Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Critical Failure... My girlfriend tries to play Beautiful Katamari

So, I left my girlfriend alone with Beautiful Katamari for 10 minutes. I came back 10 minutes later and she still hadn't figured out how to start a single player game.


Pretty severe failure. Now she's stuck in a really boring dialog sequence about viewing stars. Stars that she hasn't yet created because she can't play the game to create a star.

She's trying her best to navigate the 3d "main menu" UI and can't figure out where to go.

Ouch. Now she's stuck in an awful save/load menu experience -- where Yes/No are mapped to A and B and you need to do an awkward tap dance to exit the save menu.

Sad thing is, I'm not sure I can figure it out either.

Another 5 minutes of struggle. She begs me to just start the game for her. Then she trips and finds the area with the beginner levels. Finally she's in a game (but not before asking "how do I skip all the dialog").

Of course now that she's in the game she's getting all these warnings that don't make sense because she skipped the intro (I told her to press the "start" button to skip the dialog). She wasn't sure whether "look out" meant for her to get the specific things or avoid them.

Then she was dumped into a minigame (I think it was a minigame) that was a funky billiards simulation. It was hard to tell whether it was interactive or not. Then she got a chance to try the level again.

She quickly got off track in a section of the map where everything was too big for her -- very frustrating.

It's also very clear that she will not tilt or pan the camera... This means that she is often at a disadvantage when she gets too close to a wall or tall objects that obstruct her view.

She failed again. Dumped into a mini game that was mostly obstructed by text. Annoying text. And it wasn't clear for the first little while how to play the game. It's unclear to me why they would show narrative text segments while you play a pretty involved minigame (avoiding billiard balls on a pool table).

Looks like 3rd time will be the charm, though. She's on pace to clear it. It's going to be close. She keeps getting screwed by the camera (which she either doesn't know she can control -- or isn't interested in controlling). Finally she did it and grew her katamari to the required size.

And, to top it off, the game basically tells her that she sucks. Is that supposed to be motivational for the more casual gamer?

Now she's frustrated after failing the third mission several times. She's been playing for 30 minutes and she still can't tell how close/far she is from her goal and how much time is left in the round.

I'm going to take over soon (I did like the first version) but I'm sad that we don't have a game that we can play together.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Progression: Quantitative vs. qualitative

So, I've mentioned that I dislike the fact that Mass Effect makes me care too much about the spreadsheet when it comes to progression and stats. In other words, I need to decide between adding X% to my cooldown or subtracting Y% from my kickback when I choose where to add my precious talent points each time I level up. This, to me, isn't quite as fun as choosing between the "dagger of swift ass kicking" and the "two handed sword of slow and plodding death".

Luckily for me, I tend to always plunge charisma/dialog based abilities. The game UI didn't seem to offer compelling reasons to upgrade my Intimidate or Charm skills (how exciting is a 5% discount at the item shop?). And, after having navigated countless dialog trees in many games, how compelling is "adds the potential to get additional dialog options"? Despite my misgivings, I did remember the joy of leveling up my chat-stats in Planescape:Torment because of the cool gameplay options it presented me at key points in the game and I wondered whether Mass Effect might also provide the same rewards.

It turns out that yes, Mass Effect does add cool dialog options when you level up your Intimidate skill. My character slams people into the wall, yells at them, and guns them down at the flick of my left stick during a conversation tree. And I chortle gleefully, knowing that the red text options (Intimidate) are grayed out for players who chose not to plunge the chat stat lines.

I recently completed the "resolve an impossible situation" achievement via Intimidate and it was pretty cool.

Now I'm grinding my way through side quests before making the plunge to the end-game at Ilos with the hope that I can max out my Intimidate skill. Why? Because a friend told me that if you have maxed out your Intimidate you can unlock a very cool ending.

And, of course, I also want to cheese out a few more usage based achievements.

Note: Obligatory UI complaint. I landed on a planet and couldn't tell if I had been there before by looking at the map. Nor could I easily cross index the planet with outstanding quests. You'd think that the onboard computer system would be good at that sort of thing. Pfeh!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Scattered thoughts on Mass Effect

Just a few random thoughts as I've been going tonight. No real organization, just a bunch of non-connected thoughts.

I also discovered the secret handshake required to use the zoom function while driving around in the Mako (lunar lander you drive when you land on a planet): Hold left trigger, click right stick (2x for extra zoomed in).

I also seem to have discovered a pixel-hunter mini game on the planetary map. Apparently if you hunt around the pixels you might happen upon an unknown object that you can then inspect and survey. And then press B instead of X and exit the interface instead of zooming back out by mistake -- for the 30th time.

In other news... I just discovered that I can install 2 weapon upgrades per weapon. Not just one. Not sure if this is something that happens later in the game (i.e., after leveling) but there ya have it. Wow. That equip screen is a mess on so many levels. I think a large part of the issue is that you have some buttons that act on the targeted selection, some buttons that act on a static portion of the screen, and a variety of spinners and selectors and button options that do things as important as "upgrade item", as potentially costly as "convert to omni-gel", and as potentially useless as "toggle helmet on/off".

Oh... And sometimes "water" will kill you just the same as lava. No "get the frack out" just drive, drive, drive. Sometimes you're OK. But sometimes the water is too deep. And you die. Thank goodness I saved recently.

You can't help but realize how important writing can be as content in and of itself. A majority of the sub quest ("assignment") missions have been played out in a small handful of repurposed tunnels and rooms. Yes, they're on different planets -- but they've got the same floor plans and layouts. One time I'm discovering the body of a dead sister. The next I'm uncovering intelligence on a lost survey team. The only thing that's changed is a wad of text. Yet it's still strangely rewarding and keeps me plugging away on the assignments even though my next step on the main quest line is waiting for me.

Back to the main quest line. World looks lusher and more interesting. More custom content. It's refreshing and cool and reminds me that I'm in the land of meat (peas and carrots are left behind).

I love the hard choices the game is forcing me to make -- but I didn't always feel like it was clear what the impact of the choices were. I wonder if there were actually two paths (one via renegade->intimidate and one via paragon->charm) that I could've followed to resolve my two "impossible situations". I almost chose to eliminate the men-folk and go with an all female crew... That should have yielded an interesting achievement.

Mass Effect: Grindy goodness in bite sized chunks

I'm quickly discovering another great thing about Mass Effect. I haven't had marathon blocks of time available to me over the past week and I was originally a little worried that I'd fall behind. Lack of practice would mean lack of engagement with the characters and story. Moreover I'd fall out of practice with the core game play components (especially combat) and find it extra frustrating to pick up after a week away.

However, I've found that there are lots of grindy quests I can do. These are usually packaged in bite sized chunks so I can just jump in for an hour or so. Not only do these missions expand the depth of the narrative and provide me with reasonably entertaining content, I also get to practice using the exploration and combat tools available to me. Because Mass Effect is hardly "pick up and play" in terms of its UI and the grognardiness (yes, I made that up) of its combat and advancement systems the extra practice allows me to try new strategies that make my main line questing that much more fun when I have time to actually pursue it in big uninterrupted chunks.

The really nice thing is that, like in Oblivion, I can apparently grind away to my heart's content -- and then super easily get back on the main plot line. It's a nice touch and has made the game that much more enjoyable to play -- because it fits my current play style (which is shaped by the vagaries of my social and work schedule).

Thursday, January 24, 2008

2 Scrabulous and a Pixie Pit

Just got back from lunch to find 2 Scrabulous moves and a Pixie Pit (email Scrabble variant) waiting for me. Hurray!

Hopefully Hasbro/Mattel will come up with a way to monetize these Facebook and HTML client apps so that I can continue to play with my friends in ways that make sense for turn based social games.

Mass Effect: Cleaning up some side quests

I don't really have more than a few minutest to game. I figured I'd do a little clean up work on some of my Mass Effect side quests that involve traveling back to The Citadel.

Sadly the journal UI is failing me. Failing me in a way that the only way for me to sensibly work through the 4 side quests is to type them in my blog so that I can easily categorize them into locations and people I need to talk to. Wow.

Anyhow, here they are:

  • Embassy Lounge--Presidium (2 assignments): Talk to Bosker; Talk to Nassana
  • Citadel Tower (2 assignments): Talk to Admiral Kahoku; talk to Garoth
Hopefully they're cool.

One nice thing I discovered: The people I need to talk to are highlighted by an orange "!" on the map.... This does help a bit.

I also love the fact that one of my quests is to "Investigate Shipments" in the Amazon system. Heh :) Are Amazon quests the new Fed Ex quests?

It's about to get steamy -- I'm meeting "the consort" (with my love interest in tow). It was slightly hot. Some how it happened in front of my love interest, though. Weird.

Monday, January 21, 2008

OFMG -- I just RTFM!

So, I wrote in a previous post that Mass Effect doesn't have a system of having your squad mates focus fire or take cover.

Well -- cough -- I decided to take a gander at the manual while eating dinner tonight. And, guess what. You can exercise some limited squad commands. Of course, I had been experimenting with the D-pad for the previous 20 hours of game play and really only discovered "go there" and "follow me". No combination of mashing the left and right arrow seemed to do anything useful in terms of obvious squad behavior or any kind of verbal acknowledgment.

I'm off the Xbox for a couple of days, but I'll try out this much sought after functionality to see how well it works.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mass Effect: The (often fun, but sometimes painful) addiction has begun

I'm about 15-20 hours into Mass Effect and I'm pretty sure I'm in it for the long haul at this point. I'll probably stay on the relatively fast track (though I would probably do more side quests if there were a better way to manage location-based journal entries) until I reach the end.

And I'll probably end up liking it a bunch. Maybe even a lot.

Before I get into a litany of usability related complaints, I should reflect a moment on what I do like about the game:

  • The writing. It's great. Humor, intrigue, and even romance seems to work in that awkward "I play a female character and don't want to be hit on by male characters" kind of way.
  • The combat. It can be exciting and strategic and fun. Even the driving combat. This manages to happen often enough, despite my complaints below, to provide some memorable and engaging combat sequences.
  • The exploration. The universe seems big and interesting enough to compel me to wander and explore. As much as I want to move through this game so I can keep moving through my queue, it's going to be exceptionally hard to not grind through some of the side quests.
Next part: The complaints. The infuriating parts of the game that leave me already wishing for a sequel if only it could be taken and given some serious love by an independent developer who shared my passion for making great core game concepts accessible and usable. No offense, Bioware, but your game systems are difficult to penetrate and geared towards the core grognard. A slight shift in vision and your games could find a much wider audience (not that sales of Mass Effect are anything to complain about).

Vehicle Exploration & Combat:
  • I feel like I'm firing at the 2-d targeting indicators on my HUD instead of at enemies because they're too lethal to engage at close range and thus appear too small, too far away, and too hard to read off the terrain. This is a hard issue to solve -- we had the same issues in Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, especially on larger maps.
  • In addition, I feel like I need to stare at the enemy health bar to tell whether I'm hitting my target or not. There was a huge lost opportunity to use audio feedback to indicate hits (full damage, partial damage), misses, and deaths.
  • Lava textures are hard to detect in some rocky environments. This is all the more frustrating because lava = instadeath: The game provides no "get the heck off my lawn" indicators (sound, visuals, health bar depletions, etc).
Autosave system:
The autosave system is inexcusably bad. I have had to play huge chunks of unrelated gameplay after dying in a combat encounter. For instance, I completed a driving mission and left my vehicle behind, then got ambushed while on foot in a completely new location. I lost that battle and had to replay about 10 minutes of driving mission again. Why do players need to backtrack 10+ minutes of game play because they get killed in a battle immediately after completing a quest that advances the story?

I feel like I'm working on a Microsoft Word document where I need to keep hitting "Alt-F-S" to save every few moments because if I forget just one time I'm going to wind up with a Sev 2 failure. What is the point of even having an autosave feature in this game if it's not going to provide sensible checkpoints? It really does remind me of my experience with Metroid Prime (which I quit after the losing the second boss battle and several hours of game play). The original Halflife really innovated in this area and provides a best practices example of how autosaves should work: Checkpoint reached = quick autosave indicator, a change in music, and the obvious beginning of a new sequence to be savored and that can quickly be replayed whether you succeed or fail (I often replayed key battles because they were so much fun).
My squad mates:
  • Note that some of my below criticisms have changed a bit now that I have a squad mate who can cast "Singularity" (which is really freaking cool) and a shotgunner with enough weapon and ammo upgrades to knock enemies flying. The question is: Why did squad mates only start to do cool things after 10+ hours of game play?
  • The default combat AI (I've got it set on "active") isn't that exciting. I don't get much feedback when they do something cool (like use a buffing power) or useful (like take out an enemy I can't see). They don't seem to do cool things by default (e.g., sniper sets up on periphery while melee person dashes in for close quarters combat). This is another problem we faced in Crimson Skies.
  • While I seem to be able to target my squad mates' special abilities on specific enemies, I can't seem to target their basic weapon attacks at all (e.g., if we need to focus fire on a boss or if I need them to hunt and kill a separate enemy).
  • Squad "move to" orders are clumsy. They'd be OK if I had two melee fighters and they always went to the same spot. But I don't want my sniper and shotgunner standing in the same place usually.
  • What I find I really want is something much more like the system in Star Wars: Republic Commando where it's easy to focus fire on enemies, the AI seemed to do smarter and cooler things in battles, AI and level design were integrated to create some cool set piece battles, and there was better voice feedback, too.
Combat challenge progression curve:
There were big bumps in the combat difficulty progression curve. I also commented on this problem with Jade Empire where my experience was: Easy, easy, almost impossible (at the first boss battle), medium, medium, found the golden path, easy, easy, easy.

In Mass Effect I had to replay my first boss battle about 10 times before I completed it which was kind of frustrating. It basically felt like this battle -- which should have been exciting -- had not been properly balanced for my playing ability and squad composition. I had done pretty well in combat up until this point which made the seemingly exponential increase in difficulty frustrating.

That said, there were also some other reasons that make boss battles (that usually follow cut scenes) extra frustrating:
  • After a pre-battle cut scene ends, my camera is usually left pointing in wrong direction (in the sky, at the ground, or otherwise in the wrong direction).
  • As soon as the battle starts I can queue up a few orders, but not enough to get us going in a strategic sense. I find that the only successful strategy is to quickly have my squad mates run to cover and then try and regroup and win the war of attrition.
  • It's often hard to keep my squad mates alive and doing useful things -- especially if they run off screen.
  • I'm left wondering whether it is really necessary for me to die 7-10 times during a battle and have to replay all the cut scenes each time? In some cases this is compounded by the flawed autosave system whereby I can't change my squad's equipment load out in between attempts. Yes, I can press the start button and change a bunch of upgrades and ammo types the moment the battle starts and I regain control, but this is tedious if I need to do this 5 times in a row (instead of just changing the load out to what I want and reloading it each time I die).
The spreadsheet:
I've already referenced my manual save habits when using Microsoft Word. I guess it's also worthwhile mentioning that the actual game system still seems too Microsoft Excel to me. Yes, I used to play pencil and paper RPGs and loved all the stats. I just think that computers should make the underlying systems less in your face to players. I have to believe that many other RPGs (and action adventure/fighting games) have combat systems as deep and robust as that in Mass Effect yet I don't have to care about fractions of a percent changes to combat variables based on what upgrades, items, skills, buffs, and enemy characterstics are being weighed in the final equation.

Even though Mass Effect has a "casual" level of difficulty, I can't for a minute believe that non-grognards will be able to make meaningful choices between whether they should spend their skill point to reduce cooldown time by an extra 2% or to increase damage per second by 1.7%.

Friday, January 18, 2008


Short post tonight before I do a bit of Mass Effect and then some karaoke.

First, I returned Blue Dragon. Next up from Gamefly: Darkness. I played the demo and got a solid recommendation from a friend, so we'll give it a try. I was hoping for Uncharted but I'll probably be mostly playing Mass Effect anyhow.

Second, there are TONS of XBLA demos I have yet to try:

  • Tron
  • Omega Five
  • Boogie Bunnies
  • Metal Slug 3
  • SWOS
  • Gripshift
  • Space Giraffe
Third, I've started compiling lists of free web-based games.

So many games. So little time.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

And like that (poof) it was gone...

So long, Bogglific... I hardly knew ya. I guess Scrabulous is next. I figured it was only a matter of time before Hasbro shut these sites down. Hopefully they'll publish full licensed versions as they're a great feature on Facebook.

I guess it's back to Zombies!

Here's the post from the Bogglific developer:

Bogglific to Close Down :-(

Hasbro, Inc. has sent a DMCA notification notice to Facebook regarding Bogglific. They claim it violates their trademark, and violates copyright over the Boggle rules.

I'm no lawyer, and can't see how it violates copyright. But I have neither the time nor the money to fight this, and Facebook has given me a grace period of 48 hours to shut the application down voluntarily. You might be interested to know Scrabulous is in the same boat, but they have the resources to fight their battle. Hopefully they will be successful.

Sorry, guys. It was great fun while it lasted. You're a fantastic bunch, and it's a pity that Hasbro doesn't realise that Bogglific helped its Boggle sales by introducing all your Facebook friends to the game, not hindered it. That is sadly how the litigious US works.

Note that the Bogglific forum will be deleted by Facebook, so you may wish to post further discussions to the Bogglific Addicts group (which is not run by me.) Your developer and friend,

Roger Nesbitt

Whoops... Bogglific rating dropped again...

I guess I need to start playing more games -- and doing better. My win percentage is dropping (which shouldn't necessarily penalize me if I understand the ratings algorithm correctly) and I'm not dominating weaker players like I should be.
Your Bogglific rating as of 16 Jan is 1410.
You are currently ranked 1,969th of 41,851.
Played 170 games.
Won 65 (38%) • Lost 104 (61%) • Drawn 1

More thoughts on Mass Effect...

So, I'm really enjoying Mass Effect for the most part. The "most part" being getting to know my character and supporting cast through interesting and engaging dialog.

Yep. By talking to people. Well, not even people. Scripted/AI bits of code that I can interact with.

It's interesting to reflect back on how attached I (and many others) became to the Weighted Companion Cube in Portal or how shocked I was when the white rabbit died in American McGee's Alice. Yet many "human" game characters with much more realistic graphics fail to spring to life.

Lots of variables come into play, especially in terms of the quality of the writing and immersiveness of the story. However, Mass Effect seems to succeed in making in game characters interesting and appealing in ways that other RPGs have failed to do in my mind. In some ways I'm reminded of Planescape: Torment with its incredible dialog amongst the main characters and the interjections between party members and various NPCs.

Where Mass Effect seems to take it to the next level is in terms of the cinematic quality of the cut scenes. They are shot like Hollywood sequences (similar camera angles, cuts, editing), feature gesturing and facial expressions that approach actual "acting", are recorded by high quality voice over talent, and are well-written snippets of dialog that convey drama as well as information.

In short, I'm actually being entertained by cut-scenes. Whoah.

Not surprising are some additional UI quibbles I feel are worth noting:

  • Map/Journal integration is dismal. Yes, you can quickly go from Map to Journal via the Y button. However, what you really want to do is pick an objective from your Journal and then quickly plot it on your map (which then gets tracked in your HUD). Oblivion actually did a good job of this.
  • Squad selection is painful and error prone. During the tutorial portion of the game you gradually acquire a bunch of NPCs that you can swap in and out. Later on you can swap NPCs at your spaceship hub (which I think was the same in KotoR). Unfortunately, there is no good way to micro your team management in one place (swap equipment, check stats and abilities, etc). All you get in the squad select UI is a big picture of the people you can choose from -- and each NPC is summed up by a single stats bar. This results in the possibility of severe errors in the first part of the game (because there is no way to change squad composition once you exit the squad select screen) and moderate errors for the rest of the game (because you need to select characters, inspect them, then go back to the select screen, lather, rinse, repeat until you get it right). Annoying.
  • The Galaxy Map UI is designed in a way that makes it prone to a variety of errors:
    • Discoverability: I couldn't figure out how to leave the original space station and go to my next location. I walked around and talked to people. I looked at the Galaxy Map. Finally I figured "it's been long enough, I must be where I should be" and walked outside -- only to find out I'd never left the station. Who knew that your default Galaxy Map view was too far in to suggest that you needed to zoom out several times in order to figure out where to go next?
    • Usability: A zooms in. B should back out, right? Nope. X backs out. B quits the Galaxy Map. Let's just say that I exited the Galaxy Map several times by mistake.
    • Usability: No integration of Journal and Galaxy Map. Forget where you're supposed to go? It's a multi-step process to call that screen up (exit Galaxy Map, go to Start Menu, go to Journal, find active quest, exit Start Menu, go to Galaxy Map, zoom out until you find a likely location, zoom in, select location).
I did experience my first vehicle combat scenario. It was about as uninteresting as I'd heard it was going to be. Luckily I figured out that holding the left trigger meant that I could at least see where I was going and aiming. But the combat feedback is so bad (basically you need to ignore all the beautiful scenery and focus on the ugly red health bar) that the whole experience seems rather hit and miss. It's too bad because it really could have been a cool mini game much the way that Kingdom Hearts 2 or Ratchet & Clank had space combat mission mini games during outer map exploration. Opportunity missed.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Congrats to THQ --- for acquiring BHG!

This blog is mostly about my gaming experiences -- not a place to repost industry news that may or may not have broader appeal.

But I'm just so happy for my homies at BHG that I need to send a shout out their way.

THQ just acquired BHG. Terms have not been made public -- and in some ways I'd rather not know given that I left a year ago ;)

I can't wait to see what they've been up to this past year and couldn't be happier for each and every one of 'em.

Mass Effect: First hour or so...

Well, I just dropped Blue Dragon's 3 DVD envelope into the mail and am waiting for (hopefully) Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. I'll actually miss Blue Dragon a bit -- and will likely at some point borrow a friend's copy to grind out the last few bosses in order to defeat the game.

But, now I'm on to Mass Effect. I've deliberately set my expectations low for the first few hours of game play based partially on reviews from friends, partially from various Penny Arcade and Zero Punctuation commentaries, and partially from experience with previous Bioware games. I've set myself up for a 10 hour initial experience bar -- no quitting until the 10th hour no matter what.

Interestingly, I don't think I'm going to have a problem getting to hour 10. We'll have to see whether I press on (like I did with Jade Empire) or drop off (like I did with Knights of the Old Republic).

Anyhow, here are my notes on the first hour or so of game play.

First, Bioware did a great job with the initial gameshell experience. The visual and music treatment really set the tone nicely for a SciFi game. The music even made me think of Blade Runner a bit.

Like Assassin's Creed, the game tried to make the UI seem a part of the game fiction. In this case it was during character creation where if you chose a "custom" character you had to reconstruct a personnel data file that had become corrupted by updating various bits of data.

Some of the pros of character creation: Quick-start was emphasized -- which is great for people who want to jump in and start playing. Even if you chose to veer away from the main default character, you were then given a second quick-start option to take either a male or female character. In my mind I would have slightly altered things such that you could have chosen between three options on the main character select page (male quick-start, female quick-start, or "custom") and you could see pictures of the default characters as you highlighted male vs. female. The custom character option would then take you to the more advanced page.

Custom character creation was ultimately somewhat rewarding (I'll refer to why, below) but as an experience it was somewhat lacking. First, I had to choose some biographical and psychological details without understanding what game play effects these would have. Moreover, as I tabbed through the options, the visual representation of my character didn't change at all. This seemed like a lost opportunity given the incredible facial customization available to me later on in the process. It's nice to get visual reinforcement of your choices and this would have been a nice touch.

Thankfully, there were visual character changes when it came to selecting class. Sadly the changes were less qualitative in nature and more combinatorial. In other words, arms and body armor were basically swapped back and forth between the various pure and mixed classes. It was a nice touch -- but under-realized, I think.

Then there was the cool (but insanely detailed) face customization application. Think of Oblivion's face creator -- but where you can actually create attractive faces. For purely shallow reasons I created an attractive female face. I then noticed a scar over the left eyebrow and wondered whether it had appeared on my model as a function of the tough upbringing that she went through (I had selected this as an option as opposed to military brat). OK, that was cool. Moreover, once I experienced first hand how dialog-centric this game is, I'm glad I had a pretty face to look at. It really helps.

After character creation I went into "Options" mode. Yes, there was a "casual" option (which more and more mass market games are including these days) but unfortunately it was not very accessible for a few reasons.

  • Even though there was a ton of screen real estate, the designers chose to hide "casual" in a spinner control with the default set to "normal". There was plenty of room to list all three options (casual, normal, hard) on screen to overtly suggest to users that there were multiple options.
  • The help text for "casual" was written in a rather jargonistic way -- not exactly friendly to newbs to the genre: "All enemies including bosses are scaled down relative to the player's level. Most enemies have no special protections or invulnerabilities."
I think that Bioshock and Call of Duty 4 really handled the wording of these options much better by linking self-selected difficulty setting with self-identified gaming experience (e.g., select "casual" if you haven't played these kinds of games before). We did something like this for Rise of Nations as well.

My other worry is that a "casual" setting that basically nerfs the combat makes it more difficult for players to actually learn the strategic underpinnings of the combat system. While this means that players can move through all the content without getting blocked (a good thing) they won't necessarily get exposed to a really cool element of the game that they might actually enjoy if it were layered on correctly. I think back to Jade Empire and reflect on how the first few combat encounters were so easy that they didn't "teach" the user that there was actually strategy involved in combat -- which left me and a number of my friends high and dry at the first mini-boss battle where strategy was required to win. I persisted and ended up liking the game a lot, but one friend gave up at that point.

Back to the rest of the options: I also noticed that the target assist setting was set to "high" which made me worry that aiming was simply not going to be a fun part of the game.

Then the game, proper, began with some cool cutscenes. Way, way better than Kotor. Excellent voice acting and visuals. And it was cool how the VO reflected the choices that I had made in my background details. It really made me feel like this was a story about me. Moreover, the visuals that ended up in a screen with scrolling text made me think of the opening of an epic sci fi movie. Well done.

The basic exploration camera and controls were similar to those in Kotor. Moving around was decent, but my character did feel a bit rigid and sluggish. The interaction UI was also similar to Kotor in that relevant things for me to interact with called up a HUD element. New, I think, was the fact that an "A button" indicator only flashed up enabled when I was close enough to actively interact with something. This actually worked reasonably well.

The first few moments were dialog heavy. I must admit that I really do like the conversation mechanic. I can explore as deep or shallow as I like -- and the dialog is written well enough that I find myself actually curious to hear what my character has to say. The system is similar to (but more complex than) the Bard's Tale system -- but instead of just having a smiley or frowny face to choose from (and then the Bard says something witty and cool that reflects my sentiment) I have the standard dialog tree of options that Bioware is known for. Again, glad I chose an attractive female model because I do stare at her face quite a bit.

On the downside, Bioware continues to use the outmoded tutorial hint strategy whereby tips popup on screen in ways that are minimally contextually relevant at best. They catch me at times where I just want to move around and fiddle with basic controls so I quickly ignore them. The key missing component is tying learning to game play situations in entertaining ways that support actual player behaviors. Don't give a bullet point list of things to try. Set up a variety of interesting situations for players to solve and help them along with a hint or two when needed. In addition, the pacing of the hints was too fast -- which left me in a position either to quickly ignore them so I could actually play the game, or to pause and try and read and commit them to memory so that if I ever needed that information in the future hopefully I would be able to recall it.

The one time I did follow the hint explicitly was for a "self heal" by pressing the Y button. I know that something happened, but I wasn't sure what because I had no idea whether I had actually taken damage or how much had been healed because I hadn't even been oriented to the health bar UI.

Combat was OK. It seems to be mostly ranged at this point. I didn't realize I had leveled up for about an hour of game play (whoops -- I think this happened in Jade and Kotor as well) and so didn't realize I actually had some cool powers I could use. Well, I thought they were cool, but they didn't seem to do anything. That is to say, I wasn't presented with combat opportunities that would have encouraged me to try them to observe cool results which would in turn make me think that combat could be cool. Remember, I am a newb here. It is permissible to design encounters (and hints) in ways that get me to learn about the cool features of the game.

I failed several times to figure out the "open locked container" mini game. I may eventually have to go to Gamefaqs or some such because I keep wasting whatever fluid is required to attempt to open locks in vain attempts to do so. Again, quick text pop ups the first time you try to do something new won't generally help. If I fail, I'll need to be given reasons -- and ideally an additional chance to try (which I couldn't because I kept running out of fluid).

The few Gears of War combat features felt cool but ripped off (charge forward with camera blur effect, grab cover). Moreover, the main alien species I encountered seem like creatures from GoW. Weird.

And, as expected, the Inventory and Squad control UI screens are an intimidating mess. I could probably spend a blog post or two on this topic alone -- but I'm sure some of my good friends at MGS have done so already.

Still, I am attached to my character and have a quiet confidence that if I just stick with the game for a few hours I'll actually be able to figure out what makes combat cool enough to find it interesting. As I'm not a huge sci fi fan (I like action-adventure movies and games that set in a sci fi universe, though) I'm not sure what expectations I have of the story. But, I hear it's great so I'm curious to see where it takes me.

I'll need to post more on combat at a later date. I'm trying to figure out the big wheel of interface that forms the basis of my squad-based combat controls.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Ratings decay and poor play...

Well, I think I only played 5 games since the last update and didn't fare so well in them. Today I got the update and I dropped a few points. Guess I'll have to dig in and play some more games.

Your Bogglific rating as of 13 Jan is 1420.
You are currently ranked 1,807th of 40,815.
Played 145 games.
Won 60 (41%) • Lost 84 (58%) • Drawn 1

Rock Band continues to grow on me...

I wrote in an earlier post about how, surprisingly, I enjoyed playing the drums on Rock Band. Well, tonight I met up with friends after some board gaming to chill out assuming that I'd either play some drums or (to everyone's horror) sing because I never got into the guitars in Guitar Hero.

However, I jumped in on bass (medium difficulty) and had a blast. I experienced bursts of the sense of flow that I had while I was drumming and I wonder if it has less to do with the kind of instruments that were available and more to do with the number of people who were able to play at once. This is mere speculation, but 2 player co-op in the original Guitar Hero never felt as electric to me as the 3-4 player modes of Rock Band. Of course, maybe it was just the addition of the drums or the mic. But I really do think it has more to do with the social pressure (and reward) of trying to gel with multiple people. You feel extra bad when you can't hold your own weight -- and you feel extra good when the 3 or 4 of you are in sync and rocking out.

I'll have to investigate this further.

Side note: We played board games at an awesome game store in Queen Anne called Blue Highway Games. The game was called Power Grid and it was quite fun. The only problem: No beer.

Friday, January 11, 2008


I just lost 5 in a row in Bogglific. I guess I'm playing better players -- though I did have some interruptions....

Will have to try some more games this weekend or risk the ratings decay algorithm.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Game Over: No Happy Ending for Me

Well, I'm done with Blue Dragon. 50+ hours into it and I'm through playing it.

Did I mention that I didn't finish it? That I stopped playing at the final boss battle?

Sadly, this isn't the first time this has happened to me. I really, really loved Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, Metroid Zero Mission, and even Banjo Kazooie (GBA). But in each case I quit the game at the final boss. I almost even gave up on the original Half-life. What is it with games where the final boss is so ridiculously difficult to beat based on your normal progression through the game?

True, if I bothered to rack, and rack, and rack some more I could probably have beaten Paper Mario and Blue Dragon. Metroid & Banjo simply required too much manual dexterity and reflex action to complete.

In each of these cases I could have kept going and racking and practicing long after the content was basically complete, all in hopes of defeating the final boss. But, I chose not to. It just doesn't fit my game play needs. Does it leave me with a bad taste in my mouth? Yep. Terrible. But when you're just trying to complete the story so that you can move on and get the next experience (and you can see from my list on the right that I've got some gems in store) it's hard to justify spending an extra 5, 10, or even 20 hours to finish a game -- when with the same time investment I could have started and likely completed a new game.

In the old days you could hope for cheats. I guess you can still do this these days -- with the advent of the internet, if they're out there you can find 'em. These days you can just watch the final gameplay moments and movies on Youtube. It's sad, though, that these high quality and well reviewed games can't afford a player like me a satisfying ending.

I'll return the DVDs to Gamefly tomorrow and start plowing through the rest of the list.

Thank goodness for short casual games (XBLA, Facebook, etc), my Gamefly Q, and my personal copies of Mass Effect and Call of Duty 4 that I have stacked beside my projector.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

w00t! It may not be a valid Bogglific word, but it describes how I feel

I logged into Bogglific today (OK, I nervously refreshed the leaderboards page several times today) and received the following notification:

Your Bogglific rating as of 10 Jan is 1441.
You are currently ranked 1,507th of 39,773.

w00t, indeed!

One last victory -- then sleep

I finally managed to get the right column section containing my RSS feed, social bookmark widget, and LinkedIn link to format correctly.


Business of casual games, hockey, and Bogglific

I actually gave a presentation on the business of casual online games at work today in a brownbag. It was fun to prepare -- but also let me know how out of my element I am when it comes to uncovering reliable market research data on the internet. I think that the basic figures (in 2011 video game revenues will grow to a $47B, with online revenues accounting for a cool $13B of that total). Man, we spend a lot of money on games :)

After my hockey game I decided to chill out in front of Bogglific for a few matches before the ratings update tomorrow afternoon. I added about 20 games, mostly against higher rated players from overseas that were taking advantage of the time zone difference. I held my own and won my fair share, so hopefully I'll finally cross the 1400 hurdle and leave the < 1400 games behind.

Oh, and I needed to chill out after my hockey game: I managed to get two stupid penalties.

Monday, January 7, 2008

In the zone...

Bogglific is getting more and more fun and addictive. The hardest part right now is making sure I don't get stuck in < 1450 games -- which hopefully will not be a problem once I break that ratings barrier (I speculate more on the creator's matchmaking UI decisions later).

I just finished a game where I cracked out 39 points in a timed match against several other opponents (the history feature is down right now so I can't recall the total number and their relative rankings). I figured it was time to reflect again on the flow of the matchmaking process and why it seems to work so well.

I generally start by pressing the "Join Regular Game" button. I don't want to play weird variants and I don't want to play with < 1400 players if I can avoid it (losses against them are costly and wins don't get as many points as beating higher rated players). Unfortunately (as I allude to above) I occasionally get dumped into a game with the "no players over 1450 allowed" rule. I quickly hit the "Leave" button so I can avoid these games. It's a shame that I can't set a preference to never be dropped in these games, but I can see why the designer wants to err on the side of games filling up quickly -- even if they aren't ideal in terms of matchmaking. Better to get me hooked on slightly too easy a matchup then have to wait around in a lobby only to be spanked by someone ranked much higher.

Once the room fills and someone clicks start (a great feature -- anyone can trigger game start which usually ends up optimizing for 3-6 player sessions) we get my second favorite screen (of course, the victory screen, seen above, is my fave). This one lists all the players with pictures (if they share their identifying info) and locations (damn them Brits with their SOWPODS dictionary). As well, there is a relative ratings descriptor: The player is rated "higher", "lower", or "about the same" as me. It's great to be able to size up the competition and provides an extra bit of excitement when I see that everyone has a higher rating than me.

Then the game starts and it's a fury of typing until the 3 minutes are up and the results are tabulated. I also love the quick "invite current players to a new game" feature.

FWIW: My winning list of words based on the board above. Note that I capitalize on the NP issue that I raised in a separate post (I don't get penalized for guessing a long word that is a word but not possible to play on the board) by playing both "theater(s)" and "theatre(s)". Cheez-i-licious.

  • ART (Dup)
  • ATE (Dup)
  • ERA
  • ETA (Dup)
  • HEAT
  • HEATS (NP)
  • HEM
  • HEW (Dup)
  • MAR
  • MARE (Dup)
  • MARES (Dup)
  • MARS
  • MATE (Dup)
  • MATES (Dup)
  • MOAT (Dup)
  • MOTE (Dup)
  • MOTES (Dup)
  • OAR (Dup)
  • OARS (Dup)
  • OAT (Dup)
  • RAT (Dup)
  • SEAT (Dup)
  • SEER (Dup)
  • SERE
  • TAE (Dup)
  • TAR (Dup)
  • TARE (Dup)
  • TARES (Dup)
  • TARS (Dup)
  • TEA (Dup)
  • TEAR (Dup)
  • TEARS (Dup)
  • THE (Dup)
  • THEM (Dup)
  • TOME (Dup)
  • WEAR (Dup)
  • WEARS (Dup)
  • WEE (Dup)
  • WEES (Dup)
  • WERE (Dup)
  • WOE (Dup)
  • WOES (Dup)

New Bogglific: 1383; Getting close to finishing Blue Dragon

So, the creator of Bogglific has laid some more stats on us. The newest feature is player ranking: I'm currently 2,342nd of 38,514. Not bad. But, I haven't played much in the last few days and I may end up getting penalized by decay. I've got 2 days until the next update.

I'm also getting close to the end of Blue Dragon. The game has its fair share of flaws, but really they are minor UI annoyances (well, sometimes they are major annoyances: like when trying to target spells on the correct friend or foe) and mostly related to frustration with what could have been. I have no idea whether a sequel is in the works, but I'd love to see another version of this game with a deeper and more enjoyable barrier/field combat system. I really felt limited by poor camera controls and I never experienced a really cool multiple Monster Fight interaction.

The biggest annoyance with the end game is that it kind of left me hanging. After guiding me by the nose for the first 40+ hours of gameplay, I was left to my own devices at the endgame which led to a couple of preventable slip ups:

  • I had no idea how to trigger the final boss battle. I tried to engage the "suspicious" looking area by conventional means, but needed to read in order to learn that I needed to fly into the hole instead of parking my ship and walking into it. Whoops.
  • I had a 50-50 chance of getting to the power-up base vs. the final dungeon as my first encounter. By choosing wrong (whoops?) it meant that I almost lost several hours of gameplay as there was no way to warp back to the power-up base when I needed to rest, save, and stock up. Thankfully again steered me in the right direction, and with some mildly painful backtracking I returned to proper end-game format.
I'm currently at the final boss battle (classic fight and re-fight a more powerful version of the final boss several times) and taking a break. I love the fact that I can time warp to a previous version of the game if I want to do more exploration and racking. I hope that this feature is available after I finish the final boss off as I'd like to see some of the additional sidequest content.

Thursday, January 3, 2008


I'm still unhappy with the right column of my blog. I need to revisit my goals and how best to reflect them.

Right now I feel like the "Demos I've Tried" section is becoming cluttered. Games that I have no urge to play remain mixed in with games I'm still evaluating or have added to my "Radar" (which leads to duplicate entries).

Also, the "Games I'm done with (for now)" section doesn't offer much closure -- even a one word summary like "completed" or "quit" or "noff nuff hours in the day" would help.

I guess the real problem is that I need some sort of database of this kind of information that I can easily edit and keep up to date and use to publish interesting reports to the blog (like "recent 5 demos" or "last 5 games finished" or "games currently being played").

Something to think about.

Bogglific Redemption: 1366

The Bogglific stats have been updated and I'm up to 1366. This means I'm 34 hard earned points away from reaching the magic 1400 barrier. This barrier is significant in some ways because it means that I will no longer be able to join explicit "< 1400" games. However, in practice it is irrelevant as I haven't been wading in the kiddie pool.

I'm curious as to what the Bogglific creator is going to do re: advanced stats and leaderboards. Right now there is very limited functionality: I can only see the ratings of the top 50 players. What I (and I imagine many other competitive players) would like to see are better break downs in terms of:

  • Zeitgesty leaderboard comparison categories (e.g., against my friends; against neighbors; against other countries; hourly/daily/weekly/monthly leaders; etc).
  • Advanced stats breakdowns (e.g., won-loss head to head, vs. small groups, vs. larger groups; average point scores, number words guessed; etc).
Here's hoping!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

I am humbled...

I may be one of the better Scrabble and Boggle players I know.

Today I was humbled on Bogglific. I only won 8 of my last 25 games, dropping my overall record to 33-36-1. I've fallen below .500.

A few things to consider:

  • Most games are between 3-5 people. Therefore a .500 record is nothing to be too ashamed of.
  • I can't tell the rating of the people I played against -- so I'm not sure whether my rating will increase or decrease (I should find out tomorrow). Hopefully I've been losing mostly to much better players.
That said, I really did get skunked a couple of games. One of the coolest things about gameplay on the Facebook (or any large social) platform is that you get glimpses into the long tail. Here I'm referring to a top echelon of players whose skills make a decent player (like myself) seem completely inadequate.

However, this has ironic (and unintended consequences). I now feel competitive and want to elevate my game by playing tougher opponents, learning from them, and improving my strategies. This means that I become less fun to play with to my various friends who are decent and want to twitter away time socially with me. This has already happened in Scrabulous and will probably occur on Bogglific at some point if my friends actually start playing.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The numbers have changed... And a layer of cheese has been added

My Bogglific rating dropped a few points, I think through decay but I'm not sure. I'm down to 1307.

However, I did just discover a new strategy for cheesing up my score. Examine the following scoring table as excerpted from the Facebook app:

Scoring key:

NP - not possible. Words you make have to be formed with letters that are next to each other on the grid. If you can form a snake between all the letters, the word is valid. Diagonals are allowed. A letter on the grid can only be used once in each word.
Dup - the word is good, but one of your opponents also got it. Sadly, this means you don't get any points for that word.
Dict - the word wasn't found in the Bogglific dictionary. No proper nouns are accepted -- that's basically any word that starts with a capital letter. If dictionary penalty was on for this game, you lose two points per word that doesn't exist.
DDup - the word is a Dup and also wasn't found in the dictionary. Luckily for you, you won't be penalised for having this word when dictionary penalty is on.
Dup, Dict, and DDup make sense. No scoring occurs with Dups, and entering a word that does not appear in the dictionary draws a penalty of -2 points.

However, NP makes no sense. It should be a penalty at least as severe as Dict because it encourages guessing without finding. It would have taken me longer to figure out except that I just finished a game that had a bunch of "s" letters on the board and I spent extra time with some of the longer words that contained multiple "s" letters (like "tasters" or "starters") to make sure that I didn't enter a valid but NP word by mistake.

Turns out I should have just entered a whole host of them (e.g., "tasters, starters, starers, tears, steers, rests," etc) rapid fire and moved on because there was a chance a bunch of them were there and I wouldn't incur any extra penalty over and above potential lost opportunity to find words in another section of the board.

I'll have to try out this strategy to see if it actually does pay off even though it feels very cheesy.