Monday, August 5, 2013

Turncoat Dev Diary: Platform Decisions

In our earliest brainstorming for Turncoat, there wasn't really any debate about which platform we were going to target. The iPad was going to be our first priority: our reference platform, if you will. We would also ship on iPhone if our game mechanics worked well on, or could be adapted to, that device's smaller screen. We'd look at porting to the desktop or to Android devices later if we felt the response warranted it.

Our earliest visions for Turncoat were, quite honestly, driven by the potential we saw in the iPad's big, beautiful Retina screen as a storytelling medium.

After more than a year of developing the idea, this is still the approach we're going to take. But, there is one thing about targeting the iPad as our principle platform that honestly gives me a little bit of pause: the App Review process.

Because of the size and makeup of the iOS market, it's really the best platform for what we want to achieve, but, the arbitrariness of app review and the vagueness of the review guidelines really  do concern me. The fact that Apple's official App Store Review Guidelines glibly adopt the famous Potter Stewart line about pornography and puts it forth as a valid approach to reviewing Apps borders on being childish.

They'll know it when the see it?


Worse than that, Apple says, flat out,
We view Apps different (sic) than books or songs, which we do not curate.
 If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical App. [emphasis mine]
They say "Apps are different" but clearly what they're implying is that "Apps are less". They're telling us that if we want to do certain things, we shouldn't try and do them in an App, regardless of context, regardless of value, regardless of how well-suited an App might be to the task. Apps, Apple tells us, are a less valuable means of expression. They're less appropriate for challenging people and making them think. They're less valuable for making a personal or a social statement or for pushing any kinds of boundaries.

See, this notion is exactly, 180° turned around from what I think. I think Apps, and especially immersive Apps for the iPad, not only have the same potential as books, movies, and songs, to challenge, educate, and enlighten people… I think they have tremendously more potential. They can be made to interact. Stories can be told, but can be customized to the viewer or changed based on any number of inputs or conditions.

Put simply, Apps are a medium with nearly unlimited potential as a storytelling tool. Apps can be more than useful utilities and fun diversions. They could be used to really explore human interactions, to play on emotions, to let people experience life from the perspective of others, to force people to think, or to challenge what they think they already know. Given the chance, Apps could surpass the far more limited traditional forms of media that the App Review Guidelines seem to hold in such high regard. But right now, nobody's going to take a chance on doing anything like that, because Apple has decided to set themselves up as gatekeeper, and as gatekeeper, they have decided that the App, as a form of communication, must remain in perpetual adolescence and never grow up.

Apps are the Lost Boys of media.

And that's really a shame, because there is so much that can and should be done with these amazing little devices we all carry around every day.

Even worse than the fact that Apps are viewed, by Apple, as less than books, movies, and songs is the fact that Apple never lays out definitively what is okay and what is not okay. The rules aren't fixed or concrete.  There's no way to predict whether specific content will be allowed onto the App Store until after you have already invested the money to create it. Content similar to material that is available on the iTunes Store in R rated and sometimes even in PG-13 rated movies can, and have, been grounds for rejection in the App Store.

Where's the line? We don't know. Apple won't tell us.

They'll know when they see it.

We know there are some things you'll never get on the App Store, like hardcore pornography. Or, maybe you will if you're Brian K. Vaughn, but probably not if you're anybody else. But there's a huge amount of gray area short of that. There's an awful lot of content that might be okay and might not. There's a lot of stuff that might get in one day but not the next, or that might be allowed by one reviewer but not another. Developers are expected to invest substantial time and money into creating apps and then submit them to Apple knowing full well that they might get rejected for violating some unwritten rule. We're all expected to be okay with the fact that the fate of our app will be a subjective decision made by some faceless stranger who will probably have, at most, twenty minutes to look at and judge our app. And we're expected to be okay with all this despite the fact that we have no alternative market for our creation. If Apple rejects us, we can go nowhere else with our creation easily.

This situation creates what First Amendment attorneys call a "chilling effect". Content creators tend to intentionally stay well behind the line of what they think will be accepted because the financial implications of crossing the line are high. But at least nobody will be offended, nobody's world views will be challenged, and nobody will ever have to think. What a brave new world it is.

I'm not arguing that Apple doesn't have the right to be gatekeeper and decide what content gets put on their store: they most certainly do. I'm just saying that as a writer, developer, and content creator, this ambiguity and treatment of Apps as a less mature and less worthy medium bothers me and seems more than a little short-sighted. It saddens me that Apple is actually discouraging creators from exploring this new medium to its fullest.

Go write a book or a song.

But, I don't want to write a book to tell this story. I don't want to create a song about these people. I want to leverage everything that an App has to offer to make the most impact and to make people care and think.

I don't think any of the scripts written for Turncoat so far would be particularly offensive to most reasonable, mature people. I'm not on a mission to get embroiled in controversy or push any boundaries.

But I am on a mission to tell a story, and that story has pleasant and unpleasant parts. Things happen that people won't like, and the characters have a strange knack for acting like real people.

It concerns me that by targeting iOS as the primary platform for Turncoat, the power to decide whether I can tell the story I want to tell, the way I want to tell it, will reside with some anonymous app reviewer sitting in Cupertino working a thankless job and doing the best they can to follow intentionally vague guidelines.

For that reason, and that reason alone, I seriously debated trying to convince Rob that we should target Desktop computers first, and then maybe bring the Turncoat games to the iPad later. But, when it comes down to it, iOS is just too big and desirable of a market. The Turncoat Escape game, and likely every other Turncoat game we're able to produce, will target iOS first. If we run into problems with App Review, we'll take whatever steps are necessary to pass review.  Then, maybe, we'll release the full version on another platform so people can see the story the way it was intended.

It's funny, though. I can't help but think about another medium as I write this. See, I stopped watching television around 1991. For a very long time, didn't watch any television at all. I still owned a TV, but I had not cable or satellite – not even a UHF antenna. I stopped watching for practical reasons; I was very busy at that point in my life and quite literally had no time to watch. But for the next decade or so, any time I thought about starting to watch television again, I found myself unable to invest myself in the medium. Between the fact that a third of the airing time was devoted to grating, obnoxious advertisements and the fact that stories had to follow all the unwritten rules of the medium, I found any attempt to get back into watching television again annoying. I mean, it's hard not to lose your suspension of disbelief when a hardened mob boss says "fudge" instead of "fuck", or a major character waxes poetic about some brand of automobile for no apparent reason. After being away from it for a while, the flaws of the medium became really obvious to me, and I continued not to watch.

But something happened. Television — or at least some of it — became good. By the time the TV and Netflix were available (which is when I started watching some television shows again), there was a lot of halfway decent television to watch and there was some that was very good.

What changed? I can give you my theory.

The Sopranos changed. The Sopranos, and other cable television shows like it that didn't have to try and guess at and conform to the arbitrary guidelines of the FCC or the demands of advertisers. Freed from the possibility of being fined for random violations of unwritten rules, television got better as a medium, and some of it became great. Some people might be tempted to point at technological advances for the fact that television became better, but I really don't think that's the real reason. TV got better because the writers were allowed to write without having to worry about what some bureaucrat might do as a result of what they wrote or what some uptight zealot in Utah might put in a letter to their member of Congress.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. App developers are stuck back in the world where Lucy and Desi had separate twin beds.

As you can probably tell, I don't like the present situation. I don't mind constraints, but I want to know what those constraints are so I can work around them intelligently, and I want them to be reasonable rather than catering to the least common denominator. I don't think the way Apple handles App Review right now is a good long term strategy but, hey… you play the cards you're dealt.

Someday, though… I do hope Apple will decide to let Apps grow up and we can start seeing some truly great storytelling happen on our platform.

Next Up: Deciding on Tools and Frameworks
Previous: Finding a Smaller Game in the Universe


Rafael Nobre Rocha said...

Hi Jeff, great work so far, I'm hooked on the series!
Two questions: how far are you actually into the game development ? Or are you really writing the series as you go? It looks as if the series itself is a heat-up for the game launch! The other one: I found out about a service called blogtrottr that notifies me when new posts comes up, does it hurt you or the blog in any way to read the feed straight from my mail box? Or would it be better to visit the site to read it ?

Jeff LaMarche said...


Thanks for the kind words.

No, it doesn't hurt me if you read the blog post through RSS or an e-mail service, but thank you for asking.

As for how far along we are, we're a little further along than the series is, but not much. I try to stay far enough ahead that I'm not going to have to retract an entire post. We've also done exploratory work and prototyping over the last year, so we're pulling from those efforts at times, but the actual game itself is just a little ahead of the blog posts.