For Gamer’s Quest this week I’m going to try something a bit different. Instead of telling you about a game I’ve been playing and how I’ve found it, I’m going to talk about a subject that has been on my mind for a while. Companion apps.
I read recently that the planned companion app for the Division – in development since 2013 – had been cancelled in June of 2015, and it made me think. Why are companion apps so reviled in general by the gaming public? Why are some successful while others fail horribly? What makes a studio decide to cancel a piece of their planned gaming experience like this?
First of all, I think we should define what we mean by “companion app”. A companion app is a small application downloaded to a mobile device, whose purpose is to enhance the player’s experience of a particular game. Over the past few years a large majority of big game releases have had companion apps – Destiny, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Grand Theft Auto V, Far Cry 4 to name but a few. Some of these have been hugely successful – I may have spent more time in the Destiny and Black Flag apps than I have in the actual games, and I’ll tell you why later. Others have been considerably less so, and I’ll try to explore why this could be.
Ubisoft is one company that have a long history of companion apps. Until fairly recently the apps seem to have been accepted by the gaming public. Then Assassin’s Creed Unity happened. Besides the much publicised issues with the game itself, the companion app also came under a lot of fire. So much so that a patch for Unity released in January 2015 – only a few months after the game’s release – removed the need for the app completely. But, what went wrong?
As I said earlier the app is supposed to enhance your experience. What it should not be is necessary to the game. What Ubisoft did was to tie various items, treasures and collectibles in the core AC Unity game to the companion app. Many’s the time I’ve tried to open a chest only to receive the message that the chest could only be unlocked through the app. And don’t even get me started on the Altair costume, again requiring use of the companion app. In fact this was even worse, as you had to complete the entire app – which could take weeks – and then find a further set of items in the main game. Added to this was the problem that most of the time the app didn’t even work properly – unlocking chests via the app did not mean they would be unlocked in the main game. It’s no wonder the app was widely derided.
Ubisoft went on to announce that the next AC game – Syndicate – would not have a companion app. It would not have multiplayer either but that’s a different topic. While the stated reasons were that a companion app was not considered part of the core gameplay, which really it isn’t, it’s not hard to think that this was a response to the outcry over Unity’s app. Then, as I’ve already said, the companion app for the Division was cancelled in June 2015. If you look at the timing of these events it becomes interesting – the patch for Unity that effectively killed its app came in January 2015, the announcement that Syndicate would not have an app was made in May 2015, and the announcement about the Division’s app was made in June 2015. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any means – I leave such things to our very own Major Beef – but such a sequence of events could be seen as suggestive.
And, honestly, I believe it’s a great shame. Black Flag’s app was one of my favourite parts of the whole experience – ships you captured in the main game could be sent to far off locations to fight enemies or transport cargo, returning with cash and items you could retrieve in the main game. This mini game was present in the main game as well, but the app provided a convenient way of doing it. It wasn’t necessary by any means, but it allowed me to still be involved in the game while I was away from my computer. In fact, I made nearly 80% of my money in Black Flag through the app. Unity tried to use the same model, with Assassins available to send to different parts of Paris, but it didn’t make as much sense in that setting. The main character, Arno, is only a novice Assassin. Why is he ordering around others who are older and better than him? That some of the Assassins could only be bought with premium currency made even less sense.
That same model would have been perfect for Syndicate. As Jacob and Evie liberated regions of London and recruited gang members, they would presumably have sent them on scouting or aid missions. Such a thing would have worked well in a companion app, with successful missions rewarding the player with money or crafting items, maybe even one or two rare items. Not as a replacement for obtaining them in the main game mind you, just an alternative way of obtaining them. I really do think that it was a missed opportunity.
As well as providing a mini-game to keep the player engaged while away, the companion app also acts as a second screen, with the game map aiding the player in deciding where to go without them having to break off from the action to open a menu. Another similar function is inventory management. The Destiny app does this and does it well – every piece of gear on your character and in your inventory is available for you to swap, store or view. Also, the app shows you which vendors offer which goods, allowing you to plan your character’s progression. I’ve found it very useful and I wouldn’t ever be without it.
All the apps I’ve mentioned so far – Destiny, Black Flag, and even Unity – do one other thing very well. They allow access to that particular game’s database. As you play through the games you unlock background information on the worlds, characters and enemies. Reading these on the screen can be a strain on the eyes, but having them on a handy device in your hand is much more convenient. Indeed, the Grimoire entries you unlock in Destiny are not readable in-game, meaning you need to either go to the Destiny website or read them in the app. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys story – or in the case of Assassin’s Creed, history – then being able to read these pages at your leisure is a great way to pass time. Having live news delivered straight to the app, as Destiny does, is also a bonus.
But, what of the Division’s companion app – the one that started this whole article? Demonstration videos of it exist, and they show a gameplay element where the app user can interact with players in the main game by piloting a drone and viewing a simplified, bird’s eye view of the battlefield. It’s certainly a new approach, and it’s fatally flawed. Watch_Dogs tried something similar before. The main feature of that app was a hacking game where an app user could take on a player in the game as they fought each other in a race across Chicago. It was great fun to play, don’t get me wrong, but it relied too much on sustained interest in the game. The moment people stopped playing it the app became useless. I can see such a fate having befallen the Division’s app, so maybe it’s a good thing it was cancelled – at least in that form. Having an app that let you view the game’s map, manage inventory, let you see and hear intelligence documents and recordings, maybe even let you send and receive messages from other players, would have been a much better way to go – at least for me.
In conclusion then, companion apps are a difficult thing to do well. Get it right and you have something that can really be a useful tool for players. They don’t have to use it, but if they do there are some benefits. Get it wrong, and, well, Unity happens. I hope that companies won’t shy away from them, but maybe they – and we – need to take a step back and try to figure out what companion apps need to be and how they can become successful again.