Thursday, September 25, 2008

Spore... Bye...

Well, I tried the "Civilization" phase of Spore tonight. It was pretty much an impenetrable mess of unplayability. Impossible to tell friend from foe. Impossible to conduct useful diplomacy because you needed to remember made up city names in order to get an ally to assist you (without even the aid of team color as a mnemonic). Terrible feedback: I had no idea how to interact with the neutral villages. Hard to wield 3-d camera -- unconstrained freedom means that I can get myself lost and into disadvantageous angles.

The weirdest part of it all is that they had so clearly ripped elements from the greats: Civilization, Rise of Nations, Warcraft, Starcraft, Age of Empires... But all they could come up with is Impossible Creatures -- a great concept, but quite unplayable for all of the above listed reasons. I finally Alt-F4'd out of the game when I couldn't figure out why my apparent ally got pissed off at me and turned on me after we'd taken out a foe's city together. Burgle.

Of course, none of this was done deliberately. I think the biggest "enemy" of good usability in this case was the desire to allow the user unfettered freedom to create things and interact with the world as they saw fit. Unfortunately this means that players are going to be penalized for "bad" decisions (positioning the camera in a place where it's hard to control units; design units that are hard to read against the background; minimize team color to allow for custom looks; etc) when it comes to game play.

One of the coolest, but slightly hidden, features of Spore is the volume of community content. Once I figured out how to simply grab someone else's prefab building or vehicle and drop it into my world, I realized that something cool was there. This is where friends could share funny experiments and where the virtual community could surface awesome creations through voting and form cool alliances and clans who worked together on larger projects.

Unfortunately most of this potential is lost behind the few "tic tac toe" buttons that indicate you can go to the Spore community for content... It's conceivable that you could play the game for a long time without ever realizing that there is a ton of content being created behind the scenes by other creative individuals. 

Not only is finding the content hard to do, it is also hard to discover GOOD content because there is no way to filter it in terms of "coolness," however the community defines it. I can sort by date created, date downloaded, and type of content. But nowhere can I see any social stats like how many people gave it a thumbs up? How many worlds it already populated? How many had been built/harvested/destroyed... All these stats exist, why not expose them to users in interesting ways.

Of course, there may not be great community data yet because active sharing (thumbs up or marking as inappropriate) are buried deep in the UI. There should be frictionless ways for users to compliment other players' hard work. There should also be lots of passive measures (how many times inspected; how many times encountered; how many times befriended vs. killed) to let people know that their creations are getting their time in the lime light. These are the kinds of data being collected at community sites like and and in community game worlds like Everybody Votes for the Wii.

It would also be nice if there were some more social presence data. Why do players have to be so isolated from each other? Why can't I open up my borders and let observers and players into my world? 

When I think about all the hype and all the potential, I guess I'm left to wonder: When does the Lego MMO Beta start? In essence Spore provides us with lots of lego bricks but no meaningful and enjoyable way to share and play with others both asyncrhonously and syncrhonously.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Spore... High.

So I finally muscled my way through the RTS phase of things. Now I'm just starting the more Civilization meets Rise of Nations portion of the game.

I must admit that I loved being able to customize my home city and land vehicle. I also love the idea that if other people see my stuff and like it, they can import it into their world.

Even though my opponents are controlled by AI, it's still fun to know in the background that the units themselves are generated by other players. And that my units/buildings will start appearing in other peoples' games.

Hopefully this section of the game will be more fun than the RTS section...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Spore... Sigh...

So, I'm still stuck on the "tribal" stage in Spore. Sigh. I'm on normal difficulty and need to figure out how to put it on "easy".

The strange thing is that I'm no RTS dummy. I'm not a competitive player, but I've worked on several RTS games and can usually hold my own against an average player -- or a default AI setting.

Spore suffers from enough usability issues to make this whole process annoying and frustrating instead of challenging and fun.
  • Even though I'm obviously having difficulty, there seems to be no dynamic difficulty adjustment. I get crushed the same way every time: Trying to defend one group, attack another, and be diplomatic with a third. I feel like there is some hidden "correct" way to do things that I'm not able to discover.
  • As an RTS, this game has all sorts of problems that most 2d and 3d RTS games have solved like: Unit identification (I can't tell the difference between various unit types; it's also hard to tell friend from foe some times); unit selection (there is so much popup text and the camera is allowed to zoom/pan to really into unusable positions); camera controls in a 3d world (why do I need to do so much of it?)... and the list goes on.
I really want to see the rest of the content so I guess I'll try and figure out how to lower the difficulty level (I know there's a setting, I just couldn't adjust it while in game). Failing that I guess I'll have to look on Youtube or GameFAQ for some hints.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Fun with cell phone usability...

My 360 is dying. It no longer displays video.

I was supposed to call 1-800-4-My-Xbox. Of course, my Samsung Blackjack doesn't have the standard letters that correspond to the digits on the phone (e.g., ABC = 1). So I had to go to to decipher what the letters translated to.

It turns out that I'm out of warranty (I bought it 3 years ago) so I'm just going to buy a new one with a larger hard drive.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Aging 360, Projector Woes, Braid, No More Heroes...

First things first. It looks like my 360 might be on its last legs. I've been noticing degraded video quality for a few weeks now. I figured it was due to the capture device I have attached, but I was able to rule that out. Then I wasn't able to change from 480p to any other HD mode. Then I wasn't able to get any video signal (but I do get audio). I checked the cable with a demo kit that I have and it seems to work fine.

This leads me to believe that my 360 is dying. Sadness. It's an original that I lined up for on the original launch date. It's served me well, but I guess it's time to move on. Thankfully there are big price cuts right now.

On another "aging tech" issue, my projector seems to also be dying. At first I thought it might just be the bulb, but after doing some research online I learned that the problem I am experiencing (projector display turns off after a few minutes until I power cycle it, then it works fine) might not have to do with the bulb and might have to do with some other defect. I'll do a bit more research, but hopefully it's just a bulb issue.

I "completed" the main quest line in Braid tonight. I use the quotation marks because I had to cheat on 2 of the 60 puzzles. Maybe if I'd read the text more closely -- or maybe if I'd struggled a little longer I would have solved it. Interestingly, both puzzles had the same solution (you needed to kill yourself to grab the puzzle piece). It was something I just didn't grok.

All in all it was a very satisfying experience -- right from moment one. It felt different and special in all the right ways. The design was intensely clever and really blew my mind. I can still think of a number of levels that I could solve in a way that made sense at the time -- but that I could never explain in words to anyone else.

I also decided to start plowing through my Gamefly Q a bit since the 360 is down. I popped in No More Heroes -- a Wii game that received some critical acclaim but not any real commercial success. It's a mature rated title for language, violence, and I'm assuming subject matter. You play an aspiring hitman who is 11th best. Your goal is to eliminate the 10 hitmen above you. The art direction of the game pokes fun its own low-res (at least compared to most 360 and PS3 games) look by deliberately adding some old-school pixel UI elements and game components. I guess this is supposed to be nostalgic to the older more hardcore player this game is meant to appeal to.

It's interesting that I picked this one up at the same time as Alone in the Dark. Both games are trying to make motion-control mechanics a centerpiece of game play. I reviewed the AitD demo a while back -- and I have a feeling that my conclusion of that review will be similar to my review of No More Heroes: It's worthwhile as a case study of what works and what does NOT work in terms of motion-controlled core game play mechanics. Hopefully the gems will be mined and the crag will be left behind.

One of the coolest moments (even though it took me a while to figure out) was when I received a cell phone call. I heard the phone ring and my Wii-mote vibrated. Then I watched my character pick up his phone. But I couldn't hear the conversation. All I could hear was a low scratchy voice.

Then I realized that the scratchy voice was actually coming from my Wii-mote. Yep, I had to lift the Wii-mote to my ear to hear the conversation that was being played over the cheap internal speaker. Clever!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Spore, Braid & Nintendogs...

First, Nintendogs. I broke down and bought Liza (and I) a DS Lite the other day. I thought it might be more relaxing for her than playing games on her huge MacBook Pro. And I know there are a ton of great games available for it. And I am somehow hoping that I find time to do some DS gaming myself.

Sadly Nintendogs wasn't very accessible as a game. It mostly entailed a lot of yelling at the screen, having the game tutorial break on us (we couldn't progress no matter how hard we tried), and searching the manual for the cheat code to delete the save games so we could start anew. Thankfully, Liza now has a Corgi puppy that is somewhat trainable -- but it shouldn't have taken a thorough reading of the manual and the tedious reverse engineering required to figure out things like "2 syllable pet names work better than monosyllabic names".

We're going to have to borrow some other games or else the DS is going to just sit and gather dust. 

Braid has continued to amaze me. I think that one of the levels (where you have a shadow version of yourself) is too mindblowing for me to ever complete without cheating, but I actually believe I might solve the rest of the puzzles with perseverence. And not just because of masochistic or obsessive-compulsive behavior. It's actually quite pleasurable to try and work out the puzzles even if requires being "stuck" for long periods of time as I try to reverse engineer the level. The game is really making me realize that I need to think more deeply about what it means to be "stuck" and under what conditions this becomes frustrating and leads to quitting vs. when it is OK and actually motivates me to engage in deeper, intensely pleasurable, problem solving behavior.

Spore had me going for a while. After conceding that world exploration and creature upgrades were fun enough to outweigh unsatisfying combat (impossible to tell friend-foe in the heat of battle; impossible to select your guy; impossible to run away when you're about to die), I wasn't prepared for how frustrating the RTS portion of the game would be. Combat was somewhat unmanageable and unexciting when I only controlled one creature. It was completely unmanageable and frustrating during the "Tribal" stage of the game. The camera and controls were part of the issue, but there was an even bigger issue with friend-foe detection and selection. It was impossible to manage my units in any strategic fashion and inevitably we were killed off time and time again. I tried to figure out the social game mechanics of the game (which were kind of fun to play with at the creature level) but found myself puzzled and lost.

I'll probably fire it up again at some point as I'd like to explore more of the features and progress through the game. I am also curious to see how the social and community aspects of the game continue to develop:
  • Will there be socially connected instances or places to hang out? Will there be a deeper guild or alliance system?
  • Will there be mods -- puzzles or scripted scenarios that tell a narrative or provide some other guided experience?
  • Will there be a better way to streamline the discovery of cool new community content and provide rewarding feedback to quality content contributors? I left a comment for some guy who created a creature I befriended (and that became an effective tank for me) but I never heard back. Nor do I know whether he benefitted in any way by getting a note of thanks from me.
In some ways Spore reminds me of Impossible Creatures. The idea (custom creature creator + RTS) sounds great and yields some fun units to play with. But, ultimately, the game suffered because it just wasn't that fun to play.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I played a bunch of Braid today, lost several hours of game play due to a corrupted save file in Spore, and completed a few missions in GTA IV (my fiancee wants me to off my in-game girlfriend -- but she must know something is up because she is ducking my calls).

I have LOTS to talk about re: Braid, but not enough time to do so tonight.

I've also got No More Heroes and Alone in the Dark sitting around waiting to be played from my Gamefly account.

And I've got a half dozen 360 demos (XBLA and full retail) and a bunch of DVDs lying around.

Time to get to work.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Spore... First impressions & PC gaming redux

Well, I'm reminded of what the "state of the art" is in terms of the PC install experience now that I've got Spore up and running on my machine.

There are downloads and installs (and uninstalls of previous downloads) and Readme.txt files and debug commands and...

You know what I'm talking about.

It's a tough call. Users want customization and community content. Console makers and publishers seem to need a much more closed ecosystem. So the pain gets pushed back on the user in terms of having to develop the technical expertise necessary to participate.

Interestingly, social computing applications have been trying to solve this by lowering the hurdles to participation. Utility must be instantly grokkable for an application to succeed, then there must be a sharing pipeline that fits within normal social computing scenarios. No fancy plugins should be required -- just an updated browser.

Given the new focus on browser stability and performance (Chrome, IE, and Firefox are all trying to address this with new releases) and the relatively frictionless barrier to entry for web based games, it's no surprise that more casual games (and casual game portals) are where we expect to see exponential growth in the next few years.

I wonder how growth on the EA Online, Steam, and offerings (digital distribution of PC content) will compare with browser based distribution systems that provide a console like user experience? 

I'm not saying there isn't going to be a market for AAA PC games... But how do you take 14 million active Steam users and make it 140 million users? 

Probably not by requiring Readme.txt files and console commands.

As far as Spore itself, I'm having a little fun with it. It seems kind of like a cross between Viva Pinata and FloW and some of the other Wrightian Sim games. The game has a very polished feel, but doesn't yet feel like it is going to have much depth in terms of creating intricate social and cultural puzzles for the player to solve in the ecosystems that are (I assume) evolving in response to the player's actions.

I think that the part I find least satisfying about the game so far is that I don't get a chance to really leave my mark on the world. I don't think I get to run into any of my genetic ancestors. I haven't yet started cross breeding with other tribes, but hopefully there will be some interesting emergent evolution where my allies mate with my tribe members and create their own mutations.

I'm also wondering whether there is a deeper social game -- or whether players can only show movies and pictures to their friends. Like Viva Pinata or Animal Crossing or even Mii Parades, I want to have creatures from other people's worlds making the leap into mine. Not in a sucky "all the 13 year old griefers dump their level 900 spider of chaos onto my little herbivores" way, but in a socially interesting way.

Most of all, I really want to be playing this game on my couch with a controller instead of a mouse and keyboard. Yes the interface is more elegant than Viva Pinata's, but I think that as a casual and accessible game there's no reason why options can't be pared down and presented in a console friendly way. I'm assuming that this is already in the works.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Quick update: Spore, EA shared content, and more to follow...

As I download Spore from the EA Online Store I figure I'll do a quick update on what I've been up to. I'll drill in more over the next few days.

These last few weeks have mostly been about social gaming on the one hand and GTA IV on the other. I must admit that I've really been loving GTA IV and can't wait to spend several more hours on it (hopefully today). 

Most of my social gaming has been on Facebook. I've already talked about Scramble and Wordscraper in previous posts. 

I've also been playing 2 "inferior" (at least in my mind) games simply because other friends play them and I can't convince them to make the switch. One is Word Twist, which I consider inferior to Text Twirl for the main reason that it doesn't force players to swap turns. This means that a player can blow through the game before any other player takes a turn. This makes the end-game less exciting (at least to me). The other is Word Challenge, which is a leaderboard game where you anagram words against a clock. The scoring convention is interesting and allows for some interesting risk-reward game play, but I think it's boring because there is no head-to-head competition. Well, there is... But I haven't tried it out yet because I prefer other games (and because I'm so far ahead of my friends they don't want to play me).

As I mentioned above, I'm currently downloading Spore. I have no idea whether I'll like it. The Creature Creator was fun to play with for a bit, but the novelty wore off as I started to crave actual  game play. What I'm most interested in is how Spore enters the social computing cloud of consciousness. With direct links to YouTube (and I've got to believe Facebook and MySpace) this game has potential to rock the SNS world.

EA seems to be pushing this idea very hard (and I'll bet effectively) with other franchises as well. I was cruising a Titans fan board and someone had posted links to movies of his favorite Madden 09 plays. Yep. The game offers players the ability to save and render out highlight films and then post them to the EA sharing site. The sharing site itself was pretty lame (no great way to surface additional/related content; no community rating system; etc) and it's a shame they didn't just partner with YouTube on this like Spore did. But it's a great step in the right direction for what people crave: Shared social content. Way to go EA!

These are, indeed, exciting times in the space of socially shared gaming experiences and content creation.