Pointless - Quiz with Friends iOS game review
Oh, what a missed opportunity this is. The subtle delights of Pointless, the nation's finest teatime quiz show, have been entirely squandered in this pale and joyless adaptation for the iPhone and iPad, which has none of the charm of its inspiration and a heap of technical problems. Here's our review of Pointless - Quiz with Friends for the iPad and iPhone.
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. Thus the aim is to get the lowest score, and ideally a 'pointless' answer, which is one that no panellists thought of. It's essentially Family Fortunes 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. 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.
Pointless - Quiz with Friends review: Single-player mode
You can play the Pointless app alone or against friends. Let's get the single-player version of the game out of the way first.
First up, it’s 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 programme, 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."
Pointless - Quiz with Friends review: Multiplayer mode
So much for single-player. But instead, 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. We also found that our rivals were slow at taking their turns (we had five games on the go at once, and were still twiddling our thumbs waiting for a response), and we were 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 web-browsing device anyway, you can look up answers very easily, or ask people in the room, or just go and look at your bookshelves. But on top of that - and this is unforgivably unbalancing - you can use 'pointers', which 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 (we were cheating and looking at what was written on the cover). 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.
Pointless - Quiz with Friends review: General play
In the end, though, most of the problems with this game affect single- and multiplayer about equally.
Pointless - in both modes - has a tiny bank of questions. We’ve seen questions coming up two, three or even four times in under a week of playing, and on two separate occasions, absurdly, we 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, we were once offered (along with another subject), 'film' and 'films'. Spelling errors appear from time to time. We've seen the graphics partially drop out during play, leaving only the colours of the Pointless scoreboard against a blank background. We'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 £1,000 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 £1,000, which means the maximum you're ever competing for in the jackpot round is £1,750. 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 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. The single-player version is an afterthought that bears almost no resemblance to the show; the multiplayer is better but still crippled by repetitive questions, crashes and spelling errors, and game-unbalancing in-app purchases. Finally, the devs have failed to realise that Pointless’s appeal is almost entirely down to the charm and wit of its hosts, but their presence here is limited to a couple of repetitive, Terrance and Phillip-esque animations. Some jokes or voice-overs would help. 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. As well as an injection of character, it needs at least five times as many questions, 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. We hope to revisit this review in future and report on some or all of these problems being addressed.