‘Super Mario Run’, ReplayKit Live, and The Tech Death Spiral – The Carter Crater

carter_craterNotice something missing from Super Mario Run (Free)? It’s ReplayKit. You probably didn’t, which is a shame because Super Mario Run would have been a fantastic flagship game for ReplayKit Live. This was the first Mario game released on a non-Nintendo system, after all. This was a watershed moment for both Nintendo and mobile gaming history. And it was a perfect moment to get people hooked into streaming from their mobile device using a feature specifically introduced in iOS 10 to do just that. Instead, we get nothing. And it’s become the sad state of affairs for gaming features on iOS.

Doesn’t it seem nonsensical that on a major release that Apple partnered with Nintendo to promote in a way that they have done with no other game, a major gaming feature for iOS was roundly ignored? Well, in a normal universe, it would be nonsensical. But we live in a universe where Apple, the world’s most reluctant gaming company, often leaves features like this to languish. I want to believe that cool gaming features introduced by Apple could work out, but with frightening regularity, they do not. Even from inception, ReplayKit Live seemed to doomed to failure – it was barely mentioned at all at the WWDC keynote, only winding up in the Platforms State of the Union! ReplayKit in a recording facet has largely been ignored after it got a similar introduction at WWDC in 2015. And much like ReplayKit video recording, ReplayKit Live has not seen much in the way of implementation at all. It gets to a point where I am surprised when a game features either function! And I don’t blame developers for not implementing ReplayKit, if Apple’s not going to put their weight behind the feature either.

ReplayKit Live is set to go down the technology death spiral. What happens is that a format is introduced that requires both user support and a good content supply. What happens is that when the content supply is low, people stop using the feature or product, and even worse, stop expecting support for it. Then developers and other content creators de-prioritize support, because the users aren’t there. And with less content support, users choose not to use or expect support, until it all evens out or the product/feature dies. Would it shock you if ReplayKit’s API was abandoned at some point in the future? Game Center isn’t dead, but Apple sure didn’t make it a priority when it was a default app. Heck, I remember talking to the developer of Zen Wars ($0.99) who talked about how adding voice chat in online multiplayer through Game Center required only a few lines of code. If this was an available feature, why did so few developers actually use it? Because Apple does a terrible job at ensuring there’s a good supply for any gaming features they introduce.


Of course, a big reason why the technology death spiral happens is because often times, the creator of that product or service doesn’t have the resources to make it work. Think about a multiplayer game from a small studio – I’ve seen countless fun games fall apart because they don’t have the resources to get the playerbase to make the game a popular, ongoing product. But resources are not a problem for Apple. If anything, they have too much money. The fact that anything they create would fall to the technology death spiral is a sign that they probably don’t believe too much in what they’re creating. Apple TV gaming has fallen to this affliction as well. Developers took an early risk in making software for Apple TV, but the users weren’t there, now the developers are going away, and users who do stick around have less content to check out on Apple TV because they can’t reasonably expect any game to release on Apple TV. Why should they? If Apple had a coherent plan (maybe supporting controller-only games would have helped from day one), and was willing to throw resources behind developers to make sure there’s content when the content can’t support its creators by itself, well, maybe Apple TV gaming wouldn’t have flopped so hard, much to my chagrin.

Look at the virtual reality space. We’re still well away from a time when VR pays for itself for creators across the spectrum. But this is where the infinite funding mechanism works perfectly: for VR to be viable, it requires those with resources to support VR content creators. VR won’t pay for itself for a long time, if ever. But if it ever is going to work, it’s going to require appealing content, and a lot of entities are willing to take early losses to ensure there’s the possibility for future gains. Imagine if Apple was that way with anything gaming-related, willing to use their resources for more than just a few select apps to ensure that there’s great gaming content across a variety of platforms.

Now, while I’m using Super Mario Run‘s lack of streaming as a point of condemnation for Apple, this could be on Nintendo, who didn’t want to implement the feature. After all, they have a weird relationship with video content. But the fact is that of every other major release on the App Store this year and even last year, so few games feature ReplayKit, so Apple has not earned the benefit of the doubt at all. Apple plays a major role in featuring game releases, and word I’ve heard is that including certain features is a great way to get featured. So it’s not like Apple is remaining entirely hands-off! Apple could easily start making supporting features like ReplayKit a virtual prerequisite to a valuable feature slot. So, Apple doesn’t exactly get the benefit of the doubt here. It’s just as likely that they introduced the feature because someone at the thought it would be cool, but nobody thinks it’s important enough to really promote.

And that’s the problem – the feature is so inconsistently implemented, that no user can reasonably expect to have it available in a game they want to record or stream. I anticipate the counterargument of “Mobile gamers don’t care about streaming!" It’s a chicken and the egg problem – maybe they don’t care because there hasn’t been an easy avenue to do so? It’s far more difficult to stream a mobile game of any sort compared to a console or PC game. I also believe in the possibilities of itinerant mobile streaming, i.e., impromptu live streams, often of short length, shared on social media. This sort of itinerant streaming is rising in prominence through Facebook Live, Periscope, and [even Twitch is adding this to their app. But not as gaming content, as just standard video broadcasting. Why shouldn’t fun mobile games, which could work as fun short-term streams, be part of the equation for itinerant live streaming?

Super Mario Run would have been perfect for this sort of streaming. Stream yourself going after those tricky black coins. Taking on a friend in a Toad Rally? Stream it! How many more people would buy the $9.99 unlock if they felt like they were missing out because their friends were sharing their gameplay, especially of locked-away parts of the game? Unity offers ReplayKit support and remember that Super Mario Run is a Unity game. I’m not asking for anything ridiculous here!

While perhaps any avenue for a game-level API making streaming/recording working is doomed unless or until Apple decides to make it happen, I think there is hope for mobile game streaming. What Apple would ideally introduce is a system-level streaming/recording function in a future iOS version. Considering Android can do it through even third-party tools, Apple should look to implement something similar. Streaming from devices would be easy use for casual streamers and could get even professionals doing casual streams. Again, that’s what Twitch is doing, and they’ve shown little interest in iOS streaming. There was that mobile streaming API with TouchFish (Free) and a couple Gameloft games, but that was it. People expect to stream/record whatever they want. They do so on the Xbox and Playstation, why can’t they do so on mobile?

The thing that’s annoying about all of this is that once again, I see real potential for mobile gaming, when playing to its strength as short-burst entertainment, that is being held back because Apple can’t launch a successful gaming feature that’s more than just a mild curiosity.