Thursday, November 29, 2007

Puzzle Quest just keeps layering on the goodness

So, after meandering through a bit more Assassin's Creed I found myself strangely not caring that I had no idea whether it would save my progress correctly given the wacky and cumbersome route you must take in order to exit the game. Not a good sign.

I turned my attention back to Puzzle Quest for the rest of the evening and was not disappointed. The core mechanic of the game, remember, is piece matching (get 3 or more in a row). There are even "minigames" that are, well, basically the same game but with slightly different rules and victory conditions. And even though the core mechanic is the same, I haven't become bored with the game yet.

In fact, the more I play the more I like the game.

I think there are a couple of reasons why it gets better over time:

  • The core mechanic is already proven and fun. Who doesn't like Bejeweled?
  • The game is easy to fit into a busy schedule. You can spend anywhere from 5 minutes to 5 hours and quit at any time without losing progress. You can leave for days and come back and it's easy to pick up. Even though you might forget some of the optimizations you've made, you'll quickly rediscover them through gameplay and as you level up and progress.
  • Just when you think that you might have had enough, another gameplay element will be layered on. For instance, I felt like I was having to penny pinch too much and was worried that this might make the game progress too slowly. Then I unlocked a siege tower and now I can besiege cities which is both cool and a way to beef up my income via the outer map game (instead of just racking gold during battles).
  • Even though I know I'm just playing a spreadsheet (and, in fact, when you level up you see all the percentages and decimal places that reinforce the spreadsheetness of the game) the systems are tied to the game fiction in cool ways (e.g., as followers, mounts, weapons, etc).
One interesting aside that might be worth exploring later: Many people criticize Assassin's Creed for the repetitiveness of the gameplay (find town, climb tower, pick pockets, assassinate boss, run away, lather, rinse, repeat). Why does Puzzle Quest get a pass in this regard?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bad Demo... Good Value?

I just finished the demo of Blacksite 51 (downloaded via 360 Marketplace). It's the second demo for this game and both have left me underwhelmed.

I didn't complete the first demo -- I got confused and lost in a parking lot and just couldn't figure out how it was supposed to be much fun.

This demo wasn't much better.

After launching on default settings (Threat Level Orange [Hard]) and dying twice while trying to figure out how to open a door, I tried the game again on Casual. Casual was too easy to a fault. I couldn't trigger the door open sequence because I didn't have to kill all the bad guys to get to the door. I didn't figure this out until I mashed all buttons and just about gave up on the game because the door to the next level wouldn't open. After wandering around I finally found the last hopeless cretin and killed him to trigger the door open. Several bugs (and a restart) later, I completed the simple "turn the corner and open the door" component of the demo level.

My squadmates did not seem intelligent, nor did they do a good job calling out threats or contributing to my situational awareness. This game made me think of a very watered down Star Wars: Republic Commando (which was an awesome squad based game in my mind). For all the polish in the movies and graphical detail (especially during the chopper mini game) not much attention seemed to be given to the actual squad based gameplay. This felt no where near as cool as Call of Duty, Star Wars: Republic Commando, or even Half-life 2 (when you get the followers).

What I'm left to wonder is: What is the value of shipping a gameplay demo that is too hard (by default), buggy, and that lacks either extremely fun core gameplay mechanics or some sort of HFF moment?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Hurray! I lost.

My reign of terror on Scrabulous has come to an end. I lost my first game today after 26 consecutive victories.

On the plus side, by churning through so many games in the past couple of weeks I've discovered 3 opponents who regularly threaten me and seem dedicated.

Next step: 50 wins!

Save game error...

Assassin's Creed has failed me. Again.

I thought I had exited the game in a state where I could resume without having to redo a whole bunch of movie watching. Unskippable movie watching I might add.


The save game system is somewhat puzzling because there are multiple levels from which to exit and save out of (while in the "matrix" and while in the "real world").

Any way you slice it, the game should have realized that I didn't need to watch the really bad cutscenes again. Unskippable? Unforgivable.

After consulting the manual (yes, I know the game already has several strikes against it) I decided to press on in hopes that the game would get more exciting -- and that I would begin to feel as cool as the character seemed in all the marketing movies. And, finally, I got a taste of it. I learned a bit more about combat through a tutorial which made completing some of the "save the poor" quests more interesting.

And then -- by accident -- I actually got to assassinate a couple of unsuspecting tower guards in very cool ways. There is a glimmer of hope after all.

It's a shame that the game is so interface driven. While I commend the designers for taking this weakness (removes some of the immersion) and trying to turn it into a strength (by writing it into the fiction of the game) it means that I'm more often than not trying to play the interface (mainly the HUD, but also the Map) instead of interact with the world.

This is most noticeable when contrasted with the platforming elements (essential to this kind of game, and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, its predecessor). These are no longer skill based -- my character can basically do whatever I want by holding the trigger and A button and only fails when there is a camera/control glitch.

At this point I don't know that the way these levers have been positioned will satisfy me. I do like a nice cerebral thriller. However, I don't want to have to learn what the 20+ icons on the minimap mean by consulting the legend each time.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

If co-op can make the "fart-in-a-bag game" fun, then...

Early on when I played some of the less than stellar Xbox live co-op offerings I remarked to a friend that co-op can even make the "fart-in-a-bag-game" fun.

I came up with the original "fart-in-a-bag" metaphor when I was idly talking with friends about Phantom Menace. Specifically I said that I was so excited about the idea of Samuel L. Jackson as a bad-ass Jedi Knight that if the movie simply had him perform one cool light saber fight, the rest of the movie could just be George Lucas farting in a bag for 2 hours and I'd go away satisfied.

Let's just say I didn't walk away satisfied from the piece of turd that was PM.

This is just a long way of me saying that adding co-op to a game is a lot like adding Samuel L. Jackson to a game. It can make a good game great and a great game into a legendary experience. But, if you give him terrible lines and upstage him with characters designed to sell Gungan shaped lollipops to kids... Then, well, shame on you for missing out on a great opportunity.

Gears of War, to me, was a "good" game. I played a bit of the single player and enjoyed the polish. I was in transition from east to west coast when it launched so I missed out on a lot of the initial multiplayer and co-op excitement. But, tonight one of my good friends from Baltimore invited me to help him through some of the single player game on Insane difficulty -- and it was a blast. It really worked on multiple levels:

  • As a great learn-as-you-play experience: I had an experienced guide with me. He could share tips and strategies as I needed them ("hey Brian, how do I do X?")
  • As a way to layer on cool elements of strategy ("you pin him down, I'll flank!")
  • As a way to take the edge off of setbacks ("unintelligible giggling and laughter as we get slaughtered, yet again")
  • As a way to discover new tips and strategies ("holy crap, I never thought to aim my grenade that way")
What was really cool was that even on Insane difficulty, the level design and balance was such that one experienced player plus one relative noob could have enough time to draw up a plan and execute it. We had to be efficient and couldn't mess around too much -- but there was just enough pressure to keep things exciting without ever feeling frustrating. There's a lot to be learned from the way the folks at Epic structured the co-op experience.

Hopefully I'll dive a bit more into it at some point!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Assassin's Creed: Initial Experience

Well, so far I'm a little underwhelmed. I actually thought the beginning of the game was quite clever -- a send up to bad tutorial/learn as you play design where the player is overwhelmed with onscreen instructions that are taught too quickly to be effectively learned and ingrained. It left me feeling initially overwhelmed and frustrated, which was exactly what I was meant to feel as the main character waking up from a puzzling and confusing voyage into the matrix. It kind of broke down the 4th wall in a cool way like Eternal Darkness did with its insanity meter.

Next came the actual tutorial (which was even called a "tutorial" within the fiction of the gameworld) and it had some of the same failings of other sub par tutorials: Lessons taught in uninteresting and disconnected ways, little opportunity just to learn by doing, and the constant worry that if I missed one of the instructions that I would never be able to retrieve it again. For instance I still can't remember the color coding scheme for the Eagle Eye ability (and can't seem to retrieve it via any of the in-game options).

Pacing was also a bit off. There was a lot of dialog. Badly written dialog. For a game that marketed itself heavily as a cinematic experience, not enough time and effort was spent on writing. The marketing movies (that had little if any dialog) were all spectacular. In-game, however, there is a lot of talky-talk that is just pitifully bad.

The game's fiction also makes explicit the deus ex machina elements of mission advancement because memories can be arbitrarily "advanced" when a task or goal is completed. Yes, there is some efficiency from the player perspective (no need to walk all the way back to the lair after a mission is done) but because it seems arbitrary it seems like it happens without my intention.

Another key annoyance is one I also experienced with Metroid Prime: Give me cool powers to start the game -- then take them all away and make me go through a boring tutorial in order to get a few of them back. And, likely, several tutorials in order to get them all back. Ratchet & Clank never did this -- and I felt cool from moment one (and only felt cooler as the game progressed).

I had reasonable expectations for this game -- I assumed that it would sacrifice gameplay and accessibility for a cinematic story experience. It seems (so far) that the sacrifice has been made. I'm worried that I will not get the story content that I expected in return.

A couple of production value nits to pick (normally I wouldn't do this, but this game really has been marketed on the strength of its visuals and production values):

  • For a next gen title, there are a lot of graphical glitches. Maybe they aren't as noticeable on a smaller LCD screen, but on my projector there are lots of really ugly moments so far (especially with regard to shadows and characters).
  • Characters don't seem situated in the world. They seem to be floating. This has been most noticeable in the cut scenes between me and my master (his feet just don't seem to attach to the ground). I realize that at some point we need to get away from simply putting dust clouds under footsteps, but I just find it distracting when characters don't seem situated.
  • Default movement seems a little slow and sluggish. It does set the mood, but can be frustrating if I just want to cover some ground. This is especially noticeable when I'm back in the lab.
  • Did I mention really bad writing? It's a combination of too much exposition and not enough Hollywood magic. Dialog is a tough thing to do well and the game so far has dropped the ball.

Scrabulous + Assassin's Creed...

Looks like I get a few hours reprieve from being the dutiful boyfriend (my girlfriend's family is in town for Thanksgiving and has kept me from my original plan to have a full month of gaming goodness to celebrate my birthday).

On deck: It's my move in 4 Scrabulous games. And I'm about to fire up Assassin's Creed.


Friday, November 23, 2007

Optimizing Scrabulous

Today was not a good day to game. Sadly I was feeling too ill earlier on to snuggle up to my 360 and projector and get some gaming in. Too ill to partake fully in a Thanksgiving meal. Urgle.

I did, however, play some Scrabulous moves. And I contemplated some notes from various discussions I've had with others about how I optimize the Scrabulous gaming experience.

The first rule of Scrabulous is to have many games going at once. I find that the magic number is between 5-7 games. Depending on the play patterns of my opponents, I find that usually this ends up in at least one move every couple of hours during the week which is about right. More plays = more fun, but with one player per hour or two I am satiated even if it means that one or two of my opponents have taken a day or two to make a move.

The second rule of Scrabulous is to nag people without nagging them. Usually I use my Facebook status to do this. I'll often tag on a non sequitur sentence to my status that mentions Scrabulous. It can either be a direct challenge (if I'm having a competitive game with a friend) or a more general "Jason is feeling a little tired. But not too tired to finish up his Scrabulous moves for the day".

The third rule of Scrabulous is to try and play as many different people as possible in order to discover similarly matched and passionate players. I want to play against people who will hit the "rematch" button as soon as the game ended because it was an exciting ride.

One improvement I'd love to make: Introduce a handicapping feature into the game. I'm not sure how this would work (I haven't really thought it through) but I think this would make it more likely that some of my less skilled friends would continue to play me because the matches would be more competitive. I did some initial research and contacted a club in Scotland to ask them about their handicapping system -- we'll see what my investigation yields.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

File for later: Investigate Mass Effect initial experience...

So, I've tried to keep myself in the dark as much as possible on Bioware's recently launched Mass Effect. Often I'll do this for big game and movie releases so I can enjoy the content without all the marketing fuss. I'll most likely be getting my copy in the next week or two.

Because I've been steering clear of most of the buzz, I haven't heard much about the game itself. The two data points I have are from a thread on a games-interest email alias at work and a Penny Arcade web comic.

A couple of my coworkers suggest that the game is somewhat impenetrable (doesn't teach you how to do basic things in-game, requires you to use the manual) but fun.

The Penny Arcade comic kind of speaks for itself.

I'm curious to see what approaches Bioware used with this title to make sure it was accessible and entertaining from the first moment of gameplay. + The joy was over before it even began...

I received the following email last night:

Dear Jason,

We have just learned that BrightSpot.TV is no longer operating as of today. While they have let us know that they intend to relaunch, we have no assurance that this will actually happen.

We realize that some of you found the Brightspot.TV service to be valuable, so we will honor all credits earned through today, November 20th. We will let you know if we learn any additional details. In the meantime, please contact if you have any questions.

Thank you,

GameFly Support


Online Help:
It's too bad, really. I could've used the $10/month savings for watching about 10 - 15 mins worth of commercials. That said, it did seem "too good to be true" at the time... And I guess it was.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Matchmaking... When it works it's Dy-no-mite!

I just finished one of the most exciting games of Scrabble yet. It was on Scrabulous, the Facebook app against one of my college friends who'd looked me up online after all these years.

Turns out, by chance (though not entirely, I guess, as we selected each other as friends) we are pretty evenly matched Scrabble players. I've been desperately searching for even matches lately as Scrabble is one of those games where large skill differentials really make for a lousy game in which neither side wants a rematch. I'm not a tournament level player, but I have played hundreds of games against a good friend (and well matched opponent) over the past couple of years and have developed a decent sense of strategy and a nose for the sweet, sweet bingo.

Back to the game.

It really got interesting at about 2/3rds of the way through the game -- really just before the end game (last few turns each) was about to begin. I was comfortably ahead by 49 points and decided to open the board slightly in hope of gaining access to a triple word score spot. I knew I opened myself up for a late game bingo from my opponent, but decided "what the heck". Whoops. My opponent fired off an 81 point bingo. I was able to play the triple word and tie the score again, but my opponent scored a 32 point word to empty the tile bag.

I tallied up my remaining letters -- I had a bingo but no place to play it. I calculated a bunch of 2 turn exits and came up with two 18 point plays that could possibly win it for me if my opponent had a tough time emptying her rack and got stuck with some point letters.

After a further 12 point play from my opponent, I was down by 26 with only an 18 point play to make that would end the game. My only hope was that my opponent's last 2 tiles added up to 5 or more points (sadly I hadn't kept track). And, they did -- they added up to exactly 5 points ("stupid V" my opponent cursed after the game). Victory was mine.

The game was characterized by good back and forth in the early game, me starting to pull ahead in the mid game, a beautiful reversal by my opponent in the last third, and then a tense end-game that resulted in a 335-333 score.

We just started a new game and made our first plays. Can't wait to see what this one brings.

Price point vs. entertaining trial version... To buy or not?

So, I've been playing some Peggle (from PopCap Games) lately. Specifically, I've been playing the demo. Like other reviewers, I went from an immediate reaction of "how is this interesting or strategic? I just fire a ball at some pegs..." to "wow, this is a cool puzzle game with interesting mechanics and challenges" in the course of about 15-20 minutes. There's a bunch of content, the core gameplay is strategic and fun, the matches are quick enough that you can learn-by-failing but not get frustrated.

The problem I'm having is that $19.95 is just too high a price point for this kind of game. Most XBLA games are in the $5 to $10 range and it's hard for me to think about this game being worth more than those games. And with XBLA I get to add achievements for completing the game to my gamerscore ;)

Now, there are replays that apparently you can save or share -- and I know that PopCap has some community features -- so maybe if I were more tied into the community I'd be more interested in picking up the game.

But, given there is so much cheap (and even free) content out there, as much as I'd like to see additional Peggle content I think I'm going to just stick with the trial version.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Trials and tribulations...

Last night I checked out a few XBLA trial version games. I needed to chill out for a bit after my hockey game and didn't want to risk getting caught up in another marathon Half-life 2 session.

It was a mixed bag of results. In a couple of instances I was pretty pleased with the initial experience, which I define as the first few minutes of gameplay after launching the game on default settings -- ideally reached by just mashing the "A" (or "X" for PS3) button a bunch of times.

The good 'uns:

  • Word Puzzle. This one benefited strongly from very straightforward gameplay -- it's basically a wordfinder game. If you're familiar with this kind of game (and like word games more generally) the core gameplay is accessible and fun. The major source of confusion was in the selection model: Two letters appear as highlighted -- your cursor and the first letter of the next word to search for. This leads to confusion over which letter is actually in focus and ready to be acted on. The left stick cursor control control was also a little "loose" which made it difficult to select letters accurately with any kind of speed.
  • Switchball. A very fun puzzler with a great learn-as-you-play tutorial. It also benefits from simple core mechanics (mostly just the left stick) and did a nice job of layering on gameplay elements with brief text hints. I did get stuck for a while at one point (could've used a hint) but managed to blow through the demo content quite quickly. Too quickly, actually, because I didn't feel like I had seen enough content to know if this was a keeper or not.
On the other hand, a couple of developers didn't pay enough attention to what the user's initial experience might be like if they'd never played the game before.

The not-so-good 'uns:
  • Screwjumper. I knew there was going to be a problem when I tried my usual "hammer the "A" button until the game starts and wound up landing on the upsell screen instead of in a game. Nope -- not gonna buy it before I try it out first. It just felt like a dirty trick (hoping I would mistakenly purchase it by mistake). The default controls were unusable (inverted in weird ways with no attempt to help me correct them) and I was constantly interrupted by huge walls of text hints/help which were annoying and promptly ignored. I died constantly without really figuring out the point of the game.
  • Shrek-n-Roll. I jumped into a default game... and failed to figure out how to play the game. The clock kept ticking down and the only thing I could do was raise or lower Shrek who was on some kind of see-saw. Mashing the buttons did nothing. Tick-tock-tick-tock. My right thumb accidentally brushed the right stick and Shrek's girlfriend then started to move. C'mon, people, casual games don't require the right stick by default. If you want players to use it (and you shouldn't force them to for the most part) you need to teach it. Think Katamari Damacy -- you can't even start the game without using both thumbsticks. Although it was infuriating at first -- I thought my controller was broken and switched it out 3 times because the "start" button didn't seem to launch the game -- the game designers made sure I knew that this game was different and required both sticks.
I also updated the right column to reflect these notes.

Also, Assassin's Creed should arrive today or tomorrow. And Blue Dragon just shipped to me from Gamefly. Ideally one of my buddies will hook me up with Mass Effect, too. November is going to be a busy month.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Catan: Worst AI evar?

So, one of my coworkers made the bold claim that the AI for Catan! (XBLA) was the worst in the universe. I'd heard some complaints about the AI before, so I asked him to explain why he felt the way he did in order to get to the bottom of the issue.

You see, I worked with the co-developers of Catan's AI... Klaus Teuber (the creator of Settlers of Catan) and Brian Reynolds ("game god" behind Alpha Centauri, Civ II, Rise of Nations). In other words, two acknowledged heavy-weights were involved in the creation of Catan's brain.

Reading into the reasoning of my co-worker, it seemed like at least part of the frustration was that the AI couldn't explain what it was doing -- and part was because the AI couldn't be reasoned with if it seemed to be acting irrationally. This is something that can be solved naturally with human friends (through chatting) but is harder to emulate with computers.

One way we attempted to address this problem was to add emotes (tickles) to help educate users about what the computer was thinking. However, while some things were easy to figure out (computer smashes the piggy bank means he doesn't have the resource you're looking for) others were much more subtle (computer flashes "not with you, now" when he is competing with you to settle an open vertex).

I wonder if one of the other things we may have done "wrong" for the SP experience is that we optimized AI play for filling in dropped players in an MP game. We specifically didn't want them to do stupid trades with the human leader as it would make the end game not fun for the other human players. The fact that even though all 3 AI players are operating independently and according to their own interests doesn't matter. What it looks like is that all 3 AI players are ganging up on the human in an arbitrary and unfun way.

Of course, when you find yourself in a game with 3 expert human players (as I often did while working at BHG) the end game will end up with a 3 against 1 mentality as no one will trade with the leader unless it guarantees them a victory that turn. We tried to mitigate against this in the Easy and Normal difficulty settings, but it's obvious that we didn't do enough. And to the player, this can seem like a broken experience.

The other thing that I find infuriating (but less so now that I know about it) is that sometimes computer players have "crises" depending on their own personality preferences and how the board is set up. This means that they will panic and be basically unwilling to engage in any behavior that won't let them make a specific play (and unwilling to assist anyone who is competing for the same play). Tournament level players (like Brian) would see the AI's inflexibility and read the board and understand the dilemma. Normal human players (like me) will only see a completely unsocial AI that seems unwilling to trade. Note that it's not the "crises" that I find infuriating (AI should have goals)... It's the fact that I don't know why the computer is behaving so anti socially.

I think I'm going to have to think much more deeply about AI as a user experience. How do we have computer operated agents that work in believable, understandable, and entertaining ways?

Instrumentation for game improvement and community zeitgeist

Both Bungie and Valve are doing a great job of sharing customer behavior data on their websites. focuses on multiplayer action in the form of heat maps that are filterable by level and weapon type.

Valve (via its steam services) focuses on the single player game, showing mission progression and heat maps to see where gamers die and where they stop playing. Actually it's hard to judge where players stop playing because you can't tell from the data whether people are just taking a break or have consciously decided not to keep playing.

These are great data to collect for franchise development -- and also help to contextualize the ranting and raving that occurs on forums and in customer support mails. These data can also be used to baseline expected behaviors in future beta launches.

From a zeitgeist perspective, these data also provide awesome fodder for community discussions and gaming press. They help keep the buzz going.

Pure genius...

Don't click unless you've completed Portal (from the Orange Box).

Jonathan Coulton sings Still Alive.

Brilliant work.

More Half Life 2 goodness (and some thoughts re: RPGs)

I'm blowing through Half Life 2. It's obviously not as fun as the first time through, but there's enough excitement there to keep me going. And, I can't wait for the new content (Episodes 1 and 2). One thing I had forgotten -- the bridge sequence. I've felt vertigo in other games when I stood on the edge of a cliff. But this game takes that whole feeling to the next level. Emotionally, I felt as stressed out as I think I would actually feel if I were walking around the scaffolding of a bridge without any safety harness. It's that compelling.

Valve just gets so many other little things right, too. On the one hand they create core mechanics that are fun to execute over and over in the little sandboxes they set up. Every encounter is a puzzle that can be solved through the basic shooting, walking, jumping, and lifting actions of Gordon Freeman. On the other hand they script sequences that help advance the plot and add in some truly rewarding (and sometimes HFF) moments. Taken together, it is a wild ride that makes you really feel clever for solving puzzles even though (in the background) they are handing you the pieces and showing you ghost images of how to place them. You just never really notice it until you sit back and start to break it down. Impressive.

Switching gears, it's time to start thinking about RPGs again. Between Mass Effect, Eternal Sonata, Blue Dragon, and Puzzle Quest, I should be doing a fair amount of this kind of gaming in the near future. So, what are the components that make up a great RPG?

  • Combat: Controls, Camera, Feedback. Feeling (moment-to-moment; preparation; post combat cleanup)
  • Exploration: Where am I? Where do I want to go? Is getting there half the fun?
  • Story advancement: Do I understand the story? Do I care about the story? Are my goals clear and interesting? How do I keep track of them?
  • Character advancement: Do I get the right amount of leveling, choice, and growth?
  • Environmental interaction: How do people and things react to me? How do my actions get reflected in the world? How does the world and its denizens communicate combat, exploration, story advancement, and character advancement to me?
  • Economy: What are the collectibles (items, people, things)? How and when do I manage them? Are these all character based or is there some meta economy as well?
  • Accessibility: How do we ensure that I get to see all the content? How do we solve for players getting lost or killed in battle?
I'm sure there's more. I'll need to work on refining this list as I go.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I just did a little maintenance to my right side columns. I'm also trading my Gamefly copy of The Simpsons Game for Golden Compass (the book).

Demo updates:

  • Tried the Two Worlds demo for about 5 minutes. The controls and animations felt very last gen. The options UI was hard to read and use. My first encounter was with a bear that killed me. Buh-bye.
Games I'm playing updates:
  • I finally stopped fooling myself re: Halo 3. There's no way I'm going to play through the single player campaign unless I do it co-op with a friend. There are simply too many other awesome single player games right now.
  • I also stopped dragging my feet on Overlord. I strangely became quite attached to this fantasy RPG version of Pikmin. I loved the concept of minions and was taken back to the good old days of Wizardry III: Return of Werdna in that I got to play the bad guy. Anyhow, it's going back to Gamefly so that I can get my hands on the next game in my Q.
  • I've decided (for now) to play through Half Life 2 again. I started off just showing it to my girlfriend and got caught up in it. I would like to see Episodes 1 & 2. It's just like I remembered it: Awesome!

Highs and lows from my email inbox

So, I received the following email today:

We wanted to let you know that there is an unexpected delay with your
video game order (Order# XXX-XXXXXXXX-XXXXXXXX) you placed on October 18 2007 22:20 PDT. Unfortunately, we are unable to ship the product(s) as soon as we expected and need to provide you with a new estimate of when
they may be delivered:

"Assassin's Creed" [Video Game]
Estimated arrival date: 11/21/2007

We apologize for the inconvenience caused by this delay.
I knew full well that dropping my EB/Gamespot membership and switching to preorders was going to end up in situations like this occasionally. It still sucks. Luckily I have a number of happy games to keep me tided over until this one arrives.

On the plus side, I also received this email:

A payment for $4.75 has been sent to GameFly to be applied to your GameFly account. Your account balance has been updated to reflect this payment amount. You can view this activity by logging into your account, navigating to the ACCOUNT tab, then select the TRANSACTIONS tab and SEARCH your TRANSACTION HISTORY.
Sweet. I mentioned in a previous posting as the place you go to watch brief tv and internet ads and get credit applied towards a provider of your choice -- in this case, So, for spending 6 minutes watching ads I was able to reduce my monthly bill from $24.75 (approx) to $20.00. Not bad!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Fantasy Football Frustration

Fantasy football, ideally, is a great way to keep in touch with out of town friends. It provides a social network with a meta game that draws people back at least once per week and it has chat functionality. Ideally there would be scheming and trading and such -- but the reality is that most of us just monitor the waiver wire and micro our rosters that way. Each season we try and brainstorm ways to make it more socially involved, but a variety of factors get in the way.

The biggest problem is most likely systemic. Limited roster size means that trades usually need to be 1 for 1, which means that you can only address needs if you have a perfect doppleganger (someone who has a surplus of what you need and a dearth of what you can offer). Because the talent is so shallow at the key positions, rarely does someone have a surplus of good players. And, if someone does, it is often better to deny others access to these players instead of letting someone else get those points. Players in a position of weakness really have nothing to offer players in a position of strength.

So the "game" then becomes one of speculation (in a perfect world) and one of "whomever gets up earliest on Tuesday morning" (in our current world because there is no formal waiver system). Speculation is fun (if not morbid) because in a sense you are betting on which stars will get injured and picking up their replacements. The "early riser" mechanic is horribly broken and makes things annoying at best (go figure that our friend living in Copenhagen gets first crack) and imbalanced at worst.

Even more broken is my second league with folks from Baltimore. The draft was automated, the rosters are huge, the scoring system is ridiculously complex, and there really is no reason to interact socially as part of weekly game play. So, it's basically just an annoying waste of time instead of a way to keep in better touch with far away friends.

The other problem is simply one of level of commitment and interest. Not everyone is interested in maximizing the utility of their bench and spending the necessary time to do the research, float offers, and respond to counters. I still believe that this could be solved systemically (by having interesting phased wheeling and dealing rounds) but need to let the hamsters run on their exercise wheels a little while longer until the light bulb turns on.

Truth be told, the most robust social interactions I've had re: Fantasy Football have been through Facebook twitterings. One of my friends kept my score updated by status update when I was out hiking (I could check occasionally on my cell phone). Tonight I lamented Mo-Mo's fumble and subsequent failure to redeem himself by gaining 3 more yards before the clock ran out on my Facebook status page.

You'd think that my gaming friends and I could come up with a better way to foster social interaction via our Fantasy Football league.

Edit: Note that the title doesn't make as much sense without adding the explanation that I just lost my weekly match up by one point... It came down to the last few plays of tonight's Monday Night Football game.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Spin the wheel...

My game acquisition strategy has changed over the years. It went from "buy the new games I'm excited about on day 1 and borrow/buy used the rest" (before I worked in the industry) to "play games in the game library, but buy the very few games that you must own" (while I worked in the industry) to "play some mixture of games I buy, games I rent through Gamefly, and free casual games" (my current situation).

I love all the options and channels that are available to me. Not only does it mean that I can mix and match depending on my current time available and location (in front of the console at my place, or at work/Liza's) but there is both an element of mystery as to what comes next (and in some cases when it will arrive) and an element of meta gameplay as I queue up games on my 360 download list, my preorders, and my Gamefly Q.

The 360 download list (demos and XBLA games) is a mostly black box -- I do get advanced notice on recent and "coming soon" downloads from various RSS feeds I sign up for. But, basically I click on the "new releases" tab every once in a while and download things that look interesting.

The preorder is the way that I get my hands on "must own" games. Generally they arrive a few days after the stores get them -- which is convenient enough, especially for popular games that are hard to lay hands on for the first few weeks. I've given up on Gamestop preorders for reasons that I may specify at a later date if the rage I feel towards that chain doesn't prevent me from breaking the keyboard as I type.

The Gamefly Q requires you to "game" the system in order to stack up releases that you want based on interest level and availability because you don't necessarily get the highest item in your Q next. For instance, I was surprised to get The Simpsons Game on day 1 of availability instead of an older and much more available game.

This whole thing gets even more complex when you factor in social components: I may trade The Simpsons Game to a friend in exchange for a book that he is recommending. This means that I need to consider not completing Overlord if I have to return it (instead of The Simpsons Game) to get the next available title in my Q.

Tough decisions. Fun decisions. If I don't comment explicitly on them in a future post, the decisions will certainly be reflected in changes to the games in the lists on the right.

Platformed out... for now

Just completed The Simpsons Game. It was a fun send up to video gaming much like Bard's Tale was. The content was memorable and the writers and designers were able to make me laugh throughout the experience.

As expected, the gameplay was only so-so. And, there wasn't as much smashy-smashy as I would have liked. My bar is quite high for platformer/action-adventure games, especially with both the Ratchet & Clank and the Lego Star Wars series as shining examples of what these kinds of games can be.

Still, it was an excellent rental.

I also moved Ratchet & Clank: Future Tools of Destruction to the "done with" pile for now. I'd like to go through the game again and purchase more upgrades, but it's hard to justify mining existing content when the list of games to play is piling up -- and I don't get any gamer points for completing PS3 achievements.

I'm looking forward to some demos and XBLA games tomorrow. In between watching football and playing two more hockey games.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Tutorials & Learn as you play... The book?

I came across a link to an academic paper that discussed the tutorials in Rise of Nations in the context of how to improve teaching and learning, more generally.

I'll dig into the nitty gritty of the paper over the weekend, but I must say that I was quite flattered to find that RoN was deemed worthy of such attention. We did agonize over the flow, structure, and content of the learn-as-you-play experience. We spent many hours in the usability lab watching people either break or get bored by early versions of the tutorials.

In the end, we came up with something that we were pretty darn happy with -- and I find myself still applying some of the lessons learned back then in my work on games and social computing websites.

Anyhow, the paper (in .pdf) is here: The Paper

And it looks like the author, James Paul Gee, has also published these thoughts (as well as other RoN related musings) in book format: A handful of books that refer to RoN.

Ah, fond nostalgic memories!


Yep. I'm 20-0 on Scrabulous. I've had a couple of close ones, but generally speaking I've been kicking ass and taking names.

Here's a screenie of my record... and some of my memorable bingos:

Thursday, November 8, 2007


A couple of co-workers were wondering why The Simpsons Game seemed to be reviewing poorly on

Camera/controls are so-so for this game (not awful, but not as good as top platformers who've had many iterations to refine their craft). Of the handful of negative reviews that I can see, most seem related to the Wii version -- specifically the camera controls. It wouldn't surprise me if the developers dropped the ball in terms of optimizing camera/controls for the Wii/numchuck.

In my opinion (and I'm liking the game) the designers tried to make the game accessible to the masses and may have ended up failing folks who want to feel clever as they solve puzzles -- a big motivation for serious platformers. As implemented, this choice may also end up failing some of the very people that it was intended to help (inexperienced/newb gamers who are just interested in the IP) because the learning curve is still too steep for folks not used to having to manipulate the camera manually. Newbie gamers tend to hover their thumb over the face buttons (instead of the right stick - which contols camera) which leads to them getting into situations with a disadvantageous camera angle. More experienced shooter/action-adventure gamers keep their thumb resting on the right thumbstick in order to fluidly move/aim/look.

I tend to evaluate platformers in terms of:

  • IP (am I interested in the content)
  • Puzzle solving (am I mentally challenged without being frustrated)
  • Visceral smashy smashy (do I get to break lots of things in spectacular ways)
  • Engaging combat (variety of weapons to encourage rock-paper-scissors combat puzzle solving)
  • Story (is it a platform-adventure game or an action-adventure game with platform elements)
So, Ratchet & Clank: Future tools of destruction rules my world (even though the most recent incarnation was probably the weakest in the series) because I love the IP and there is a ton of visceral smashy smashy. Combat was pretty good (in my mind). Story and puzzle solving are a little on the weak side, but totally outweighed by the rest.

I had a feeling that Simpsons will simply provide a cool IP experience with fun smashy-smashy, reasonable combat and story -- and so far this is exactly what I'm getting from it, which is great.

Then again, I rented it ;)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Oh, baby... 10,000 points + 1 Bingo (at the same time)

Just received the "Fight the power" achievement in The Simpsons Game to take me to exactly 10,o00 gamer points... And while I was waiting for a cut scene to finish I played a bingo in a Scrabulous game (which will likely end in my 20th or 21st victory to zero losses).

Now off to hockey. Thoughts on the initial experience will have to wait. Well... A few brief comments follow:

  • Excellent use of IP in a game. Wow. The writing is amazing and the cut scenes all seem like actual episodes from the tv series. The voice acting adds so much to the game (as do the many throw away comments).
  • I love the cliche gag (where Comic Book Guy comes out and makes fun of a gaming cliche -- like double jump, breaking crates, etc). It never gets old.
  • Best... Achievement... Ever. Press Start Button (5 points).
  • The tutorial/learn as you play was pretty decent. Good layering on of core controls, including camera. I don't generally like it when the tutorial has "taunts" in it (because if you're struggling in the tutorial it's usually the fault of the tutorial and not the player) but it kind of works consistently with the Simpsons universe.

Simpsons Game arrived today

I was going to jump into Puzzle Quest and try and make it further, but that will have to wait.

The Simpsons Game just arrived via I'll have to check it out first.

Brief report to follow (before I head out to hockey).

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Initial Experience...

I sat down, briefly, with two XBLA trial version games today: E4 and Exit. Both seemed fun and I'd like to try them some more. I really only left them behind because I was planning on trying to top 10,000 gamer points today -- which required playing a game I had already purchased (Puzzle Quest in this case).

Both games also provided different takes on initial experience. The trial versions of both games funneled me into the core single player campaign. Exit started with a structured interactive tutorial while E4 literally encouraged me to "dive in" (this was the text above the blinking image of the start button) and dumped me in a fairly impenetrable mass of music, sound, and visual chaos.

Exit's initial experience suffered from what typically happens when designers try to come up with a structured interactive tutorial: Experiential/trial and error learners tend to either get bored (they don't want to be told how to do things) or break the tutorial by falling off the rails while experimenting. Learners who are happier to "follow the voice" will sometimes struggle later on because they have focussed more on following prompts than on deeply processing (and developing muscle memory for) core mechanics. The game looks to be a fun puzzler, but I'm unfortunately going to have to struggle through the tutorial in order to get to the fun -- which makes me sad.

E4's initial experience "suffered" from general impenetrability. I use the quotation marks because even though I felt lost and like I should be frustrated and NOT having fun, I was actually having fun even though I kept screwing up and really had no idea of what was going on. I had taken the leap at the "Dive In" prompt and I was treading water, trying not to drown. After a few minutes I started to visually orient myself to the images on screen and the control mechanism. It was at that point that I was able to start trying to figure out how strategy and planning might play a role in this game. Strangely enough, I still have very little idea how the game actually works -- but I got better over time (the feedback was great in terms of visual & audio cues... which makes sense because I think it is a rhythm game) and I want to play more.

Side note: It also looks like I'll need to rethink my categories on the right again. I don't currently have a good place to put demos and trial versions. I don't want them to clutter the space up too much -- but I should acknowledge the ones I've tried.

Recent Trial/Demos:
  • Retail Games
    • Simpsons Game (Renting from Gamefly)
    • Jericho (Renting from Gamefly)
  • XBLA
    • E4 (Still evaluating)
    • Exit (Still evaluating)
    • Mutant Storm Empire (Not likely)
    • Battlestar Galactica (Nope)

Cleaning up the 360 hard drive

I've spent the past few days mostly on my PS3 playing Ratchet & Clank. Today (after a bit more R&C goodness) I turned my attention back to my 360. It's time for me to break the 10,000 gamer point barrier. Ideally before dinner.

After Q'ing up a bunch of content (see below), I realized that I was running out of HD space and should do some clean up.

I decided it was time to get rid of a couple of demos (Simpsons, Jericho) as I should soon be receiving the full versions from Gamefly.

I also removed some of my favorite game trailers for games I've already played (Portal, TF2) and games that I should be playing soon (Simpsons, Jericho, Assassin's Creed, COD4, NHL 2008).

Interestingly, this still left me with a few trailers of games I'm still intensely curious about: The Wheelman (a Vin Diesel property), the next Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, Bourne Conspiracy, and Soul Caliber 4. I don't even know dates on these titles yet... But it reminds me to make sure they're in my Gamefly Q (and in the columns to the right).

Currently in my 360 download Q:

  • Retail Demos:
    • America's Army
    • Scene it?
  • XBLA Trial Versions:
    • Battlestar Galactica
    • EXIT
    • Mutant Storm Empire
  • Game Trailers:
    • Infinite Discovery
I'm sure I'll have some thoughts to post on these downloads at a later date.

First, 10,000 gamer points.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Simpsons Game is on the way...

Courtesy of my Gamefly Q

Right column maintenance

A few adjustments to the column on the right:

  • I moved Resistance: Fall of Man to my "Games on my radar" list (from "Games I don't have enough time to play" list) as I'm going to wait until the dualshock3 comes out before trying again.
  • Added NHL 2008 to "Games I don't have enough time to play" list. I've got friends who'd love to play with me and I really liked the demo.
  • Added Blue Dragon to "Games on my radar" list. Don't know why it was missing before.
Other notes:
  • Halo 3 is about to be moved to the "Games I'm done with" list. I just can't get excited about it.
  • I need to do some more 360 Demo and XBLA gaming.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sports and social gaming

Sunday is a day about non-videogame games for me. I watch football (and participate in a fantasy football league, which is kind of like a videogame) and play ice hockey.

I'm also taking my turns in Scrabulous (still undefeated) and hoping that my vanquished foes will ask for rematches soon.

It's also very "social gaming" kind of day. A lot of games I play are single player experiences -- puzzlers, RPGs, action adventure. I consume them like I consume books, movies, tv, music, etc. It's about the content.

Social gaming is much more about the context. It's the people that make it fun -- more specifically, a mixture of competition, cooperation, agreed upon norms and rules, and decent match making. With all the things that must go right to make a social game fun, it's amazing that they ever work out in some ways. When you bring 30 people together to play hockey, even one or two "bad eggs" can really spoil the fun for everyone in ways that are hard to correct. After you've got the gear on, have driven a half hour (or more), and have payed your league fees, you don't quite have the same freedom to drop from one session and join another as you do while playing an online FPS or RTS.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Make it rain... Make it rain... Make it rain bolts on my head


I'm done playthrough #1 of Ratchet & Clank. It seriously rocked my ass and was a worthy successor to the previous 3 PS2 versions. Smashing stuff to make it rain bolts just never gets old in my mind. I actually just played 20 minutes of the challenge mode (same game, but harder enemies and a challenge multiplier where you can literally coat the screen in shiny bolts) and am still wanting more.

Still, I need to discuss some obvious warts. This version really was not as polished as the previous versions in a few noticeable ways:

  1. Broken features:
    1. The Treasure Map was muddled -- it wasn't obvious where the Gold Bolts were at all.
    2. The Helicopter Weapon was completely uncontrollable (at least by me) and made this weapon an expensive waste of time.
    3. The Invert Y-axis option simply didn't work for Space Craft Controls, which made that aspect of the game pretty not fun for me.
  2. UI foibles:
    1. I remember in the first game it was really easy to scroll through all the worlds at a glance and tell which ones had open quests and hidden Gold Bolts. This was replaced with a model where individual worlds needed to be selected and expanded before you could tell whether they were worth returning to.
    2. I can't remember if this was the case in previous versions, but you could exit vendors by pressing the "O" button. However, doing so often meant that I triggered a weapon blast by mistake
Six Axis Redux: In the end, I actually began to enjoy some of the Six Axis (tilt) features of the game. Aside from the obviously broken Helicopter controls (I mention above) and the somewhat tedious to control (but oh, so enjoyable when it works right) Tornado Launcher, the mini games were quite enjoyable.
  • Flying was quite pleasurable (though occasionally the controls felt a little twitchy)
  • The circuit board minigame was awesome (once I discovered that you could hold "X" to keep the ball in place)
  • The jig dancing was fun (shake that booty)
All in all, an awesome experience and I can't wait to play more and I'm sure I'll write more.

Mini update... Birthday month is going well!

I'm in the middle of 7 Scrabulous games while playing Ratchet & Clank.


GLINTiNG for 140... Leaderboard says "not so impressive"

So, I've been challenged by a bunch of friends in Scrabulous (the Facebook App) and I'm winning pretty much every time. Well, I haven't lost yet... But I'm sure I've just jinxed myself. By the end of the weekend I may very well be 20-0 (or 19-1).

I just placed GLINTiNG across a triple-triple for 140 points. It may be my personal best (I think I've only ever had one other triple-triple, but I can't remember what it was or how many points it was worth).

One of the cool things about Scrabulous is how the developers keep layering on polish and advanced features. The top 10 plays are displayed in rank order. And, if you choose to, you can view the board (and word placement history) to see what these top plays are.

I figured that my score of 140 points in one play would likely have qualified me for a top slot. Nope. The top 10 scores are all above 190.

Upon verifying the games, it is clear that one or two of these scores were "legit" (that is someone managed to score a nice triple-triple in a competitive game). One or two of these scores was due to a power mismatch (like my game where the weaker player unknowingly opened up an obvious bingo spot across a triple-triple). The remaining scores are from people dinking around (either one player playing both sides, or two players colluding) in order to cheeze their way up the leaderboards.

Ah, leaderboards. They seem to bring out the best and worst in gamers.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Thank you, Sony, for the great core workout I'm about to enjoy

So I noticed today (Friday evening after a long week) that Sony does something very different in terms of how it expects customers to charge their wireless controllers.

It all seemed so simple:

  • PS3 is plugged into wall
  • Controller is plugged into PS3
  • Charging should occur.
Nope. The PS3 has to be turned ON for charging to occur. So, I'm left with a dead controller and a 4' long USB cable. I can't remember if my 360 requires power to charge because the issue has never come up. The controller holds a charge well -- and if I require charging while I play, the default cable assumes I have a living room setup (long cable).

What's up, Sony?

Anyhow, I dug out my Bosu ball and will now play from the floor.

At least tt'll be a decent core workout.

Returning Resistance until I get my hands on a DualShock3 controller

Sony is allowing developers to patch in rumble support for the (still yet to be launched) DualShock3 controller.

Insomniac just announced that their most recent patch to Resistance: Fall of Man enables said rumble support. Now I just have to wait for the actual controller to hit the market...

I keep hoping that I'll like Resistance, but my day one impressions at launch ranged from depression to ... well, depression. After another week of R&C: Future Tools of Destruction I figure I'll return to rabid Insomniac 'fanboi' status and be ready to give Resistance another chance. Hopefully a meatier controller with rumble feedback will save the day and help me appreciate what other reviewers and fanboys have been raving about.

The hair of my chinny-chin-chin

I've got a couple of minutes before midnite to go over a few first impressions of Ratchet & Clank: Future Tools of Destruction.

  • Wow -- console gaming is almost as awful as PC gaming now with all the updates and such. Remember when you could just insert the ROM (or CD) and just press the start button? It took 15 steps (including various reboots and deletion of corrupted files) to go from insert DVD to controlling Ratchet thanks to firmware updates and long load/save times. Urgh.
  • Wow -- the 6-axis controller is lame. Feels like crap (I noticed this last year when I tried to play Resistance), I miss the rumble (especially for additional feedback as to when something has been sweetly smashed, or when it is unbreakable and I should stop trying), and the minigames that use the motion sensor are pretty lame and feel tacked on. I just spent a bunch of resources to upgrade my tornado gun and I may never use it again.
  • Wow -- the core gameplay still rocks hard. I've missed R&C and thank goodness that the series is back again. I'm having a blast.
One last thing: I can't seem to get the controller to respect my inverted preferences for the flying portion of the game. This is very frustrating and makes the minigame pretty not fun to play (when it actually should be good cotton candy).

Well, more to come tomorrow :)