Game Center for iOS: Understanding Apple’s New Video Game Matchmaking + Tracking App
First announced early this year as a new feature of iOS 4.0, Apple’s Game Center went through a fairly extended beta testing period before going public in the just-released iOS 4.1. Since then, readers have described it variously as “just another app I wish I could delete,” and as “neat” but “not too interesting to me,” while others have been looking for a place to swap Game Center nicknames and play against other iLounge readers online.
This brief guide to Game Center looks at what the new application adds, how well it works, and what it needs in order to improve in the future. If you’re already using Game Center and want to make new friends to compete against, feel free to share your nickname in the comments section below.
Game Center is an Apple-designed alternative to third-party matchmaking, leaderboard, and achievement tracking services that have popped up over the last two years for iPhones and iPod touches, enabling most iOS 4.1 (and later) users to have a meeting place for online games, and a way to compare their performance in single-player games. Importantly, it organizes all of these features into a single application that can launch and keep track of other applications, as well as your contacts’ applications, so that you can easily find all of the games that support Game Center and/or are being played by people you care about. Notably, each Game Center user needs to set up a new account in order for his or her activities to become public, and there are very few settings to restrict what gets shared—your whole portfolio of Game Center titles and achievements goes on display. iPod touch 2G, 3G, and 4G users, iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 users, and soon iPad users will have access to Game Center; iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod touch 1G users miss out on this one.
Developers need to incorporate Game Center support into each game individually, which some companies are doing with previously-released games, and others are building into new and as-yet-unreleased titles. Users need to download apps or updates with Game Center support, and then run them once to register the apps with Game Center for tracking and multiplayer purposes. If you have a Game Center account and friends with games you don’t already have—or have installed—your friends can invite you to play those games anyway, creating an automatic link to the iTunes Store for the downloads. This provides Apple with a new viral revenue source: the more Game Center games there are, and the more people are sending out requests to play those games, the more copies of the games get sold. This was sort of possible before Game Center as well with earlier services, but there’s no doubt that Apple’s implementation makes invitations and downloading much easier.
Using an interface that resembles the wood and felt surface of a pool table, Game Center consists of four tabs that are discussed below. The iPad will gain Game Center access with the release of iOS 4.2 in November (screenshot above), with an interface that uses a very similar visual theme but has even more decoration, including the almost medieval, throwback style started in the iPod touch and iPhone versions of the application.
Me provides a snapshot of your friends, games, and achievements, a status message people will see when they view your account, and an Account banner that can be tapped to reveal a very short list of settings. You’re able to allow or disallow game invitations, become findable by potential friends via e-mail addresses you specify and have verified by Apple, change your nickname, and make modest changes to your account with Apple. Missing are more granual privacy settings, the ability to specify only specific games that you want to share information about, and avatars—for now, your life with Game Center games is on full display to friends you add, and most of what’s here consists only of text and numbers.
Friends contains a list of Game Center contacts you’ve added individually, or who have requested to add you and been accepted on both ends. A plus button lets you send e-mail invitations to other people, complete with a text-formatted message of your choice, which appears as a very simple message with a large “Accept Friend Request” button. Once you’ve added friends, you can see their equivalent of the “Me” screen, including lists of Games Played Together and Other Games—the former with play statistics, and the latter with links to the App Store to make purchases.
You can Unfriend people and report problems with them, using either a pre-typed message (“This player is being inappropriate.”) or a comment you want to type on your own.
Games provides a list of the currently-installed games you own with Game Center support—titles appear on the list only after you’ve loaded them once, auto-registering them as Game Center-compatible. Clicking on any game shows you your achievements, leaderboards, and friends who have recently played the title; leaderboards show the top scores achieved by every registered Game Center user who is playing a given Game Center title.
Tell a Friend and Find Game Center Games buttons help you spread the word about titles and make more purchases. What’s missing from here is a list of previously purchased games with Game Center updates, so you can know which of your prior titles will work with the service, and the ability to remove games from the list over time; presently, Game Center keeps a list of every game you’ve installed, even if you’ve deleted it from your device.
The last tab is for Friend Requests, which you can make and receive through two screens. Hitting plus lets you make an e-mail request just as in the Friends tab, and a list of incoming requests appears on the rest of the screen. It’s easy to imagine that this tab will eventually be folded into the Friends tab when Apple enhances Game Center’s features with something more deserving of its own spot at the bottom of the screen.
Using Game Center’s core menu system is as easy as anyone would expect from an Apple-developed application—everything works quickly, simply, and properly assuming that you’re willing to discover Game Center app updates on your own and load the games individually to register them for tracking and online play. Though we’d like to see Apple add avatars or user photos, rewards for accruing achievement points, as well as per-game opt-out settings for sharing game performance with friends, so that you needn’t publicize your lack of skills to everyone on your list, and some other features, this first-generation version of Game Center is a good start.
The Execution: Playing Online Game Center Games
Since Apple is depending on third-party developers to implement Game Center’s features in their games, and there are a number of different features that can be added, the list of Game Center titles right now is relatively short, and the features aren’t always as impressive as gamers might hope. For instance, the just-released update to Street Fighter IV—the quintessential one-on-one fighting game—doesn’t include Game Center support at all, so multiplayer combat is only possible over Bluetooth connections, and fighting game developers have a history of pooh-poohing online multiplayer features due to latency issues. It remains to be seen whether top-tier games will receive online components on Apple’s devices, or whether network and programming challenges will scuttle Game Center multiplayer for the most desirable titles.
Developers have been pushing ahead, anyway, in some cases seemingly just to get on the list of titles offering some Game Center support. 10Tons/Mythpeople’s impressive puzzle game Azkend, for example, tracks achievements—milestones the game enables you to reach—but once you’ve earned them, there’s nothing to do besides using them as questionable bragging rights with friends. The game doesn’t have a leaderboard of top scores, or online multiplayer functionality. Notably, Game Center continues to store the achievements even when the game’s own saved data has been deleted, but unless developers implement the feature differently in the future, the achievements don’t necessarily re-appear within the game when it’s freshly installed, or installed on a different device.
Games such as Halfbrick’s Fruit Ninja have been updated with online multiplayer modes, which bring up a Game Center matchmaking screen—typically for two, three, or four players—and then try to coordinate the people to play together. If you don’t have enough friends to play against in a given game, or just need someone who’s available right away, Game Center includes Auto-Match, which will match you up against a stranger who’s also interested in playing right now. After a period of waiting, the game will tell you that the players are all “Ready,” and you can start playing together. In our testing experiences, matchmade games ran smoothly as long as the parties all continued to play the single game together, but there were problems in getting second sessions to initiate properly, so we had to play individual matches, then restart thereafter. Bugfixes will clearly be necessary.
The “hunting for people to play with and waiting around for them” process is generally called the “lobby” within other online multiplayer games, and can be aided by voice chat features, text messaging, and sometimes even moving avatars within a virtual gathering area. Game Center doesn’t have any of this—you’re able to send one message to someone to invite them to a game, but that’s it, and once the game’s over, there’s no follow-up communication. Apple could really improve this to enable friends to carry on conversations before and after games, a feature that’s clearly possible with some tweaks to this app.
That’s because voice chat is included as a Game Center feature when you’re actually playing games, assuming that the developer has implemented it properly. Fruit Ninja doesn’t have voice chat at all right now, but its simple on-screen slashing action would lend itself perfectly to adding the feature without any negative impact on the game. Several titles from Pangea Software all include voice chat, but performance was dicey in our testing: our first attempts at getting it to work in Nanosaur 2 failed, but then it worked in Cro-Mag Rally, started working out of nowhere in Nanosaur 2, and completely failed in Enigmo.
When it works, voice chat is surprisingly impressive: music and sound effects automatically duck in volume while you and your friends’ voices become clear and strong, with audio quality that’s at least as good as a phone call, maybe better. A microphone icon on the top of the Pangea games’ screens lets you turn on or mute your side of the discussion, automatically adjusting the volume of the audio, and depending on the Apple device and accessories you’re using, you can participate or just listen—the second-generation and third-generation iPod touches lack microphones but work with mic accessories, whereas the iPhones all have microphones and speakers built in; the iPad should be the same. Apart from the aforementioned glitches in getting voice chat to perform reliably at all, or resume after the mic icon was turned off, conversations during the games were really quite good. We’d love to see the chat feature get its own tab under the main Game Center application.
For the time being, Game Center’s appeal will only be as great—or as weak—as the popular games that support it, but there’s every reason to believe that it will continue to grow considerably over time. Early multiplayer gaming experiences we’ve had with Game Center have generally been satisfying apart from the voice chat and second-session bugs we’ve experienced, and though the online leaderboard and achievement tracking features have similar growing pains to work through, they’re performing well enough for the time being to give developers a reason to keep adding those features to their games, as well. After only a few play sessions, users can get a sense of their leaderboard performance relative to others (“bottom X%” or “top X%” per game), which will help make matchmaking of like-skilled strangers easier in the future, as well.
The point at which Game Center will be a killer feature of every iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad is when voice chat and solid online play modes become more widespread, enabling racing and fighting game fans to talk with one another as they play these fast twitch titles. Apple deserves serious credit for getting voice chat to work as well as it does now, and for building a matchmaking service that works well with both friends and strangers as you desire; now it’s up to developers to incorporate these options, and Apple to build upon them to bring iOS gaming up to pace with the best features of full-fledged game consoles. Should it manage to do so quickly, it might just have another major advantage over Nintendo and Sony portables.
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