularly this:

You can’t thrill your customers until you thrill yourself first.

That’s something I generally lose track of in the endless Sisyphusian task of making a very mass market game. It’s very easy to get thrilled over little ideas only to have them scuttled because they are odd or time-consuming or something we haven’t done before. We can’t quantitatively measure what is best, but we can measure what is cheapest. It’s so easy to poo-poo an idea. And so we go with what we’ve done before because it is familiar and measurable not because it is the best.

We settle. It’s like when one person wants pizza for dinner and the other wants to just skip dinner and have ice cream. The best compromise is not to have pizza ice cream. No one is thrilled by that, but it is standard compromising technique that we all use. And we have to settle because there generally isn’t time to figure everything out.

If it is important, make time.

It’s hard being the squeaky cog in a giant, otherwise well-oiled machine, but I have to keep reminding myself to squeak. Because if I don’t squeak when I believe in it, I may be like the people I see here who have simply lost their voice. But how to squeak loud enough? That’s really the question.

Sorry for carrying that metaphor so far. Uncalled for.

The moral is that if you aren’t thrilled, figure out what has to change until you are. Sometimes it is just a matter of perspective. Sometimes it requires a whole new plan. But I can tell when I’m playing a game made by people who were loving what they did and I bet you can too.

– Here’s a related point. If you want to branch out to new customers, how do you do so without being contemptuous of your core? I don’t know if it can be done. The core wants more of the same, but better. (I originally wrote “more of the same, but butter” for some reason and I think that works too) But to get new audiences, you have to give them a vastly different experience.

Look at Tony Hawk. Neversoft kept churning out a game that did really well with their core. And they listened and made more insane tricks, jumping off of a giant eyeball, etc. But when Skate came out the EA team eschewed all of that. Skate had a fraction of the tricks that Hawk did, but they hit an aesthetic Hawk couldn’t.

And it took some damn bravery I bet when designers or executives said “But Tony Hawk does it this way and they sell a million copies a year!” to implement a mechanic that hits a completely different aesthetic.

It’s risky to try to get new customers. Look at Castlevania: Judgement. Or Prince of Persia: Warrior WIthin. But it’s a waste of talent to churn out the same experience but a little better each time around. It’s why I could never work on an MMO.

-I finished Dead Space yesterday. I have nothing bad to say about it. It wasn’t the revival of survival horror I was looking for, but it was still a lot of fun and relatively polished and bug-free. I give it two dismembered thumbs up. What to try next? I’m a big iffy on Mirror’s Edge. Fallout 3 will consume me for months. Left 4 Dead is out very soon. Oh, the holiday glut!

-In other news, I got to watch the last night space shuttle launch from a park near my home. It’s a shame that we have to give all our money to failing banks, investment firms, credit card companies and automakers instead of building new shuttles because watching that really makes you believe in America. A community pulled away from their sitcoms to have a picnic by a lake and watch the most beautiful reverse shooting-star you will ever see ascend to literal heights few will ever reach? That’s fantastic. It was so clear that you could easily see the booster seperation. And eventually the shuttle became a point of light like a star and faded into the black. I could watch that every night.

Snark Mode Engaged

MTV’s Multiplayer Blog has pics of people lining up for the World of Warcraft expansion pack release. What do you suppose the odds are that these folks will spend more time outside waiting in line than they have in the entire previous summer? Or just more time outside in a two-day period since the Phantom Menace premiere?  I kid because I love.

But come on people, it’s an expansion pack.

Is it being digitally distributed as well? If no, why the hell not?