EGC Oberhof 2017

My travel plans lined up to allow me to go to the European Go Congress in Oberhof, Germany, this year. Here’s a brief summary of my experiences.

My US rating has been pretty stable at 3 dan for years, and I registered as 3 dan for this tournament. That was probably a mistake; turns out there are many European 1- and 2-dans who could compete as 3 dan in the US.

I ended up with 2 wins and 8 losses in the main tournament, 1 win and 4 losses in the weekend tournament. All my games were interesting, and I’ve learned a lot, but it’s hard not to let your tournament performance affect your mood as well as your play. The first week was also colored by jet lag and almost constant rain, which didn’t help.

Some comparisons to the US Go Congress:

  • Main tournament has ten rounds instead of six. That is great, except when you keep losing.
  • Two hours per player instead of 90 minutes. I like the longer time limits, but 4-hour games are exhausting; maybe I should have used the sealed move and taken a break for lunch. Also, starting at 10 am instead of 9 am followed by a longer game caused the timing of meals to be weird.
  • Weekend tournament (five rounds, one hour time limit) is an added bonus. Also some other side tournaments not seen in the US: Chess & Go, Yose Go, Phantom Rengo.
  • Tournament times were not coordinated well with hotel meal schedules: some tournaments started at 5:45 pm, while dinner was not available until 6 pm. The nearby town had a lot of good food options, but scheduling was tricky.
  • Fewer pros, fewer lectures, fewer game reviews: The US Go Congress does a better job at organizing pro events.
  • Cheaper: I paid about as much for two weeks here as for one week at the US Go Congress.
  • More people: This was the biggest European Go Congress ever, with over 900 players.
  • You hear many more languages. I could use my German, Swiss German, Norwegian, and a bit of French, but English will carry you through without problem.

The other difference is more personal: at the US Go Congress, I know all the organizers and lots of players, and they know me. Here I’m mostly incognito. I got to know a bunch of players, but it still feels quite different.

Overall a great experience, even though I’m not happy with my results. Next year is in Pisa, Italy; 2019 is in Brussels, Belgium. My advice if you can make it:

  • Try to get there a few days early to recover from jet lag.
  • Possibly adjust your rank; seems to be at least one rank difference in the low dans.
  • Figure out your plan for 4-hour games: bananas, chocolate, energy bars, coffee, whatever it takes to keep your concentration.

Best of luck to everybody now at the US Go Congress!

SmartOthello Postmortem

SmartOthello is not dead yet, but the app has not lived up to expectations. It’s time for an assessment of this project: why I started it, obstacles along the way, and where to go from here.

Motivation

I needed a project to learn Swift and to experiment with different business models. I settled on Othello for several reasons:

  • Expertise: Expert knowledge of the game, and contacts in the Othello community. (I was the 1992 US Othello champion and have played at six Othello world championships.)
  • Similar domain: A two-player board game close enough to Go that much of the foundation code could carry over.
  • Potential customers: A more popular game than Go (think of all the people playing it as Reversi on Windows).

In addition, a trademark dispute had recently been resolved, with Megahouse of Japan making more efforts to license use of the name “Othello” and the trademarked board design.

Expectations

My three Go apps (SmartGo Kifu – $20, SmartGo Player – $3, and Go Books – free with IAP) were all doing reasonably well, with roughly similar profits. I had hoped SmartOthello might add a fourth leg to that stool, and thought I had several things going for me:

  • Experience: I had years of experience with Go apps in the App Store.
  • Marketing: I had a good marketing angle (former US Othello champion).
  • Design: All the existing Othello/Reversi apps in the App Store sucked. I knew I could create an app that gave players a better experience. (And some of those apps were ranked similar to my Go apps on the top grossing charts.)
  • Social: Game Center online play and leaderboards should help spread the app socially, something I didn’t have in my Go apps.

Obstacles

I made good progress on the app in the fall of 2015, learning Swift along the way. Not everthing went smoothly:

  • Licensing: I wanted to use the official name Othello, so I had to negotiate with Megahouse. We reached a deal on a reasonable licensing fee (10% after Apple’s cut), but I was not able to get them to agree to any business model other than a fixed paid-up-front price for the app.
  • iAd: Apple announcing the end of iAd didn’t help. So I was stuck with a paid up-front app for the first year; I figured I could re-negotiate after that (which I did, more below). However, not being free means the installed base becomes much smaller, thus Game Center play would not work as well (there may not always be a player available when you’re looking for a match).
  • Game Center: Implementing Game Center support was a mixed bag. Achievements and leaderboards were easy, but turn-based game play took a lot longer than expected, due to poor documentation, bugs, and APIs that are not fully baked. I could have implemented my own server in the time I spent getting Game Center play to work.

Release

Those obstacles slowed me down, but didn’t stop me. (Maybe they should have.) I finally got SmartOthello released on August 15, 2016, localized into Japanese, German, and French. In my unbiased opinion, I think design, game play, and usability are the best of any Othello app on the App Store.

Sales were underwhelming. Some possible contributing factors:

  • Press: I had created a press kit and reached out to press, but didn’t manage to get much coverage. August may not have been the best time to launch.
  • Go Players: I expected to be able to get some of my Go customers interested in Othello, but turns out there’s little crossover interest between the two games.
  • Othello players: My contacts in the Othello community were not as relevant as I thought, for several reasons:
    (1) The community of serious Othello players is very small.
    (2) There are some strong Othello analysis apps on Android, and thus most strong players are using Android, not iOS.
    (3) The core Othello community doesn’t really connect much with the general game-playing public, which is my audience.
  • Megahouse: I had expected Megahouse to help promote the app in Japan, a major Othello-playing country. Nothing.
  • Unlicensed apps: Lots of apps in the App Store continue to use the name Othello without being properly licensed. Megahouse has had little success getting those apps removed.

So the launch was not perfect. But it got worse.

iOS 10

  • At WWDC 2016, Apple announced that the Game Center app was going away, and that Game Center match-making was going through iMessage. This was ominous, but at least during the beta period, things worked reasonably well.
  • When iOS 10 was released in September, the avatar pictures disappeared. As the design of SmartOthello was heavily based around the avatars, I had to create my own bandaid for that.
  • Together with the cumbersome match-making using iMessage, I think the loss of the avatars was the death-knell for Game Center. (It‘s still technically alive, but without any improvements in iOS 11, it‘s not the technology to bet on.)
  • I had heard people complain about App Store search for years, but my Go apps always ranked reasonably well in search. With SmartOthello, search was a clear problem. Adding a space to change the app name to Smart Othello actually helped a bit, which is ridiculous. (The licensing restriction of not being able to include Reversi in the name also hurt.)
  • Since SmartOthello was a $2.99 app, I could at least benefit from Search Ads, but not enough for the app to get real traction.

Advertising and sale

  • In November 2016, I got the chance to advertise at the Othello World Championship in Japan. The resulting bump in sales? Minuscule. Again, it shows a disconnect between the serious player community and the general public I’m trying to reach.
  • I got permission from Megahouse to run a $0.99 sale over the holidays. More sales, slightly less profit. Back to $2.99.

Free with IAP and ads

  • By April 2017, I got the agreement with Megahouse renegotiated, allowing me to experiment with different business models and prices. So I tried free with ads and in-app purchase.
  • That experiment failed miserably. Sales went from low to near zero. While usage of the app went way up, I was not able to get the number of downloads that would be needed for the ads to generate significant revenue, and too few users upgraded to the Pro version. (My ads may have been too nice, and I may have included too much in the free version, but without more downloads, experimenting with those parameters would be futile.)
  • It’s possible this business model might have worked better when I first released the app and it got its initial attention; it’s much harder to generate interest with a new business model than with a new app.

Conclusions

  • Swift worked out really well. I’m very happy with the Swift foundation I got from the Othello project, and the conversion of my Go apps to Swift is continuing.
  • I’m glad I figured out issues with Game Center before trying to integrate that into my Go apps. At least that disaster was averted.
  • From an App Store perspective, Othello is more different from Go than I expected. The audience seems to consist more of casual players rather than people interested in a specific game, and as such they are probably less willing to spend money on the game. Thus my experience with Go was not as valuable; also, any conclusions based on this Othello experience might not transfer back to Go.

Future

I still love how the SmartOthello app turned out, and I will leave it in the App Store, giving it a chance to get noticed and grow over time. There’s much more I could do with it, but I can’t afford to invest more development effort into it at this point. Major changes (such as replacing Game Center, for instance) will have to wait until I get the Go apps converted to Swift and updated for iOS 11, get Go Books available on other platforms, and more: it will be a while.

SmartOthello will go back to paid shortly. Grab it for free while you can.

Highest Possible Pinnacle?

DeepMind announced that AlphaGo will no longer compete: “This week’s series of thrilling games with the world’s best players … has been the highest possible pinnacle for AlphaGo as a competitive program. For that reason, the Future of Go Summit is our final match event with AlphaGo.”

This reason is rubbish. Could AlphaGo repeat its string of 60 victories in no-komi games? Could it win a match giving handicap stones? If AlphaGo wanted to keep competing, there are many more challenges left for it to conquer.

DeepMind used Go as a very successful testbed for its deep learning algorithms: a testbed that has measurable outcomes and can generate its own test data. Winning against the world’s best doesn’t make that testbed obsolete. DeepMind said that this year’s version was using ten times less computing power than last year’s AlphaGo. Could they improve the algorithms by another factor of ten? Hundred? Thousand? Yes, by all means push into other domains and apply what you’ve learned, but don’t abandon the testbed. You have ideas on how to improve your learning algorithm for medical diagnosis or self-driving cars? Testing the effectiveness of those improvements will be a lot harder than in Go.

I’m glad the DeepMind team is publishing a set of 50 AlphaGo self-play games, and that they’re working on a teaching tool. But not pushing AlphaGo forward competitively is a mistake.

Moves to Unique Game

The Ke Jie vs. AlphaGo games quickly reached a position that was not in the GoGoD game collection of almost 90,000 professional game records: Game 1 was unique at move 5, game 2 was unique at move 7. To me, this seemed very early, and @badukaire on Twitter got me to wonder: How soon does a pro game usually reach a position that’s different from any previously played game?

Number of moves to unique game

Time for some data: I ran SmartGo’s fuseki matching on the whole GoGoD game collection (excluding handicap games). In that data set, the highest probability for a move to become unique is at move 8; the median is between move 11 and 12; the average is about move 13. Games are unique by move 7 in about 16% of games; by move 5 in only about 4%.

So it’s somewhat unusual to diverge from standard play that early, but there’s more variety of play early in the game than I expected. Also, I’m sure that a lot of games will soon be copying those moves by AlphaGo and Ke Jie, and those opening moves will be unique no more.

SmartOthello with ‘Ads’

SmartOthello achieved two of my goals for the app: it helped me learn Swift, and it gave me a reboot of the user interface that will influence the next versions of my Go apps. However, due to licensing restrictions, I couldn’t experiment with business models. For the first year, MegaHouse (who owns the license to Othello) was only willing to accept a paid-up-front app. I priced it at $2.99 — same as SmartGo Player, which is selling well. It turns out that Othello apps are a crowded market to compete in, and sales have been disappointing.

Blog othello pro upgrade

After renegotiating that license, SmartOthello 2.0 is now free, with a $2.99 Pro Pack in-app purchase that:

  • unlocks stronger computer play,
  • enables download of the WTHOR games database,
  • enables opening analysis,
  • and removes ‘ads’.

As for ads, I don’t want to give over part of my app’s screen to something garish that I don’t control. I’ve decided to follow Marco Arment’s lead and just roll my own. Their main purpose is to give you an extra kick to invest in the app so you can enjoy the full experience as it was designed.

Some of the ads promote the Pro Pack. For example:

Blog ads play expert Blog ads remove ads

Some promote my own apps:

Blog ads go booksBlog ads smartgo kifu

Some promote apps that I personally enjoy and recommend, mostly by indie developers. If people tap on the ad and purchase those apps, the affiliate fee (still at 7%?) helps, but more importantly, it helps another indie.

Blog ads obscuraBlog ads draftsBlog ads pcalc

And a few are links to books on Amazon that I’ve enjoyed, again with an affiliate link.

Blog ads changer

I expect income from those affiliate links to be minimal, but if those ‘ads’ nudge you to upgrade to the full experience, they have fulfilled their purpose. And they’re reasonably stylish, they’re accessible and localizable, there’s no user tracking, and you can even swipe to the next/previous ad anytime.

It’s an experiment. I’ve tried to find the right balance between being obtrusive and being obnoxious; most likely, I have not made them obnoxious enough. SmartOthello will be my guinea pig before I make any changes to the business model of my paid Go apps, SmartGo Player ($2.99) and SmartGo Kifu ($19.99).

Search and URL Scheme

The newest versions of SmartGo Kifu and SmartGo for Macintosh both include the enhanced names dictionary by John Fairbairn (GoGoD), with mini-biographies of over 4,000 players: life, career, status, teacher, Go style, and notes. Just tap on the player name above the board to see the biography.

Blog takemiya bio 

Improved search

The names dictionary includes translations as well as alternate names, and these are now used to significantly improve searching for players. Just type in the search bar, and it will try to match any property containing that text.

You can use ! to negate, e.g. type ‘Kato !Masao’ to look for all the other players named Kato. Anything that looks like a four-digit year will be matched to the date property, and you can search for a range, so e.g. ‘1990-1994 Takemiya’ will search for games Takemiya played during those years.

For more precise searches, you can test for specific properties and conditions, and combine conditions using & (and) and | (or). For example, you can type ‘winner=Lee Sedol & result~~0.5’ to find half-point wins by Lee Sedol (spelled Yi Se-tol in the game collection).

Blog winner lee sedol 

URL scheme

This kind of search is powerful within the app, but you can now access it from other apps too, thanks to the smartgo:// URL scheme. For example, the following link will get you directly to Shusaku’s ear-reddening move:

smartgo://games?id=1846-09-11a#127

Or find all the games played between AlphaGo and Ke Jie:

smartgo://games?player==AlphaGo & player==Ke Jie

Or find cool kyu-level problems:

smartgo://problems?coolness=10 & difficulty<=1k

Recent games of Gu Li playing black against Lee Sedol:

black==Gu Li & white==Lee Sedol & date>=2012

Games that Takemiya won by resignation playing black against a 9 dan:

smartgo://games?black=Takemiya Masaki & result=B+R & rankw=9d

Games played in the Kisei or Honinbo tournaments:

smartgo://games?event~~Kisei | event~~Honinbo

Three-stone handicap games played in the ’90s:

smartgo://games?handicap=3 & date>=1990 & date<=1999

Single-digit kyu life and death problems:

smartgo://problems?difficulty<=1k & difficulty>=9k & genre~~life

Please let me know how you use this new feature, and what could make it more useful to you.

Properties and operators

Here’s the complete list of properties currently supported (SGF tag):

  • Player: player (PB/PW), black (PB), white (PW), winner (PB/PW/RE), loser (PB/PW/RE), rankb (BR), rankw (WR).
  • Game info: id (GN), date (DT), event (EV), round (RO), komi (KM), handicap (HA), oldhandicap (OH), result (RE), rules (RU), time (TM), source (SO), analysis (AN), user (US), comment (GC).
  • Problems: difficulty (DI), coolness (CO), genre (GE).
  • Special: favorite (FA), any (any game info property).

The following operators are supported (comparisons are not case sensitive):

  • == or = : Equal
  • != : Not equal
  • ^= : Starts with
  • ~~ : Contains
  • !~ : Does not contain
  • >= : At least
  • <= : At most

Game Center

SmartOthello as released mid-August:

Blog othello avatar

And here’s SmartOthello mid-October:

Blog othello no avatar

The layout of the app was designed with profile pictures in mind. These player avatars disappeared when iOS 10 was released: Game Center leaderboards show boring gray circles, GKPlayer.loadPhoto returns nil.

Some bug reports and a Technical Support Incident later, this appears to be Apple’s intended behavior, not just a glitch. This behavior is so wrong and unlike Game Center that I think Apple will eventually backtrack, but waiting and hoping is not an option: I could not leave SmartOthello in that broken state. The newest version adds the ability to set your own profile picture and uses CloudKit to share these between players.

Matchmaking with iMessage

At WWDC in June, Apple announced that the Game Center app was going away, but not to worry, the Game Center functions were all still going to be there. Player invites would be using the newly improved iMessage; no code change needed. (Sure.)

That may have been true for the simplest matchmaking scenarios, but not for SmartOthello. I’m allowing players to set their color preference to black, white, or neutral, and their opening preference to regular or random. To start a game, I thus need that information from both players. (If they both prefer the same color, color choice will be random; random opening will only be applied if both players agree.) This added negotiation step needed extra work in iOS 10.

Blog invitation accepted

Starting a game over iMessage is cumbersome, adding several extra taps to specify opponent and start the game, as well as context switches. Apple has work left to do there. In particular, there needs to be a way to bypass the confusing auto-match screen.

Why no profile pictures?

My guess is that the missing profile pictures are related to using iMessage for matchmaking. Many iMessage users have images associated with them, but those are through the user’s contacts. There’s no way to map Game Center players to contacts, and for privacy reasons, it’s obvious that Apple won’t make those images available through Game Center.

It would be easy for Apple to add back a profile picture in Settings > Game Center. However, when starting a match through iMessage, that opponent would then have two images: one from Game Center and one from iMessage. It’s a mess, and that may be why the Game Center images were removed. Apple dug this hole for themselves; I hope they can dig their way back out.

Game Center in SmartGo

One of my goals with SmartOthello was to learn Swift (which worked out perfectly) as well as gain experience with technologies like Game Center and iCloud before including them in SmartGo. My experience with Game Center has not been good (poor and outdated documentation, APIs not working as advertised, no way to avoid polling for invites), and Apple doesn’t seem to be paying a lot of attention to the future of Game Center. Removing the avatars was a poor decision, and matchmaking using iMessage needs a lot of work.

At least I know to steer clear of Game Center for SmartGo.