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Gaming on Apple platforms is set for some big changes—here are a few

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Enlarge / Beyond a Steel Sky, a sequel to a beloved game from the 90s, hit Apple Arcade today.

Apple

WWDC 2020 has concluded, and that means it’s time to glean some insights from all the documentation, sessions, and other materials that Apple released. We’re going to do this on a few topics in the coming weeks, but to start, we’re looking at the new initiatives and features Apple has announced for game developers on the iOS, iPadOS, tvOS, and macOS platforms.

We’re starting here in part because this was a red-letter week for gaming on Apple platforms (and also because some of Apple’s gaming centric-sessions were among the first scheduled during the week). Some enormous changes are coming, and playing games on Apple devices is going to look markedly different going forward.

The first change we’ll go over is a doozy: the transition of the Mac from a PC-centric gaming platform to a mobile-centric one.

iOS and iPadOS games on macOS

In a hugely consequential change for the Mac platform, Macs running Apple Silicon will be able to run iOS and iPadOS games. Developers will be able to choose whether their iOS or iPadOS games are listed on the Mac App Store, but if they choose that, the games will run natively, with minimal additional work required.

This is a seismic shift for gaming on the Mac, and it may represent Apple giving up on a strategy that has never really worked that well in the 15 years since Macs moved to Intel CPUs. Mac games have generally been ports of Windows games. Not all games get ported, and those that do often don’t perform well.

The poor performance hasn’t been because of any one problem. It’s a combination of Apple’s emphasis with its video drivers, the comparative weakness of the mobile GPUs used in Apple’s Macs versus PC gaming GPUs up until very recently, bad OpenGL support in Macs, a reliance on DirectX-specific technologies and frameworks in modern games, and a lack of widespread expertise in Apple’s proprietary Metal graphics API among PC game developers, among other things.

Plus, porting triple-A games is extremely expensive, and the market for them on Macs has always been relatively small. It’s been hard for a lot of developers to justify the cost and effort. It seems like Apple has decided that trying and failing to win with that strategy is no longer worth it, so the Mac’s center of gaming gravity is moving from Windows PCs to the iPhone.

From Apple’s perspective, this seems like an all-around win. The iPhone app store dwarfs PC gaming by many metrics, the nature of the Apple Silicon shift means Apple will usually be able to ask for more of a cut of revenue from developers who make the games than they would in the old ecosystem, and the effort and expense required to make an iPhone game work well on an Apple Silicon-equipped Mac pales in comparison to that required to port a triple-A, DirectX game in Windows to Metal in macOS.

We still have a number of questions about this, though. How will Apple handle games listed on the Mac App Store that have suboptimal interfaces for the mouse and keyboard? Do developers opt their iPhone apps in to the Mac App Store, or opt out of it? We’ll have to wait until this fall to see the answers for many of these, it seems.

But whatever the case, this is a foundational change to the Mac’s relationship to gaming—a total defection from one gaming ecosystem and culture to another.

Greatly expanded input options

In 2018 we talked to game developers about what Apple needed to do with the Apple TV, and the number one thing we heard was “introduce better controller support.” To that end, Apple announced last year that its various platforms would be able to work wirelessly with both Sony’s DualShock 4 controller of PlayStation 4 fame and Microsoft’s Xbox One controller.

That implementation worked seamlessly for players, and it was pretty no-frills for developers to boot. Now Apple is expanding on this feature in some significant ways—and not just on tvOS. First off, two new controllers are being supported: Microsoft’s pricey, high-end Xbox One Elite Series 2 controller and Microsoft’s accessibility-oriented Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Supported controllers are getting support for all kinds of special functionality. Games can now access the gyroscope, accelerometer, touchpad, and lightbar in the DualShock 4, as well as the rear paddle buttons on the Xbox Elite controller. All supported controllers will get support for haptics (aka rumble), and games will be able to read and report a controller’s battery charge state.

Further, Apple will offer a new settings panel in iOS 14 that will allow complete users to remap controls for their controllers—either globally or on a per-app basis—provided developers have flagged their games or apps as supporting controllers in the App Store.

Apple is also adding to GCController with GCKeyboard and GCMouse for iPads. That means iPads running the new version of iPadOS will fully support mouse and keyboard for game input. Apple gave developers guidelines about when mouse/keyboard behavior should use GCKeyboard/GCMouse, and when it should use UIKit as is standard for most apps.

Usually, UIKit is preferred to make the game play nicely with multitasking and other iPad features. But if developers want a full-screen, focused experience with direct keyboard and mouse character controller—as in a first-person shooter, for example—that will be possible.

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YouTube flags horror video as “for kids,” won’t let creator change rating

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Enlarge / YouTube thinks the dark and creepy “Local58TV” series is for kids.

Google’s wonderful content moderation bots are at it again. After previously doing things like including suicide instructions in a children’s video, and the whole Elsagate problem, YouTube is now flagging a horror video as “for kids.” Worst of all, this is against the creator’s wishes. The video was previously flagged as for ages 18 and up, and YouTube decided it was for kids and won’t let the creator restore its content rating.

The video in question is from horror series Local58TV. The creator, Kirs Straub, checked his account over the weekend to find that his not-for-kids content has been spotted by YouTube’s content moderation AI, and automatically marked for kids.

“For kids” in this context means Google has flagged the video for inclusion in the “YouTube Kids” app, which is a separate interface for YouTube that is supposed to only show a “safe” curated slice of YouTube. The “Kids” flag also means the video is forced to comply with US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), so comments are turned off.

Local58TV has millions of views across its nine videos and is famous enough to have a Wikipedia page. The channel’s about page describes itself as “ANALOG HORROR AT 476 MHz. Unsettling shorts in the found footage/VHS aesthetic from Kris Straub.” The channel’s most popular video, “Contingency,” is a faux public service announcement from the “US Department for the Preservation of American Dignity.” The message, set to an ultra-creepy rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, declares that America has lost the war and was forced to surrender. Before the occupiers arrive though, you can “take America with you” by murder/suiciding your family. The video continues with instructions. This is obviously not the type of channel that is for kids!

YouTube, this title does not mean what you think it means.
Enlarge / YouTube, this title does not mean what you think it means.

YouTube doesn’t get the Local58TV vibe though. It automatically flagged one episode, titled “Show For Children” as for children. You can see how an AI bot might get its wires crossed from that title, but it immediately says “Not for Children” in the description, and the creator, Straub, originally set the video’s age rating as “18+” when it was uploaded.

The episode is a black-and-white cartoon where a cute cartoon skeleton wanders around a graveyard looking for a cute cartoon girlfriend skeleton, only to find horrifying, more realistic skeletons and other creatures in the open graves. At the end of the video, seemingly from depression, the cute skeleton lays down in a grave and dies, turning into a realistic skeleton. The cartoon is something an AI bot might not understand, but a human could immediately tell the unsettling video is not kid-friendly. YouTube is certainly not hurting for money having done $28.8 billion in revenue last year, but it does not hire a significant number of human moderators.

YouTube not only flagged a video explicitly marked as “inappropriate for kids” as “made for kids” it also won’t let the creator change it back. The video’s content is now labeled “Made for kids (set by YouTube)” and Straub is forced to file an appeal with YouTube to get the video’s age rating corrected.

Even if you’re using robots for moderation, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for YouTube to be in this position. For every single video upload, YouTube asks if a video is kid-friendly or not. Since YouTube already has this data, it’s not clear why it would ever try to automatically categorize videos, especially by lowering an age rating that was explicitly set as “adults only.” For something as delicate and subjective as whether or not certain content should be viewed by a kid, it seems like Google should be erring on the side of caution.

🎵 One of these things is not like the others! One of these things, doesn't belong! 🎵
Enlarge / 🎵 One of these things is not like the others! One of these things, doesn’t belong! 🎵

At press time, Straub went public with the issue 20 hours ago and it hasn’t been resolved. The “Team YouTube” Twitter account said it was “looking into” the complaint nine hours ago. You can tell the video is still flagged for children due to the disabled comments section and the “Try YouTube Kids!” ad at the bottom. You also only get suggestions for other “kids” content, which, at a glance, does not appear to feature as much death as the usual Local58TV content.

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IDC: “All eyes will be on Apple” as Meta’s VR strategy “isn’t sustainable”

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Enlarge / The Oculus Quest 2.

A recent media release from market research firm IDC predicts that Meta (the parent company of Facebook) may not be able to compete in the mixed-reality business in the long run if its strategy remains unchanged.

The media release offers a bird’s-eye view of the virtual reality hardware marketplace. In the release, IDC research manager Jitesh Ubrani said that, while “Meta continues to pour dollars into developing the metaverse, [the company’s] strategy of promoting low-cost hardware at the expense of profitability isn’t sustainable in the long run.”

A similar concern was raised by tech industry analyst Ming-Chi Kuo late last month. Kuo predicted that Meta would make moves to scale down investment in virtual reality, creating an opening for Apple and other competitors. He also wrote that Meta’s practice of selling VR headsets at a loss is unsustainable.

Currently, Meta owns 90 percent of the VR headset market, according to the IDC release. In distant second is ByteDance’s Pico, at just 4.5 percent. Overall, VR headset shipments jumped 241.6 percent year over year in the first quarter of 2022. But the industry faced significant supply issues in Q1 2021, contributing to “a favorable comparison” for this year’s Q1.

Like Kuo a couple of weeks ago, IDC research director Ramon Llamas said that “all eyes will be on Apple as it launches its first headset next year.” Apple’s headset is expected to be much more expensive than Meta’s offerings, driving up the average unit price for the product category across the board, and Llamas believes Apple’s offering “will appeal primarily to a small audience of early adopters and Apple fans.”

In other words, don’t expect the first Apple headset to ship vastly more units than Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 right out of the gate. It’s just a first step in a long-term plan to own the mixed-reality market. As several reports over the past couple of years have noted, that plan will ultimately involve low-cost AR glasses and other products that will seek to broaden the user base for mixed-reality hardware.

Apple and Meta are not the only companies working on mass-market mixed-reality hardware products. We reported in April that Amazon posted several job listings soliciting candidates who can help the company build an “advanced” AR/VR product. And in December, we learned from job listings that Google plans to build a new augmented-reality device and operating system.

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How to turn off Gmail’s new sidebar (and other ways to deal with New Gmail)

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The new desktop Gmail design started rolling out this weekend. If you use the default theme, you’ll know it has arrived when your entire Gmail interface turns blue. Gmail’s new design first entered an opt-in preview in February, and after gathering feedback and fixing a few things, Google is pushing the design out to everyone. Everyone dislikes Gmail changes, so let’s talk about what’s different and how to turn it back.

A few things have changed between now and the February preview. The most striking change is the all-blue color scheme. Google’s blog post says: “You’ll notice the new navigation now features Material You, our updated, fresh look and feel for your Google apps.” “Material You” launched with Android 12 as a color-coordinated theming system that matched your OS color scheme with your wallpaper. There’s no color-matching with Gmail’s “Material You,” though, just the blue color scheme.

Gmail still has a theme system, so you can change the color to whatever you want. Click on the settings gear in the top right and then under the “theme” section, click “view all.” The background closest to Old Gmail is the solid “soft grey” background option. To truly match the Old Gmail background, you would want “white,” but that’s not an option. (You can also pick from your Google Photos collection via a “my photos” link at the bottom, and I tried uploading a solid-white background, but trying to apply it only brings up an error message). This “theme” screen is also where you can apply Gmail’s weirdly hidden dark mode: Just pick the black background option, and everything will switch over to light text on a dark background.

The other change you might want to make involves fixing our biggest complaint with New Gmail: that new, giant sidebar. Google has long had the strategy of shoving whatever new products it wants to promote into Gmail, and the new Gmail design comes with a big, full-height sidebar featuring only four icons: one for Gmail, two for Google Chat (Google’s latest messaging app), and one for Google Meet (Google’s version of Zoom meetings). Gmail already has a sidebar, but this new design adds a second sidebar, which feels like a big banner ad for Google’s other communication apps. Thankfully, in between the February preview and this on-by-default rollout, Google apparently listened to feedback and added the option to turn off the sidebar.

This new “no-sidebar” option isn’t very obvious, but you can kill the Gmail sidebar by turning off Google Chat and Google Meet. Just head to the settings gear, then the “Customize” link under “Chat and Meet.” Un-tick both checkboxes, and the sidebar will disappear, allowing you to reclaim a lot of screen real estate. It’s strange that New Gmail works this way when Old Gmail put Gmail controls, Google Chat, and Google Meet all in a single, adjustable sidebar, but that’s what Google chose to do.

Turning off the two-sidebar layout not only makes New Gmail look a lot more like Old Gmail—it also makes the regular Gmail sidebar work the way it used to. With the two-sidebar layout, clicking the hamburger button to collapse the sidebar only shows the app switcher and not any of the Gmail controls—you see links for Google Chat and Google Meet instead of “Inbox,” “Stars,” “Spam,” etc. When you turn off Google Chat and Meet, though, collapsing the Gmail sidebar once again shows Gmail controls inside Gmail! Huzzah.

If you really don’t like the new Gmail, you still can, for at least a little while longer, opt out of the new design. Click the settings gear, and you should still see a “Go back to the original view” option. This won’t last forever, though, and you’ll have to get used to New Gmail eventually. The original version was rough, but Google seems to have listened to the complaints about the second sidebar. If you tick the right settings boxes, you’ll see that there is no longer much difference between New Gmail and Old Gmail.

Listing image by Google

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