Opinion

Chilly reception for marijuana tycoon game shows games industry’s backwards stance on drugs

Posted by | devolver digital, Gaming, marijuana, Opinion, TC | No Comments

Intense and graphic violence is something we’ve come to simply expect from games, but sexual and other adult themes are still largely taboo — including, as publisher Devolver Digital is learning, drugs. Even if the game in question is a relatively serious tycoon-type look at the current (and legal!) business of selling weed.

Devolver is no stranger to controversy; it has published and helped develop dozens of games and many of them have featured the kind of graphic violence that sets off those who still see the medium as a corruptive, fundamentally debased one. And to be fair, the likes of Hotline Miami aren’t going to change any minds.

But for the company’s first original commissioned IP, it had the idea of assembling a game in the popular “tycoon” genre, but focused on the emerging and popular sector of growing marijuana.

Obviously this is somewhat controversial, but the plant is legal in many states and countries already and on its way in plenty of others. This isn’t the time or place for a full evaluation of the scheduling system and the war on drugs, but it suffices to say that it is a complex and interesting business ecosystem that’s teetering on the edge of widespread acceptance. That makes it a bit edgy, but also fresh and relevant — perfect, Devolver thought, to build a game around. So they made Weedcraft, Inc.

Unfortunately, the company’s co-founder Mike Wilson told me the other day, they underestimated how square the gaming industry is.

“This is definitely the hardest game I’ve had to market, and that’s saying something,” Wilson told me. “It has been a fucking nightmare. The fact that we’re still so afraid of a topic like weed instead of the murder simulators you can market any time, anywhere, it’s shocking.”

Console game stores were reluctant to even carry it, and warned Devolver that it would never be featured, which is a death sentence for a game’s discoverability. They couldn’t get ads approved on Facebook or Instagram, and the person who submitted them even had his account suspended. And just this week, streamers trying out the game on YouTube had their videos demonetized.

The only stores that didn’t buck were Steam, which is largely content-agnostic, and GOG, a popular DRM-free storefront.

Why, though? This isn’t a game about smoking blunts or cutting dime bags with oregano to sell to middle school kids.

Well, it is a little pro-legalization.

“This isn’t a pro-legalization game. This is a tycoon game. You don’t do drugs in the game!” said Wilson. “You can play as a totally legal, scrupulous businessperson. We did all this research with like, dispensaries, geneticists, lawyers, we were worried about cultural sensitivity with the subject matter, things like how much more black people get jailed for it. We wanted it to be representative of all the social issues involved. It’s kind of like doing a game about booze in the prohibition era — like, what an interesting industry to study, right?”

It’s not that the companies involved here — Microsoft, Sony, YouTube and so on — are applying some invisible rules. The rules are there; when I contacted YouTube for comment, they pointed me to the list of guidelines for “advertiser-friendly content.” And plain as day there’s the one about drugs: “Video content that promotes or features the sale, use, or abuse of illegal drugs, regulated drugs or substances, or other dangerous products is not suitable for advertising.”

It’s just a bit weird to me still that we have this backwards, puritan approach to this stuff. Think of how much vile garbage is on YouTube and how the most popular games in the world glorify guns and death. But a recreational drug legal in many places and generally well thought of, not to mention a massive and growing business — that’s beyond the pale.

I understand YouTube doesn’t want people doing bong-clearing competitions, and console makers want to appear family-friendly so they don’t lose that teen and tween market. But surely we can be adults about this.

Gaming is maturing to be an interactive storytelling medium that encompasses serious issues, but the industry is holding itself back by its squeamishness about adult themes. And that feeds into the puritanical objections from misguided commentators, who go nuts over romancing an alien in Mass Effect or the ridiculous “Hot Coffee” thing in GTA, but don’t acknowledge the sophisticated storytelling of Return of the Obra Dinn, or subversive commentary of Papers, Please, or the impressive period recreation of an Assassin’s Creed.

Drugs are a complex and controversial topic. I get that some people want to stay hands-off. But when that hands-off stance doesn’t apply to graphic violence, sexism, and other sore spots, it comes off as prudish and hypocritical.

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Apple sells wireless charging AirPods, cancels charger days later

Posted by | Drama, Gadgets, hardware, Opinion, science, TC | No Comments

“Works with AirPower mat”. Apparently not. It looks to me like Apple doesn’t treat customers with the same “high standard” of care it apparently reserves for its hardware quality. Nine days after launching its $199 wireless charging AirPods headphones that touted compatibility with the forthcoming Apple AirPower inductive charger mat, Apple has just scrapped AirPower entirely. It’s an uncharacteristically sloppy move for the “it just works” company. This time it didn’t.

Given how soon after the launch this cancellation came, there is a question about whether Apple  knew AirPower was viable before launching the new AirPods wireless charging case on March 20th. Failing to be transparent about that is an abuse of customer trust. That’s especially damaging for a company constantly asking us to order newly announced products we haven’t touched when there’s always another iteration around the corner. It should really find some way to make it up to people, especially given it has $245 billion in cash on hand.

TechCrunch broke the news of AirPower’s demise. “After much effort, we’ve concluded AirPower will not achieve our high standards and we have cancelled the project. We apologize to those customers who were looking forward to this launch. We continue to believe that the future is wireless and are committed to push the wireless experience forward,” said Dan Riccio, Apple’s senior vice president of Hardware Engineering in an emailed statement today.

That comes as a pretty sour surprise for people who bought the $199 wireless charging AirPods that mention AirPower compatibility or the $79 standalone charging case with a full-on diagram of how to use AirPower drawn on the box.

Apple first announced the AirPower mat in 2017 saying it would arrive the next year along with a wireless charging case for AirPods. 2018 came and went. But when the new AirPods launched March 20th with no mention of AirPower in the press release, suspicions mounted. Now we know that issues with production, reportedly due to overheating, have caused it to be canceled. Apple decided not to ship what could become the next Galaxy Note 7 fire hazard.

The new AirPods with wireless charging case even had a diagram of AirPower on the box. Image via Ryan Jones

There are plenty of other charging mats that work with AirPods, and maybe Apple will release a future iPhone or MacBook that can wirelessly pass power to the pods. But anyone hoping to avoid janky third-party brands and keep it in the Apple family is out of luck for now.

Thankfull, some who bought the new AirPods with wireless charging case are still eligible for a refund. But typically if you get an Apple product personalized with an engraving (I had my phone number laser-etched on my AirPods since I constantly lose them), there are no refunds allowed. And then there are all the people who bought Apple Watches, or iPhone 8 or later models who were anxiously awaiting AirPower. We’ve asked Apple if it will grant any return exceptions.

Combined with an apology for the disastrously fragile keyboards on newer MacBooks, an apology over the Mac Pro, an apology for handling the iPhone slowdown messaging wrong, Apple’s recent vaporware services event where it announced Apple TV+ and Arcade despite them being months from launch, and now an AirPower apology and cancellation, the world’s cash-richest company looks like a mess. Apple risks looking as unreliable as Android if it can’t get its act together.

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The danger of ‘I already pay for Apple News+’

Posted by | Apple, apple news, Apps, eCommerce, Facebook, Media, Mobile, Opinion, TC | No Comments

Apple doesn’t care about news, it cares about recurring revenue. That’s why publishers are crazy to jump into bed with Apple News+. They’re rendering their own subscription options unnecessary in exchange for a sliver of what Apple pays out from the mere $10 per month it charges for unlimited reading.

The unfathomable platform risk here makes Facebook’s exploitative Instant Articles program seem toothless in comparison. On Facebook, publishers became generic providers of dumb content for the social network’s smart pipe that stole the customer relationship from content creators. But at least publishers were only giving away their free content.

Apple News+ threatens to open a massive hole in news site paywalls, allowing their best premium articles to escape. Publishers hope they’ll get exposure to new audiences. But any potential new or existing direct subscriber to a publisher will no longer be willing to pay a healthy monthly fee to occasionally access that top content while supporting the rest of the newsroom. They’ll just cherry pick what they want via News+, and Apple will shave off a few cents for the publisher while owning all the data, customer relationship and power.

“Why subscribe to that publisher? I already pay for Apple News+” should be the question haunting journalists’ nightmares. For readers, $10 per month all-you-can-eat from 300-plus publishers sounds like a great deal today. But it could accelerate the demise of some of those outlets, leaving society with fewer watchdogs and storytellers. If publishers agree to the shake hands with the devil, the dark lord will just garner more followers, making its ruinous offer more tempting.

There are so many horrifying aspects of Apple News+ for publishers, it’s best just to list each and break them down.

No relationship with the reader

To succeed, publishers need attention, data and revenue, and Apple News+ gets in the way of all three. Readers visit Apple’s app, not the outlet’s site that gives it free rein to promote conference tickets, merchandise, research reports and other money-makers. Publishers don’t get their Apple News+ readers’ email addresses for follow-up marketing, cookies for ad targeting and content personalization, or their credit card info to speed up future purchases.

At the bottom of articles, Apple News+ recommends posts by an outlet’s competitors. Readers end up without a publisher’s bookmark in their browser toolbar, app on their phone or even easy access to them from News+’s default tab. They won’t see the outlet’s curation that highlights its most important content, or develop a connection with its home screen layout. They’ll miss call-outs to follow individual reporters and chances to interact with innovative new interactive formats.

Perhaps worst of all, publishers will be thrown right back into the coliseum of attention. They’ll need to debase their voice and amp up the sensationalism of their headlines or risk their users straying an inch over to someone else. But they’ll have no control of how they’re surfaced…

At the mercy of the algorithm

Which outlets earn money on Apple News+ will be largely determined by what Apple decides to show in those first few curatorial slots on screen. At any time, Apple could decide it wants more visual photo-based content or less serious world news because it placates users even if they’re less informed. It could suddenly preference shorter takes because they keep people from bouncing out of the app, or more generic shallow-dives that won’t scare off casual readers who don’t even care about that outlet. What if Apple signs up a publisher’s biggest competitor and sends them all the attention, decimating the first outlet’s discovery while still exposing its top paywalled content for cheap access?

Remember when Facebook wanted to build the world’s personalized newspaper and delivered tons of referral traffic, then abruptly decided to favor “friends and family content” while leaving publishers to starve? Now outlets are giving Apple News+ the same iron grip on their businesses. They might hire a ton of talent to give Apple what it wants, only for the strategy to change. The Wall Street Journal says it’s hiring 50 staffers to make content specifically for Apple News+. Those sound like some of the most precarious jobs in the business right now.

Remember when Facebook got the WSJ, Guardian and more to build “social reader apps” and then one day just shut off the virality and then shut down the whole platform? News+ revenue will be a drop in the bucket of iPhone sales, and Apple could at any time decide it’s not thirsty any more and let News+ rot. That and the eventual realization of platform risk and loss of relationship with the reader led the majority of Facebook’s Instant Articles launch partners like The New York Times, The Washington Post and Vox to drop the format. Publishers would be wise to come to that same conclusion now before they drive any more eyeballs to News+.

News+ isn’t built for news

Apple acquired the magazine industry’s self-distribution app Texture a year ago. Now it’s trying to cram in traditional text-based news with minimal work to adapt the product. That means National Geographic and Sports Illustrated get featured billing with animated magazine covers and ways to browse the latest “issue.” News outlets get demoted far below, with no intuitive or productive way to skim between articles beyond swiping through a chronological stack.

I only see WSJ’s content below My Magazines, a massive At Home feature from Architectural Digest, a random Gadgets & Gear section of magazine articles, another huge call-out for the new issue of The Cut plus four pieces inside of it, and one more giant look at Bloomberg’s profile of Dow Chemical. That means those magazines are likely to absorb a ton of taps and engagement time before users even make it to the WSJ, which will then only score few cents per reader.

Magazines often publish big standalone features that don’t need a ton of context. News articles are part of a continuum of information that can be laid out on a publisher’s own site where they have control, but not on Apple News+. And to make articles more visually appealing, Apple strips out some of the cross-promotional recirculation, sign-up forms and commerce opportunities on which publishers depend.

Shattered subscriptions

The whole situation feels like the music industry stumbling into the disastrous iTunes download era. Musicians earned solid revenue when someone bought their whole physical album for $16 to listen to the single, then fell in love with the other songs and ended up buying merchandise or concert tickets. Then suddenly, fans could just buy the digital single for $0.99 from iTunes, form a bond with Apple instead of the artist and the whole music business fell into a depression.

Apple News+’s onerous revenue-sharing deal puts publishers in the same pickle. That occasional flagship article that’s a breakout success no longer serves as a tentpole for the rest of the subscription.

Formerly, people would need to pay $30 per month for a WSJ subscription to read that article, with the price covering the research, reporting and production of the whole newspaper. Readers felt justified paying the price because they got access to the other content, and the WSJ got to keep all the money even if people didn’t read much else or declined to even visit during the month. Now someone can pop in, read the WSJ’s best or most resource-intensive article, and the publisher effectively gets paid à la carte like with an iTunes single. Publishers will be scrounging for a cut of readers’ $10 per month, which will reportedly be divided in half by Apple’s oppressive 50 percent cut, then split between all the publishers someone reads — which will be heavily skewed towards the magazines that get the spotlight.

I’ve already had friends ask why they should keep paying if most of the WSJ is in Apple News along with tons of other publishers for a third of the price. Hardcore business news addicts that want unlimited access to the finance content that’s only available for three days in Apple News+ might keep their WSJ subscription. But anyone just in it for the highlights is likely to stop paying WSJ directly — or never start.

I’m personally concerned because TechCrunch has agreed to put its new Extra Crunch $15 per month subscription content inside Apple News+ despite all the warning signs. We’re saving some perks, like access to conference calls just for direct Extra Crunch subscribers, and perhaps a taste of EC’s written content might convince people they want the bonus features. But even more likely seems the possibility that readers would balk at paying again for just some extra perks when they already get the rest from Apple News, and many newsrooms aren’t set up to do anything but write articles.

It’s the “good enough” strategy we see across tech products playing out in news. When Instagram first launched Stories, it lacked a ton of Snapchat’s features, but it was good enough and conveniently located where people already spent their time and had their social graph. Snapchat didn’t suddenly lose all its users, but there was little reason for new users to sign up and growth plummeted.

Apple News is pre-loaded on your device, where you already have a credit card set up, and it’s bundled with lots of content, at a cheaper price than most individual news outlets. Even if it doesn’t offer unlimited, permanent access to every WSJ Pro story, Apple News+ will be good enough. And it gets better with each outlet that allies with this Borg.

But this time, good enough won’t just determine which tech giant wins. Apple News+ could decimate the revenue of a fundamental pillar of society we rely on to hold the powerful accountable. Yet to the journalists that surrender their content, Apple will have no accountability.

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Another fine mesh

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon buys Eero, Eero, Gadgets, hardware, M&A, Opinion, Routers | No Comments

Amazon’s acquisition of mesh router company Eero is a smart play that adds a number of cards to its hand in the rapidly evolving smart home market. Why shouldn’t every router be an Echo, and every Echo be a router? Consolidating the two makes for powerful synergies and significant leverage against stubborn competition.

It’s no secret that Amazon wants to be in every room of the house — and on the front door to boot. It bought connected camera and doorbell companies Blink and Ring, and of course at its events it has introduced countless new devices from connected plugs to microwaves.

All these devices connect to each other, and the internet, wirelessly. Using what? Some router behind the couch, probably from Netgear or Linksys, with a 7-character model number and utilitarian look. This adjacent territory is the clear next target for expansion.

But Amazon could easily have moved into this with a Basics gadget years ago. Why didn’t it? Because it knew that it would have to surpass what’s on the market, not just in signal strength or build, but by changing the product into a whole new category.

The router is one of a dwindling number of devices left in the home that is still just a piece of “equipment.” Few people use their routers for anything but a basic wireless connection. Bits come and go through the cable and are relayed to the appropriate devices, mechanically and invisibly. It’s a device few think to customize or improve, if they think of it at all.

Apple made some early inroads with its overpriced and ultimately doomed Airport products, which served some additional purposes, like simple backups, and were also designed well enough to live on a table instead of under it. But it’s only recently that the humble wireless router has advanced beyond the state of equipment. It’s companies like Eero that did it, but it’s Amazon that’s made it realistic.

Build the demand, then sell the supply

It’s become clear that in many homes a single Wi-Fi router isn’t sufficient. Two or even three might be necessary to get the proper signal to the bedrooms upstairs and the workshop in the garage.

A few years ago this wasn’t even necessary, because there were far fewer devices that needed a wireless connection to work. But now if your signal doesn’t reach the front door, the lock won’t send a video of the mail carrier; if it doesn’t reach the garage, you can’t activate the opener for the neighbor; if it doesn’t reach upstairs, the kids come downstairs to watch TV — and we can’t have that.

A mesh system of multiple devices relaying signals is a natural solution, and one that’s been used for many years in other contexts. Eero was among the first not to create a system but to make a consumer play, albeit at the luxury level, rather like Sonos.

Google got in on the game relatively soon after that with the OnHub and its satellites, but neither company really seemed to crack the code. How many people do you know who have a mesh router system? Very few, I’d wager, likely vanishingly few when compared with ordinary router sales.

It seems clear now that the market wasn’t quite ready for the kind of investment and complexity that mesh networking necessitated. Amazon, however, solves that, because its mesh router will be an Echo, or an Echo Dot, or an Echo Show — all devices that are already found in multiple rooms of the house, and seem very likely to include some kind of mesh protocol in their next update.

It’s hard to say exactly how it will work, since a high-quality router necessarily has features and hardware that let it do its job. Adding these to an Echo product would be non-trivial. But it seems extremely likely that we can expect an Echo Hub or the like, which connects directly to your cable modem (it’s unlikely to perform that duty as well) and performs the usual router duties, while also functioning as an attractive multipurpose Alexa gadget.

That’s already a big step up from the ordinary spiky router. But the fun’s just getting started for Amazon.

Platform play

Apple has powerful synergies in its ecosystems, among which iMessage has to be the strongest. It’s the only reason I use an iPhone now; if Android got access to iMessage, I’d switch tomorrow. But I doubt it ever will, so here I am. Google has that kind of hold on search and advertising — just try to get away. And so on.

Amazon has a death grip on online retail, of course, but its naked thirst for an Amazon-populated smart home has been obvious since it took the smart step to open its Alexa platform up for practically anyone to ship with. The following Alexavalanche brought garbage from all corners of the world, and some good stuff too. But it shipped devices.

Now, any device will work with the forthcoming Echo-Eero hybrids. After all it will function as a perfectly ordinary router in some ways. But Amazon will be putting another layer on that interface specifically with Alexa and other Amazon devices. Imagine how simple the interface will be, how easily you’ll be able to connect and configure new smart home devices — that you bought on Amazon, naturally.

Sure, that non-Alexa baby cam will work, but like Apple’s genius blue and green bubbles, some indicator will make it clear that this device, while perfectly functional, is, well, lacking. A gray, generic device image instead of a bright custom icon or live view from your Amazon camera, perhaps. It’s little things like that that change minds, especially when Amazon is undercutting the competition via subsidized prices.

Note that this applies to expanding the network as well — other Amazon devices (the Dot and its ilk) will likely not only play nice with the hub but will act as range extenders and perform other tasks like file transfers, intercom duty, throwing video, etc. Amazon is establishing a private intranet in your house.

The rich data interplay of smart devices will soon become an important firehose. How much power is being used? How many people are at home and when? What podcasts are being listened to, at what times, and by whom? When did that UPS delivery actually get to the door? Amazon already gets much of this but building a mesh network gives it greater access and allows it to set the rules, in effect. It’s a huge surface area through which to offer services and advertisements, or to preemptively meet users’ needs.

Snooping ain’t easy (or wise)

One thing that deserves a quick mention is the possibility, as it will seem to some, that Amazon will snoop on your internet traffic if you use its router. I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is that it’s not only technically very difficult but very unwise to snoop at that level. Any important traffic going through the router will be encrypted, for one thing. And it wouldn’t be much of an advantage to Amazon anyway. The important data on you is generated by your interactions with Amazon: items you browse, shows you watch, and so on. Snatching random browsing data would be invasive and weird, with very little benefit.

Eero addressed the question directly shortly after the acquisition was announced:

Hi Steve! eero and Amazon take customer privacy very seriously and we will continue to protect it. eero does not track customers’ internet activity and this policy will not change with the acquisition.

— eero support 👋 (@eerosupport) February 11, 2019

Maybe they would have eventually as a last-ditch effort to monetize, but that’s neither here nor there.

Now the bad news. You don’t want Amazon to see your traffic? Too bad! Most of the internet runs on AWS! If Amazon really cared, it could probably do all kinds of bad stuff that way. But again it would be foolish self-sabotage.

Free-for-all

What happens next is an arms race, though it seems to me that Amazon might have already won. Google took its shot and may be once bitten, twice shy; its smart home presence isn’t nearly so large, either. Apple got out of the router game because there’s not much money in it; it won’t care if someone uses an Apple Homepod (what a name) with an Amazon router.

Huawei and Netgear already have Alexa-enabled routers, but they can’t offer the level of deep integration Amazon can; there’s no doubt the latter will reserve many interesting features for its own branded devices.

Linksys, TP-Link, Asus, and other OEMs serving the router space may blow this off to start as a toy, though it seems more likely that they will lean on the specs and utilitarian nature to push it with budget and performance markets, leaving Amazon to dominate a sliver… and hope that sliver doesn’t grow into a wedge.

One place you may see interesting competition is from someone leaning on the privacy angle. Although we’ve established that Amazon isn’t likely to use the device that way, the fear doesn’t have to be justified for it to be taken advantage of in advertising. And anyway there are other features like robust ad blocking and so on that, say, a Mozilla-powered open source router could make a case for.

But it seems likely that by acquiring an advanced but beleaguered startup that was ahead of the market, Amazon will be able to make a quick entry and multiply while the others are still engineering their responses.

Expect specials on Eeros while stock lasts, then a new wave of mesh-enabled Echo-branded devices that are backwards compatible, mega-simple to set up, and more than competitive on price. Now is the time and the living room is the place; Amazon will strike hard and perhaps it will set in motion the end of the router as mere equipment.

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Instagram thinks you want IGTV previews in your home feed

Posted by | Apps, Creators, IGTV, instagram, Mobile, Opinion, Social, Video | No Comments

If you can’t beat or join them… force feed ’em? That appears to be Instagram’s latest strategy for IGTV, which is now being shoved right into Instagram’s main feed, the company announced today. Instagram says that it will now add one-minute IGTV previews to the feed, making it “even easier” to discover and watch content from IGTV.

Uh.

IGTV, you may recall, was launched last year as a way for Instagram to woo creators. With IGTV, creators are able to share long-form videos within the Instagram platform instead of just short-form content to the Feed or Stories.

The videos, before today, could be viewed in Instagram itself by tapping the IGTV icon at the top-right of the screen, or within the separate IGTV standalone app.Instagram’s hope was that IGTV would give the company a means of better competing with larger video sites, like Google’s YouTube or Amazon’s Twitch.

Its users, however, haven’t found IGTV as compelling.

As of last fall, few creators were working on content exclusively for IGTV, and rumor was the viewing audience for IGTV content remained quite small, compared with rivals like Snapchat or Facebook. Many creators just weren’t finding it worth investing additional resources into IGTV, so were repurposing content designed for other platforms, like YouTube or Snapchat.

That means the bigger creators weren’t developing premium content or exclusives for IGTV, but were instead experimenting by replaying the content their fans could find elsewhere. Many are still not even sure what the IGTV audience wants to watch.

IGTV’s standalone app doesn’t seem to have gained much of a following either.

The app today is ranked a lowly No. 228 on the U.S. App Store’s “Photo and Video” top chart. Despite being run by Instagram — an app that topped a billion monthly users last summer, and is currently the No. 1 free app on iOS — fewer are downloading IGTV.

After seeing 1.5 million downloads in its first month last year — largely out of curiosity — the IGTV app today has only grown to 3.5 million total installs worldwide, according to Sensor Tower data. While those may be good numbers for a brand-new startup, for a spin-off from one of the world’s biggest apps, they’re relatively small.Instagram’s new video initiative also represents another shot across the bow of Instagram purists.

As BuzzFeed reporter Katie Notopoulos opined last year, “I’m Sorry To Report Instagram Is Bad Now.” Her point of concern was the impact that Stories had on the Instagram Feed — people were sharing to Stories instead of the Feed, which made the Feed pretty boring. At yet, the Stories content wasn’t good either, having become a firehose of the throwaway posts that didn’t deserve being shared directly on users’ profiles.

On top of all this, it seems the Instagram Feed is now going to be cluttered with IGTV previews. That’s. Just. Great.

Instagram says you’ll see the one-minute previews in the Feed, and can tap on them to turn on the audio. Tap the IGTV icon on the preview and you’ll be able to watch the full version in IGTV. When the video is finished, you’re returned to the Feed. Or, if you want to see more from IGTV, you can swipe up while the video plays to start browsing.

IGTV previews is only one way Instagram has been developing the product to attract more views in recent months. It has also integrated IGTV in Explore, allowed the sharing of IGTV videos to Stories, added the ability to save IGTV Videos and launched IGTV Web Embeds.

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My product launch wishlist for Instagram, Twitter, Uber and more

Posted by | 2018 Year in Review, Apps, instagram, iOS, Lyft, Mobile, Opinion, Pinterest, product design, Snapchat, Social, Spotify, Startups, TC, Twitter, Uber | No Comments

‘Twas the night before Xmas, and all through the house, not a feature was stirring from the designer’s mouse . . . Not Twitter! Not Uber, Not Apple or Pinterest! On Facebook! On Snapchat! On Lyft or on Insta! . . . From the sidelines I ask you to flex your code’s might. Happy Xmas to all if you make these apps right.

Instagram

See More Like This – A button on feed posts that when tapped inserts a burst of similar posts before the timeline continues. Want to see more fashion, sunsets, selfies, food porn, pets, or Boomerangs? Instagram’s machine vision technology and metadata would gather them from people you follow and give you a dose. You shouldn’t have to work through search, hashtags, or the Explore page, nor permanently change your feed by following new accounts. Pinterest briefly had this feature (and should bring it back) but it’d work better on Insta.

Web DMs Instagram’s messaging feature has become the defacto place for sharing memes and trash talk about people’s photos, but it’s stuck on mobile. For all the college kids and entry-level office workers out there, this would make being stuck on laptops all day much more fun. Plus, youth culture truthsayer Taylor Lorenz wants Instagram web DMs too.

Upload Quality Indicator – Try to post a Story video or Boomerang from a crummy internet connection and they turn out a blurry mess. Instagram should warn us if our signal strength is low compared to what we usually have (since some places it’s always mediocre) and either recommend we wait for Wi-Fi, or post a low-res copy that’s replaced by the high-res version when possible.

Oh, and if new VP of product Vishal Shah is listening, I’d also like Bitmoji-style avatars and a better way to discover accounts that shows a selection of their recent posts plus their bio, instead of just one post and no context in Explore which is better for discovering content.

Twitter

DM Search – Ummm, this is pretty straightforward. It’s absurd that you can’t even search DMs by person, let alone keyword. Twitter knows messaging is a big thing on mobile right? And DMs are one of the most powerful ways to get in contact with mid-level public figures and journalists. PS: My DMs are open if you’ve got a news tip — @JoshConstine.

Unfollow Suggestions – Social networks are obsessed with getting us to follow more people, but do a terrible job of helping us clean up our feeds. With Twitter bringing back the option to see a chronological feed, we need unfollow suggestions more than ever. It should analyze who I follow but never click, fave, reply to, retweet, or even slow down to read and ask if I want to nix them. I asked for this 5 years ago and the problem has only gotten worse. Since people feel like their feeds are already overflowing, they’re stingy with following new people. That’s partly why you see accounts get only a handful of new followers when their tweets go viral and are seen by millions. I recently had a tweet with 1.7 million impressions and 18,000 Likes that drove just 11 follows. Yes I know that’s a self-own.

Analytics Benchmarks – If Twitter wants to improve conversation quality, it should teach us what works. Twitter offers analytics about each of your tweets, but not in context of your other posts. Did this drive more or fewer link clicks or follows than my typical tweet? That kind of info could guide users to create more compelling content.

Facebook

(Obviously we could get into Facebook’s myriad problems here. A less sensationalized feed that doesn’t reward exaggerated claims would top my list. Hopefully its plan to downrank “borderline content” that almost violates its policies will help when it rolls out.)

Batched Notifications – Facebook sends way too many notifications. Some are downright useless and should be eliminated. “14 friends responded to events happening tomorrow”? “Someone’s fundraiser is half way to its goal?” Get that shit out of here. But there are other notifications I want to see but that aren’t urgent nor crucial to know about individually. Facebook should let us decide to batch notifications so we’d only get one of a certain type every 12 or 24 hours, or only when a certain number of similar ones are triggered. I’d love a digest of posts to my Groups or Events from the past day rather than every time someone opens their mouth.

I so don’t care

Notifications In The “Time Well Spent” Feature – Facebook tells you how many minutes you spent on it each day over the past week and on average, but my total time on Facebook matters less to me than how often it interrupts my life with push notifications. The “Your Time On Facebook” feature should show how many notifications of each type I’ve received, which ones I actually opened, and let me turn off or batch the ones I want fewer of.

Oh, and for Will Cathcart, Facebook’s VP of apps, can I also get proper syncing so I don’t rewatch the same Stories on Instagram and Facebook, the ability to invite people to Events on mobile based on past invite lists of those I’ve hosted or attended, and the See More Like This feature I recommended for Instagram?

Uber/Lyft/Ridesharing

“Quiet Ride” Button – Sometimes you’re just not in the mood for small talk. Had a rough day, need to get work done, or want to just zone out? Ridesharing apps should offer a request for a quiet ride that if the driver allows with a preset and accepts before you get in, you pay them an extra dollar (or get it free as a loyalty perk), and you get ferried to your destination without unnecessary conversation. I get that it’s a bit dehumanizing for the driver, but I’d bet some would happily take a little extra cash for the courtesy.

“I Need More Time” Button – Sometimes you overestimate the ETA and suddenly your car is arriving before you’re ready to leave. Instead of cancelling and rebooking a few minutes later, frantically rushing so you don’t miss your window and get smacked with a no-show fee, or making the driver wait while they and the company aren’t getting paid, Uber, Lyft, and the rest should offer the “I Need More Time” button that simply rebooks you a car that’s a little further away.

Spotify/Music Streaming Apps

Scan My Collection – I wish I could just take photos of the album covers, spines, or even discs of my CD or record collection and have them instantly added to a playlist or folder. It’s kind of sad that after lifetimes of collecting physical music, most of it now sits on a shelf and we forget to play what we used to love. Music apps want more data on what we like, and it’s just sitting there gathering dust. There’s obviously some fun viral potential here too. Let me share what’s my most embarrassing CD. For me, it’s my dual copies of Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other” because I played the first one so much it got scratched.

Friends Weekly Spotify ditched its in-app messaging, third-party app platform, and other ways to discover music so its playlists would decide what becomes a hit in order to exert leverage over the record labels to negotiate better deals. But music discovery is inherently social and the desktop little ticker of what friends are playing on doesn’t cut it. Spotify should let me choose to recommend my new favorite song or agree to let it share what I’ve recently played most, and put those into a Discover Weekly-style social playlist of what friends are listening to.

Snapchat

Growth – I’m sorry, I had to.

Bulk Export Memories – But seriously, Snapchat is shrinking. That’s worrisome because some users’ photos and videos are trapped on its Memories cloud hosting feature that’s supposed to help free up space on your phone. But there’s no bulk export option, meaning it could take hours of saving shots one at a time to your camera roll if you needed to get off of Snapchat, if for example it was shutting down, or got acquired, or you’re just bored of it.

Add-On Cameras – Snapchat’s Spectacles are actually pretty neat for recording first-person or underwater shots in a circular format. But otherwise they don’t do much more, and in some ways do much less, than your phone’s camera and are a long way from being a Magic Leap competitor. That’s why if Snapchat really wants to become a “Camera Company”, it should build sleek add-on cameras that augment our phone’s hardware. Snap previously explored selling a 360-camera but never launched one. A little Giroptic iO-style 360 lens that attaches to your phone’s charging port could let you capture a new kind of content that really makes people feel like they’re there with you. An Aukey Aura-style zoom lens attachment that easily fits in your pocket unlike a DSLR could also be a hit

iOS

Switch Wi-Fi/Bluetooth From Control Center – I thought the whole point of Control Center was one touch access, but I can only turn on or off the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It’s silly having to dig into the Settings menu to switch to a different Wi-Fi network or Bluetooth device, especially as we interact with more and more of them. Control Center should unfurl a menu of networks or devices you can choose from.

Shoot GIFs – Live Photos are a clumsy proprietary format. Instagram’s Boomerang nailed what we want out of live action GIFs and we should be able to shoot them straight from the iOS camera and export them as actual GIFs that can be used across the web. Give us some extra GIF settings and iPhones could have a new reason for teens to choose them over Androids.

Gradual Alarms – Anyone else have a heart attack whenever they hear their phone’s Alarm Clock ringtone? I know I do because I leave my alarms on so loud that I’ll never miss them, but end up being rudely shocked awake. A setting that gradually increases the volume of the iOS Alarm Clock every 15 seconds or minute so I can be gently arisen unless I refuse to get up.

Maybe some of these apply to Android, but I wouldn’t know because I’m a filthy casual iPhoner. Send me your Android suggestions, as well as what else you want to see added to your favorite apps.

[Image Credit: Hanson Inc]

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How Juul made vaping viral to become worth a dirty $38 billion

Posted by | e-cigarettes, eCommerce, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Health, juul, nicotine, Opinion, Policy, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC, tobacco, vaporizers | No Comments

A Juul is not a cigarette. It’s much easier than that. Through devilishly slick product design I’ll discuss here, the startup has massively lowered the barrier to getting hooked on nicotine. Juul has dismantled every deterrent to taking a puff.

The result is both a new $38 billion valuation thanks to a $12.8 billion investment from Marlboro Cigarettes-maker Altria this week, and an explosion in popularity of vaping amongst teenagers and the rest of the population. Game recognize game, and Altria’s game is nicotine addiction. It knows it’s been one-upped by Juul’s tactics, so it’s hedged its own success by handing the startup over a tenth of the public corporation’s market cap in cash.

Juul argues it can help people switch from obviously dangerous smoking to supposedly healthier vaping. But in reality, the tiny aluminum device helps people switch from nothing to vaping…which can lead some to start smoking the real thing. A study found it causes more people to pick up cigarettes than put them down.

Photographer: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

How fast has Juul swept the nation? Nielsen says it controls 75 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market up from 27 percent in September last year. In the year since then, the CDC says the percentage of high school students who’ve used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days has grown 75 percent. That’s 3 million teens or roughly 20 percent of all high school kids. CNBC reports that Juul 2018 revenue could be around $1.5 billion.

The health consequences aside, Juul makes it radically simple to pick up a lifelong vice. Parents, regulators, and potential vapers need to understand why Juul works so well if they’ll have any hope of suppressing its temptations.

Shareable

It’s tough to try a cigarette for the first time. The heat and smoke burn your throat. The taste is harsh and overwhelming. The smell coats your fingers and clothes, marking you as smoker. There’s pressure to smoke a whole one lest you waste the tobacco. Even if you want to try a friend’s, they have to ignite one first. And unlike bigger box mod vaporizers where you customize the temperature and e-juice, Juul doesn’t make you look like some dorky hardcore vapelord.

Juul is much more gentle on your throat. The taste is more mild and can be masked with flavors. The vapor doesn’t stain you with a smell as quickly. You can try just a single puff from a friend’s at a bar or during a smoking break with no pressure to inhale more. The elegant, discrete form factor doesn’t brand you as a serious vape users. It’s casual. Yet the public gesture and clouds people exhale are still eye catching enough to trigger the questions, “What’s that? Can I try?” There’s a whole other article to be written about how Juul memes and Instagram Stories that glamorized the nicotine dispensers contributed to the device’s spread.

And perhaps most insidiously, vaping seems healthier. A lifetime of anti-smoking ads and warning labels drilled the dangers into our heads. But how much harm could a little vapor do?

A friend who had never smoked tells me they burn through a full Juul pod per day now. Someone got him to try a single puff at a nightclub. Soon he was asking for drag off of strangers’ Juuls. Then he bought one and never looked back. He’d been around cigarettes at parties his whole life but never got into them. Juul made it too effortless to resist.

Concealable

Lighting up a cigarette is a garish activity prohibited in many places. Not so with discretely sipping from a Juul.

Cigarettes often aren’t allowed to be smoked inside. Hiding it is no easy feat and can get you kicked out. You need to have a lighter and play with fire to get one started. They can get crushed or damp in your pocket. The burning tip makes them unruly in tight quarters, and the bud or falling ash can damage clothing and make a mess. You smoke a cigarette because you really want to smoke a cigarette.

Public establishments are still figuring out how to handle Juuls and other vaporizers. Many places that ban smoking don’t explicitly do the same for vaping. The less stinky vapor and more discrete motion makes it easy to hide. Beyond airplanes, you could probably play dumb and say you didn’t know the rules if you did get caught. The metal stick is hard to break. You won’t singe anyone. There’s no mess, need for an ashtray, or holes in your jackets or couches.

As long as your battery is charged, there’s no need for extra equipment and you won’t draw attention like with a lighter. Battery life is a major concern for heavy Juulers that smokers don’t have worry about, but I know people who now carry a giant portable charger just to keep their Juul alive. But there’s also a network effect that’s developing. Similar to iPhone cords, Juuls are becoming common enough that you can often conveniently borrow a battery stick or charger from another user. 

And again, the modular ability to take as few or as many puffs as you want lets you absent-mindedly Juul at any moment. At your desk, on the dance floor, as you drive, or even in bed. A friend’s nieces and nephews say that they see fellow teens Juul in class by concealing it in the cuff of their sleeve. No kid would be so brazen as to try smoke in cigarette in the middle of a math lesson.

Distributable

Gillette pioneered the brilliant razor and blade business model. Buy the sometimes-discounted razor, and you’re compelled to keep buying the expensive proprietary blades. Dollar Shave Club leveled up the strategy by offering a subscription that delivers the consumable blades to your door. Juul combines both with a product that’s physically addictive.

When you finish a pack of cigarettes, you could be done smoking. There’s nothing left. But with Juul you’ve still got the $35 battery pack when you finish vaping a pod. There’s a sunk cost fallacy goading you to keep buying the pods to get the most out of your investment and stay locked into the Juul ecosystem.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

One of Juul’s sole virality disadvantages compared to cigarettes is that they’re not as ubiquitously available. Some stores that sells cigs just don’t carry them yet. But more and more shops are picking them up, which will continue with Altria’s help. And Juul offers an “auto-ship” delivery option that knocks $2 off the $16 pack of four pods so you don’t even have to think about buying more. Catch the urge to quit? Well you’ve got pods on the way so you might as well use them. Whether due to regulation or a lack of innovation, I couldn’t find subscription delivery options for traditional cigarettes.

And for minors that want to buy Juuls or Juul pods illegally, their tiny size makes them easy to smuggle and resell. A recent South Park episode featured warring syndicates of fourth-graders selling Juul pods to even younger kids.

Dishonorable

Juul co-founder James Monsees told the San Jose Mercury News that “The first phase is proving the value and creating a product that makes cigarettes obsolete.” But notice he didn’t say Juul wants to make nicotine obsolete or reduce the number of people addicted to it.

Juul co-founder James Monsees

If Juul actually cared about fighting addiction, it’d offer a regimen for weaning yourself off of nicotine. Yet it doesn’t sell low-dose or no-dose pods that could help people quit entirely. In the US it only sells 5% and 3% nicotine versions. It does make 1.7% pods for foreign markets like Israel where that’s the maximum legal strengths, though refuses to sell them in the States. Along with taking over $12 billion from one of the largest cigarette companies, that makes the mission statement ring hollow.

Juul is the death stick business as usual, but strengthened by the product design and virality typically reserved for Apple and Facebook.

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Samsung’s dual-screen folding phone is very strange and probably doomed

Posted by | foldable, Gadgets, hardware, Opinion, Samsung | No Comments

Let me just say that I love the idea of a folding phone/tablet device. I was a Courier fanboy when Microsoft floated that intriguing but abortive concept device, and I’m all for unique form factors and things that bend. But Samsung’s first real shot at a folding device is inexplicable and probably dead on arrival. I’d like to congratulate the company for trying something new, but this one needed a little more time in the oven.

I haven’t used it, of course, so this is just my uninformed opinion (provided for your edification). But this device is really weird, and not in a good way. It’s a really thick phone with big bezels around a small screen that opens up into a small tablet. No one wants that!

Think about it. Why do you want a big screen?

If it’s for media, like most people, consider that nearly all that media is widescreen now, either horizontal (YouTube and Netflix) or vertical (Instagram and Facebook). You can switch between these views at will extremely easily. Now consider that because of basic geometry, the “big” screen inside this device will likely not be able to show that media much, if any, larger than the screen on the front!

(Well, in this device’s case, maybe a little, but only because that front display’s bezel really is huge. Why do you think they turned the lights off? Look where the notification bar is!)

It’s like putting two of the tall screens next to each other. You end up with one twice as wide, but that’s pretty much what you get if you put the phone on its side. All you gain with the big screen is a whole lot of letterboxing or windowboxing. Oh, and probably about three quarters of an inch of thickness and half a pound of weight. This thing is going to be a beast.

Power users may also want a big screen for productivity: email and document handling and such is great on a big device like a Galaxy Note. Here then is opportunity for a folding tablet to excel (so to speak). You can just plain fit more words and charts and controls on there. Great! But if the phone is geared toward power users, why even have the small screen on the front anyway if any time that user wants to engage with the phone they will “open” it up? For quick responses or dismissing notifications, maybe, but who would really want that? That experience will always be inferior to the one the entire device is designed around.

I would welcome a phone that was only a book-style big internal screen, and I don’t think it would be a bother to flip it open when you want to use it. Lots of people with giant phones keep book-like covers on their devices anyway! It would be great to be able to use those square inches for the display rather than credit card slots or something.

The Courier had tons of great ideas on how to use two screens.

There are also creative ways to use the screen: left and right halves are different apps; top half is compose and bottom is keyboard; left half is inbox and right half is content; top half is media and bottom is controls and comments. Those sprang to mind faster than I could type them.

On the other hand, I can’t think of any way that a “front” display could meaningfully interact with or enhance a secondary (or is it primary?) display that will never be simultaneously visible. Presumably you’ll use one or the other at any given time, meaning you literally can’t engage the entire capability of the device.

You know what would be cool? A device like this that also used the bezel display we’ve seen on existing Galaxy devices. How cool would it be to have your phone closed like a book, but with an always-on notification strip (or two!) on the lip, telling you battery, messages and so on? And maybe if you tapped once the device would automatically pop open physically! That would be amazing! And Samsung is absolutely the company that I’d say would make it.

Instead, they made this thing.

It’s disappointing to me not just because I don’t like the device as they’ve designed it, but because I think the inevitable failure of the phone will cool industry ambition regarding unique devices like it. That’s wrong, though! People want cool new things. But they also want them to make sense.

I’m looking forward to how this technology plays out, and I fully expect to own a folding phone some time in the next few years. But this first device seems to me like a major misstep, and one that will set back that flexible future rather than advance it.

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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey falls far short of its own wondrous sandbox

Posted by | Gaming, Opinion, TC | No Comments

It’s hard to imagine a better demonstration of the state of AAA gaming today than Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a game where the whole of the wine-dark Classical Aegean is available for you to ply with your oars — but which operates according to a risible, cartoonish video game logic that seems, if possible, even more anachronistic. Should you play it? Absolutely.

(Very minor spoilers ahead.)

In case you haven’t been following the Assassin’s Creed… well, odyssey, the last few years, the game took some time off following the lavishly produced but ambivalently received Unity and Syndicate games, set in revolutionary Paris and Victorian London, respectively. The series, critics said, was wearing itself a bit thin despite the fabulous set dressing.

You can imagine everyone’s surprise when AC returned in Origins, set in an enormous swathe of ancient Egypt. New systems nudged the game from the stealth action of its roots toward the expansive, open-world RPG currently in vogue. It was a little rough around the edges, but the scale was welcome, as was the shift away from the increasingly turgid Assassins versus Templars secret society scramble.

The news that the next game would take place in Ancient Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War thrilled me to no end. I’ve always been a fan of the Classical era, Homer and Herodotus and Periclean Athens and all that. I’ll also admit to an unironic love of “300” and the story of Leonidas’s last stand — the graphic novel, not the movie, which was awful.

Are you kidding me? Look at this.

Here, then was that world brought to life with all the fidelity that Ubisoft’s hundreds of artists and modelers could bring, with a narrative combining secret societies with classical warfare, historical figures and high-seas adventure (I loved the pirate-themed AC Black Flag). On paper this is the greatest game ever to grace the screen.

And in a way, it is. Ubisoft’s rendering of the Classical world is so beautiful, so massive, so obviously a labor of love and skill and intensive research that I have spent much of my time in the game simply gawking.

The costumes! The statues! The landscapes! The light! It’s a feast of details at every location, from the idyllic backwater of Kephallonia, where your hero begins their story, to the sprawling, bustling Athens just approaching the zenith of its glory. I (that is to say, my character) walked past the Theatre of Dionysus in its construction, which I have visited in person (now ruined and restored, of course), and on up to the Acropolis, where I scaled the Parthenon and looked out over the tiled roofs under one of which, for all I know, I may find Plato sitting and writing The Symposium.

Seriously.

Then I meander to the harbor, board my black ship and split the seas to explore any of the islands in the entire Aegean — any of them. The whole Aegean! Well, most of it, anyway. Enough that you won’t ask for more. Here be mythical creatures, political machinations, stormy seas and sunny shanties.

The world that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey inhabits, I feel confident in saying, is the largest and most impressive that I have encountered, with special credit given for having to reflect reality to a certain extent, which is not a limitation shared by its eminent competition in the open-world genre, like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild.

In my opinion, both as a gamer and a lover of antiquity, it is worth the price of admission to experience this world, to see and hear Ancient Greece in a way that was heretofore impossible, and simply to revel in the almost inconceivable level of craft that was so obviously put into this mind-boggling world.

And now, having made that judgment, I will proceed to trash the game I just recommended for about two thousand words.

The game itself

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the game itself, is embarrassing to play. The characters you interact with and the minute-by-minute gameplay are so uneven that I truly believe that Ubisoft simply didn’t have time to adequately play-test it. It feels like the game was just too big to run through once they’d made it so they just shipped. If someone from Ubisoft were sitting next to me as I played, I would expect them to be cringing constantly.

It’s an incredibly lopsided collection of old and new ideas, balanced and unbalanced systems, good and bad UI, intuitive and baffling combat, beautiful and repulsive graphics, and excellent and laughable voice acting. I haven’t finished the game, let alone all the side quests, but although I expect to encounter more good things as I go, the bad things were apparent pretty much from the first few minutes and haven’t abated.

The AI of the people in this game seems to have regressed 10 years to a simpler age. They are truly idiots all, from people on the street to elite soldiers.

Good old Adrastos the Logician, engaging in hand to hand combat.

One of the first things that happened when I got my horse and learned to have it follow a road was that it mowed down a few laborers. This, I found, would happen everywhere I went: every character in the game walks right in the center of the road and dives madly out of your way as you canter down it, screaming and cursing. Wild animals cluttered the road, and reacted confusedly as I approached, throwing themselves under the hooves of my steed, Phobos.

This was my first taste of what would become a theme. Why, I asked myself, wouldn’t these people just walk on the side of the road? The developers clearly accounted for horses riding down it, and have behaviors and barks for when that happens. But it’s so weird, so unrealistic, so video gamey. Surely in this lovingly rendered world it is not unusual for a horse to run down a mountain road? Why then do they behave in this way? Because the people were not created intelligently — it’s as simple as that. None of them.

I once emptied a military camp of guards and then set about looting the place. A woman was being held captive in a cage — not an uncommon thing to find — so I let her out. As she escaped, thanking me, I turned to take the items out of a nearby chest. The woman, mid-escape, screamed with rage at me for this theft, snatching a nearby spear and rushed me in righteous anger. What?

Perhaps I can’t expect every peasant to be a genius, but guards too (of all ranks) are unbelievably dense. They will step over the corpses of their fellow men to get to their post and not say a word. They will fail to hear the clashing of swords, or not notice a guy being violently flipped over and disemboweled, a matter of feet away. They will follow you one by one around corners where you can dispatch them individually and fail to see or care about the ever-widening pool of blood. They are as dumb as the dumbest guards from games that came out 10 years ago.

“Mother of Spiders”

Not much better are the much-ballyhooed mercenaries, who come after you if you do too many bad things. It’s not really clear what the bad things are, but eventually you’ll see a red helmet icon on your map and know you’ve been naughty. They’re basically guards with special weapons and a few characteristics like “weak to fire” or “takes 20 percent less ranged damage.” Technically they have backstories but you have to drill down to their description to find them, and by the time you’re doing that you’ve probably already killed them. You can recruit them for your ship, like you can recruit anyone, but they generally amount to stat bonuses with funny names like Demos the Drunk. He didn’t act drunk — just had a spear I wanted, so I took him out. I mean, the variation is welcome, but it’s nothing like, for example, the nemesis system in the Mordor series.

Combat is a real mix. You are no longer a fragile assassin who can be killed from a few good hits, but a powerful warrior with supernatural skills like instant mid-battle heals and teleportation. This is combat between equals, but your equals are generally stiff types with two or three attacks they repeat over and over, glowing a bright red or gold before doing so.

A slippery-feeling dodge system zips you through these attacks, or you can parry some of them, then slash away at your attacker. Some guards or targets, especially if they’re a level or two above you, will take minutes of patient slashing before they drop. I was sent on a hunt to kill a legendary boar that I gave up on after a couple minutes because I had only taken its health down by a quarter while not being hit myself.

Compared with other action RPGs it’s pretty listless stuff. More appealing is the stealth, which the fools of guards are obviously there to encourage, since you can empty a camp or fort of its occupants systematically and it can be quite satisfying. But with the perfect knowledge effected by scouting such a place with your eagle’s x-ray vision, it feels more like bullying than anything.

The Peloponnesian War is going on around you, though you’d be hard-pressed to notice most of the time. You don’t exactly take sides, since whatever area you’re in, your enemies are the ones in control. You can weaken the faction in power by various means and force a battle (a melee in which the combat, now against dozens, feels frustratingly sloppy), but ultimately the guards and camps feel much the same as one another — Spartans have different helmets from Athenians.

I thought at first this would be deeper than it is. I had looted a variety of armor pieces, several of which suggested I could use them to blend in among the Athenians whom I was at that moment working to undermine. So I donned them and headed to the nearest camp, hoping to walk about unsuspected, Hitman-style, sowing chaos by releasing caged animals and setting fire to supplies. Nope: I was immediately attacked on approaching the gate, before I’d even come in or done anything suspicious. The guard that had never seen me before apparently recognized me as the bloodthirsty mercenary who’d wiped out a camp a mile or so away, minutes earlier. No espionage for me.

It’s never really clear who you’re fighting or why, because the locations and people are just names. It doesn’t matter if they’re Athenian or Spartan, just that they’re the ones between you and the treasure chest. I guess that’s the life of a mercenary, but it doesn’t make you care a lot.

That was a quest?

The RPG elements, from gear to abilities, have almost no integration with the game itself. From the very beginning you can see your whole skill tree, including things involving the magic spear that you don’t yet know is magic. You gain new abilities and upgrade your ship not through interesting quests or meeting interesting people, but simply by spending points and resources.

When your ship’s captain says the hull ought to be upgraded, it’s not the start of a quest to find some cool big trees or visit his hometown where he left his ship-building tools and pals. It’s literally just a reminder to stock up on wood and iron and press the button to upgrade in the pause screen.

When you meet a talented carpenter whose brother is being held by bandits, it isn’t a quest to reunite these guys for a power team that enables a ship repair superpower. He just turns out to be a regular guy who increases your hull strength by a couple of percentage points.

Quests, talked up ahead of release as being fully voiced and emergent, as though you’re receiving a request from help from a needy merchant or the like, are nothing of the sort. Every one I’ve encountered so far has been a variant of: Kill these five wolves specifically. Kill these three Spartan elite guards specifically. Kill these bandits. Sink these ships.

Each has a flimsy justification (they’re blocking the road; they stole money from me) and are often atrociously acted. In one I found the quest giver asleep; he obligingly woke me up to say he wanted to take the fight to some bandits who had been demanding money from him. As soon as I agreed, those very bandits appeared not 10 feet away and instantly ran him through. Quest failed.

There are deeper side quests, to be sure. But the hundreds of quests you’ll see on quest boards or appearing randomly in the wild are like this, and rarely give more than a spritz of XP and gold. Sometimes you can recruit the quest-giver, though they might or might not be helpful on your crew.

I wish that they had taken the time and effort that went into creating 20 or 30 of these quests and made one single side quest with multiple steps, characters that mattered a bit, and provided substantial rewards like a new ability for your ship.

Even main story quests, such as the targets you’ll be taking on, can be disappointingly shallow. You’re supposed to be following threads and clues, but several are just handed to you: Here’s some lady. Here’s her exact location. Go kill her. No dialogue, no footwork, no alternatives. Stab this person and take their shiny thing. Shouldn’t I at least try to get some information out of her? Why isn’t there even a death cut scene like in so many of the other games?

The writing is hit and miss. The main story and its immediate side quests are fine — I’m perhaps 25 hours in and I’m interested to see where it’s going, even if it’s not particularly surprising. And it helps that the writing and voices for the main characters are leaps and bounds above the rest.

I chose to play as Kassandra, as opposed to Alexios, for a lot of reasons. And I love her. She’s well-acted, her writing is funny and occasionally realistic, and I like that she is indistinguishable from her male alternative in every way. Your companions, especially Herodotos and your exuberant captain Barnabas, are great.

Yet other characters are ridiculous: badly written, worse acted. Even major ones. I remember one exchange with a soon-to-be-target who was pressuring me to torture some poor sap. His voice acting was so bad, especially compared to his interlocutor Kassandra’s, that I was laughing out loud. He was far from the only example of this.

Games like The Witcher 3 have spoiled us on the quality of the writing and quests, but that should be a new bar to meet, not a high-water point. It’s sad that Ubisoft hasn’t upped its game here, so to speak; it feels like 90 percent of the game I’ve played so far is purely mechanical, and even at its best it sits like a layer of butter spread thinly across an enormous Greek piece of toast. But what toast!

It’s tantalizing to see how good a game like this could be, only to be let down again and again with elements that would feel out of date 10 years ago. I’m having a great time when I’m not shaking my head at it, and enjoying the scenery when I’m not being attacked by one of the evidently 50,000 bears out for my blood in the Classical world.

As I wrote earlier, to me it is worth buying just for the good parts. But as someone who cares about games and loves the idea of this one, I can’t help but observe how dated and baffling it is at the same time. It doesn’t live up to the world it was created to inhabit, but that world is practically a complete game in itself, and one that I immediately loved.

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Instagram denies it’s building Regramming. Here’s why it’d be a disaster

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, instagram, Instagram algorithm, Mobile, Opinion, Social, TC | No Comments

Instagram tells me Regramming, or the ability to instantly repost someone else’s feed post to your followers like a retweet, is “not happening”, not being built, and not being tested. And that’s good news for all Instagrammers. The denial comes after it initially issued a “no comment” to The Verge’s Casey Newton, who published that he’d seen screenshots of a native Instagram resharing sent to him by a source.

Regramming would be a fundamental shift in how Instagram works, not necessarily in terms of functionality, but in terms of the accepted norms of what and how to post. You could always screenshot, cite the original creator, and post. But Instagram has always been about sharing your window to the world — what you’ve lived and seen. Regramming would legitimize suddenly assuming someone else’s eyes.

The result would be that users couldn’t trust that when they follow someone, that’s whose vision would appear in their feed. Instagram would feel a lot more random and unpredictable. And it’d become more like its big brother Facebook whose News Feed has waned in popularity – susceptible to viral clickbait bullshit, vulnerable to foreign misinformation campaigns, and worst of all, impersonal.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Newton’s report suggested Instagram reposts would appear under the profile picture of the original sharer, and regrams could be regrammed once more in turn, showing a stack of both profile thumbnails of who previously shared it. That would at least prevent massive chains of reposts turning posts into all-consuming feed bombs.

Regramming could certainly widen what appears in your feed, which some might consider more interesting. It could spur growth by creating a much easier way for users to share in feed, especially if they don’t live a glamorous life themself. I can see a case for this being a feature for businesses only, which are already impersonal and act as curators. And Instagram’s algorithm could hide the least engaging regrams.

These benefits are why Instagram has internally considered building regramming for years. CEO Kevin Systrom told Wired last year “We debate the re-share thing a lot . . . But really that decision is about keeping your feed focused on the people you know rather than the people you know finding other stuff for you to see. And I think that is more of a testament of our focus on authenticity.”

See, right now, Instagram profiles are cohesive. You can easily get a feel for what someone posts and make an educated decision about whether to follow them from a quick glance at their grid. What they share reflects on them, so they’re cautious and deliberate. Everyone is putting on a show for Likes, so maybe it’s not quite ‘authentic’, but at least the content is personal. Regramming would make it impossible to tell what someone would post next, and put your feed at the mercy of their impulses without the requisite accountability. If they regram something lame, ugly, or annoying, it’s the original author who’d be blamed.

Instagram already offers a demand release valve in the form of re-sharing posts to your Story as stickers

Instagram already has a release valve for demand for regramming in the form of the ability to turn people’s public feed posts into Stickers you can paste into your Story. Launched in May, you can add your commentary, complimenting on dunking on the author. There, regrams are ephemeral, and your followers have to pull them out of their Stories tray rather than having them force fed via the feed. Effectively, you can reshare others’ content, but not make it a central facet of Instagram or emblem of your identity. And if you want to just make sure a few friends see something awesome you’ve discovered, you can send them people’s feed posts as Direct messages.

Making it much easier to repost to your feed instead of sharing something original could turn Instagram into an echo chamber. It’d turn Instagram even more into a popularity contest, with users jockeying for viral distribution and a chance to plug their SoundCloud mixtapes like on Twitter. Personal self-expression would be overshadowed even further by people playing to the peanut gallery. Businesses might get lazy rather than finding their own styles. If you want to discover something new and unexpected, there’s a whole Explore page full of it.

Newton is a great reporter, and I suspect the screenshots he saw were real, but I think Instagram should have given him the firm denial right away. My guess is that it wanted to give its standard no comment because if it always outright denies inaccurate rumors and speculation, that means journalists can assume they’re right when it does “no comment.”

But once Newton published his report, backlash quickly mounted about how regramming could ruin Instagram. Rather than leaving users worried, confused, and constantly asking when the feature would launch and how it would work, the company decided to issue firm denials after the fact. It became worth diverging from its PR playbook. Maybe it had already chosen to scrap its regramming prototype, maybe the screenshots were just of an early mock-up never meant to be seriously considered, or maybe it hadn’t actually finalized that decision to abort until the public weighed in against the feature yesterday.

In any case, introducing regramming would risk an unforced error. The elemental switch from chronological to the algorithmic feed, while criticized, was critical to Instagram being able to show the best of the massive influx of content. Instagram would eventually break without it. There’s no corresponding urgency to fix what ain’t broke when it comes to not allowing regramming.

Instagram is already growing like crazy. It just hit a billion monthly users. Stories now has 400 million daily users, and that feature is growing six times faster than Snapchat as a whole. The app is utterly dominant in the photo and short video sharing world. Regramming would be an unnecessary gamble.

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