No skin in the Game Center

No skin in the Game Center

Speaking of successes and failures, I dislike it when it feels like I care more about an app or service than the developer or platform owner. It sets off huge warning bells and sends me looking for alternatives. Apple is starting to give me that feeling with Game Center. Since Letterpress launched, a game that depends entirely on Apple's Game Center application programming interfaces (APIs) for everything from matchmaking to gameplay, Game Center reliability has taken a nose dive. For several hours this weekend, I once again had more Game Center errors than successful turns. I've also had my iPhone and iPad mini go out of sync, with the iPad mini hours behind the iPad, and games I've simply had to abandon because turns could never be taken again.

The errors are frequent and frustrating enough now that it seems like Game Center has always had a glass jaw and this is simply the first time it's taken hit. Part of the reason for this has to be that Apple literally has no skin in the game. Apple makes not a single app, built-in or App Store, that relies on the Game Center API. Apple has nothing that hammers Game Center, nothing that creates an urgent awareness within the company of how Game Center scales and performs under load.

That means that it will always be developers who find Game Center pain points first, and that break things first, and that's a terrible situation for developers and users alike.

Dogfooding (eating your own dogfood) is a term sometimes applied to companies who intentionally make themselves dependent on their own products so they can make sure they find everything from the major problems to the rough edges before their users do. It's the ultimate form of quality assurance (QA).

I always had the feeling that, with the iPhone, if anything didn't work, Steve Jobs would be down in the labs smashing it on the floor and demanding it be fixed. I never had the feeling Steve Ballmer or Eric Schmidt cared for any Windows Mobile or Android device beyond wanting to have a screen in that space. That explained the relative usability of those two products to me.

And that's the same vibe I'm getting with Game Center. That Apple felt they needed to have it, but that they don't particularly care about it. Nintendo has Mario, Xbox has Halo, Sony Has Grand Turismo, all among many others. Their gaming platforms have first party games that are almost always among the most popular and most ambitious.

It's often said that Apple doesn't get gaming and doesn't get social, so maybe social gaming like Game Center was predestined for birthing pain. But it's also likely exacerbated by Apple not having a single shipping product that depends on Game Center being great.

No company can do everything all at once, and if Apple has to spend resources fixing and improving Game Center, they can't spend those same resources fixing, improving, and creating other things. That's opportunity cost. I get that. But social gaming is a big deal. It deserves attention. It deserves resources.

I'd like to think Phil Schiller or Jony Ive or Craig Federighi or even Tim Cook is as frustrated with Letterpress performance as we are, and is down in the labs throwing an iPad mini on the floor and demanding it be fixed. I'd like to hear that Apple is buying or launching an app that's going to showcase a newer, better, far more reliable Game Center. Something. Anything.

Maps and Siri were both recently given a press release-level hand-off to Eddy Cue. Maybe Game Center isn't as high on the priority list, but I'd like to at least see some sign that it's on the priority list.

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

No skin in the Game Center


Believe it or not Rene, and i've only had the app since i got my ipad mini on wednesday last week, but i havent had a single error, matchmaking fail, or anything at all that seems anything different than the experience on draw something or words with friends, could it be that this is because i haven't paid for the full version so i only have two games at a time under my GameCenter name, seems crazy, but anyway just my experience so far.

that much is apparent considering i've never before seen GameCenter as a trending topic :D
Heres to hoping my experience not only stays this way but becomes the norm. This article has inspired me to become a Janitor for apple, If every time theres a screw up a idevice or macbook winds up on the floor, ill gladly pay to replace the screen, thank goodness for solid state storage :) Anyway well written piece, I feel the Windows phone/Android reference was spot on.

I will say this, there are certain little things missing that i've come to appreciate from other entrants, such as a recent list of who youve played, the end result, and a snapshot of all the words you played for example, and most frustratingly for me, this makes it impossible to tap on someone you had a great game with and rematch them, to me, thats been the biggest peeve.

As much as Letterpress is an enjoyable game, it certainly brings out the flaws in Game Centre. I haven't had as many errors as described above, but I put that down to been in a favourable time zone.

The thing that frustrates me most is the way that Game Centre integrates into Letterpress. Matchmaking using Game Centre has to be one of the most frustrating systems ever, and doesn't have the "just works" feel that Apple usually aims for with their iOS range, especially compared to systems that Zynga has in place (Facebook, or username search). With any luck, Apple can work Facebook/Twitter integration into Game Centre, and we'll have a much more seamless experience.

Also, although minor, and completely irrelevant to usability, it does frustrate me that the name "Game Center" is not localised into different English spellings.

As an all in Apple consumer, sometimes I think Apple is almost parallel-universe otherworldly with their approach and conceptual leaps (maybe not first but sometimes best).

Yet at other times, I think they don't have a jack squat idea of how to benchmark the competition, and worse, sometimes these two are combined, otherworldly forward-looking leap that is half-baked (Siri & maps and lately software feature-shortcomings or just plain bugs.)

Some folks are definitely not paying attention to detail. And the risk is if the gad-fly-with-a-hammer role (jobs) dies, a company's emphasis on performance, surprise & delight slowly descends into uncoordinated disappointment and ordinary mediocrity.

Amen, but you have doogfooding cause and effect backwards.

Apple *has* skin in the game -- it is trust in the platform itself. Game Center is there to encourage developers to make the sorts of social games that benefit the platform, without having to recreate the infrastructure wheel. (Loren would probably not have made Letterpress if he had to develop and maintain that infrastructure first.) But it has to work, and work consistently. If it doesn't, customers will stop playing and buying those games, and developers will stop making them.

Microsoft, of all companies, understood this where Apple did not. They saw XBox Live as a pillar of their platform, and thoroughly tested it, both for functionality and usability, before Halo became any sort of success. Halo's explosion was a *consequence* of Microsoft's good work on XBox Live, not the *reason* for it.

If dogfooding would help Apple realize the importance of their infrastructure, than great -- but if they *only* work on their infrastructure because they have a single title that benefits, then their interest will wander in accordance with that game's release cycles, and they have already lost.

Lets face it, Rene is bitching about Apple so much these days, I'd not be surprised if he defected to Android or something daft like that.

"it seems like Game Center has always had a glass jaw and this is simply the first time it's taken hit."

Welcome to the realization. :) I've been telling people this for many months. I refuse to play any games that rely on Game Center any more because of the extreme frustration in engenders. So many people think Letterpress *caused* these Game Center issues when all it did was bring them to light. Game Center has sucked rocks from its first implementation.