Thursday, October 27, 2011

Arkham City Map App

One of the interesting things about Arkham City is the $3 iPad app that lets you know where Riddler Trophies are. Collectibles are an interesting topic and there are a lot of great essays covering what makes for good and bad collectibles, but what’s interesting about Arkham City and the companion app is the gaping hole between games and their companion pieces.

There are about 400 trophies scattered across Arkham City. In the game, you can either scan in existing trophies to record their location, or take out green-colored bad guys in order to wring the information from their mouths onto your map. However, location is not enough - each trophy might have a puzzle or a required gadget associated with it (Catwoman has her own set of trophies which only she can collect), and so the OFFICIAL Batman: Arkham City Map App (OB:ACMA?) gives you a touch-screen interface where you can tap the riddle and get a screenshot and some text purportedly containing the solution to the riddle. Of course, there are some complications.

Let’s say you’re like me, and you’re easily pressured into finishing the main plot, but along the way you manage to scoop up a healthy serving of easily-solved riddles and trophies. Ten hours in, you finish the main plot, and start looking at how many effing trophies there are. From the accumulated scans and interrogations, you have a pretty good idea on how to start up but every five to ten trophies you get stuck, or you can’t find the thing, or whatever. You could walk to the other room, get on your preferred search engine, and start searching for terms like “arkham city bowery riddler trophies” (hah! Good fucking luck finding the one you mean!), or you could try and find sites that give reasonable and complete solutions while cross-referencing that with other sites and their maps, or you can just spend the measly three extra dollars on a really good game with really good puzzles. So you do, and you open the app, and oh my god the entire map is covered with riddle icons.

There are a few ways to proceed. You can either try and eyeball the solution and the screenshot to see if you remember getting a particular trophy so you can mark it complete. This is risky - a lot of solutions are very similar, and locations are hard to discern, so you might get a false positive. Plus, it takes a long time (four hundred trophies, and about five seconds to click a riddle, look at it, and mark it done or not). Or, you can go back in time, start playing with the app in hand, and mark every. single. trophy. as you receive it. This means constantly dropping in and out of the game, double checking your location on the map, and going through that five-second process four hundred times--just spread out from minute 1, when you might care more about other things (like enjoying the new game you’re just getting used to). Or, you can try the pragmatic approach: interrogate a few thugs until you have a reasonably complete map, and just approximate your location against the OB:ACMA when you get stuck on a tough one. This is what I did. I am missing exactly two trophies.

There is a better way.

The Xbox Companion app for the phone will eventually allow you to control your console from your phone. This isn’t completely a new idea. It’s just a specialized form of remotely accessing a machine which has been around since basically forever, but for some reason this is the first big shot in the “three screens” war. The premise of “three screens” is that we have information we access in 3 ways: smartphones, televisions, computer monitors. Right now those three are fairly isolated from each other. Although it’s possible to have a media PC that outputs to a TV screen, or a smartphone app that remotes to your computer, it’s generally pretty rare and/or clunky.

What technical limitations prevent an iPad app from talking to an Xbox game to figure out what trophies you’ve already collected? Xbox games are free to talk to the Internet - Ubisoft already has a proof of concept for this, and Burnout: Paradise allows you to upload a PS3 save file to see what you’re missing. I can imagine it adds a fair amount of work to the game in development, but a read-only API doesn’t require much in terms of assets or voice work. Costs could be more or less recouped with official map apps that actually track your progress. It would keep people playing your games longer, blah blah blah, monetization strategy, synergistic transmedia experience, etc.

Of course, I’d like to take this one step further, right into Crystal Chronicles territory. How come me and my six poker buddies can’t sit in front of an Xbox and have the pot and buttons and community cards on the television while our pocket cards are sent to our smartphones? How come when “the” Age of Empires Online app is finally published to Windows Phone 7, it’s just a list of recipes I can make instead of a tool to let me craft those recipes during my bus commute?

There is wasted potential here. The technology exists, and I’m pretty sure there’s a market for it as well. It just hasn’t been touched - at all.