Pointless-Quiz with Friends review: Name of BBC game show is fitting for the iOS version
At a Glance
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Oh, what a missed opportunity this is. The subtle delights of Pointless, the U.K.’s finest teatime quiz show, are squandered in this pale and joyless adaptation for iOS, which has none of the charm of its inspiration and a heap of technical problems.
Pointless is a television game show in which four couples compete to produce the most obscure answers to a series of trivia questions—the answer given least often by a panel of 100 members of the public. The aim is to get the lowest score to win. It’s essentially Family Fortunes (Family Feud in the U.S.) in reverse.
This sounds a little dry, but the simple formula is livened up by witty banter from the hosts and a keen sense of the absurd (a round on 18th-century history might be followed by types of trouser, for instance), and the show is massively popular in the U.K. An iOS adaptation was long overdue, really, but this game makes it clear that transferring the show’s qualities to the iPad and iPhone is harder than it sounds.
The single-player mode of Pointless for iOS is nothing like the TV show. You don’t play as a couple, and you don’t answer twice on each round. The first two rounds are just you against one other person, instead of there being four and three couples respectively. (On the TV show the highest-scoring team gets knocked out each time, which means that in early rounds the best strategy is often to play reasonably safe and avoid a wrong answer, which scores 100 points.) And the third round, which is a special best-of-three head-to-head on the TV show, is here exactly the same as the previous two rounds.
When you’re playing on your own, the computer player always answers first (and you get to see their score before you answer), so you always know what you need to beat, unlike in the show, where you sometimes go first and have to plan tactically, or go second but don’t know how good their answer is, or even if it’s right.
Indeed, the computer player, as far as we can tell, never gets it wrong. That might sound silly, but it’s a real consideration on the show: sometimes a team goes first and selects an answer that is clearly the most obscure available, and a legitimate response is to plump for something safe and hope they’ve got it wrong. Or you can rub it in and offer a different answer to the same question. None of that happens here.
Finally, it’s multiple-choice or, as schoolboys call it, multiple-guess. The TV show used to have some rounds like this—simply listing a set of answers, of which one or two were wrong—but abandoned it several series back on the show, presumably because it was rubbish.
It reduces much of the game to guesswork, particularly if the computer player gets a single-digit answer and you need something spectacularly obscure. “I’m in trouble, so I might as well guess and hope that ‘skort’ is a type of trouser. Oh, it is! I win Pointless.”
You can play against a human opponent (selected randomly, over email, or from among your Facebook friends). Indeed, it’s clear throughout that the makers of the Pointless app intended this as a multiplayer game—hence the Words with Friends-imitating subtitle—and it’s certainly true that this mode is a lot better than the single-player. But it’s still not great.
As in Words with Friends and other asynchronous games such as Draw Something, you play one move at a time, after which you wait for your opponent to take their turn. But a single go in Draw Something is fun: you guess the drawing, get a new commission, and do a drawing of your own. Here a single move is just answering a question. I also found that my rivals were slow at taking turns (I had five games on the go at once, and I was still twiddling my thumbs waiting for a response), and I was, to be honest, rather suspicious about the occasionally high standards of some of their answers.
This could be down to fortuitous reserves of knowledge, but it’s so easy to cheat on this game that it’s hard to be trusting. Since you’re playing on a device with Web access, you can look up answers very easily, or ask people in the room you’re physically in, or look up the answer in a book. But on top of that—and this is unforgivably unbalancing—you can use “pointers” that can be topped up by spending money on in-app purchases. It’s not even like this is a free game which needs to find a way to make money.
One way in which multiplayer is better than single-player is in the form of answers you can give. This isn’t multiple-choice: it accepts free typing. (That raises the question of why this isn’t allowed in single-player, of course.) This is much better, not to mention closer to the actual TV show as it currently works, but creates a few headaches of its own.
If you spell an answer even slightly off, the game marks it as wrong. That’s understandable, although there are games out there that can cope with minor or obvious spelling mistakes, and it’s a frustrating way to lose.
But it gets worse. Sometimes the game is only looking for a surname, and will mark your answer as wrong if you give the (correct) first name too. We submitted Cockroaches as the name of a Jo Nesbo novel, but that was wrong because the correct name appears to be The Cockroaches. Some reviewers on the App Store even report that they’ve given correct (paired) answers but lost out because they were in the wrong order. It’s horrifically pedantic.
One way this could be handled is by creating a local (rather than online) multiplayer, and we’d strongly argue that this is needed anyway. Far more fun that sitting and waiting for John Q. Randomperson to take his (suspiciously well informed) turn would be to play against the three people in the room with you. This could be a challenger to the Trivial Pursuits of this world. And whoever was taking their turn to read out the question could actually parse human answers without punishing misspellings.
Most of the problems with this game affect single- and multiplayer about equally.
Pointless has a tiny bank of questions. I’ve seen questions coming up two, three or even four times in under a week of playing, and on two separate occasions, absurdly, I actually got the same question for the second and third rounds of the same game. And lots of the questions are old, specifying film releases or whatever “up to the end of 2012,” as if they’ve simply been lifted from old series of the show.
The game has glitches, too. In the final round, where you have to choose from three categories, I was once offered (along with another subject), “film” and “films”. Spelling errors appear from time to time. I’ve seen the graphics partially drop out during play, leaving only the colurs of the Pointless scoreboard against a blank background. I’ve had a few crashes (on an iPad Air).
And throughout, the game fails to capture anything like the atmosphere of the show it’s supposed to be based on. The jokes and banter are nowhere to be seen, and the hosts are replaced with feebly animated cartoons who always say the same things and make the same bizarre gestures. At least in-game graphics such as the scoreboard and category labels are an excellent recreation of the graphics seen on the show.
One of the many nice little touches in Pointless is the way the jackpot slowly builds up, with £1000 added each episode if no one wins, and £250 added for each pointless answer. A few times this has passed £20,000, which isn’t much compared to other game shows but feels thrilling because of the slow accumulation. But in the app every new game always starts at £1000, which means the maximum you’re ever competing for in the jackpot round is £1750. It’s a small thing, but representative of the way the game doesn’t pay attention to what makes the TV show so good.
Here at Macworld U.K. we are big fans of Pointless the TV series, but that has sharpened rather than softened our disappointment at how poorly this iOS adaptation has been executed. As you can see, it’s taken a lot of words to get across all the ways Pointless-Quiz with Friends gets it wrong. This game could be rescued—and deserves to be, given the potential market this app will have—but it won’t be a small job. It needs at least five times as many questions, an injection of character, the free-typing model to be brought into the single-player game, a local multiplayer, and some attempt to make the way the game plays match the structure of the show.