Overcast’s Breakout “New” Feature Is Play With a Purpose
Overcast, the podcast app by the internet’s Marco Arment, has long reigned supreme in the podcast nerd corner of the Apple-sphere. It’s a fast and reliable app, made by someone who cares a ton about audio quality, so it also helps your shows to sound their best. Maybe a year ago or more, I discovered something new in the app, which surprised me because I thought I knew everything there was to know about Overcast.
I’ve saved hundreds of hours with the app (not even getting into the thousands I’ve spent using it), exported dozens of episode clips, and made several shortcuts that take advantage of some of Overcast’s niche features. I’m what you might call a “podcast power user”. And still, this was new. I hadn’t seen anyone talk about it but was such a smart feature that I couldn’t believe it was flying under the radar. Even in the intervening year that this blog post has sat in my drafts folder, no one else seemed to notice it.
Okay, that’s enough lede. What is this thing? It’s a game. Within Overcast. Yep, now Marco is a game designer too. But it’s not just any game — it’s a watchOS game… which might explain why it’s gone essentially undiscovered. I don’t think many folks are spelunking through watchOS apps — the few that there are — these days.
So, why is there a game within Overcast? To keep up with the likes of James Thomson’s PCalc? Nope. While PCalc’s game-with-an-about-screen-gone-independent-app served to scratch a particular experimental development itch of James’s, Overcast’s game serves a more functional purpose: to distract you from the otherwise listless time necessary to download a podcast directly to the Apple Watch for offline listening.
You see, Marco has tried for years to optimize Overcast’s watchOS app to download podcast episodes in the background so that they’re always ready for you to listen to sans phone, say when you’re out for a run. But, from what he’s said many times on ATP, watchOS app development is often fraught, and getting background activity to work is even more challenging. So, despite his best efforts, sometimes the playlist of shows you’ve set to automatically download to the watch (you can choose one in the watch app’s settings) isn’t up-to-date. Sometimes you’ve got to manually hit the download button on a particular show, which means waiting with your wrist raised, lest the screen turn off and app activity paused, until the show finishes downloading. This is where Overcast’s breakout game comes in.
Actually, I should capitalize that as Overcast’s Breakout game. Because when you manually start to download an episode, what pops up but a bespoke version of Breakout. You know Breakout, that classic Atari arcade game in which you bounce around a little ball, aiming for tiles along the top of the screen by bouncing it off a paddle that you control along the bottom. When you hit a tile, it disappears. When all the tiles have been eliminated, you win that level and move on to a harder one with a smaller paddle and faster movement. I spent many many hours playing Breakout on my iPod nano, where it was called Brick.
In Overcast’s version, though, the tiles are made of the show artwork from your library of podcasts, which is a nice touch. All the while that you’re playing the game, operating the paddle by scrolling up and down with the Digital Crown, your podcast downloads in the background. There’s a loading bar along the bottom edge so that you can keep an eye on its progress. There’s no high score screen, game saves, or any way to share achievements. It’s just a nice time-filler that serves to keep you engaged with the app so that it can finish its job uninterrupted. It’s a workaround to a problem that Marco could have solved with a simple “Podcast downloading, please wait…” message. But because he’s respectful of his users and knows that’s not a great experience, he went all-out and built a whole goddamn game into his podcast app to make a loading screen fun.
I find that kind of indie developer whimsy so delightful.