Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ratchet & Clank arrives: Eyes looking over right hand side lists... Fingers hovering over cut/paste buttons...

Ratchet & Clank arrived today (via Amazon.com). I had originally pre-ordered it through Gamestop, but that's another story.

I won't get a chance to play it until Thursday, but it's a hell of a way to start my November of gaming to remember. Should be a fun birthday month.

In related news, I tidied up my Gamefly account a bit by bumping Eternal Sonata ahead of Darkness (I could use an RPG fix). I'll probably return Resistance: Fall of Man unplayed (though I did play a couple of hours of it when it launched) and keep Overlord (I really do want to complete the story line).

I'm also experimenting with a new service at Brightspot.tv. They have a partnership with Gamefly whereby if I watch targeted commercials (of the 15-60 second variety) I can get credit towards my Gamefly account. I spent 5 minutes today and earned $3 off (maximum $10 off per month). Seems pretty reasonable to me -- and helps subsidize my gaming.

November to remember

So the end of October has been spent largely fussing over Liza, my awesome girlfriend. Between a nine months celebration, an aunt's 50th wedding anniversary, and her birthday (costume party on Oct 31st), it's been a fun and engaging and... well... not very gaming intensive period of time.

Normally a short hiatus like this wouldn't be such a problem. But, the days are getting shorter (which means my living room is darker longer -- a non-trivial concern given my reliance on an LCD projector for my gaming goodness) and the new releases are piling up as the holiday season is upon us.

I've decided to make this November (the month of my birthday) 30 days of game-filled celebration. The concrete goal is for me to make at least one substantive post per day for 30 days. This means I need to have fresh content -- in the form of happy games.

We'll see how it goes. I think if I manage to make a serious dent in my "Games on my radar" list and iterate twice through my Gamefly.com holdings (i.e., 1 rented title/week x 4 weeks) I should have more than enough to talk about.

I relish the challenge.

Monday, October 29, 2007

So long, Warbook...

So, I tried to wean myself off of Warbook for a few days to rack up some gold and make some big decisions.

I bought a bunch of troops, but still didn't feel very powerful or strategic because it still seemed like my only viable option was to avoid similar-sized opponents and wreak havoc on smaller opponents.

Then I left for a week, expecting to come back to even more gold... Instead I was greeted by the attached screenie. I don't care so much about the fact that my empire has shrunk and my gold count is incredibly low. What I care about is that I have no way to figure out *how* this all happened. Normally there is a log of recent attack activity (if other rulers have been ganging up on you). But I received no such information.

I think I'm done with Warbook for now. I can see how it appeals to folks who like to try and reverse engineer the spreadsheets behind it -- and by checking out the forums you can see that there are many passionate fans of the game. I guess I just like a little more transparency for a game that I expect to twitter away on (i.e., a Facebook App).

I look forward to checking out other games the Warbook team is working on.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Memorable credits sequences

I keep singing the lyrics (that I can remember) from Still Alive, the credit song that you hear at the end of Portal. What an awesome bit of icing on an already delicious (and moist) cake.

I was reflecting on the beauty of this song with two of my friends who have composed credits songs for the "Rise of..." series of PC RTS games. They were kind enough to let me "produce" a couple of these songs . There is something so satisfying when you complete an awesome game and are given the bonus reward of a credits song (and visual sequence) that ties the experience all together.

Some memorable credits sequences that I can think of:

  • Portal (which is what got me thinking about this post)
  • Call of Duty (just loved watching the guys running through world doing entertaining things, but viewed from a different camera perspective than the core gameplay camera)
  • Rise of Nations: Thrones & Patriots; Rise of Legends (because I helped produce them -- though all credit should go to Ike and Ted for their brilliant writing, singing, and playing)
I'm not sure what to think of the new trend of credits where they play out in an opening title sequence like in the movies. I've seen a bunch of examples of this recently, but Halflife 2 comes to mind as a recent example. If it suits the game (there is a cool and useful opening sequence) then I think it makes sense and can add a nice level of polish to the gaming experience.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More Puzzle Quest... And a non-sequitir on the joy of breaking boxes, crates, and barrels

I'm really enjoying Puzzle Quest. It's the kind of thing where the core mechanic is so relaxing and compelling (basically Bejeweled), it makes me forget some of the annoyances.

That said, I should list some of the annoyances I've found:

  • Music: Repetitive and annoying. I've turned it down so that it is hard to hear. I may just turn it off.
  • UI menus: B-button usage often penalizes the user. I mean to "back out" or "cancel" a selection and end up exiting the UI by mistake (e.g., leave inventory management screen when I just mean to hide the "more information" bubble) . This is especially troublesome with the level up screen because I can't figure out how to access this screen again until the next time I level. Oops.
  • Pop up help bubbles: I've disabled them at this point, but sadly they blocked too much screen real estate to be useful in many cases.
  • Selection reticle: I can't put my finger on it (and haven't really analyzed it) but I find that about 5% of the time I make a selection mistake when trying to choose the second gem and end up getting penalized for an illegal move. Maybe I've just been tired? I'll need to look at this more closely.
  • The Citadel: This seems important, but is hard to discover and remember. The UI screen lets me know that there are a bunch of things to do here, but it's hard to evaluate whether it's better to invest money here or in the store (buying items).
  • World map icons: I think I'm starting to figure some of this out. Luckily you can basically just mash around and add quests and fight things without really having to care about the world map level of detail. Well, at least for now I seem able to ignore it and do just fine.
Writing this really reminds me how important core gameplay mechanics are to the basic enjoyability of a game (and tolerance of its flaws). I'm still amazed at how much I love to crush boxes in Halflife 2 (which I've played before). I even find myself fondly reflecting back on other games where crushing boxes has been a fun way to break up the monotony of wandering corridors.

It's funny how powerful a reinforcer crushing boxes can be. Here are some of my top Box Crushing memories:
  • Doom's exploding barrels. Especially when incorporated into cool puzzles
  • Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance's Barrels. I still remember the first time I saw a red barrel and wondered "what would happen if..." and killed myself in the resulting explosion.
  • Ratchet's wrench: How cool was it to power up the wrench so that smashing the ground caused larger and larger amounts of damage that would send more and more bolts swirling your way. This series also took the idea of smashing boxes a lot further by making all kinds of things smashable.
  • Overlord's minions: This game is far more fun than it rightly should be -- in large part (for me) because I love watching my minions run around and tear things apart.
I know that it's trendy to bash games that use crates (cf. Old Man Murray), but there seem to be some legitimate design uses of destructable boxes:
  • Puzzle solving (stack/bust/explode them in order to make progress in a level)
  • Visceral reinforcement (the sight and sounds of things breaking... warms the cockles of my heart).
  • Breaks up tedious corridor walking (gives you a reason to mash buttons as you wander)
  • Variable intermittent reinforcement (sometimes there are cool things to be found/revealed -- kind of like winning a jackpot)
  • Helps me know where I've been/where I need to go (box smashed = been there; not smashed = haven't been there yet)
  • Helps balance the level when I come back to replay it (give me the powerups I need to survive)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Movers & Shakers...

I've updated my game categories on the right.

Games on my radar: This stays the same as before (games I want to play, but don't yet own -- usually because they haven't been released yet, but sometimes due to backlog issues).

  • Added: Jericho, Eternal Sonata, Darkness (after checking my Gamefly.com Q top 5); E4 -- the new XBLA game that folks are talking about.
Games I'm done with: I've either completed these games to my satisfaction, stopped playing due to lack of interest, or stopped playing because there are simply too many other things I need to play.
  • Added: Habbo Hotel (Web), Portal.swf (Flash App).
    • I'm done with Habbo Hotel for several reasons. Mostly because it appeals to teens (and probably people interested in teens for all the wrong reasons). Simply put, it's not fun for me to play. I still do want to do some research on this huge MMO that is helping define the social online experiences of our youth -- and setting their expectations of what the next round of Facebooks, Myspaces, and MMO games will look like. But, I can't justify the time right now.
    • Portal.swf was fun -- and in many ways helped make Portal (Orange Box) much more accessible because I got to play with some of the key mechanics, albeit in a 2-d sidescroller space. My one basic complaint was that the nature of the application (flash app in a browser window) made the controls a little flaky when performance suffered or when trying to do some precision aiming while the mouse was near the edge of the screen.
Games I'm actively playing: I broke out the "Games I'm playing" into this category and the "Games I'm trying to play (but don't have enough time)". It gives a better sense of what I'm actually playing on a day-to-day basis and what games are kind of gathering dust as I wish for more hours in the day (or a 3 day work week).
  • Added: Orange Box (moving from Portal to Half Life 2), Scrabulous (looking for new opponents), and Puzzle Quest (just started, can see myself spending a bunch of time here even though the gameshell UI can be a little annoying).
Games I'm trying to play (but don't have enough time): Here lie the games that I haven't yet given up on, but am unable to play due to time constraints.
  • Added: Resistance: Fall of Man (I'm an Insomniac fan boy -- I actually bought a PS2 and traded for a PS3 so I can play the Ratchet & Clank series; but this game still did not capture my interest after a couple hours of play), Carcasonne (victim of Puzzle Quest -- and the fact that I captured all the low hanging achievement fruit), Warbook (see my earlier posts), Overlord (Orange Box and the soon to arrive Ratchet & Clank: Future Tools of Destruction), Halo 3 (same as Resistance: It hasn't captured my interest after a couple of hours of gameplay).

Orange Box & Puzzle Quest... Oh, my!

Well, it looks like I may need to add Puzzle Quest (for XBLA) to my currently playing list. And, sadly, Overlord may have to be demoted to the "done with" section before I finish it because of the goodness that is Orange Box and my soon to be delivered Ratchet & Clank: Future Tools of Destruction. I just can't play as many games as I used to :(

Puzzle Quest is quite fun. Even though I skip through the story elements of the RPG (thank goodness the cut scenes are skippable), I do enjoy the strategic outergame that has been layered on. I haven't plumbed its depths, yet (I'm just getting started) but it seems like there will be some interesting layers of strategy to discover.

Orange Box just keeps getting better. I played through Portal a second time to try and find all the security cameras (I missed two) and had the pleasure of sharing the end credits sequence with my girlfriend. Hilarious. It's on "the youtubes" if you don't mind seeing a delicious spoiler. It reminds me of the fun we had recording the credits music to Rise of Legends and adds a level of polish that is truly Valve-worthy.

I then started up Half Life 2 again. I'd already played through he PC version, but wanted to show my girlfriend the opening sequences. It's as good as I remember it and I'm now at risk of playing it through again before engaging Ep. 1 and 2 (which I haven't played yet). Valve gets the importance of writing, learn-as-you-play, and polish. The only potential fault I can find is that their games are still not quite accessible to the complete newb to first person shooters. They're close, but not quite ready (I watched my girlfriend fail at Portal after getting so tantalizingly close to really "getting it"). Part of it is the really hard-to-solve issue of what to do with your right thumb (people who don't play FPS games like to hover over the face buttons instead of dual wielding the right stick to make look/move more fluid). Part of it is the lack of some sort of fail-safe tech where people can go for an explicit walkthrough of a puzzle/combat situation in order to keep moving forward when they become blocked and frustrated. Bioshock actually did a decent job of this second part -- offering 2 levels of help on objectives: "within fiction" journal entries (that didn't break the 4th wall) and hints for folks who were stuck (that had more explicit instructions without the fiction attached).

These are the delicious issues that the "usability guy" in me loves to sink his teeth into. Start with an already fun and polished product and take it to that next level.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Scrabulous, anyone? Er... Actually, a very specific someone...

I have a minor Scrabble addiction.

My favorite way to play is by email with long distance friends who are similar in ability. I've only got one game going like this right now, with a friend who currently resides in Copenhagen. We have to be closing in on 200 games played and we're close to 50-50. Most of the time the emails are only move transactions, but sometimes we'll post relevant tidbits of things that are going on in our lives. I find it a great way to keep in touch.

My second favorite way to play is via the Scrabulous application on Facebook. It's immensely popular, and many of my friends play it. The problem (no offense to my friends) is matchmaking. We need to figure out some sort of handicapping system to make it more interesting because I'm currently undefeated with no end in sight. The problem is that I want to play with friends (and not strangers), but I want to have more competitive games. Moreover, my friends are in the same boat -- few of them want to keep playing against me because I play all the "cheesy" 2 and 3 letter words like qi and aal.

I guess my hope is that a Facebook friend who is of equivalent ability challenges me to a game. Failing that, I guess I'll just need to start spamming my friends with lists of all the 2 and 3 letter words.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Looking for sex (and games, movies, church) using Google Trends!

So, I was playing around with Google Trends and decided to study search cycles for some popular search terms.

Here's what I ended up with (click here to see the results in their full glory).

Not surprisingly, searching for sex peaked on Friday and Saturday nights... and then church on Sundays. Games follows the sex pattern almost exactly, leading me to believe that folks weren't joking when they'd leave a multiplayer gaming session by saying "afk -- n33d my pr0n fix".

Movies followed the same pattern as Games and Sex, but at a much lower volume.

Warbook -- I need a good three day weekend away from you

Been playing Warbook via Facebook for a few weeks now (sorry, the link will probably only make sense if you're already on Facebook). It's amazing how compelled I am to play it even though the matchmaking feature is rather unwieldy. I can't discover potential trade partners or foes to conquer through any meaningful (within game fiction terms) mechanism. All I have are bland search parameters that yield bland search results. Basically I'm using a marginally effective workaround that allows me to cheese out victories against weaker opponents, while occasionally branching out to try other workarounds that will seem less distasteful (or, ideally, more engaging).

Yet, I still really like the game. Makes me think of Wizardry on my old Apple II+. That game could basically be summed up as W-W-D-W-K-F-F-F-P-P-P-F-F-F-P-P-P-O. For those who don't remember Wizardry, what this translates to is the keystroke combination for "move for(W)ard, (K)ick open a door, have the first three party members (F)ight, have the last three party members (P)arry, repeat until the monsters are dead, then (O)pen the chest.

I think I'm just going to walk away for 3 days and let my wealth accumulate until I can buy enough stuff to make a large surge forward, instead of the 3 steps forward/2 steps backward strategy I've been using to date.

EDIT (Oct 22): Well, I waited 3 days and spent my accumulated 8 million wealth on new soldiers. Then I tried to attack someone of the same size and lost. Then, for some reason, the game just seemed to lose a whole lot of interest to me. I dunno. I'll wait another week and give it a try.

Gamefly -- the least ineffective way to track games on my radar

Just updated my Gamefly Q. It's about the only way to track games I'm interested in. Well, at least games that are rented by Gamefly (i.e., not the bazillions of downloadable and browser based games). I'll need to find a way to track them, too.

My main discovery mechanism for downloadable/browser based games right now is via several RSS feeds that I monitor. Not the most effective way to keep track of what's coming out, but it's a start.

Mental note: Try and figure out a way to syndicate my Gamefly Q so that I can track it here (ideally) or via Facebook/iGoogle. It would also be nice to include some sort of feed for popular downloadable/browser game sites that I am tracking.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Photos of games I've worked on...

I'm actually playing more of Carcasonne right now. It's a pretty relaxing single player experience, kind of like solitaire. The tutorial was decent (but a bit boring) and the easy AI lets you get into the game without getting clobbered.

That said, Catan! came out great and I'm quite proud of it.

Inserting some smart defaults (I hate blank landing pages)

Just inserting some text from my Facebook.com "Extended Info" app. I find that I like the basic structure of the app, but find it hard to edit and promote so that my friends can give me feedback.

Games on my radar
  • Super Paper Mario (released, Kyle has a copy)
  • Eternal Sonata (9/17/07)
  • Beautiful Katamari for 360 (10/17/07)
  • Ratchet & Clank (10/30/07, preordered from Gamestop)
  • The Simpsons (10/30/07, looks like a Kingdom Hearts like romp through Springfield and beyond)
  • Assassin's Creed (11/15/07, preordered from Gamestop)
  • Mass Effect (11/20/07)

Games I'm playing now

Halo 3 (360)
  • Status: Currently playing in a half-hearted manner.
  • Current Fun Level: The single player so far is like Halo and Halo 2. Sadly, this means it feels about 8 years out of date. I've just played too many *awesome* story driven shooters for this one to feel anything other than blah. Try, instead: Prey, Bioshock, HL2... The community features look cool -- too bad I'm not a hard core MP guy, though...
  • Owned/Rented: Own it (thanks Kyle).
Orange Box -- Portal (360)
  • Status: Currently playing Portal. Am almost done with the final chapter (before unlocking the bonus materials).
  • Current Fun Level: Pretty fun. Love the feel, writing, and gameplay. I'm sure I'll be wanting more content once I'm finished. Got stuck on Chapter 18 (thank YouTube.com for saving me from a button discoverability nightmate). Put my girlfriend (never played a console FPS before) through an informal usability session chapter 1. She got frustrated and quit -- which generated lots of ideas about how to improve the "complete newb" experience.
  • Owned/Rented: I own it (no thanks to Gamstop, but that's another story).
Portal.swf (Flash Game)
  • Status: Just discovered it. It's like Portal (Orange Box) but 2-d flash based.
  • Current Fun Level: Pretty fun. Controls are a little shaky (wish I could map "space" to jump; mouse aiming issues when perf takes a dip). I worry that the puzzles may get too difficulty too quickly.
  • Owned/Rented: I believe this is freeware: http://uploads.ungrounded.net/404000/404612_Portal.swf

Habbo Hotel (PC Browser)
  • Status: Created a character and wandered into some of the public rooms.
  • Current Fun Level: It's like a big chat room populated by crazy teenagers. Fascinating from a social network research perspective.
  • Owned/Rented: Free so far (I haven't purchased any coins yet).

Carcasonne (360 XBLA)
  • Status: Cheesing out the last single player achievement.
  • Current Fun Level: The solo game is quite relaxing and enjoyable. There are UI issues (and one of the coolest features is completely hidden) but it captures well the joy of a tile laying boardgame.
  • Owned/Rented: Purchased on XBLA.

Overlord (360)
  • Status: Currently playing, sadly needed Gamefaqs.com to help me past the first hour of gameplay.
  • Current Fun Level: OK (it is getting cooler, but suffers from some serious usability issues). I just went on a cool dungeon crawl the other night (through the dwarven lands) that was quite fun.
  • Owned/Rented: Played the demo and loved it. Renting it via Gamefly.com.
Demos I've played

Puzzle Quest (XBLA)
  • Status: Played the demo. Quit before I got too far because I want to buy it and get some achievements!
  • Current Fun Level: Very fun. I've played a PC demo before. Gem matching games can be very fun and relaxing. This version adds just the right amount of RPG elements to give it a more strategic feel.
  • Owned/Rented: Plan to purchase it as soon as I play some more Orange Box and finish Overlord.
Simpsons (360)
  • Status: Finished the demo.
  • Current Fun Level: Pretty darn fun. Good writing, fun game mechanics, irreverent look at gaming conventions. Kind of like what The Bard's Tale did for RPGs, but for platformers.
  • Owned/Rented: Not sure... Might buy it depending on reviews. But it might be a renter because there are a lot of games coming out.
Jericho (360)
  • Status: Finished the demo.
  • Current Fun Level: Dark. Interesting characters. Questions: Will I actually want to change between 9 characters? Will I be able to feel attached to them all? Will I want to play some of the archetypes or just focus on the 2-3 that best support my typical gaming style?
  • Owned/Rented: Definitely curious. Most likely a rental, but...
Games I'm done with

Bioshock (360)
  • Completed: Yep. On easiest.
  • Overall Fun level: Very fun.
  • Owned/Rented: Played the demo and loved it. Bought the game.