Monday, 24 February 2014

Review: The Pointless App!

Excitement in the teatime-quiz-show-app world yesterday (what do you mean that isn't a thing?) as the hotly anticipated Pointless game was launched on iOS, with an Android version inevitably 'coming soon'. As one of the approximately billion people who have appeared on the show since it snuck onto BBC2 back in 2009 I was naturally keen to take it for a spin, but could it live up to expectations or would it prove as disappointing as joining the 200 club?

Pointless App - introduce yourself!

First port of call is, of course, the cost. At £1.49 it's in line with arch-nemesis The Chase's own App, but in the age of freemium games it does merit a slight double-take. Given that my current personal favourite is the free - and amazing - QuizUp (see my review here) it's already facing stiff competition from the off, but as a TV tie-in it's competitively priced.

The game starts with
The tutorial in action.
Alexander Armstrong (I think - it's hard to tell
without the ears) clearly remembers me.
a tutorial, a nice touch as the game structure is necessarily rather different to the show itself. To my surprise this happened to immediately resolve one of the issues I'd been wondering about: will it use all-new questions or recycle some from the show? Understandably, it's very much the latter, which will come as little shock to those of us who have seen the programme evolve over the years as it endeavours to find new questions that still fit the format. Still, it was amusing to see that the very first question I was presented with in the tutorial was from one of my own shows - and Xander even suggests the (fairly obvious) answer I gave at the time. Encouragingly, as you can see from the screenshots below (click to enlarge), the numbers for every answer match up - reassuring us that we are dealing with genuine survey results and not something made up in some shady corner of Pointless HQ.

Making up the numbers
Tutorial done, on with the game! There are two options here: a single-player 'mini episode' style format, and a head-to-head version you can play against random challengers, your friends, or people you know on Facebook (most of whom probably don't quite fit in either category). If you're wondering how the game works before you shell out one 168th of a pointless answer, this is probably the bit for you.

All by myself

The single-player mode pits you against a computer-generated opponent on a single multiple-choice question (what used to be the regular round two format) - beat three bots this way and you make it to the final and, of course, win that coveted Pointless trophy. The final round itself will be familiar to all but the most recent Pointless fan, with three subject areas to choose from and one question lurking behind each. No multiple choice here, thankfully, as you have to type your own guesses (albeit without the 60 second time pressure). Get one pointless answer and the 'jackpot' is yours - typically £1,000 unless you picked up some £250 bonuses on the way - and you'll find yourself creeping up global and friends-only leaderboards of total prize money. (Although getting to the top may alert your colleagues as to why your productivity has mysteriously dropped of late...)

Winning friends while alienating people

Versus mode, meanwhile, takes advantage of asynchronous play as you battle opponents in a best-of-three affair loosely based on the head-to-head stage of the show. Each round is one question with four clues to be solved (such as a set of related anagrams or descriptions of Oscar winners). After giving your answer that clue is replaced and play passes to your opponent, with whoever has the lowest total after two turns winning the round. If it goes to a third and final round you're instead looking at a free answer (or 'Pointless Classic', as it should obviously be called) style question to take things up a notch.

Unlike the solo mode, play is further enhanced here by two power ups: 'reveal' (which gives you the highest-scoring answer) and 'hint' (which shows you alternate letters of the lowest-scoring answer). In a prudent design move neither of these tells you how much that answer is worth, so you've still got some decisions to make. As you'd expect you're given some bonuses for free (a rather generous 20 of each, in fact) but once they're gone you're looking at £1.49 a pop for an additional 25, so spend them wisely.

The 'hint' bonus in action (top row on the right).
Now all I need is an opera that fits L_ TRAVIATA...
The good, the bad and the ugly

The fundamental mechanics of the game, then, are perfectly sound, but there are a few areas that strike me as minor mis-steps. The first of these are those bonuses which, at their most basic level, strike me as undermining the integrity of a competitive quiz game. The hint especially often makes things exceptionally easy, and it's hard to see how anyone could take much pride in a victory earned that way. Combine this with a lack of a time limit and the latitude for cheatery is clear. Consequently anyone who particularly cares about whether they win or lose probably won't want to challenge strangers, but against trusted friends it's far less of a concern.

Only three guesses? But I can think of so many!
Another issue I've both seen raised by others and experienced myself are bugs. Teething troubles are perhaps to be expected on launch day, but when you encounter three in your first half-dozen games you do start to worry. Of particular concern was one question where the United States was a pointless answer to "countries with a population larger than the UK". This seems so implausible you'd initially presume it a mistake, but as we've all seen equally incredible results on the show you're left not entirely sure what to believe. There have also been some issues with seemingly correct answers not being accepted. Again, one would hope these will be gradually fixed over time, but the frequency with which they seem to be cropping up suggests more time could have gone into text parsing.

On a more positive note, while the re-use of questions from old shows may seem a drawback to some, I think overall it's a sensible decision. With over 500 episodes of material (and presumably even a back-catalogue of ones that didn't quite make the cut) there is, I suspect, an enormous database hiding under the surface. The list-based nature of the show itself, meanwhile, makes the App unusual in being able to offer free text answer fields instead of the near-ubiquitous multiple choice making for a more interesting quiz experience. Admittedly it's a touch frustrating when you're left wondering how to spell samarium but in situations like that it probably serves you right for trying to be a smartypants. (Relatedly, I was impressed to see that their periodic table was seemingly up to date: the relatively recent 2012 addition of livermorium didn't catch it out).

Well I've had a lovely day...

Overall, the Pointless App is a perfectly solid translation of a hugely popular TV format, and I suspect for many of the show's fans it will prove a fantastically addictive enemy of their free time. The general aesthetics of the game are pleasant, with all the familiar sounds of the show and enjoyable caricatures of the hosts reflecting its not-too-serious charm.

I will, admittedly, probably stick to the more pure quizzing domain of QuizUp, but as someone who is sufficiently obsessed with quizzes to maintain an entirely unsuccessful blog about them I'm probably not typical of the Pointless App's target market. While particulars such as the bonuses and no time penalty aren't my cup of tea, that's primarily as someone who's more interested in the quiz itself than the format of the game. The opening-day bugs, meanwhile, will doubtless be ironed out with time.

All this, and more, could be yours for just £1.49!
The success of the show itself is a testament to its excellent fundamentals: common knowledge is ok, uncommon knowledge is awesome. As long as that remained its foundation the Pointless App merely had to avoid disaster to be an enjoyable time-waster - thankfully they've achieved much more than that. I'm optimistic the game will continue to be developed and new features added (a multiplayer mode that simulated an entire show could be spectacular fun with a group of friends, for example), but as-is it's a more than welcome addition to the quiz App scene. I just hope they thought to block access from quarter past five on weekdays: it'll be distracting their audience for months.

For shorter quiz ramblings, follow me on Twitter @statacake


  1. Is it due to be released on Android? (and is there a 15 to 1 app to ease my anger at everyone else getting questions that I could have answered? ;)

    1. According to their Twitter (@pointlessapp) the Android version is 'coming soon' (a fact which I've now added to the review). Your best bet is probably to keep an eye on that front. A 15 to 1 app would certainly be interesting - will have to wait until the new series starts this year to see whether they release one though, I suspect.

  2. I think they'll find they're missing a "coveted" in there somewhere.

    1. Haha. I can only assume that they deemed a digital one not worthy of the title.