Apple needs to press play on Game Center

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As I went in for the putt, I realized that this was for the marbles—all of them. My heart racing, I aimed, tapped, and…score! But as I threw my hands up in the solitude of my living room, and barely managed to prevent spiking my iPhone on the couch, I felt the hollowness of my victory: How could I truly enjoy a barely eked-out triumph without the ability to dish out a little friendly trash-talking to my rivals?

The success of gaming on iOS often feels like something that’s fallen into Apple’s lap; I sometimes think that Steve Jobs and Apple are surprised by just how well games have done on the platform—pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless.

Sell, sell, sell: The main page of Game Center shows where Apple's focus is, and that's selling apps.

In iOS 4, the company tried to capitalize on that popularity by launching Game Center, a social networking service for iOS games—but, like the company’s Ping social service, it’s largely been met with a collective shrug of indifference by users.

Having played a lot of Super Stickman Golf with my colleagues lately—for research purposes, I assure you—I’ve found myself really using Game Center for the first time. And while it does an able enough job of letting me pit my meager game-physics skills against my friends and co-workers, there are plenty of places where the service falls woefully short.

As someone who also plays games on an Xbox 360—yes, yes, I know: unclean!—I can’t help but compare Game Center to Microsoft’s Xbox Live. While Live is a flawed, occasionally maddening entity, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better implementation of a major online gaming service: Nintendo continues to use a bizarre and Byzantine matchmaking system; Sony has had to confront its own... uh, challenges ; even Microsoft’s other games initiative, Games for Windows Live, is kind of a mess.

So Game Center could do worse than to emulate Xbox Live, much as that idea might pain Apple. If Cupertino’s serious about fostering gaming on its portable platform, there are a bunch of things that it could—and should—do in rolling out Game Center 2.0.

Find your voice: The social element of multiplayer games can’t be overstated. Unsurprisingly, there’s something far more engaging about being able to talk to and hear your friends while you’re in the middle of a game; whether it’s for some good-natured ribbing, or just to have an idle chat, voice communication helps turn gaming from a solitary experience into a social one. And if you’ve ever tried to play a cooperative game without voice chat, you’ll know it’s a frustrating experience to say the least.

iOS devices can run VoIP programs in the background, so you could fire up Skype, start a call, invite all your friends, and then switch over to the game—but now you’ve just doubled the amount of time you’re spending before you tee off. That’s the kind of hassle that can kill a casual game opportunity dead. Voice chat should be part and parcel of the iOS gaming experience. (At the same time, there are plenty of folks out there who would gleefully abuse such a system, so we’d also need controls that let us mute unruly players, or limit voice chat permissions to just our friends.) [Update: Apple’s Game Kit does apparently support voice chat, though not all games choose to implement it. —DM]

Waiting for Godot: Will this game ever begin? Text or voice chat could prove handy.

Text me: A lot of games implement their own text chat feature—Words with Friends, Carcassonne—but the place where Game Center needs it the most is in its multiplayer lobby. As you sit there, waiting for a friend to join—unsure if they ever will join—it would be handy to be able to discuss how soon you’re going to give up and assume that they’ve just been eaten by wild tigers. Voice chat can serve this purpose, too, but sometimes text chat is more useful and, frankly, less disruptive to the people around you. And for asynchronous play games like the two I mentioned above, text chat is far more useful than voice. So why not provide both options?

Message for you, sir: This one’s a head-scratcher to me: Why isn’t there a built-in messaging system in Game Center? Take a page from Xbox Live: When you miss an invitation to a game on that service, it goes to a sort of inbox. That way, if you’re out of the room or unable to accept the invitation when it comes up, you always know where to find it. Push notifications for invitations are all well and good, but I’ve had those invitations disappear on me, or missed games because I wasn’t able to respond fast enough.

Invitation only: If you miss an invitation, you've got no recourse.

In those cases, you also want to be able to fire off a quick message asking your friend to re-invite you, or explain why you’re not available to play right now—maybe try again in 15 minutes. Again, you could send a text or an e-mail, but, well, what if you don’t have their phone number? Or what if they’re gaming on their iPad and they don’t check their mail? Also, don’t make those message notifications obtrusive; nothing’s worse than having your game interrupted by a modal dialog box. Instead, follow the example of Game Center’s achievements, which pop up in a subtle little box, and don’t break the flow of a game.

Friend or foe: There's not much information to be had on a player's page, so why even visit?

Status report: Want a quick way to see if any of your friends are currently online playing games? This, to me, is one of Xbox Live’s killer features. Just as with my AIM buddy list, I can quickly see at a glance which of my friends are online and thus might be up for a game of Gears of War or Portal 2. There’s no such capability in Game Center: I can only see the last game my friend has played, and weep bitter tears that we missed our chance to play together. Also, providing a list of which of my friends are online right now also helps me to know I’m not about to invite somebody who’s comfortably asleep in bed.

Welcome to the social: Online play is all about socializing, and that’s an area where Apple hasn’t exactly torn up the playing field. Adding friends on Game Center is easy enough, but what if some of my friends know other people I’d like to be friends with? Why can’t I browse their list of friends? Similarly, while it’s cool that I can see and compare details of my friends’ performance on games we have in common, why can’t I browse their list of achievements for games I don’t have? Instead, Game Center dominates the friend screen with a list of all the other games they own—but tap those, and you’ll be taken to the App Store. Yes, it’s nice to be able to discover new games, but the primary purpose here shouldn’t be to hawk games. Same goes for Game Center’s home screen, where it shows a list of the Top Game Center Games. I get it, Apple: You want to sell apps. But I know how to use the App Store if one should catch my fancy. Let’s focus on the games themselves.

Dressed to the nines: A little bit of customization can go a long way, as Xbox Live avatars have proved.

The customization is always right: People love to put their own stamp on things, and as attractive as much of Game Center is, it feels very sterile. Beyond the ability to input a short status message, there’s nothing to differentiate one friend’s page from another. Nintendo has its Miis, Xbox Live and Sony have their avatars—the ability to at least create a profile image would make Game Center feel a lot more welcoming for many users. It may seem silly, but I’ll confess that I’ve spent more time tweaking my Xbox Live avatar than I care to admit. Letting users give that personal touch to their profiles is one of the things that will keep them coming back.

Object permanence: I’ve only got one Xbox, but I have both an iPad and an iPhone. Yet it’s frustrating to find that if I jump from playing The Incident on my iPad to playing it on my iPhone, I’m at a completely different place in the game. This is one place where Apple could jump ahead of its competition, by providing an API to allow games to sync their states wirelessly, tied to their Game Center login. That way, you never have to worry about which device you pick up—your game is always right where you left off. Some games, like Carcassonne and Words with Friends, handle this well enough on their own, but my beloved Super Stickman Golf leaves me to complete all my courses all over again. Whyyyyyyyyyy? It hurts me so.

I’m confident that the next major version of iOS will bring at least some changes to Game Center—perhaps even one or two of those that I’ve outlined above. But given the company’s long and contentious history with gaming, I worry that Game Center might be left to languish, another example of Apple simply not “getting” games.

Still, the company has one major advantage here that it hasn’t had in a long time: a popular gaming device and an active community to go with it. And to make sure it stays that way, Apple needs to get its head in the game.

[Dan Moren is a Macworld senior associate editor, and he's been known to do unspeakable things to rack up achievements.]

Updated at 10:38 a.m. PT to clarify that Game Kit does support voice chat.

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