Rush for instant hits on consoles being kicked into touch by long term visibility on iOS, reckons Zee-3's Ste Pickford

Apple working from the right blueprint

Rush for instant hits on consoles being kicked into touch by long term visibility on iOS, reckons Zee-3's Ste Pickford

It's one of Apple's worst kept secrets: at some undetermined point in the future, Cook and co. are going to make a play for your living room.

Many commentators believe iOS 5's AirPlay Mirroring – which will allow iPhone 4S users to stream games to their television via Apple TV – is an attempt to lay the foundations for a fully fledged app assault on the home console market.

But while taking on Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony might seem like a battle even Apple would have a hard time winning, Zee-3's Ste Pickford would welcome the giant's influence on the console market.

We caught up with Ste to ask why developers working on Xbox 360 and PS3 would benefit from the Apple approach.

PocketGamer: The update to Game Center looks set to import more Xbox Live-style features. How do you think this will increase user engagement? Ste Pickford: As brand-new iOS developers, who implemented Game Center quite late in the development of our first iOS game, we got the strong feeling from the pre-iOS 5 Game Center that it just wasn't finished.

We implemented it mainly for the online leaderboards, which are essential for a score based game like Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint, and they worked - just about - but so much about it felt half-hearted and at alpha stage.

It seemed very messy and cludgy, and a bit of an afterthought in terms of its integration with the rest of iOS, so we didn't look at doing much beyond leaderboards and achievements.

I'll confess we've not been closely following all the details of iOS 5. We both still use 3G phones without Game Center, so it's not in our face every day as we use our devices, and we've mainly been focused on in-game improvements to Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint, and new product ideas.

For that reason we've not been on the iOS5 beta, so it's as new to us as it is to most users.

Xbox Live is the gold-standard for online services, and Microsoft got pretty much everything right from a user's point of view - with the possible exception of charging for gold membership - so anything Apple do to make Game Center closer to Xbox Live, without charging, is going to be an improvement.

How do you think its game recommendations will change the promotional opportunities open to you?

Game recommendations and better visibility of what other people are playing will only help a game like Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint.

John and I have always made games that are slightly unusual and different, but which capture the imagination of players who stick with them and play them for a long, long time.

We suffered when we made retail console game, as console sales were all about maximising sales in the first week, or the launch window. The successful games were the ones that were instant and obvious, that people 'got' right away - hence the endless succession of sequels and clones in the mainstream console world.

We made games like Wetrix which were never going to be instant hits, but which people played for months and months, and recommended to their friends.

We had brilliant word of mouth, but with our publisher only caring about launch window sales, our massive 'long tail' of word-of-mouth sales was either sucked up by pre-owned copies, or users were left unable to buy a game that they'd been recommended.

We used to get endless emails at Zed Two from people asking where they could buy Wetrix, and in the end we had to point them at piracy or abandonware websites, as that was the only way to get hold of the game.

Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint is the type of game people play for a long time, and rave to their friends about, so without the ability to spend a lot of money on marketing or being fortunate enough to have our game promoted by Apple, then improved visibility through recommendations and seeing what other people are playing will only help a high quality game like ours.

Given AirPlay Mirroring requires Apple TV to function, do you see it playing a major role in releases on iOS 5, or is it a first step towards acclimatising iOS users to TV-based play?

There's a lot of talk amongst developers about the future of TV-based gaming being something like an Apple TV or Google TV box, with a phone or tablet as controller, and this setup replacing bespoke consoles.

I'm personally not sure, as I think the lack of a proper controller is currently a big problem to be addressed before consoles can be replaced, and obviously hardly anyone has an Apple TV box yet.

But yeah, I think your question is spot on, and it's a first step towards iOS - and maybe Android - being the basis of TV-based gaming in the future.

Aside from price of games, the big problem that the console manufacturers have is that their 'closed' development environment will have to compete with the 'open' environments encouraged by Apple and Google.

Experienced and creative developers like John and I can't make original console games any more - we're not allowed as indies to make games on those platforms without ridiculous, out-of-date concept approval schemes, or having to hook up with existing publishers who have become conservative gatekeepers of content on those platforms.

Original ideas aren't encouraged in that environment, so a lot of the creative, inventive, original game designers are moving to iOS. This is a problem for consoles, and an advantage for Apple, when it comes to the battle for the TV.

Do you plan to work support for iCloud into past releases?

We haven't looked closely at it yet, but we love the idea of cloud based saved games. We even implemented this via our own servers in the unreleased PC prototype of Magnetic Billiards and think it's the big missing feature from Xbox Live. So yeah, we'd hope to implement iCloud in Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint at some point.

The big one we're really excited about is iOS5's support for turn-based games.

We're currently working on converting our first indie PC game, Naked War, to iPad, to make use of Game Center's turn based support, as it means we can bring our critically acclaimed PC strategy game to iOS without the headache and overhead of running our own servers.

We think Naked War is a big step beyond the current word-based puzzles games that are currently doing well as turn based iOS games.

Is there anything missing from iOS 5 from a game development perspective?

I can't answer that yet! Not until we've had a good play with it over the next few weeks.

Thanks to Ste for his time.

You can find out more about Zee-3 on the studio's website.