April Foolery 2017 [#15]

 

So another year, another April 1st. As is usually the case, the internet was awash with odd concepts, fake news and terrible puns. On top of which, we also had the annual Aprils Fools “pranks” (badum-dish).

Honestly, there weren’t many good jokes this year. The National Trust and Google Home Gnome teams put out some clever and well made efforts (I’m definitely a Duck man, too), but otherwise little even made me chuckle.

On the other hand, two April Fools events had me completely enthralled, not just throughout the 1st, but for several days afterwards. Reddit’s /r/place was incredibly fun to be a part of, regardless of your personal “style”. At first it just seemed a little gimmicky and, I won’t lie, I lost interest as the Colour Wars broke out, figuring that the internet hive mind had gone full blown /b/tard and wouldn’t be coming back. But then He-Man and /r/ainbowroad happened, ushering in a new era of creativity and collaboration on the Place which turned it into something both incredibly addictive and fascinating. The initial break out of the Void made me chuckle, and I must admit to even helping out initially (though it should be noted that I mistook their efforts for a Doctor Who homage). As their true nature became known, however, I forsake the black tiles and took up a roll as a caretaker for the next 48 hours. I was hooked, checking back in whenever I had a chance and found the ever-morphing canvas utterly enthralling. The final product is brilliant, a little slice of internet history that I genuinely feel somehow honoured to have been a part of. Even more interesting though are the various GIFs floating around in the days since, showing the more ridiculous sequences of time on the Place. Everything from Skeletor’s swift joint to the attempted overthrow of the US are just fantastic to watch, especially when sped up.

But the Place wasn’t all Reddit had to offer. As I watched (and helped) the logo for one of my favourite subreddits appear on the canvas, I realised I hadn’t checked out what they were doing. Despite ostensibly being a community for discussing Pokémon Go, /r/theSilphRoad has become a fantastic source of ideas. For past cultural events they’ve hosted Pokémon hunts (hidden within Reddit’s voting system, of all places), riddles and other fun surprises so I wasn’t too shocked when I saw that they had their own April Fools in full swing: Team Rocket had taken over the Silph Road! Obviously, the website had been reskinned with Rocket colours, logos etc., along with all the community moderators having their privileges receded and replaced with Rocket Grunts, but the ‘joke’ ran much, much deeper.

A post appeared early in the day saying that the Nest Atlas (a web tool the Silph team has built over the last few months for PoGo players) was the reason for Team Rocket’s intrusion and, sure enough, once people knew where to look they began to find clues. It turned out that the team behind the Road had been kidnapped and were being held hostage; better yet, one of the largest PoGo Youtuber’s (and a personal subscription), Nick from TrainerTips, had also been captured. The crossover of communities helped make the event extremely successful, as thousands of people around the world starting prising apart various websites, map elements and other clues in a fantastically well put-together hunt to track down the Silph team. Special locations and interactions had been built into the Nest Atlas, certain web files had been added to the stack with clues and there was even a Team Rocket ‘intranet’ that became accessible for a few hours.

On top of all that, the entire event (for calling it anything less would be insulting, frankly) led to a fully functional* mini-game hosted by theSilphRoad. Paying homage to the original Pokémon Go teaser trailer, the hunt eventually led to down-town Manhattan, where Team Rocket had captured “Silph HQ”. Entering the location on the Nest Atlas led to a selection screen to pick your squad and then an interactive battle with non-other than Mewtwo itself. The execution was lightweight (understandable, given the circumstances) but really fun and gave the community a single goal to work towards. Overall, an amazing experience that deserves serious applause.

*Until the TrainerTips’ fans descended and overwhelmed the servers; #BlameNick!

Palliative Bug Fixes

A palliative is a treatment that soothes even if it can’t cure the illness.

By all means, whenever you can, fix the problem, go to the root cause, come up with a better design…

But when you can’t (and that’s most of the time, because the straightforward problems have already been solved), the effort you put into providing a palliative will not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

~ Seth Godin

I’ve been catching up on Seth’s blog (I’m woefully behind on pretty much everything at the moment) and this post in particular caught my attention, largely because it reminded me of the reason why I haven’t really been reading/posting/watching anything much lately: Pokémon Go. I’d still like to do a full breakdown of that game, which isn’t this, but Seth’s words really summed up one of the aspects of the game’s development that has impressed me.

Anyone who has had anything to do with Go by now has probably come up against one of their many bugs. When the game first launched there were dozens; the game would freeze when you caught a Pokémon, when you didn’t, when you span the map too quickly, when you randomly encountered the wrong species or item. It crashed routinely, the servers were completely unstable and core features, such as the Pokédex and tracker, straight up didn’t work. The game was a mess and often very frustrating, but many people saw the gem at the core and decided to stick around anyway (yours truly, clearly, included).

Over a month later and many of these issues persist. However, quite a lot of the bugs have been addressed. Sometimes, as with the now infamous “three footsteps” glitch or the more recent issue where some Pokémon randomly changed upon a successful catch, it seemed like each fix broke something else. Despite this the game is now far more robust than at launch and barely ever force quits for me any more. I can tell several of the bugs still exist, but wonderfully were they couldn’t instantly cure the problem they’ve introduced palliative solutions.

Sometimes, the game hangs when loading. When it first launched, you couldn’t do anything when this occurred except either wait it out and hope or force the app to crash and reload. Now, after a certain time has elapsed, a “Sign Out” button automatically appears. Press it and you’re returned to the initial splash screen where you can reattempt to connect. It’s not a fix – the loading screen can still hang – but it presents a much less frustrating solution than the previous alternative. Same goes for one of the earliest bugs where the “rocking Pokéball” animation would just fail to load, locking you into a useless screen and forcing you to (again) force quit the app. This bug still occurs for me from time to time, but now the app deals with it, forcing the next animation to trigger and ignoring that the previous one never did. These are simple, easy “fixes” that don’t solve the (I imagine) rather complex underlying root causes of these issues, but make the game infinitely more enjoyable to play regularly.

I’ve never seen a games developer or software company really take this approach before, but Niantec seem to be making it work for them and personally, I think I’ve learnt something about how to handle problematic code.