Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Oh yeah, I've been gaming... Wordscraper, Boom Bloxx, and GTA IV

I haven't posted in a while. I'm going to start getting back to it now that I've taken a brief break from work and a nice flurry of gaming over the past few days.

First, Wordscraper. I've been getting fewer Scramble, Wordscraper, and Word Twist
requests from friends so I decided to dig in to the "Blitz" version of the game. It's an online competitive solitaire version of Scrabble with some interesting twists. The initial board lay out is random which creates for an RTS-like experience where you scout the map and plot your strategy. The random set up of the game makes it so that you have to adjust your strategy each time. Do I create intricate cross hatches of words to take advantage of a nest of letter multiplier tiles? Do I rush out to the corners as quickly as possible to take advantage of a cluster of word multiplier tiles? Do I need to play a straight up game because there are very few bonus tiles at all? Very fun and very competitive. The rounds are 4 minutes meaning that an hour can disappear quickly.

My biggest pet peeves are:

  • The board is puny. This makes it hard to place tiles accurately.
  • There are too few keyboard shortcuts. I believe I talked about this elsewhere. Hopefully we'll get some more (especially a hot-key for tile swap).
  • There is a serious bug (or flawed feature) in that the game seems to want to "intelligently" decide whether my first click on the board yields a down or across arrow. This is extremely frustrating especially near the end of the game when you want to jam in one last word and the game guesses wrong.
I haven't had a lot of time with GTA IV, but strangely enough I'm rather hooked. I really didn't care for any of the previous versions as I found driving to be frustrating and combat to be painfully awkward and unsatisfying. In addition to my frustration with previous GTA games, after playing a bunch of Crackdown (where I thought combat was over the top, driving was much better, and my character could do insanely interesting things) I figured there was no way I could go back to the more "realistic" GTA world.

I was wrong. I got sucked into the story line and visuals from moment one. This is happening more and more often these days -- I'm willing to forgive less exciting core combat for great story telling. The world is truly beautiful to drive around in (I play on my 100+" projection screen) and the cinematics are mostly worth watching. The writing, voice acting, and cinematic direction keeps me engaged in ways that Uncharted: Drake's Fortune did.

Moreover, the game has become much more accessible to the more linear minded gamer like myself. The addition of the GPS and an engaging main plot line has left me wanting more. As I get a bit better at combat, driving, and world navigation I'm starting to get antsy to just "screw around" in the world... Something that I loved to do in Crackdown (because my character was a super hero who was basically invincible) but never quite got in the previous GTA games.

Interestingly enough, my fiancee has been watching me play a bunch. We both laugh along to the story (not due to cheesiness, but due to actually humorous dialog and situations) and she loves just watching me drive around and act like a maniac.

Also, as with Crackdown, Liza likes to give me hints. This has happened with other puzzle type games (like Portal). Games that she has no desire to play (most likely due to fear of "sucking" because she doesn't consider herself a hard core gamer) but that would probably have fun playing if somehow the controls were made more accessible. Something to think about.

Finally (well, there are some demos to review, but I'll do that in a later post) I picked up Boom Bloxx. I played a bit of it with a friend and knew that I would want to play more. It's a great puzzle game that makes decent use of the Wii-mote. My main gripe is that the pushing/pulling of blocks is hard to execute with any precision. Maybe it's because of the way I'm sitting, but I seem to have to push or pull exceptionally far (and with an exceptionally steady hand) in order to push a block directly away from me or pull it directly towards me.

There's lots of fun content and puzzles. What I'm left to wonder is: Is this game actually worth the full retail price given the huge number of great free puzzle games online? I haven't explored much of the Wii Ware feature (and probably won't until there are free trial versions) but there's a ton of potential here.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Lots of demos... Lots of games: GTA IV, Alone in the Dark, Ticket to Ride, and (of course) WordScraper

I've been buried in games that I'm working on (which I can't talk about), but I have been trying some demos and am waiting on my copy of Grand Theft Auto IV from Gamefly.

Some games & demos to talk about in the future:

  • Go! Go! Break Steady
  • Alone in the Dark
  • Ticket to Ride
I also need to talk more about my growing addiction to WordScraper "Live Mode". It's like the release version of Griddle in terms of addictiveness and I can't wait for the next round of polish.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Some tidying up: So long Jericho... Hello Ticket to Ride

I did some tidying up of my lists today.

New games I'm evaluating:

  • Go! Go! Break Steady: This is a game that I want to like. It's a rhythm game like Parapa that has a Match-3 component as well. Unfortunately the initial experience (and especially the tutorial) were sub par and the visceral feel of the game is sub par when compared to other games (the explosions should feel meatier; the button presses during the rhythm game should provide more satisfying audio and rumble feedback). I'm going to try it again and jot down some more in depth thoughts in the future.
  • Ticket to Ride: A fun German board game that I hadn't played yet. Tutorial and initial experience left a little to be desired and the board is somewhat hard to read even on a big screen. But the basic mechanics are fun and it had a strong enough achievement point tease to make me purchase the full version. I'm sure I'll get 10 or so hours out of it.
Demos I tried and rejected:
  • Arkadian Warriors: It was an insanely fun hack and slash RPG. However, I really only wanted to play it co-op and I never had a chance to get a group of us together so I gave up on it.
  • Geometry Wars Evolved 2: I always liked the idea of Geometry Wars, but found the achievements to be too hard core. Achievements seem similarly hard core for the newest version. Moreover, even though a bunch of game variants have been added, you don't get to try any of them as a part of the try-before-you-buy experience. Can't try it, won't buy it.
Games I'm done with:
  • Clive Barker's Jericho: I liked the demo, but the game just isn't exciting enough and the game play is rather mediocre. If the story was a little deeper and stronger I might have been able to hack my way through it (like I did with Darkness).
  • Eternal Sonata: The new combat mechanics were kind of interesting (if inscrutable at first). However, the story and characters turned me off in ways that made the game hard for me to enjoy.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

WordScraper User Created Content: It's not always sporn...

So, a group on Facebook now hosts a place where people can upload screenshots and links to custom Word Scraper boards that they have created.

To the left is one of the cooler screenies that I saw posted. Yes, it's probably not fun to play, but it is a fine example of user generated content that is deviant in a prosocial way. While I saw Word Scraper as a tool to iterate on game design ideas, someone else saw it and said "hey, this would be a great way to send a creative greeting message to a friend who loves Scrabble." It's a great example of how successful games and social utilities allow people to approach them with their own set of expectations, preferences, and play styles. For most Word Scraper players, it will afford them only one use: A way to play Scrabble with friends. But for people who are interested in contributing their own game and social content, it provides an engine that allows these folks to pursue other goals.

Now I'm off to Word Scraper again... I'm trying to figure out the correct color and placement of tiles to make a large phallus board that I can send to my friends ;)

More XBLA Demo Content...

I also played a few demos. Notes to follow (I can't remember the names of the games) and I'll add 'em to my evaluation list.

There was:

  • A fish photography game... that seemed like it would be the perfect free/cheap game. $10 seemed like too much for it.
  • A breakdancing rhythm/puzzle game... that seemed cool and was strangely addictive, but fell flat in terms of controls and feedback.
  • A new version of Geometry Wars... where you didn't get to test out any of the new game play modes.
Bottom line: There are pluses and minuses to learn from each one. It's a shame that they're all $10 instead of $5. I have to believe that I'd be buying a bunch more games at $5/pop.

Jericho: Some promise, but a little flat in terms of game play

After doing a bunch of brick smashing on Astropop (a fun XBLA game that, sadly, is too hardcore in terms of its Achievements) I fired up Clive Barker's Jericho.

I'd played through the demo and quite enjoyed it. It was moody, suspenseful, and the characters were reasonably interesting as they combined both magic and conventional weapon skills.

The retail version denies you the swap-between-characters ability for the first hour and a bit. This makes some sense in terms of letting the player get familiar with basic controls and in-game conventions. It was a little frustrating to watch the other squad members do cool things while I just had my guns, so I was happy when I finally got the ability to body swap.

Unfortunately the whole thing became kind of hoaky. I wasn't really sure why I needed to sacrifice myself (other than to complete the level) and it wasn't quite as dramatic as I was expecting because I already knew that I was going to be able to transfer my soul from character to character at some point in the game.

And, really, I needed the game to really sell me on story and character because the game play was pretty mediocre. The weapons did not feel very satisfying, the enemies were not very interesting, and mission success didn't seem to require tactics beyond "stay behind your squad mates and revive them when they die".

Some of the special powers feel cool, but I almost wish there were fewer powers (and characters) and that they were more differentiated from each other. This would make it easier to follow the story and would make choosing the right character fun instead of a chore.

I guess in some ways it's like a slightly less engaging Darkness. That was another game that promised a mix of conventional and super natural combat techniques and squad tactics, but delivered mediocre game play. However, the story was much simpler and more powerful and kept me wanting to keep playing until I finished the game.

Like Republic Commando, some of the banter amongst characters is humorous (especially when they first get possessed by the main character). But, ultimately, controlling the squad and interacting with them is tedious. The squad commands are confusing (you control 2 squads via the D-pad -- I still haven't figured out how it works) and your squad mates don't really seem to do anything super interesting on their own.

A few other nits to pick:

  • Quick Time Events: There's no warning. All of the sudden button icons start flashing on the screen and you need to react. Players need a little "pay attention" signal before these things start.
  • The "heal me, I'm down" option doesn't seem to work as well as with Republic Commando. I wonder if this game might have been more fun as a co-op experience.
  • There are no journals, inventories, or maps. Yes, it's nice not to have to fight UI to manage my equipment or figure out where to go next (just follow your squad mates). However, I would like to know where my bullets and grenades are coming from. And I wouldn't mind collecting items of some sort -- if only to reward exploration.
  • Melee combat is not very fun. The ranged weapons aren't that satisfying in terms of feel and feedback (show me where I hit the enemy). Melee combat is even less satisfying. One character has a sword -- which you think would be cool, but it's basically unwieldy.
  • The characters don't have unique physical characteristics. It would be nice if the smaller, wiry ones could do some dodging. The bigger, slower ones should be able to grapple or block with their arms/weapons. However, all of the characters feel pretty much the same to control.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Never mind... Word Crack (er... Scraper) is here

I haven't been this excited about a Facebook game since Griddle.

I just completed a couple of rounds of Word Scraper -- Live Play and it is going to be terribly addicting. Think of a mash-up between Scrabble and a real time strategy game. Well, maybe more Tetris than RTS, but still... You take a random map (the 15x15 grid, but randomize bonus tiles) and a time constraint and then feed players letters as they try to maximize their score. To be successful, players need to grok the "map" and position themselves in ways that max out the scoring. There's a constantly updating leader board that lets you know how you're faring against the hundreds of other players.

Yeah, it's laggy.

Yeah, it needs some UI love.

But it is incredibly addictive and will likely become the next major drain on my time once a more polished version comes out.

Improvement suggestions:

Game Shell UI:

  • It's annoying that the landing page doesn't list my current turn-based games in progress, but instead forces me to choose Turn Based or Live Mode before I get to see if I have any available Turn Based games.
Game UI:
  • Need better keyboard commands: Need to have an "enter" [enter] key to submit the word; need to have a "clear" [ctrl] key to return all tiles to rack; need to have a "horizontal arrow" [rightarrow] key to type word across; need to have a "down arrow" [downarrow] key to type word down.
  • Need to display point values on letter tiles (to allow for non-standard point values).
Core Game Play:
  • Random Maps: I think that they are correct to only split the population by dictionary now (British vs. US). However, as soon as this game starts to take off there are all sorts of cool opportunities to provide a variety of custom experiences suited to different play styles. For instance, some folks will prefer "easy boards" (resource rich) while others will prefer resource poor boards, and some will prefer complete randomization (removing symmetry, reshaping the board in radical ways, changing point values, etc). Popular variants will likely emerge and need to be supported...
Social Play:
  • Need to surface popular modes, leader boards, etc. There should also be ways to group with like-minded and/or skilled players for the best experience.
  • Co-op play: Man, oh man, do I wish that Brian and I could go head-to-head against other pairs of players. Even if direct competition isn't supported, allowing arbitrary groups of people to team up and compete in the current game could be really fun.
  • Lag.
  • Inability to see a static version of the leader board after a game completes (it scrolls off the screen and can't be retrieved).

Friday, August 1, 2008

So long Scrabulous... Hello WordScraper

It was inevitable. Hasbro was going to insist that Scrabulous be removed from Facebook and replaced by an official version (developed and published by EA).

Sadly the official version pales in comparison to Scrabulous. Although I shouldn't be, I am still amazed that folks think that it's OK to release an inferior product when the killer app already exists. Hasbro/EA released a flashy, bulky version of the game that completely missed the mark in terms of what users craved: A polished, light weight version of the game that allowed for quick and effortless play.

In a stroke of genius, the inventors of Scrabulous released an application called WordScraper. This game is a generic letter tile laying game where users can create custom boards and rules sets. Of course the feature set makes it super easy for someone to create a custom board and set of rules that mimics Scrabble (I'm currently playing a couple of games using this rule set). But it also lets folks be amateur designers and iterate on novel rules and board set ups. This is some really cool stuff -- especially when combined with some community features that will allow people to rate other people's custom games/rules and, presumably, surface the most popular variants.

Kudos to the creators of Scrabulous (and now WordScraper). They've put power back into the hands of the passionate community -- and this will likely inspire more loyalty in its users... Even those who simply play using traditional Scrabble rules.

The developers have also been super responsive to community feedback in the past and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see them add some really cool new features that promotes user generation of content in new and interesting ways.

Eternal Sonata: Not exactly a triumphant return to gaming

Eternal Sonata...

I'm trying to get into it and like it, but it's just not working for me. The story and characters are not very engaging to me and I've skipped every movie because they are simply painful for me to watch.

The combat system seems interesting on the surface, but for a tactical rpg I find it frustrating. I can't seem to choose who I target when doing a ranged attack; I can't seem to choose which ally I want to buff; I can't even seem to choose which ability I get to use. I realize that there is some kind of system in the background whereby my character positioning relative to other characters and enemies affects my options, but it's simply not understandable to me after playing an hour of the game.

The game tries to explain combat in a series of boring and non-skippable tutorials. There's no learn-as-you-play, just a bunch of billboards that explain a bunch of concepts by way of annoying banter between characters. I'm now "Party Level 2" and instead of becoming stronger, I actually feel weaker. I'm not sure what (if any) advantages there are to leveling up my party -- nor am I sure how I reached the next level other than by beating a certain boss. Weird.

The equipment/inventory system is a confusing mess. After fumbling around I finally was able to change equipment and add some items to my combat inventory selection.

I find myself unsure of what to do/where to go next. And, instead of providing me with hints or a map, I instead wander all over the place until I hit a place where I'm NOT supposed to go and then the voice of the machine comes up and says "don't go there. Go to this other place (and I'm not telling you where it is."

I'm also a little confused about why I seem to have 2 different parties of 2 characters. I'm guessing that this was explained somewhere in a movie, but I missed it. I'm not opposed to this, but it just seems weird that I have two completely separate parties that share a single inventory system.

I'm going to give Party Level 2 a try for a bit. If things don't start to get a lot more interesting I'll probably just complete the first level and quit.

I've also played some XBLA demos that I'll talk about in a future post.

EDIT: I played through the first level and while the game started to get more fun when I had 3 characters in my active party (which I could select from a subset of 5), combat was still not exciting enough to overcome the various annoyances that made me feel less strategic and more a victim of bad camera angles and status notifications.

I'll return it tomorrow and get started on Clive Barker's Jericho.