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Category: Games & Software

In Software: if South Park were to design an iOS app commercial

…Then the NinType 130 words per minute keyboard for iOS 8 would be it. Available on iTunes now.

Lin火: How to write a good Boss into a game

There’s something strange when you focus on something like a climax. Something strange when writing at least, and I mean writing in the broadest sense. Rather than comment on this whole ‘gamergate’ thing, I came across this cool article by game designer Mike Stout on how to structure Boss battles. It seems a little weird for me to write this, but after playing my current favourite time-waster, Swordigo, I thought a little about its structure and how to translate that to story writing.

When I read Mike’s breakdown, I thought it should be possible to introduce Bosses or “climaxes” at different points that challenge the protagonist. After playing around with it a little, I noticed that strange thing called focus. Mike talks about designing challenges that test your hero’s specific skills. When thinking about these challenges, I think it actually makes it much clearer what you are trying to achieve here by writing a character.

Anyway, great set of tips, worth a read for any creator of fiction.

Lin火: Shinji Mikami: the godfather of horror games

Look no further than Japan for insight into horror. I’ve never been as scared as when I watched the Japanese original The Ring movie, but I also remember playing a fair amount of Japanese games that were just not pleasant. On how to scare people, Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami says:

“Back in the early days, when I was making the first Resident Evil, I spent three months studying the psychology of horror,” he says. “But what I’ve learned is, horror is instinctive – the things that scare me take precedence over any theory of horror. With Resident Evil, we went with human and human-shaped enemies because people are generally more interested in and scared by other people, rather than some obscure creature that we don’t recognise. Evil Within is the same.”

Lin火 “Why parents are raising their kids on Minecraft”

  • 21st century Lego
  • Teaches about computers
  • Exposure to mods, hacking, programming
Related: Notch’s goodbye letter after selling Minecraft to Microsoft.

火 “The Insidious Rise of the Blockbuster Video Game”

Related to the last link. Here’s an insight from the Atlantic:

The best movie blockbusters are those that stay focused on the story at their core: Indy’s quest for the Ark, a young Kirk’s pursuit of Nero, the inexorable battle between Batman and the Joker. They keep their size in check, in a way. By the same token, the best video game blockbusters are those that allow for excursion and choice but always connect those tangents back to the main story, and further, those games that push you gently but firmly along a path from origin to climax.

Of course, it never ends up being that way anymore…

火 “Applying Architecture to Product Design: Lesson 1 – Circulation”

It’s interesting to read about the parallels one architect-turned-software-designer finds between the two worlds. The analogy feels incomplete however. Essentially, I wonder if the mechanical properties of the muscles one uses to navigate buildings are comparable to those senses involved in app navigation. But apart from this nitpick, I’m very interested to read more of the series.

In Music: Enjoying the 8tracks service

From the company website:

8tracks believes handcrafted music programming trumps algorithms. Think radio in the 1970s, mixtapes in the 1980s, and DJ culture of the 1990s through today. DJs share their talent in taste making, providing exposure for artists. Listeners get a unique blend of word-of-mouth sharing and radio programming — long the trusted means for music discovery — on a global scale.

After highlighting the Guardians of the Galaxy movie as a must-watch, it’s resparked my interest in curated playlists, such as on mixtapes (note: there are some other ones, but these often get taken down through copyright legal complaints). The 8tracks concept comes pretty close, it’s free (with ads), has an iOS, Mac  & web app, and keeps me entertained throughout the day.

In Software: thoughts on podcatchers (Overcast, Castro, Instacast)

So Marco released the much anticipated version 1.0 of his Overcast podcatcher yesterday. Being a fervent (crazy fan?) listener and reader of his podcast(s) (Accidental Tech and the previous 5by5 one) and website, I felt compelled to not only download the free app, but also instantly purchase the in-app purchase that unlocks everything. The marketing helped, but also that I use Instapaper at times, an app that I still feel is unparalleled for consuming long form web content.

I’ve listened to podcasts since my first iPod, which came with my first iBook (before being called Macbook) sometime in 2004, I think. For me, podcast consumption started with iTunes and shows like TWIT and Macbreak, evolving into the 5by5 network, and finally giving rise of independent (non-network) podcasts like The Talk Show and Accidental Tech. A bit of artistic and business-orientated consumption as well, in the form of NPR’s Planet Money, Standford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders, Scriptnotes podcasts. As the mobile Apple space evolved, so did software and we now have Apple’s stand-alone Podcast app, Instacast, which I switched to next, Castro, which I used in the last 6-9 months, and finally Overcast, which I’m now happily using (but not 100% happy with). There’s also Pocketcast and various others, which I’ve never tried.

With a full iPhone, I’ve noticed that there is a significant switching cost with Podcast apps, in the form of re-downloading content. The switch from Instacast to Castro was not flawless, as OPML transfers didn’t quite work. The switch from Castro to Overcast, on the other hand, was easy-peasy and I also deeply appreciate that the switch back is facilitated in the app as well, should I decide to revert.

An on-the-fly update this review: battery performance. I biked from work to home on 1% battery. Mobile data was off, as were location services and background updates, and the only thing playing was Overcast on an LTE Bluetooth audio connection to my headphones. The iPhone 5s lasted for about 30 minutes. Somehow I find it hard to believe that it would behave similarly with other software, but of course a claim like that would need some comparative testing, which I’m too lazy to do. Instead I’d like to talk about what I like about Overcast in terms of the programming.

Overcast offers two software  features that I’ve yet to encounter in podcatchers, Smart Speed and Voice Boost. The first shortens listening time by reducing the silences in a recording, the second increase vocal audio quality. It’s not been long enough to judge the difference, but the fact that Marco spent many months, if not years, digging into the roots of Core Audio (a component of iOS) to get these features out of it, suggests that he did some other optimisations as well. The same could be noticeable in Instapaper, where he was one of the first to implement locational background updates, back before background updates were a thing on iOS (and without getting banned from the App Store, unlike camera+ for using volume buttons for snapping pics before that was a thing on iOS).

Now about the stuff that I don’t like, which is essentially the same criticism I have about Instapaper AND other podcatchers. It’s about managing podcast episodes, it’s about managing a thing that constantly updates itself with new content. Both of Marco’s software present this problem to their users, and it’s not an easy one to fix. How do you make content relevant? I read Instapaper once ever two weeks perhaps, often not finishing an article, and two weeks later finding I forgot which article it was, because I had saved others there in the mean time. Podcatchers don’t depend on users placing content there, rather they are like an RSS reader that constantly pushes new content to the app.

It’s again too short to really say whether or not Overcast actually does something about that other than some smart playlists, and perhaps there also isn’t really a solution with the problem. Overcast feels like an innovative app, the first one to really think about the audio part. But it forgets about the file system, something that is particularly relevant the larger the database gets. I’ll have to evaluate to see how that progresses.

I previously spoke about switching costs being file-based, but right now it seems more like it’s quality-based. Kind of like going back from HD video content to regular resolution TV, I’m thinking that his audio tweaks will make it hard to go back to other podcast apps.

There’s also another competitive move that Marco made, which is kind of smart, to make Overcast free with a paid upgrade. Free opens up the market, much more than even $0.99. Most other podcast apps cost money, some of them are relatively expensive (in App Store terms). Castro was I believe around $3 and Instacast fluctuated between $3 and several dollars more.  I was there when Instacast tried a paid upgrade to generate some additional features making many paying loyal users, including myself quite mad. I was also angry when Instacast 2 (is it 3 now) was introduced, forcing me to buy a new app all over again. Call it cheap, it is, but it was also forced down our throats by circumstances like forced (but free) iOS updates and different sized iPhones. The point is that other podcatchers will have to reinvent themselves to compete on pricing and it’s always hard towards the existing users to go from paid to free with a paid upgrade, forcing everyone to pay all over again.

Facit so far: Overcast does the job, it’s version 1.0 and needs some further development. But it’s off to one hell of a start.


火 In Game Art: “AM Radio: The Banksy of Second Life”

Go check out this story about AM Radio, probably the only Second Life artist you’ll ever hear about. What I liked about the story is not only that the author managed to talk behind the real person behind the AM Radio avatar, but that it showcases not only the transformation of an artist’s life and personality, as well as how his art affected those encountering it.

It’s always difficult to pinpoint the DNA that makes an art-piece affect those around them, but in this case the detail of his pieces and how it reached into the happy memories of people from around the world is somehow what makes AM Radio’s work important. Sorry, I can’t really explain it better than that.

In the interview, the painter also says:

“[W]elcome new mediums, but don’t let yourself be guided by them… Wyeth’s paintings were never about watercolor, or wheat fields. It was about the expression and the way of seeing the world, and using a dry brush technique that conveyed the quiet, thoughtful mind behind it. Calvin and Hobbes surely wasn’t about the newspapers’ color print process capable of printing those beautiful half page spreads, but was about Bill Watterson’s understanding of the medium, audience, and himself.”

Looking at his paintings also made me think about something I previously wrote about, the Hey Are You Cool website, which showcases random encounters in DayZ – a multiplayer game. Playing these “games” is essentially a lonely activity, and that somehow makes weird encounters a more profound event. I imagine that similar things can be said of art in Minecraft.




In Hardware: the iPhone 5s, a future-proof computer and camera in my pocket

First, some bullet-point format observations:

Finger print sensor: I like it, primarily because it saves time over the code I would usually enter to unlock it, not to mention my Apple ID in the App Store. During the unlocking, I don’t like that it immediately requires the fingerprint when I lock the phone, because I had it previously set for a few minutes after closing, which is not an option now. I do hope that changes, because it’s still slower to unlock the phone then. 
The camera: haven’t tested it extensively, but like the nighttime performance, the intelligent flash function, the launch speed of the photo apps I use, the picture burst mode, and the slo-mo, although filming is definitely not my métier. It’s clearly better than the iPhone 4 camera, which is what I wanted. 
The M7 sensor: I’m excited about it, but haven’t used it in an app yet. I hope Moves, which I recommended before, integrates it soon, providing that Nike Move doesn’t sue it out of the water. 
The look & feel: it doesn’t feel oversized and it’s super light, but I found the iPhone 4 light enough. I did notice that the White iPhone collects dirt at the bottom edge, which annoys me to no end. 
The battery life: Houston do we have a problem? This battery does not last long, maybe 10 hours on light use, and I’m wondering if it’s to do with that I’m still on 3G (T-mobile NL is supposedly switching to 4G in a few weeks) or because of the battery bug that I hear about. Or, because of some kind of software or background process problem. Frustrated about it. 
The apps: I started using Pages for writing, because it syncs so easily with my Mac and with Pages in iCloud (useful for Windows PCs). Not really using other apps, or not noticing big changes. I do enjoy making bad music with Garage Band though…
Other: light sensor is much better and I really enjoy using the phone in inverted colour mode (the contrast is much better now!). Siri works well for me, as does dictation (typed a blog post with it yesterday). 
The frustrating and good thing about Apple devices is that they are of such good build quality that if you already have an iPhone (4 in my case) and were already able to put iOS 7 on it, the iPhone 5s does not feel that new. My old phone is 3 years old. About 3 months ago, the mute switch and top volume button stopped functioning (I did drop it a lot), but other than being slower, which you get used to, the only reason I needed to upgrade was because it made financial sense with my provider. I’ll probably get the iPhone 8 and 11 for that reason as well, because I’m actually buying something that works durably. With other brands, I never know if the build quality is good, if the software continues to work well, and if the apps are available. So, it’s a pragmatic choice.

It’s frustrating to no longer have that pink cloud feeling about Apple gadgets, but at the same time there are so many easter eggs contained within the software and features that I’m sure to enjoy discovering over the next 3-6 months, after which it will become a good companion.

If you care to support this Website, feel free to order an iPhone 5s on Amazon and give us a kick back!

Why not choose an iPhone 5c?
The simple answer is future-proofing. The iPhone 5 was a perfectly good phone (apart from some battery life issues on 3G) and the iPhone 5c is essentially the same one, with some improvements in the camera and elsewhere. Another reason for not upgrading to it is the plastic, which I feel is a bit of a downgrade from the Braun-inspired design quality of the iPhone 4.

The iPhone 5s feels more like it’s designed for, well, a lot of interesting things to come. Apart from the camera, which is state of the art for a mobile phone (see a comparison with the new Nokia Lumia 1020 here), the fingerprint sensor seems like a step towards a lot of opportunity, and I’m really excited about the M7 sensor, as I exercise a lot and care about having good performance data.

P.S. I do believe something is wrong with both software and hardware aspects right now (particularly the battery life), which I will try to fix with their help over the coming weeks. 

In Software: Moves for iOS & Android (FREE, but it’s not all good)

“The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You.” ~ Chase Jarvis

I think that most of us smartphone owners probably heard that saying somewhere. Smartphones are amazing devices, whose computing power parallels the ones that made the second Star Wars trilogy, and cameras that are getting, to some extent, closer to professional cameras. But there is another trend that we need to bite into with these devices, the health and fitness market. We humans do not move enough. We sit too much for 8 hours a day and probably mornings and evenings too.

Smartphones have the advantage that they are always with you. Yes, you can buy Nike+ devices to attach to your shoes (…), various wristbands, and belt attachments, but the smartphone, our music player and Facebook crack all in one, is usually always there.

And so is Moves, which has been on iOS for some time now and was recently released on Android. Moves is free (I never get these business models) and tracks every kind of movement you make, as long as it’s horizontal and not vertical (my climbing is not counted).

It comes with a number of features:

  • it tracks running, biking, walking, and (public) transport (it’s occasionally tricked by roller blading as public transport as well…)
  • it uses Maps, which means that you can tell it when a destination was the gym (good!) or the McDonalds (bad!)
  • it can show you distance, time, and calories burned
  • it can send you daily, weekly, and monthly (?) notifications about how well you did, including new records
  • I believe that it plugs in with other apps, which must be its business model, but I don’t use them…
It just has one caveat, which is the new automatic updates on iOS 7. Because when you update Moves, it turns itself off. So you need to start the app again. But how do you know that Moves has been updated? You don’t really, which is why I asked the developers to create custom notifications and/or just send me an email if the app is updated. Still awaiting that answer which is caveat 2: customer service must always be responsive, else it alienates users. So please join me in waking Moves up about this issue!
All that said, incredibly useful if you want to know how much you bike every day, how much you walked on your city trip, how much you ran on your weekly run, etc. It is your companion for Movement!

In Software: iOS 7 part 2 … and what that means for Mac OS 11

For lack of a better space to post this, I can still clearly say that the Apple ecosystem is generally a favourite of mine where it comes to technology, design, and strategy. This post will be more about strategic thoughts regarding Apple’s resource allocations after Steve Jobs passed away and Scot Forstall, former head of iOS, was removed from that position.

Company- and product building are not that different. Screws and bolts can be interchanged with people, buildings, skills, and activities. Apple is a collection of all four, combined with a strong, if not very secretive vision of the future, centred entirely around quality and “being different.” It doesn’t matter what Apple machine I’ve owned, iBooks, Macbooks, iPods, iPhones, or iPads, there’s a logic behind all of them, both in “product – market fit” and in the construction of hardware and software.

iOS 7 has been called the “harkening back to the original coloured iMacs” days and you can perhaps recognise the initial playfulness, largely inspired by Johnny Ive’s work, in iOS 7 (also under Ive’s supervision).


Jonathan Ive’s and Craig Federighi’s collaboration for iOS 7 represent what I think the ideal state is for Apple, the perfect melding of hardware (Ive’s territory) and software (Federighi used to be responsible mostly for Mac OS X, but now largely for both OS X & iOS 7). Good article on that here, but don’t expect to find the answer to everything. I love this quote from Federighi:

OK, I’m a technology freak, but I think probably if someone mapped my brain, you would find that there were moments when I lit up the love pattern in my neurons in association with our products. I mean, literally, there is love, and I think that is true of many of our customers. I think when we build something we love and that others love, then we have done our job.

When I see the little tidbits in iOS 7, I see Love. When I see Game Center, I see playfulness. When I see the whole thing, I see logic that transcends individual apps, software, and even hardware.

Why this affects Mac OS 11…
Mac OS is the Apple device OS. Just because it’s called “Mac OS” doesn’t actually mean that it’s the operating system for the Mac computer, but it’s simply the software that Apple writes for its computers. So, Apple TV, iPod, iPhone, iPads, they are all computers. And the only reason Mac OS looks different is because the interface needs to be different and the hardware capabilities have (so far) been different. A laptop or a desktop will never become a “touch” device, it doesn’t make ergonomic sense. But what we have to focus on here is the greater achievement of iOS 7 and devices like the iPhone 5C (color). The strengthened interplay between software and hardware.

Clearly a prediction, but everything suggests that for new computing devices this bond is meant to become stronger. Apple products are neither meant to be hardware or software, but tools that are useful, that we love to spend time with, and that don’t get in our way. Apple is slow when it comes to changing things that work, so I don’t believe that Maverick will do anything revolutionary to bridge the software – hardware gap. But Ive’s & Federighi’s collaboration is sure going to be applied to their “traditional” devices as well, which means that we will see more of iOS 7 (maybe not the visuals, but the ideas behind it) in Macs and Apple TVs as well.

In Software: IOS 7

Just a few titbits:

Speed: I love the little settings pop-up. Whether it’s to adjust screen rotation, to quickly change the brightness or to turn airport mode on and off, it just so much more convenient and faster to do just that.

Usefulness: I love the look of the new notification pull down window. 1. It’s a nicer way to read the weather in plain text as that’s a more human way to interact. 2. it’s well organised with the calendar and I appreciate it letting me know how busy I’m always the next day. 3. Thanks for shifting the notification to other, less used panels, those were just guilt inducers for me.

Hardware compatibility: Until I decide to switch or until this damn phone dies, I’m still using an iPhone 4. And while I thought the last update to IOS 6 made the phone slow already, it still feels plenty usable with iOS 7. I also noticed that multitasking is more responsive, even not recently used apps load faster when “multi tasked,” and being able to quit running tasks quickly also speeds up this older phone by quite a bit. Apple could’ve chosen to make me feel antiquated, instead they breathed new life into this old dog.

The Look: it feels like a modern interface, I would primarily describe it as elegant with a lot of colour play. As I’ve heard other people say, I agree that iOS 7 makes iOS 6 feel outdated. 

The Wrongs and Rights of Circa (news app)

As a news junkie and avid iPhone user, I am constantly on the lookout for novel approaches to displaying news on my phone. Circa (iTunes Link, iPhone only, free) is a news app that introduces a new way of consuming news, promising to minimise signal-to-noise ratio by showing you just the relevant parts. The question is, does Circa deliver on its promise?

How the app works
Circa does the following. When starting the app, you are presented with two categories: Top Stories & the Presidential Election 2012. By default the app takes you straight to the top stories. In it you see a list of hot stories (Armstrong’s losing battle to the doping accusations, a new Earth-sized planet that’s been discovered, etc.), hand-picked by Circa’s editors. But the real difference happens when you click on the story.

The Circa website explains it better than I can:

  1. Circa’s editors gather top stories and break them down to their essential points — facts, quotes, photos, and more, formatted specifically for the phone.
  2. Keep track of stories that matter to you. Whenever there are new developments in a story you’re following, Circa adds a new point to it rather than making you read a whole new article.
  3. Do it ‘cause you want to, not ‘cause you have to. Circa helps you share individual points or whole stories using Facebook or Twitter.

I’ve been using it for a few days now and am having some issues with it, some based on habit, some based on interface issues. Prolific readers like me tend to skim news-stories–we already do what the app does for us. So having it done for you makes it feel like you’ll never really get to see the whole story. But this may be something that I get used to over time.

The interface also takes some getting used too. Circa splits the main points of the story by iPhone screen (clearly meant for the iPhone 5 screen size  as I often find myself having to scroll down to see 3-5 more lines), and you have to scroll/pull to the next screen to see the next point. I find that it accomplishes accentuating important titbits, but also being pulled out of the flow of reading/skimming the story.

As the stories are fairly US-centric and I live in the Netherlands, I find myself not using the story-following feature much. But I imagine it will be very cool for more complex stories that develop over time.

I do wonder whether this model is sustainable. Yes, sharing individual points over social networks is a great feature, but does it innovate much over other news-outlets that also summarise the news? And does it then justify the manual/perhaps automised work done by editors to split stories apart?

I wholly recommend giving this app a try. Perhaps it is a solution to getting just the news. And I hope for them that their use case and business model works.

In Games: "Portal" and "The World of Goo"

These games have two things in common. They’re short and portray a fairly cynical view of the world. In Portal, you play as something, probably some kind of artificial creation (well, it is a game-character), that has to play a series of games to get out. You are guided by a voice that encourages you, while subtly saying that you really mean nothing. You are test-subject that exists only to test the game, or perhaps to test your resilience to a game that is trying to kill you.

In the World of Goo, you are an observer that manipulates pieces of goo. Little tiny bubbles, which you can stick together, until a way out is found through a vacuum. Each level has a message from the Sign Painter, who again tells you what the purpose is, while also subtly pointing out that this is just goo, that, perhaps, we are all just goo, working together to find a way out.

The target audience for both games would be between 12 and 99, I would say. I would raise that up a little higher. Sure, life is a cynical beast and we are its beastmaster, but to pump our kids full with this message… I’m not sure what the pedagogical value of that is. Of course, if you win, well, then it makes more sense.

Time to finish one of these games: probably a weekend.
Quality of game-play: challenging, solid games that stay with you.

In software: favourite official & unofficial Mac-plugins

Check it on Tech IT Easy.

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