Stopping the Spread: Can Mobile Apps Stop Ebola?

Last week, the Indonesian Red Cross released an Android app designed to help those affected by natural disasters. The app, called Mass Rapid Assessment, assists in sharing vital information during a natural disaster, whether that be practical tips or keeping in touch with loved ones during a crisis. Sumarsono, head of disaster relief, said that the app was aimed at boosting preparedness pre-disaster, and speeding up post disaster relief.

This isn’t the first app the Red Cross has put out in an effort to aid people in natural disasters. The American Red Cross has a whole raft of apps available on both Google Play and the Apple App Store, including apps for tornado, earthquake and flood disasters. They provide similar services, with additional social media alerts which the user can put out at the touch of a button to let friends and family know they’re safe.

The news of the Mass Rapid Assessment app comes at a time when most of the globe is gripped by fear of an impending Ebola crisis. Currently active in West Africa, thanks to modern travel habits it could spread frighteningly quickly. Could the use of mobile apps such as the Red Cross’ efforts help curb an outbreak?

Searching for ‘Ebola’ in the Google Play store throws up a large variety of options. Aside from a worrying array of Ebola themed mobile games (stay classy, guys), there are piles of apps offering help with the disease. Some, like Ebola Prevention App, offer maps that are updated with ‘affected area mapping’, that shows where outbreaks have occurred. Others, like Ebola News, promise to give the user up to date news on the crisis. Yet others, like the official Stop Ebola World Health Organisation app, promise to do both.

Given the sheer choice in the store, it seems that app developers have the situation wrapped up. However, how successful are these apps at stopping the spread of the disease? Apps such as About Ebola, created in Snapp, offer information in several different languages and are designed for use in affected areas. It’s been argued that these apps can help stop the spread of misinformation and panic, hopefully containing the disease. Since nearly all of the apps are free, they’re accessible by nearly everybody, too.

However, it seems that most of these apps don’t live up to the example the Red Cross apps have set. Reviews show that apps are sporadically updated, or in the case of Ebola News put out a deeply skewed version of the news. App stores can moderate the quality of the apps they provide, to a degree, but they can’t vouch for the accuracy and quality of the content they provide. When we’re dealing with such a serious illness, this has to be a worry. After all, most app developers are not medical experts.

Also, many of the apps are purely unnecessary. Where the app simply offers news or information on the illness, users may be better seeking out official sources of information online. Going to websites such as the Red Cross or WHO would offer much more precise, accurate info.

While the idea of mobile apps intended to help track and contain illnesses such as Ebola are a good idea, a lot more work and policing needs to go into their creation. While it’s normally great that nearly anyone can create an app and put it out to the public, perhaps in these circumstances we need to leave the apps to the experts.

Fabric: Will App Developers Trust Twitter Again?

Last week, Twitter announced a whole raft of development tools for mobile, which they have called Fabric. The suite of services available are designed to assist mobile developers at every stage of app development, and of course promote Twitter itself.

Fabric includes four separate services:

MoPub: This advertising service, developed specifically for mobile developers, allows them to monetise their apps through Twitter.

Crashlytics: Recently acquired by Twitter, Crashlytics offers a crash reporting service for developers.

TwitterKit: A set of developer tools that allow for Twitter to be integrated with apps in different ways. This includes native tweet embedding and composing, and Twitter log in.

Digits: A system that allows developers to give users the option to log into apps using their phone number, which they argue will bring in more users as a phone number is a quicker and easier option than others, such as emails and passwords.

So, why have Twitter decided to create this ‘mobile development platform’? The official word is that Twitter are bringing in ‘the future of mobile software development’. Others, however, have been much more cynical about the process. Venture Beat in particular points out that Twitter are way behind companies such as Facebook and Google in terms of monetization and use among most app developers. They also show how most of the services offered are available elsewhere, and most developers may not want to take a chance on Twitter when they’re working well with other companies. The only unique offering, they argue, is the Digits feature.

Developers have been reticent to use Twitter recently, due to events in 2012. In Twitter’s early days, third party developers were encouraged to build their apps on top of their platform. Later, however, they began to bring out their own apps and services in direct competition with them, which of course rubbed developers up the wrong way. In the end, Twitter tightened up the rules around their API, meaning many developers could no longer use the Twitter platform, and creating bad feeling around the Twitter brand.

With this in mind, can Fabric succeed? Many developers have been asked for their thoughts on the issue, and surprisingly, most aren’t too concerned about being burned by Twitter again. Anand Iyer of Threadflip pointed out that this time, if developers can no longer use the tools provided, they can switch to another provider if needs be. It seems that the services on offer will be of most interest to those who just starting out in app development, and will need to hunt out these tools for their start up businesses. Whether these tools will be preferable for the job though, is another matter.

Reddit and Alien Blue, or Should Your Business Have Its Own App?

Reddit, the mega popular link sharing website and the home of the ever popular Ask Me Anything, has finally come out with their official iOS app. Unusually, the app is one that was already available in the iOS store. Alien Blue, developed by Jase Morrissey, provided readers with an app based method for accessing the site. Reddit have now bestowed the ‘official Reddit app’ stamp on it and have taken on Morrissey as their official app developer, with the hunt now on for a Google Play developer to bring Alien Blue to Android.

This news comes a month after Reddit rolled out their Ask Me Anything app, for one of their most popular subreddits. The app collects the most popular interviews that have been conducted on the site, allowing users to browse through without wading through the vast amounts of content on the site itself.

Interestingly, Reddit apparently had brought out their own app in the past, named iReddit, but abandoned it when a rash of third party apps came out and did the job better. With that in mind, why did they take over one of those apps now?

Many have opined that it’s because Reddit has been losing out on an undoubtedly large amount of revenue by not having an app presence. With UK mobile ad spending now set to take over newspaper advertising, any online company worth their salt will want an app of their own.

There appears to be a lot of worth in developing an app for your business. Research has shown that people spend an average of 162 minutes daily on their phones. With mobiles now swallowing up a large portion of traditional media’s attention, such as TV and newspapers, it seems to make sense to build an app. There is an argument that all businesses may not need one at all, as they may just need to optimise their website for mobile browsing. However, if your business has a dedicated app, once downloaded it will stay in the user’s phone menu, providing an easier way to access your information.

There is also the question whether you would see a return on your investment in the app. While the cost of entry into the iOS App Store and Google Play Stores are relatively low, the return does need to be worth it. Also, now with so many apps available, yours would have to really stand out, and be a useful tool for your user.

The next question is, would your target market want an app? For Reddit’s market, the app was the best choice as their audience are 35-44 year old males, who are more likely to want to browse the site via their phone while out and about. If your business targets a demographic such as the elderly or children, mobile apps may not be the best way to go.

Finally, it’s worth considering whether the app would be useful for your business. As all mobiles have the ability to track their users, the information can be used to improve the user’s experience with your app. For example, if a user walks past a branch of your business, a push notification can be sent to their phone with a special offer for them. This tactic must be used with caution however, as users can be wary of companies ‘spying’ on them.

While the use of an official app will be a boon to Reddit and similar companies, they may not be for everyone. With the way we consume media and our increased use of mobile technology, though, it is most certainly worth considering.

The Snappening: What the Snapchat Leak Teaches Us About App Security

Last weekend Snapchat users found their private pictures splashed across the web, thanks to one teenage hacker who got access to thousands of photos and posted them online at thesnasppening.org. Mudit Grover took responsibility for the hacking, and shut down the site, saying that ‘My purpose was that people should see how vulnerable hosting private information on cloud can be, I do not intend anything wrong.’

While his final point is debatable, he’s not wrong about the vulnerability of data. Snapchat themselves have stated the breach didn’t come from themselves, but from a third party app named SnapSaved.com. The app allows users to save pictures and videos from Snapchat, with traditionally deletes the data after a few seconds. In their statement following the hack, Snapchat bosses reiterated the fact that the use of such apps violate their terms of use.

In the wake of the raft of celebrity nude photos leaked a few weeks ago, and the hacking of Snapchat and Dropbox, it’s clear that there are two main issues at play here.

Firstly, many have pointed out the weakness of Snapchat’s security following this incident. The app has no official API, meaning it relies on other companies like Apple and Google to police it, keeping it safe for it’s users. As this is the case, it’s very easy to build a third party app. Great if you have good intentions, deeply worrying if not. As Snapchat deals in sending of private and possibly sensitive data, this is quite an alarming oversight. The Guardian has noted that the easiest way to obtain other’s information, including logins and private images, is through creating fake third party apps, or hacking legitimate ones like SnapSaved.com.

The other issue is the attitude of users of services online. Anyone who used SnapSaved.com presumably had to agree to let the app use and save their data. How many, really, read the terms of use before they signed up? The vast majority of internet users don’t give a second thought to sharing intimate details of their lives online. When we’re posting pictures, blogs, and Twitter updates, we don’t think anything of it because we’re the ones sharing them. However, it’s a rude awakening when the information we thought we’d shared in private suddenly becomes public.

The flip side of this are people who feel they have the right to share that information. Many people, including Grover, seem to feel they are sharing the information for the common good. Others feel that if the information was shared via the internet, they have a right to it. Users of Reddit have been complaining that the site has been taken down, and a small group of people calling themselves ‘Team Danny’ hacked into thesnappening.org itself, posting Grover’s details including his address and phone number, along with distasteful racial slurs.

What ‘The Snappening’ has made very clear is that attitudes of both app developers and users have to change. Developers need to offer more than a simple illusion of safety, and tighten up the security on their apps. Users need to remember that just because something looks safe, doesn’t mean it is. Hopefully by doing both of these things, we can educate the attitude of ‘it’s online, so I have a right to it’ out of existence.

Colours, Psychology and the Subconscious: What Makes Mobile Games Addictive?

Following hot on the heels of Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga, and Flappy Bird, Desert Golfing is the new hottest mobile app around. Dubbed ‘the best worst game in the world’, the game has the player aim golf balls at holes on a rolling golf course that goes on forever. The game tallies your score as you progress, and eventually the score will improve as the player learns how to use the environment to their advantage. However, there’s no way for the player to start over with their new found knowledge, meaning they’re stuck with their meagre early scores forever.

Game dev Justin Smith says he prevented allowing the player to start over, as it ‘would sap the fun out of it.’ He also created an algorithm that created random courses infinitely, allowing players to keep going and going, even though Smith has asserted that there isn’t ‘anything of interest’ past the 3000th hole.

Reviews online show that players have become addicted to Desert Golfing, just a they became addicted other mobile games in the past. As the game isn’t free to play (an upfront fee of £1.19 on Android and £1.49 on iOS is required to play), it probably won’t see the same level of success as it’s peers. However, it displays some of the same characteristics that make these games so addictive.

So, why are these games just so popular? Dr. Simon Moore attempted to answer why this way by isolating six qualities the games have that inspire the ‘just one more go’ mentality.

One: You won’t have the gamer’s full attention.

Nic Williams of Lumo Developments explained that the developer must accept that the gamer won’t be giving their full attention to the game. They could be on the bus, cooking dinner, or playing with one eye on their favourite TV show. Therefore, the game should be playable with one hand, and playable even when you’re not paying full attention to it.

Two: Colours are everything

Almost all popular mobile games are an explosion of bright, primary colours, but they are always used carefully. Psychological research has shown that certain colours affect people in certain ways (i.e. people are often rated as more attractive when they’re placed against a red wall), so developers will use this to their advantage.

Three: They’re not too exciting

Moore notes that casual gamers aren’t looking for the same things from their games as console or PC gamers. More ‘hardcore’ gamers are looking for an intense emotional connection to their games, which leads to stress and withdrawal when the play session is over. Mobile app games, on the other hand, create ‘low positive emotion’, which doesn’t create such emotional highs and lows, leading the player being invested in the game for longer.

Four: Instant gratification

In traditional games, players are given a task and then rewarded when they complete it. In mobile gaming however, the player only games in short bursts, so the reward is given first and the task must be carried out first. It’s a quick way to get a casual player invested in the game at hand.

Five: Tapping into the conscious and subconscious

Any game worth it’s salt will get it’s players to make decisions on two levels. The first level is the ‘fight or flight’ response, where the player will decide to run or stand and fight, for example. The second taps into, essentially, how impatient a player is. Can they wait and save up the in game cash for better items and equipment?

Six: Cultural differences

Studies have shown that there are clear differences in way certain cultures play video games, and developers will use this to their advantage. There are also differences in the way we play based on anonymity. Anyone who’s spent time on Xbox Live will know that often anonymous players are much more aggressive than in real life. It’s also been found that female players will be more aggressive in team games if they are not identifiable as female.

And you thought you were just playing a match three game! Keep this in mind the next time you boot up Flappy Bird.

Destiny and the Rise of Gaming Companion Apps

Last month saw the highly anticipated release of Destiny, the new game from Bungie. The title is their first since splitting away from Microsoft, who are now in direct competition with the studio with the continuing Halo series.

Despite very little of the game being shown before launch, Destiny sold well, with the sales total reaching $325 million in the first five days of launch. Reviews lamented the lack of a well rounded story or characters, but noted the high sales figures show that gamers still want sci fi shooters.

Alongside the main game, a Destiny app was promised for players of the game. Video at IGN revealed that the app would give the player character management options, as well as containing the game’s ‘Grimoire’ and allowing the player to manage their inventory.The app developers have said the app will be great for players for managing their party while away from their consoles.

This isn’t the first time Triple A developers have ventured into making companion apps for their titles. Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed IV, Battlefield 4 and Dead Rising 3 are all recent examples. All the apps offer different perks and expand gameplay in different ways.

Compared to some of these ‘second screen experiences’, Destiny’s seems to be rather lacking. NPCs will call you on the Dead Rising 3 app to offer tips and missions otherwise unavailable in the game, and the Assassin’s Creed app offers an in game map that updates in real time, allowing you to tag landmarks with waypoints that appear in game.

With the ubiquity of app enabled devices, it’s surprising that apps don’t play a more integral role in gaming. As mentioned elsewhere online, apps can turn a game into a two player experience, with one playing the console title and the other manning the phone or tablet, directing their friend. It could also add an interesting new dynamic for gamers who stream their play sessions on sites such as Twitch. With the classic multiplayer experience disappearing in favour of online play, this could be a new and exciting way of bringing it back.

However though, how feasible would it be to use a second screen with a console game? While some of the ideas displayed in current apps are smart ideas, some of them would probably work better in the game itself rather than as a separate app. Also, anyone who has played a game while also trying to consult a walkthrough or other game related material will know how awkward it can be to keep switching between the two.

It seems that this is another case of our imaginations struggling to catch up with technology. There are certainly opportunities for developers to use app technology to their advantage, but the apps we have seen so far aren’t really living up to that promise.

iOS 8: All Your Games in High Definition

Now iOS 8 has been released, Apple have listed the seven games they have available that take advantage of their newly optimised engine. The games use Metal, which allows game developers to get more performance out of the phone’s A7 and A8 chips. This means that the phone can perform more like a console, displaying better graphics at a better frame rate.

This sounds like a brilliant addition for all gamers with iPhones, and could make more console ports, such as the recent port of Bioshock, a reasonable possibility. With only seven games out that are optimized for use with the Metal engine, we won’t see what it can really do for a while. However, this could elevate mobile gaming to the next level.

If you want to check out the games for yourself, Pocket Gamer have a good comparison article where they show the games running with and without Metal.

Asphalt 8

Asphalt 8 is a racing game by Gameloft, which has seen favourable reviews across the board. One such review notes that the iOS platform has quietly become a ‘haven’ for racing titles. The game features licensed cars from Lamborghini and Ferrari, among others, and uses advanced visual effects such as visual shaders and geometry reflection.

Beach Buggy Racing

Another racing title from Vector Unit, this game is a more simplified kart racer. It features fantastical arenas such as jungles, volcanoes and swamps, and allows players to challenge their friends online.

Defenders

Defenders is a tower defence game that uses collectible card game elements to allow the player to create their own strategies. Their Apple App Store pages boasts their optimization for Metal, with better graphics and reduced battery consumption.

Modern Combat 5

Another Gameloft title for the list, Modern Combat 5 is an FPS that features both single and multiplayer modes. Reviews for the game have commented on the high quality of it’s graphics.

Mr Crab

Mr Crab is an arcade puzzler from Illusion Labs. The game has you play as the titular Mr Crab, climbing towers, defeating bosses and saving baby crabs along the way.

Plunder Pirates

Plunder Pirates is the newest title from Rovio, the people behind the ridiculously popular Angry Birds. The game is a ‘real time strategy adventure’, which has players building their own bases, and sending teams of pirates out to plunder from others.

Epic Zen Garden

Easily the most graphically stunning title on this list, Epic Zen Garden has been designed specifically to show off the capabilities of iOS 8 and Metal. The game is really more of a tech demo, allowing the player to interact with a virtual garden.

Out of all these games, Epic Zen Garden is probably the only title to really use Metal to it’s greatest capability. Hopefully in time, we’ll see more ambitious and interesting titles on the platform. Until then, players can continue to play shoot ‘em ups and racing games on their iPhones with cutting edge graphics.

Minecraft and Twitch Bought Out: When Indie Goes Corporate

Dominating the news this week are buyouts of two of the biggest names in gaming. Twitch TV has been bought out by Amazon for $970 million, while mega hit title Minecraft has been taken over by Microsoft for $2.5 billion.While Twitch and Minecraft have been big news in the gaming community for a while now, these two payouts have now caused the wider community to sit up and take notice. Why have behemoths Amazon and Microsoft decided to shell out so much for these properties?

Amazon has found huge success in online retailing, but it’s no secret that it’s been looking to expand their empire into the world of gaming. They already have an in house game developer, and have recently released the Amazon Fire TV, a console designed to capture the casual gaming market. When Google came sniffing around Twitch, the hugely successful live streaming platform, Amazon clearly snatched it up before they had a chance to take it away.

If they’re looking to attract more gamers, buying Twitch could be a lucrative move for them. Twitch viewers typically stay on the site for a few hours at a time, watching their favourite streamers who create new content for the site around the clock. This creates unique tie in opportunities for Amazon that Google may not have been able to implement in quite the same way.

With Twitch being described as the ‘ESPN of gaming’, $970 million almost seems like a bargain. However, many online commentators have warned that Amazon will have to step carefully. Gamers are notoriously picky and vocal about their concerns, and will not hesitate to go elsewhere if they’re not happy with the service being provided to them.

Gamers have indeed been vocal about the sale of indie title Minecraft to the Microsoft corporation. Some don’t trust Microsoft to handle the running of the game correctly, and another fears that Microsoft will implement micro payments, to the detriment of it’s players. Others, however, are cautiously optimistic, as they feel Microsoft have the ability to focus more time and resources into making improvements.

Markus ‘Notch’ Persson, creator of Minecraft and development company Mojang, decided to sell the company on after deciding that he didn’t want to be handling a company that’s grown to global proportions so quickly, stating that ‘it’s not about the money, it’s about my sanity.’

So, why have Microsoft bought the company up? Chief Executive Satya Nadella has stated that they’ve taken it on due it’s potential as a learning tool. He said, ‘The best way to introduce anyone to STEM or to get their curiosity going on, it’s Minecraft.’ Xbox Chief Phil Spencer added that the game is an excellent way of uniting people online.

The purchase of both these companies has brought gaming into the global media, showing them as companies in their own rights, rather than the hobbies or pastimes of children as they would have been seen as in the past. Investing in gaming companies is now clearly a viable option, especially as gamers have grown up and have the disposable income to spend on services such as Twitch or Minecraft. This could be the beginning of a new trends of gaming becoming taken seriously in the world of business.

The Sims 4 Has Launched, But What’s Missing?

The Sims 4 exploded onto the gaming scene last week, and already the internet is crammed full of ideas, opinions and concerns about it. The game continues EA’s incredibly successful franchise, which began life in 2000 after creator Will Wright decided to design a life simulator. On paper, the game sounds as if it would be like watching paint dry, but the game’s stratospheric sales figures suggest otherwise.

As to be expected, The Sims 4 rode straight up to the top of the UK sales charts, becoming the first PC only title to do so in two years. Die hard fans have already logged thousands of hours with the game, but so far their actual reaction to the game has been mixed.

Most gamers and reviewers have noted that many features from past installments have been removed or heavily modified, making The Sims 4 a rather pared down experience. Fans have compiled an entire list of the missing features, comprising of 89 different gameplay mechanics. These include no toddler age stages, no ‘normal’ career paths and bizarrely, no pools (so you can’t get rid of pesky Sims by putting them in the pool and removing the ladder).

Instead, EA have chosen to focus more on Sim characters emotions and interactions this time around. Characters can multitask for the first time, meaning they can, for example, sit and watch TV while chatting to a friend. They also now have more defined moods, meaning the player can track what makes them feel that way and avoid or walk into those situations accordingly.

These changes have certainly changed the way the game works, but arguably they’re not what fans were looking for. One of the defining characteristics of the Sims franchise was the extensive and dedicated modding community, who created all kinds of items, Sims and even entire communities for others to download and play with. The aggressive pruning of features in the latest installment has certainly curtailed some of the creativity of players and modders, but it certainly hasn’t stopped it. One player has created an almost perfect replica of the set of classic sitcom Friends, complete with a Sim cast. Another, predictably, has already created a ‘nudity mod’ for the game.

Many have pondered whether this is a marketing tactic, where EA can add DLC and expansion packs to the game to add established experiences back to it. The franchise is certainly no stranger to the practice, with expansion packs existing for the very first iteration of the game. However, EA certainly doesn’t have a good track record with DLC, making gamers much warier of buying from them. If a player feels they’re buying parts of the game that should have been included with the initial release, they’re obviously much less likely to part with their cash.

Overall, The Sims 4 has been described as a ‘sideways step’ for the franchise as a whole. Those who’ve played the game don’t deny that the new features create a whole new element to gameplay, but they do miss the features that have been removed. The appeal of the game is that every player plays differently, and the removal of said features has removed a lot of options for fans. Hopefully, EA will add in substantial and exciting expansions in the future (fans have a good idea of what they want already), without creating the impression they’re wringing the cash out of players for DLC.

Silent Hills and the Modern Evolution of Horror Gaming

One of the biggest revelations at this year’s Gamescom was the release of P.T, or Playable Trailer. Announced as a playable demo for a new horror game from a new company, players who downloaded it found that the demo was actually for Silent Hills, the latest installment in the Silent Hill franchise. Footage of the game spread online like wildfire, and now Silent Hills is one of the most hotly anticipated games out there.

P.T was notable in the way it approached horror. The player walks around the same L shaped hallway over and over, the actual horror coming from the dread they feel as their surroundings become gradually altered and they’re given the feeling that something awful has happened in this space. Putting the pieces together of that event eventually allows the player to ‘escape’ the hallway and discover the secret of the trailer.

This marks a noticeable shift in game developers are approaching horror gaming. Indie developers have been exploring a more thoughtful, tense brand of horror for a while. Amnesia: The Dark Descent by Frictional Games, released in 2010, became a hit online due to gameplay focused on making the player more vulnerable and unable to fight back against the monsters of the game. In 2012, a free download of Slender: The Eight Pages was made available online. Based on the online myth of Slender Man, the player had to collect eight pages from a journal before the Slender Man caught up with them.

This was followed in 2013 by Outlast by Red Barrels, another survival horror game that followed a similar storyline with the same mechanics. This year, around the same time as Silent Hills’ reveal, another horror indie title called Five Nights at Freddy’s, a Steam Greenlight game, began receiving attention. The game is a point and click title, with the player trapped in one room with limited power to track and ward off their pursuers.

All these titles have been praised for their more subtle, yet still terrifying approach to horror. All playable characters are unable to fight back, meaning new gaming mechanics have had to be devised. In Amnesia, the player can open and close doors slowly, meaning they can peek out to check the coast is clear and close a door behind them to hide. Outlast and Five Nights at Freddy’s use cameras as a defense, but give the player limited power to use them so they must learn to use them at the optimum moment to avoid attack. Overall, these games, some with very little development power behind them, have become some of the scariest horror games of recent times.

Many fans of the Silent Hill franchise are hoping the P.T trailer is forecasting a return to form. Earlier titles focused more on atmosphere building, and the promotion of playable characters as everyday people who wouldn’t be able to fight off monsters. In P.T, many nods were made back to these titles both in reference and in gameplay, so it’s looking hopeful that Silent Hills will be following the leads that Amnesia, Outlast et.al. have created. If it’s as scary as the trailer, it’s looking good for Silent Hill’s comeback.