Why third-party iOS app stores are vital for digital culture

Adapted from my Mastodon thread from Dec 14, 2022, which was covered by GameDiscoverCo and PocketGamer.biz.

With the news Apple is planning to support third-party App Stores to comply with EU regulations, I see we’re rehashing the old arguments about whether it’s a good thing. To be clear, I don’t only think it’s a good thing – I think it’s essential to the flourishing of digital culture, and it’s astonishing how so many people have become convinced otherwise. So here’s my responses to those tired arguments:

“I don’t want to install a new store for every app/game!”

Do you really think that’s going to happen? That’s not happened literally anywhere else! It’s hard and expensive to run an app store, even big games publishers are giving up on the most open platform we have – the PC.

“Apple keeps me safe”

Apple checks Mac software for safety through the notarization process. Software can be notarized even if you don’t sell it through the Mac App Store. They can do the same for iOS.

“I don’t want App Stores full of junk and scams!”

Have you visited the App Store lately? Apple only spends a few minutes reviewing app updates and even major apps routinely break its rules (I found this myself while researching subscription paywall flows). New app stores could be worse, yes – but they could be a lot better, too.

“I like the simplicity of Apple’s payments and refunds for apps”

That won’t go away with new app stores, and besides, it’s in their interests to make payments easy. Speaking as a developer, Apple’s rules make it impossible for us to issue refunds directly, even when we’d like to. So we could provide better customer support under a different set of rules!

Here are the real benefits of third-party app stores:

  1. Publishers can make a living. Apple’s 30% fee exceeds the margin that book, music, and film publishers have, which is why they’re the only game in town (since they save 30%!). If you want better e-readers than Apple Books; if you want new avenues for people to publish content digitally, this is the ONLY way it will happen. There is NO alternative other than going web-only, with all the pain that entails.

  2. We can get new kinds of political and adult content. Apple prohibits games about sex and they’ve had problems with political speech too. You might handwave this by saying “oh but at least they prohibit the bad stuff too” and I just disagree. This is the “Itch.io” store argument – we could have games about everything and anything, if we had third-party app stores. Proving the point, Apple recently made a reprehensible and ill-informed argument about how games on Itch.io’s “so-called adult games” that were “so offensive we cannot speak about them here.”

  3. New discovery mechanisms. The App Store is an awful way to discover apps and it’s getting worse since it’s infested with ads. It no longer pays for referrals so sites like Toucharcade can’t make any money reviewing games. New app stores allow for new, more targeted, discovery mechanisms.

  4. Faster, fairer development experience. This is invisible to consumers, but an ever-present overhead on developers, who have to contend with capricious app review processes. It’s better than it was before but ultimately it excludes new developers and people with less experience; it benefits incumbents who know how to navigate and exploit Apple’s labyrinthine rules.

Ultimately, people have been so starved of the benefits of multiple app stores that they have no idea of what they’re missing. It’s honestly tragic, and in economic terms, the opportunity cost is almost incalculable.

We have lost 15 years of digital cultural development because everything has to abide by a single gatekeeper that controls the dominant mobile platform in many countries.

I will not be sad to see it go.

Photo by James Yarema on Unsplash

A Cut in the Shape of My Heart

A couple of years ago, in the midst of COVID lockdowns, a Guardian story went viral: I’ve had the same supper for 10 years. The story was, if anything, more surprising than the clickbait headline. It was an account by Wilf Davies, a 72 year old farmer who’d barely left his Welsh farm’s valley, and had only ever left Wales once, to visit a farm in England.

Yes, Davies had the same supper for ten years (“two pieces of fish, one big onion, an egg, baked beans and a few biscuits at the end”) and as he tells it, much of his life was equally routine. He doesn’t regret any of it, being happy with feeding his sheep and seeing the seasons pass in the valley that’s “cut in the shape of my heart”. In contrast, he hears London “is a place best avoided”.

I remember reading the piece and thinking that there are all sorts in the world and at least he was happy, but as the story went viral, I was taken aback by how many praised it as a “life well-lived”“a glimpse of enlightenment”, “seems to me to have the secret to a happy life”, and so on.

Maybe it was the stress and anxiety of lockdown, but I was surprised how angry I became at these reactions. When did the good life become one free of curiosity, never wanting to taste new food, experience different cultures, or travel to new places? Since when did we think the best thing in life is to stay in our own valley forever? I have nothing against Davies – what baffles me are people who, I assume, enjoy the fruits of travel and trade and the flow of culture, and decide, “you know what, maybe we’d all be happier if we had less.”

Davies’ story has lingered in my mind for years. I didn’t want to write about it at first, afraid I’d come across as spiteful to those who loved it. But I think it reflects a country that’s becoming more spiteful to those who want something different.

Britain has become world-leading in making a virtue out of necessity. Can’t afford to eat different food? Didn’t want to, anyway. Don’t have the time or money to travel across Europe or the world? Everything you need is at home. There is a humility to this thinking, an acceptance of limits and where we come from. There is also a meanness and smallness of mind about it, a suspicion of outsiders and the ideas they bring.

I’m the child of immigrants from Hong Kong, a former British colony. They came here to study, fuelled by ambition and opportunity and curiosity. My partner is from Canada; her father immigrated from Scotland. I grew up in a quiet town in the Wirral, just north of Wales; I imagined I would hate the noise and chaos of London, but came to love it after working there for a decade. I moved to Edinburgh, a capital city airdropped into a beautiful, miniature wilderness, which I love in a different way.

Paeans to a way of life exemplified by a man “at one with the earth’s natural rhythms” who tells us he has never eaten Chinese, Indian, or French food and never wants to, are a cut to my heart. I imagine that they’re just as baffling and vaguely insulting to anyone who has come to love the variety of the world, whether out of choice or out of necessity.

Again, good for Davies, I’m not about to make him try anything he wouldn’t want to – but I would ask others to try. No, I would beg others to try. I’d say they can only know themselves if they explore different possibilities, and that if you travel to London and Edinburgh and France and Egypt, and you meet different people and you try different foods, and you decide that, yes, my farm in my valley is the place I want to be above all, I would say that you will love it even more after all that.

I’m defined by the places I’ve walked in and the people I’ve met. I am those places and am those people.

I remember a clear night in Cornwall. I’m 14, looking up at the stars and commiserating with a friend about a cloud that’s just drifted by. “That’s the Milky Way,” he explains.

At 17, staying with a friend in Canada, I bite into a cob of corn and almost drop it in shock. “What is this?” I ask. “It’s sweetcorn. Have you never had sweetcorn?”. Never like this. I didn’t think it could be this sweet, anywhere in the world. Later, I look into why we have the fruit and vegetables we do in the UK.

19, San Diego. I spend the summer at UCSD doing synaesthesia research, bunking at a PhD student’s house in La Jolla. I can’t drive, so I have to walk 30 minutes to the nearest shops, which are in a mall. I’m the only person I can see on foot, and it takes me a while to figure out how to navigate the parking lot. I’d heard about the car culture of the US, but never believed it until that point.

Years later: we drop in to a tiny bar on the corner of a quiet street in Nagasaki. A young couple serve beers and fried food from a kitchen that would absolutely fall afoul of British health inspectors. Five – maybe six, at a push – customers can fit inside. Spending just an hour there leaves me with countless questions about how such a bar is even possible. How can they pay the rent? How cheap is the rent? Why had I never seen anything like it, anywhere in the UK? I could’ve learned about the history and economics of countless similar places from Jorge Almazán’s Emergent Tokyo, but that gets the order wrong – I bought the book because I’d seen the bar. And even if I’d bought the book, I’m not sure I would’ve understood what it meant without sitting in the bar.

Lockers in Japanese railway stations, cheap and plentiful so travellers don’t need to haul their bags everywhere. Bullet trains that aren’t just faster versions of British trains, but capacious and impossibly smooth. Cities and towns with utility poles and wires snaking everywhere, a different aesthetic approach enabling denser and more affordable rents. We can live differently, I realise.

In Hong Kong visiting my relatives, we wander through Kowloon on a hot evening. Hundreds of people are eating at tables in the middle of streets that hours earlier were busy with traffic, sharing dishes heaped with steamed chickens and vegetables and bottles of beer. Why don’t we do this? It’s not just because of the weather, I think.

Last year, I venture to an open-air public bath in the sea near Malmö. No clothes allowed. Men and women are strictly separated, but a little raft within sight of both areas lets everyone meet, if they want.

Going home from a party in Greenpoint, Brooklyn at 1am, feeling pleased with myself for staying out so late, then walking past bars packed full of surprisingly non-drunk people. Different drinking cultures are possible!

In Shanghai, I meet the artist behind an exhibition based on my book. We have a beer and trespass onto the enormous walkable artwork outside the gallery. He recounts the events of art fundraiser he went to the previous week, a tale of such excess, belying such inequality I wouldn’t have believed it of China in any other circumstance.

We have a superpower: we can see different ways of living by travelling the world.

We have to be careful about how we do it, of course; trains are better than planes, long trips better than shorter ones. And we can learn an awful lot through books and social media and TV and movies. But how do we decide who gets to travel and bring which ideas back to us? And can we really pretend we can understand the world just the same secondhand as well as firsthand?

We have made a world where we are all reliant on one another. Precious few people can stay in their valley all their lives; jobs vanished, valley obliterated, their calling in another city, their love in another land.

It is not always better to stay in the valley. It is not closer to nature. It is not more enlightened. It is not something we should imagine is better. Choice is not the same as capitalism. Variety is not always a vice.

We are all citizens of the world. We might as well get good at it.

2022 Year in Review

2022 was the one of the busiest years of my life – even busier than 2021, when I sold my company, Six to Start, and wrote most of my book critiquing gamification, You’ve Been Played

I’m still CEO at Six to Start. This year we continued expanding the company to more than double its pre-acquisition size to support new projects like localising Zombies, Run! to four new languages, notably bringing on and training up a whole new set of managers and team leads. 

My book was released in September. I hadn’t expected how it would feel compared to self-publishing or writing essays – far more protracted, with a long gap between finishing writing and starting an endless series of interviews and commissioned essays and articles. Many people whose opinions I value have been very complimentary toward the book, and it had some excellent reviews in The New York Times and The Irish Independent, a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, yet I still have mixed feelings about the entire process.

Oh, and I started writing a monthly column for EDGE magazine about video games. 

All of this took place amid the gradual lifting of travel restrictions around the world, and I took full advantage, travelling to Paris and New York and San Francisco (the latter two for my book launch) which was delightful and also tiring. 

Learning Figma at Six to Start

I’ve already mentioned the big news in the introduction, and there are some unannounced projects I can’t talk about yet, but I do want to highlight my experience learning Figma this year.

Screenshot of the Figma editor

I’ve been the lead game designer of Zombies, Run! since we started work on it in 2011. Less publicised is my role as lead UI and UX designer. This made a lot of sense when we were a tiny team and makes less sense today given all my other obligations, but I find it immensely satisfying and a way to remain directly connected to our users. Also, the UI doesn’t change that much on a year-to-year basis, anyway.

I originally created mockups in Omnigraffle, a vector-based rapid prototyping and design app. I moved to Sketch a few years later, a more powerful tool more suitable for app design. It was very easy to mock up new designs in Sketch and give our developers a sense of how things should be arranged on our app’s various screens, but the way I and many other designers used Sketch was more like Photoshop than anything else, creating mockups that didn’t use consistent layouts or properly cater for different text or screen sizes. This would save me time but would entail a lot of headscratching and questions from our developers when they came to implement them in code.

A big chunk of designers have moved to Figma in the last two or three years. It has two enormous differences from Sketch. Firstly, it’s a web app, whereas Sketch is only for the Mac. This has some obvious limitations (e.g. you can’t use it offline) but it enables seamless real-time collaboration, not to mention eliminating the need to constantly update apps or keep file versions in sync, all of which Sketch struggles at.

More importantly, Figma encourages designers to use its sophisticated auto-layout system rather than placing elements willy-nilly, a la Photoshop. This means that when you’re creating a list of items (e.g. a settings screen), you have to specify a consistent amount of spacing between elements, along with considering what happens when a text field is very short or very long, and ideally set up libraries of images and icons that can populate each part of the list.

Every carousel everywhere all at once

In practice, this means that creating a new mockup (e.g. a carousel of banner images) takes ten times longer in Figma than in Sketch because you have to figure out how to make everything line up perfectly in all cases while not turning it into an incomprehensible mess of layers; the goal is rather to craft a beautifully nested series of reusable, configurable components that can be intuited in the briefest glance such that your developers will cheer your name through the streets as they behold its clarity and logic. If you’ve done your job properly, instead of designing five near-identical carousels that can’t be reconciled with one another and need five different implementations in code, you’ve designed a single super-carousel that’s adaptable for every conceivable circumstance that only needs to be coded once. 

I realise it’s a little ridiculous for me to still be doing any amount of UI design work as CEO. The way I justify my work on Figma is that I’m setting up a design system which will be far easier for others to understand, adapt, and extend; and that it’s actually quicker for me to lay the foundations myself rather than explain it to another designer. 

But if I’m being honest, Figma’s puzzle-like nature is probably the closest I’ve ever gotten to actually-useful programming. It’s hugely satisfying to know that designing things “properly” makes life much easier for our developers and results in a better experience for our users, who get a more reliable app and consistent design. Figma is a tool which seems daunting and unnecessarily fussy at first, but also rewarding to learn, to the point where I can now look at community-created designs and work out how to do them better. I like to understand the details of how processes work in my company because it helps me know where our limits and opportunities lie, even if I end up delegating the work later on.


My first book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, was effectively self-published back in 2013. There was a print edition published by a small company and a new edition was published by MIT Press in 2020, but its original funding from Kickstarter meant I had near-total control over its writing and publicity.

Cover of You’ve Been Played

My new book, You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All, has gone through a very traditional non-fiction publishing process with Basic Books. The advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing vs. publishers are quite well worn these days and I mention them briefly in my review of John Thompson’s Book Wars, so I won’t reiterate my fairly obvious reasons for choosing differently this time (distribution, prestige, getting an advance, having an editor, getting reviews, being more well-known such that I can get an agent and publisher more easily, etc.).

What I’ll say is this: publishers still add a lot of value, but not as much for someone like me as I’d expected. I’ve always had to be my own editor, publicist, and marketer.  I’ve always been happy hiring people to help me, like getting the excellent Jen Monnier to throughly fact-check my book. That’s not to say I didn’t have any help from my editor, but it wasn’t what I imagined.

I’m a little exhausted from talking about the book. I finished writing the core of it almost a year and a half ago, which might as well be a lifetime. Sometimes when I’m being interviewed, I find myself relying on the same examples over and over again, and I wish I could express its ideas as clearly as I did in writing. A book is the crystallisation of thousands of hours of thought by a single person into form that can be consumed in just a few hours. A podcast or a video might be more approachable, but I can’t imagine making one that would have the precision of argument or the breadth and depth of my book. All of which is to say, I can’t even really talk about the substance of the book here, all I can think about is what’s happened in the last few months, which is the book launch, the publicity, and the initial reception.

Some of the very biggest publicity hits for You’ve Been Played were things I did on my own, like being interviewed on Anne Helen Petersen’s massive Culture Study newsletter, or speaking at the NYU Game Center, or trolling Elon Musk into thinking my terrible ideas for gamifying Twitter were good. I often think I could’ve done these just as easily if I self-published. But I don’t think I’d have gotten reviewed by the NYT that way, and for better or for worse, that review is of immeasurable value.

I ended up wasting a lot of time on the book’s publicity, too. I said yes to every single interview for this book, bar one. Most of them were from pretty small outlets and podcasts and, I’m quite sure, did nothing at all except tire me out. I also said yes to every invitation to write essays and articles about gamification. At one point this summer, I was writing three original multi-thousand word essays simultaneously in my “spare time”. I was paid pretty well for most of them, but it was more work than I should’ve taken on. 

Three months on from a book’s launch is a strange place to sit. Unless your book blows up instantly – which very few do – most people will still be in the process of reading it or hearing about it, so you won’t know what its ultimate reception will be yet. By any objective measure, my book has done well. Most authors would kill for the reviews I’ve had – I know past Adrian would’ve! But like most authors, I’d hoped it’d do even better. I wonder if gamification has been dismissed as being too obvious and old hat in the tech world, and too niche or unimportant by everyone else. There’s little I can do about that other than writing the best book I can, so I’m always pleased when readers say how engaging and accessible it is, and how it stimulates so many conversations.

Maybe it’d have done better a year or two earlier, when the topic was fresher. That might have worked had I self-published it, or been more famous so a publisher rushed it out, or if I were a full-time writer. Or maybe the title should’ve been something more obviously about gamification; practically every review used the word “gamification” in the title.

Me in conversation with Eric Zimmerman at NYU

But this is just my impatience speaking. A History of the Future made far less of a splash on its launch and went on to gain an important audience in the following decade; in a year or two’s time, I hope You’ve Been Played will have had much more influence. And I hope my complaints here are understood as someone who’s spent three years writing about a subject he cares about deeply and wants it to have the very best chance it can get to reach an audience. Anyone who’s spent this long on any creative endeavour is going to feel a little protective of what they’ve made, whether or not they let it show. 

Perhaps in the future, I can channel my impatience with the publishing process into solving the same problem for others.

Continue reading in Part 2…

Games in Translation

Run down the list of last year’s top ten bestselling books in the UK and you’ll find ten books that were originally written in English. It’s the same for movies, though in fairness Parasite, from South Korea, just about squeaked into 2020’s top ten. Brits just don’t seem to be excited by fiction from other countries – but the trend is very different for games.

Out of the top ten games sold last year, franchise stalwarts like FIFA and Call of Duty made up most of the list – but if you included digital sales (which Nintendo doesn’t report, annoyingly) Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Animal Crossing: New Horizons almost certainly would’ve made it in, with Super Mario 3D World and Pokémon Brilliant Diamond also in the running.

It’s strange to think of Mario Kart being a “foreign” game in the same way that we think of Squid Game as a foreign TV show. If you told a non-gamer it was made by an especially imaginative British developer I doubt they’d bat an eyelid, whereas there’s no mistaking Money Heist’s Spanish origins. This is partly down to the fact that game translations are really good now; we’ve come a long way since “all your base are belong to us” to the point where many people may have no idea their favourite game wasn’t originally made in English. 

It’s certainly not because games have less to translate. Sure, Mario Kart doesn’t have a hundred hours of audio, but Final Fantasy and Beyond Good and Evil have far more words needing translation than the average movie or TV show. The difference is that developers are now willing to spend more for better quality translations, and the lack of visible dubbing in any game that doesn’t use FMV or pre-rendered cutscenes – which is most of them, these days – makes it easy to overlook any minor issues. And though it pains me to say it as someone who cares about storytelling in games, a lot of gamers clearly don’t care about a shaky narrative (whether or not it was originally written in English) providing the mechanics are solid.

This happy circumstance has made games one of the most cosmopolitan forms of entertainment in the last century. I don’t think most players are intentionally seeking out foreign games, though; they just want to play good, original games, and the cost of development and distribution has sunk so low that you can find world-class studios in practically any country. 

There are obvious standouts, like France’s strength in story-driven adventures, or Japan’s strength in practically every genre other than first-person shooters. I still marvel at how Life is Strange, one of the most beloved adventure games of recent years, was originally written in French, despite being set in the Pacific Northwest; or how The Longest Journey was written in Norwegian. Before COVID tore up the plans for the Tokyo Olympics, Nintendo’s characters reportedly were going to be a major part of the opening ceremony, in recognition of their worldwide fame.

For a while, it looked like games might become China’s main cultural export too, with the sensational international success of titles like Genshin Impact, Dyson Sphere Program, and the beautiful retro-styled RPG Eastward. The Chinese government’s recently-lifted freeze on new domestic game releases since the summer of last year hasn’t helped the industry, but it’s clearly as good as the best.

Most developers don’t set out to be cultural ambassadors, but even the most abstract and fantastical games tend to hint towards their origin; Tetris features St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, and my own Zombies, Run!, recently translated into French, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese, takes players through the London Underground and into the Hebrides. Anyone playing the Chinese Parents life simulator will get a taste of what it’s like to prepare for the gruelling “gaokao” high school exams, or what it means to receive “red envelope” gifts. 

During the pandemic, I started travelling vicariously by reading translated novels. It shouldn’t surprise you that one of the best French alternate history thrillers in recent years, Civilisations, is still an incredible page-turner in English, or that the best Polish sci-fi writer, Stanislaw Lem, remains funnier and smarter in translation than practically every native English author. 

We’d all gain as individuals and as a society if we spent more time with media from other places. Sadly, there are countless great books that have waited years or decades before being made available in English. We’re fortunate we don’t have to wait anywhere near as long for the best games to get translated.

Originally published in EDGE magazine issue 377 (December 2022). Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash.

We Need to Talk About Video Game Awards

Pity the poor awards voters. Yes, Elden Ring will surely win game of the year just about everywhere, but what about all the other categories? Anyone doing a halfway-decent job at judging this year’s best narrative game or the best debut game will still have to spend hundreds of hours to get through the longlist. And while you might not sympathise with the plight of those poor games industry voters who get to play dozens of games, the practical impossibility of judging puts the entire notion of games awards into question.

I’ll focus on one of the most well-known awards bodies: the BAFTA Games Awards, which I’ve been part of for over a decade. Each year, perhaps a couple of hundred games are up for consideration across multiple categories. Around 850 members then vote on the best games in each category, with the top ten going before a jury of nine to twelve games industry experts (see the rules PDF).

Ten games doesn’t sound too bad, but jurors need to play them to completion in just a few weeks. According to How Long To Beat, a representative set of ten games a jury member might judge would take the average player 150 hours to complete. Even if they’d already finished a couple of the games, that’s still over 120 hours – a solid four hours a day, every day for a month. That’s only just doable if you have a full-time job, which most games industry experts do. And forget about experiencing any optional sidequests or New Game Plus, because those definitely aren’t included in the 150 hour total. 

A single month of relentless after-work gaming might be tolerable, but most jurors should have been playing dozens of games before that point simply to vote on their top tens in each category. It leaves barely any time for voters to experience other art like TV, movies, and books to inform their opinions.

It’s useful to compare this process to the BAFTA Film Awards, which sees around a hundred films across all categories each year under consideration by voters (rules PDF). That’s two hundred hours to watch every movie – not just all the movies in a single category – spread over a considerably longer voting period of a few months. It’s still a lot of time, but you can manage it with a mere movie a day, meaning it’s possible for film voters with full-time jobs and families to get an appreciation of the entirety of the awards field in a way that is completely impossible for games voters.

Other games awards aren’t any better; in my experience, BAFTA does a lot to ensure a diverse, representative array of games and judges. Ultimately, any awards body that claims to represent the entirety of video games suffers from the same problem of demanding too much from its voters.

Should we get rid of all game awards? Maybe. Some say awards are more about the prestige of the voting body than anything else. In far too many cases, that’s true – but it’s also true that the best award bodies can draw attention to art that would’ve otherwise been overlooked. In the case of games, I have to question whether the top games of 2021 really needed more attention than they already had; did we need to spend so much time deciding whether It Takes Two (winner of The Game Awards’ Game of the Year) was really meaningfully better than Resident Evil Village or Deathloop?

The solution lies in the overreach of games awards themselves. Back in 2018, the V&A Museum held an exhibition called Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, exploring the design and culture of games, to widespread industry praise. I was a little more sanguine – not about the exhibition itself, which was very good, but about its framing. Imagine the V&A holding an exhibition called “Painting”, or one called “Fashion”, aiming to sum up an entire artform in one go; it’d be laughable. Instead, outside of games, the V&A correctly focuses its exhibitions on individual artists and genres and styles, which gives it the space and focus to do them justice.

I can’t blame awards bodies too much. Games have exploded in quantity and variety over the past few decades in a way unparalleled by other art. We should celebrate this diversity, not by trying to crown the best game of the year, as if we could crown the best piece of “video” from all of TV, movies, YouTube, and Twitch, but by creating new awards bodies for every genre and style. If we did that, voters could give every game their due – and maybe get an early night.

Originally published in EDGE magazine issue 378 (Christmas 2022). Photo by Joshua Golde on Unsplash.

What Really Happens in Aftersun?

Aftersun is a story about how we remember. It is also a story about a father and his daughter going on holiday in Turkey. 

But it’s also a story about… well, that would be a spoiler. So please stop reading now if you haven’t seen this movie, as I don’t want to rob you of the pleasure of discovering it for yourself. It’d be a great shame if you read this and went into a cinema assuming I’m right.

With all that said: spoilers!

Playing With Wikis

Back when “transmedia” was an innovative new term rather than a way to describe everything Marvel or Sony or Harry Potter does across movies, video games, and comics – in other words, about 15 years ago – there was a brief craze of “second screen” experiences to accompany TV dramas. As viewers watched the show, they’d browse a website on their laptop (smartphones didn’t exist yet) for extra bits of story, like text messages between characters, or news articles reporting on whatever had just happened on screen. The idea was essentially: why watch one screen when you can watch two for twice the entertainment?

Back in 2008, I designed one such experience for the BBC’s Spooks: Code 9 spinoff. Sadly, our Liberty News website wasn’t nearly enough to rescue a decidedly uneven drama that had been overdesigned for the “youths”. In any case, the second screen fad was quickly forgotten amid the oncoming tide of smartphones and social media apps, which were far more interesting and distracting than any transmedia made for TV shows.  

The story wasn’t over, though. As soon as smartphones and tablets became ubiquitous amongst gamers, there was flurry of second screen experiences, this time to accompany video games. Anyone playing Mass Effect 3 in 2012 could install a Datapad iOS app to get messages from crewmates, read the game’s codex, and grind away on a minigame that’d help you see the game’s supposed “good ending”. 

Ubisoft, always helpless before transmedia’s charms, built similar companion apps for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and Assassin’s Creed Unity in the following two years. They were… fine. I found it handy to set waypoints on the map and get bonus items, but juggling a phone and a controller was a lot of hassle for not much benefit, especially compared to using in-game tools. 

Evidently other players agreed, and game companion apps are no more. Maybe it was foolish to think they could ever work given how interactive and immersive games are meant to be. But the problem wasn’t the apps – it was that they weren’t giving players what they really wanted. What’s better than a map of where you’ve already been? A map of where’s best to go next.

I’m not too proud to admit I played long sections of Elden Ring with one eye on a tablet loaded with walkthroughs and levelling guides. And while I’m sure there are some Stardew Valley players who’ve never visited the fan wiki to find out a villager’s favourite gifts, or Animal Crossing: New Horizon players who’ve never been tempted to check out a turnip price calculator, I just don’t think there are a lot of them – the volunteer-run ACNH API, which services an entire ecosystem of Animal Crossing apps and websites, gets three million requests per day.

Walkthroughs, wikis, Reddit explainers, YouTube how-tos – they all make games more fun. I don’t think I’d have stuck with Elden Ring if I hadn’t follow a route to get an overpowered meteorite staff early, or to become overlevelled by farming runes. The game’s sheer difficulty – and lack of difficulty settings – seemingly made the community more forgiving of people doing whatever they needed to to make it easier, rather than sneering at those who couldn’t hack it. Despite the help, Elden Ring never got remotely easy for me, but it was a lot more enjoyable. 

These companion apps and websites, practically all unofficial and fan-made, smooth over the bumps in games, whether that’s a boss that’s too tough, a level that’s poorly designed, or simply a player who – for whatever reason – just needs a hand for a while. They make games more approachable and accessible. They make games better. But they only exist because people are already excited; a truly dreadful or unbalanced game is unlikely to have the level of community devotion required to create great resources. 

Interestingly, few people think of these companions as cheating any more. These days, people are most likely to find them by typing “how to use flasks in elden ring” into Google, as if asking a knowledgeable friend. It’s reminiscent of the “extended mind” hypothesis, which suggests that some tools, like pens and paper – and instantly-accessible online resources – can become so integrated into our thought processes that they’re basically turn into an extension of our minds. 

Maybe that’s why one person’s speedrun feels like an achievement for the entire community. With the internet, we’re all playing these games collectively, learning from each other, whether or not they’re multiplayer. And that’s worth keeping two screens on at once.

Originally published in EDGE magazine issue 374 (September 2022). Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

It’s Always Sunny in Cupertino

My favourite weather app is WeatherPro, from Germany. It isn’t the prettiest – apps like Weathergraph have better widgets for the iPhone and Apple Watch – but in my experience it reflects the UK’s changeable weather best of all:

WeatherPro, showing the forecast for today (Thursday 21st July) and the next three days

If I look at the icons alone, today in Edinburgh is somewhat sunny, tomorrow is a bit rainy, Saturday is like today, and Sunday is a classic mix of sun, rain, and thunder.

The forecast has been correct for today, at least: as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a drop of rain. Maybe there was rain somewhere in Edinburgh, but it was a nice and sunny day overall.

Apple thinks differently:

Apple Weather’s forecast

According to Apple’s weather icons, every day is the same: rainy. Yes, they all have different likelihoods of rain, but it gets boiled down to “rainy”. Apparently if there is just the chance of a drop of rain, Apple thinks that day is a total washout.

Maybe that’s true in Cupertino! Maybe the risk of a single drop is enough to change your behaviour for the whole day – you’ll carry an umbrella, you’ll cancel the barbecue, you won’t hang up the washing outside (lol, I know you can’t do that in the US).

But that’s not how it feels in the UK. If a day is mostly sunny with fifteen minutes of light rain in the afternoon, that’s a sunny day. It’s not a rainy day.

BBC Weather agrees with WeatherPro:

BBC Weather’s forecast

Today is cloudy, tomorrow is rainy, Saturday is the same as today, Sunday is sunny and thundery. Not bad, as you’d expect for a weather forecast designed for Brits! It fails to reflect the fact that today was fairly sunny, but never mind.

And to hammer the point home, Google agrees with Apple:

Google’s weather forecast

Rainy, rainy, rainy, and rainy.

What’s the moral of the story? It’s not just that weather patterns vary around the world, it’s that perceptions of weather also vary. A weather forecast that uses icon classifications designed by Californians is useless for anyone in the UK, and likely many other countries.

The fact it’s so bad in the year of our lord 2022 demonstrates just how little Apple and Google care about the rest of the world.

All these games, lost in time

Almost all of the games I’ve made over a fifteen year career are unavailable today. Of the dozens of mobile and web-based titles I’ve been involved in designing, some of which had millions of players, only three can still be installed. Games are an astonishingly ephemeral art form.

Outside of a few devoted preservationists, most seem resigned to the permanent disappearance of all but the most successful games. When game designer Emilia Lazer-Walker recently highlighted Apple’s policy of removing “outdated” apps and games that hadn’t been updated in the last three years and weren’t being downloaded, many applauded the company for keeping the App Store clean and free of abandonware. In other words, if your game was removed, it deserved it.

Apple’s impulse to highlight the most modern games is understandable, but there’s a big difference between removing games that are still perfectly playable, and simply not promoting them in search results. The latter is a reasonable way to ensure most users are happy; the former uses download numbers as the ultimate arbiter of worthiness.

I can guarantee you that in thirty year’s time, there are obscure games, unloved today, that will be recognised as incredibly important and influential in the history of our art. Just because we can’t predict which they’ll be isn’t an excuse to treat today’s unpopular games as trash.

Apple may be the most egregious offender in its cavalier treatment of older games, but it’s not alone: most publishers and platform owners actively oppose making games better available for study by scholars, especially through emulation (they’re worried good emulators will make piracy too easily). By doing so, they rob form us the ability to learn and gain inspiration from past games, let alone the chance to document and understand the history of game design.  

Despite this formidable legal opposition, digital preservationists have made incredible advances in game emulation. These efforts, largely open source and driven by volunteers, range from emulating consoles like the PS4 and Nintendo Switch on the PC, to the Internet Archive’s browser-based emulation of old Mac and PC games. The Analogue Pocket’s hardware FPGA emulation allows players to experience handheld games from a whole host of consoles.

The iPhone is an unusual case. Apple makes installing apps outside of the App Store (“sideloading”) very difficult, so once something is no longer officially distributed by Apple, it really is gone. I’m sympathetic to Apple’s belief that it’s important to lock down phones since they contain so much sensitive personal data, but there are choices they could make to keep older games around longer, such as developing compatibility layers or allowing virtualisation and emulation. In contrast, Microsoft has extended backward compatibility across four generations of Xbox, and even Sony recently created a “Game Preservation” team.

But we shouldn’t leave game preservation up to volunteers and platform owners who might one day lose interest. Instead, we should be inspired by the institutional and legal protections that exist for other media. The British system of legal deposit requires that a copy of all print publications (and now, eBooks) must be given to the British Library for archiving, and five other UK libraries are also entitled to request a copy. The British Library’s Emerging Formats project is exploring whether and how this should be extended to other formats, which could include some types of narrative games, but this needs to happen faster. Games may be “emerging” when looked at from a millennia-long perspective, but art is being lost right now.

In the meantime, the games industry should drop its bad faith argument that games preservation could harm its finances through piracy of games that it might one day re-release. It’s laughable how an industry that endlessly boasts of being bigger than Hollywood and changing lives through art is worried about the lost earnings from researchers – or indeed, anyone –  being able to play games from the 80s and 90s for free. Barely any old games are ever re-released and even then their earnings are a rounding error against those from latest titles. The history of our art form is being left to moulder out of apathy and spite. 

The British Film Institute has a list of “Most Wanted” British films that have been lost. Among them are Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 movie, The Mountain Eagle, and The Last Post, a 1928 silent movie unqiue for having been created directed, written, and produced by women. Imagine what we could have learned from them. How could they have been so shortsighted? 

This is how.

Originally published in EDGE magazine issue 373 (August 2022). Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash.

The Forever War

Review of Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing by John Thompson, originally published in The Author’s Spring 2022 issue.

In 2007, Penguin commissioned the company I co-founded, Six to Start, to help its authors design stories that could only be told online. Previous storytelling experiments and marketing campaigns had used the internet, but chiefly as a delivery mechanism – a book serialised through emails, for instance – rather than changing the form of the story itself. We wanted to try something new, and original.

Always with an eye on the main chance, Penguin also wanted us to promote its classics, which is why we ended up with stories such as The (Former) General in his Labyrinth, by Mohsin Hamid, Your Place and Mine, by Nicci French, and Alice in Storyland, by Naomi Alderman. These stories were wildly inventive, variously told over Google Maps, within an interactive dungeon crawl, written and read in real-time, and hidden across multiple websites.

When the campaign, called We Tell Stories, garnered hundreds of thousands of readers and won Best of Show at the South by Southwest festival the following year, I imagined it would usher in a digital storytelling renaissance. And instead of giving our work away for free, as so many digital experiments did, we’d help authors sell to this new audience.

This did not come to pass. We went on to make a ‘Young Bond’ spy game with Charlie Higson and an iPhone app with Wilbur Smith, but We Tell Stories and its descendants made approximately zero lasting impact on the bottom line of publishers. Their bread and butter was, and continues to be, selling books – mostly printed – containing 50–100,000 words of plain text each. My company turned away from the publishing industry toward the more profitable lands of smartphone apps and games.

None of this would come as a surprise to Cambridge sociologist John Thompson, whose new work Book Wars (Polity Press, 2021) provides a crisp, systematic review of how the ‘digital revolution’ has shaped the last decade of book publishing. Just as every tech company has had to sprint to keep ahead of giants like Google and Amazon, so too have book publishers had to reinvent their businesses lest they die at the hands of those very same companies.

I am always a little suspicious of accounts of ‘digital revolutions’ since it’s very easy for writers to pander to their audience, whether that’s tech industry boosters with a penchant for regurgitating press releases or committed sceptics who shudder at the thought of reading a book on anything other than paper. Thompson has deftly steered between those poles by interviewing over 180 senior executives and staff in the publishing industry, not to mention drawing on research from his previous book, Merchants of Culture (Polity Press, 2010).

Reinventing the book

An early chapter on the possibilities of reinventing the form of the book, as I tried with We Tell Stories (rather than its delivery mechanism, which Thompson terms the ‘format’ of a book), covers the many attempts to make dazzlingly interactive books on the iPad. Some of these, such as Touch Press’ iPad app The Elements, were highly profitable, generating $3 million in net revenue. But as a deluge of apps drove down the price that consumers were willing to pay, from £10 to essentially nothing at all, businesses couldn’t justify investing the hundreds of thousands of pounds required to make high-quality interactive books.

Despite being on the wrong side of this shift (at least, until Six to Start began making smartphone games), I read all of this with great satisfaction. Why? Thompson’s research was impeccable. The challenges he described, and just as importantly, the figures, all matched my own experience working with major UK publishers in the late 2000s and 2010s.

Those in the traditional publishing industry are likely to skip straight to later chapters on the ascent of audiobooks, the eternal problem of how to increase the ‘discoverability’ of books in a crowded marketplace, and the growth of fan fiction and social media storytelling platforms like Wattpad, perhaps in the hopes of transformational tips. It is unlikely that they will find any, as most of the good case studies will be well known to anyone paying attention (like the importance of collecting readers’ email addresses for marketing newsletters), and with most of Thompson’s interviews taking place up to 2019, the strategies are inevitably becoming a little dated. The value lies more in Thompson’s synthesis of scattered details into a few big pictures.


Take the theme of disintermediation (ie cutting out middlemen), which manifests in crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Unbound but most threateningly in the hulking beast that is Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). KDP allows authors to self-publish ebooks in a fraction of the time and effort required to go through traditional publishers, and gives them access to hundreds of millions of Amazon and Kindle users.

Depending on whether you include KDP in your analysis of the book market as a whole, traditional publishers are either doing just fine or are being utterly dominated by Amazon. The problem is that the exact size and contours of KDP can only be determined through guesswork and inference, which Thompson relates through an amusingly secretive meeting in a San Francisco cafe with ‘Data Guy’, an anonymous software engineer and self-published author who has attempted to estimate the sales of KDP books compared to traditional publishers. The short answer is that as of 2016, self-published KDP authors may have accounted for a substantial proportion of all genre fiction and perhaps more than half of all romance sold by Amazon.

Some in the publishing industry may not feel especially threatened by KDP, treating it instead as an R&D facility to identify promising new writers. (Andy Weir, for instance, whose self-published smash hit novel The Martian was picked up by Crown in 2014). It remains to be seen whether Amazon will be content to leave this money on the table, or if they’ll begin to court successful KDP authors to its own publishing imprints.

Speed vs prestige

The latest version of disintermediation to hit the publishing industry, Substack, isn’t covered in the book. Launched in 2017, Substack allows writers to easily publish email newsletters. Many newsletters are entirely free to read, but some writers charge a subscription. Unlike self-publishing, which still has a whiff of the vanity press about it (and I say that as someone who has self-published), Substack has enticed well-known and well-paid authors to join its platform, like former New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel and former Guardian columnist Roxane Gay. The top ten publications on Substack collectively bring in more than $20 million a year, and the platform as a whole has over a million paid subscriptions to newsletters.

Writing a newsletter is seemingly complementary to writing a book, but I wonder whether the speed and direct engagement with readers it offers might compensate for the loss of the prestige of getting published. For writers with decent social media followings, or simply those who can keep up with a gruelling weekly (or semi-weekly!) schedule, newsletters can be rewarding in more ways than just making money. Writers – not their editors or publishers – can see exactly who their readers are and who’s paying. They might not get editors, but some don’t feel they need them, and those that do can pay for freelance editors directly.

Substack is notable because it has cracked the seemingly impossible problem of getting readers to pay for non-fiction words on a screen – to the tune of $5-10 a month each, which amounts to roughly £45–75 a year. Email newsletters certainly aren’t a get-rich-quick scheme, but it’s working well for a lot of authors. Just ask George Saunders, whose Story Club newsletter launched in December 2021 and already has thousands of subscribers paying around $50 a year. Publishers need to think what they can do for their authors, lest they face a supply problem as well as a demand problem. Several authors who write about technology and culture have told me how discouraging it feels to finish a book manuscript about, say, the impact of TikTok on society or the growth of remote work, and then have to wait 9 to 18 months before it’s published – at which point their analysis is not only dated but also overtaken by swifter newsletters and magazines. If this keeps up, the best writers on fast-moving subjects may abandon book publishers entirely.

Book Wars focuses largely on English language trade- publishing in the US and UK, which is understandable given that the research was a one-person job. Still, I could have done with hearing more about what’s going on in the rest of the world, and in China in particular, where digital short stories, serialised fiction and microtransactions are flourishing in a way thought impossible by English-language publishers. My father is an avid reader of Chinese historical fantasy on his iPhone, and he was astonished to learn I don’t read fiction in the same way. According to Shaohua Guo’s The Evolution of the Chinese Internet (2020), in 2017, half of the country’s online users – over 350 million people – read online literature through websites, forums, blogs and WeChat.

On the subjects Thompson does focus on, his insights are clear, refreshing and unvarnished, perhaps because he stands outside the publishing industry. He is ultimately optimistic about the future of long-form reading, audiobooks and printed books, all of which have held up remarkably well in our new age of smartphones and tablets. Book Wars is more ambivalent about the future of ebooks, which Thompson believes to be best suited for genre fiction, where books are most often read quickly and linearly, unlike, say, reference books. It seems to me that there is more room for experimentation here, including and beyond Substack, but of course this is a battlefeld littered with the corpses of companies that thought they could reinvent publishing.

Thompson has a long view of publishing, one that isn’t mired in nostalgia. He isn’t dismissive or jaded about the digital revolution, which is exactly the right attitude for any publisher hoping to navigate its turbulent future. As for authors, the new possibilities offered by self-publishing, crowdfunding and newsletters may seem daunting, but they only exist because there are countless people ready to pay good money for good writing. The future will always have a place for authors.