Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sometimes geolocation can suck

So normally I love the way that software applications incorporate geolocating tech. Google Maps seem to work better when they know where I am, the iPhone has several apps that provide great experiences because take into account my location (well, my wife’s location).

However, there are some edge case scenarios when geolocation can be a pain in the ass. I’m in Canada this weekend visiting family and I’ve been hosed twice because of the fact that my computer is hooked up to a Canadian run internet service provider.

Case #1: Trying to purchase a game on Steam. I tried to purchase the full version of Everyday Genius: SquareLogic after playing through the demo. Nope. Steam provided me with an error message “credit card holder address not the same country as current location”. I then had a typical Steam user experience when trying to trouble shoot: Figure out where to go on the web, create a new account for customer service purposes (no, my Steam login wasn’t enough – I needed to create a completely new account), be solicited through this account for my credit card information, and then finally 2 days later sent a new link to try in order to complete the purchase. I almost backed out and purchased the game off of the Mumbo Jumbo site using Paypal but decided to hold off as I really didn’t want to sign up for yet another ecommerce site.

I get that software developers and publishers have complex relationships with digital content providers like Steam. But this doesn’t have to translate into a frustrating user experience. There have to be more graceful ways to handle the purchase request of a loyal customer than “find forums, create new account, wait for email response”.

Case #2: Google search. My wife and I are currently researching home ownership and I had a few questions about closing costs that I wanted to research. Of course, all of my search results for “closing costs” were links to Canadian content sites. Close, but no cigar.

I’m sure if I did more research and futzed with my settings I could have tricked Google into giving me the standard search I wanted. But, again, why make it so hard for me? I am constantly logged into Google (gmail, blogger) and it should recognize that I’m traveling and might need access to my default Google experience, not the Canadian version.

Truth be told, Google’s contextualization of my search based on geolocation was a plus and minus this trip. It was very nice to use Google Maps on the wi-fi enabled MegaBus (Buffalo to Toronto) to help me triangulate my location by typing in the names of the various landmarks we passed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cogs demo

I also downloaded the Cogs demo from Steam to try out on my SEA –> BOS flight. It was a sliding tile puzzle game (arrange the tiles to complete a pattern via a series of moving them into the empty slot) with a few additional puzzle elements.

It wasn’t nearly as approachable and usable as Everyday Genius SquarePuzzle. The player is immediately thrown into time-pressure situations while still learning the basics of the game. As it turns out, it didn’t matter if time ran out in the demo mode…. But the artificial pressure made it a much more stressful introduction to the game than was needed.

The demo also seemed to be structured more towards showing a breadth of puzzle styles which meant that I was introduced to interesting looking, but ultimately too frustrating to figure out, puzzles. My initial reaction was that “if I’m already stuck on the 5th puzzle of the demo, will I be able to solve ANY of the puzzles in the full retail version?”

Because I was a captive audience (stuck on a red-eye flight) I actually gave the game more time. And once I discovered an important rule that I missed (the sliding tile mechanic worked in a slightly looser fashion than other versions that I’ve played) and discovered how to rotate and view 3-d puzzles the game started to pick up a bit. These “eureka” moments combined with very satisfying “mission success” puzzle/object animations to reignite my interest in the game and I went back and figured out how to solve some puzzles that had previously frustrated me.

Will I buy the game? Probably not unless it is super cheap. I still fear that the puzzles will be too difficult for my liking. Although it’s true that in the free play mode I can make as many moves as I like to solve the puzzle, I find that I just don’t “grok” these kinds of tile-sliding puzzles the way I “grok” math square puzzles.

Everyday Genius SquareLogic Demo

Wow. Fantastic. I got the Everyday Genius SquareLogic demo from Steam before I headed out to the airport. Being a little gun shy from my last experience (Steam made a fuss about me playing a demo while not connected to the internet) I verified that I had completed the tap dance of commands to enable offline play before leaving for the airport.

EGSL provides a wonderfully constructed demo that makes Sudoku-like math puzzles accessible to casual and hard core math puzzlers alike. I skipped the tutorial and jumped straight into game play and was not disappointed. The game presented a couple of tips as I played and I was on my way.

The first few puzzles were obvious and easy to complete so that players could focus on basic controls and learn some of the helpful decision aids that the game provided. If I do have one concern about the learn-to-play component, it’s that the game did load a few too many advanced features early on that weren’t required to solve the puzzles – thus they became forgotten by the time I would have wanted to actually use them.

Puzzles were untimed and you had unlimited moves to solve them. You could guess if you wanted, but the game encouraged you not to by insisting that each puzzle could be solved without guesswork. The game did NOT penalize you for incorrect guesses, but instead provided non-derogatory feedback that you might change your response.

After playing several puzzles I realized that there was a move counter and that if I wanted to challenge myself I could try to minimize the number of decision aids I used in order to solve the puzzle. Moreover, I soon figured out that there was a “perfect” solution to the puzzles I tried. 16 squares meant that puzzles (at least the way they’ve been constructed so far) could be solved in 16 moves.

Achievements were rendered as progress were made – some rewarded loyalty (keep playing and you get them) and others rewarded skill gains (start beating par) and still others rewarded mastery (solve more difficult puzzles gracefully).

One of the most interesting takeaways from the game was its use of gating and locking content. The designers clearly understood that some people would want a long, gradual introduction to the game. They would need to start slow and build up their confidence before being capable of solving more difficult puzzles without frustration. The default progression pattern allowed players to do exactly this, providing a fun and non-threatening challenge ramp. More complex puzzle types were unlocked after winning the “boss” challenge at the end of a long incremental chain of puzzles.

However, more advanced puzzle solvers who wanted to dive into the harder puzzles could easily do so if they were feeling bored with the current puzzle type. They could hit, essentially, the “I’m ready” (or maybe “I’m bored with the current challenge”) button and skip to the boss battle. If it looked like too much of a leap, they could go back and continue the default progression. Otherwise they could beat the boss and unlock the next set of puzzles.

This game is a shining example of how to make a game approachable to all interested players regardless of skill level. The learn-to-play components were excellent (except for the introduction of a couple of advanced decision aids too early on which led to me forgetting them) and I look forward to examining the stand alone tutorial to see what it brings to the table.

Before I knew it the 60 minutes were done. I found myself wishing I were on a wi-fi equipped flight so I could purchase the full version of the game. I’ll do so tomorrow.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Continuity... A fun little puzzler within a puzzler

Whilst procrastinating from doing some work (and judging IGF entries) I came across Continuity via a tweet from @raphkoster. It's a student game that sucked me right in.

It's a fun puzzler within a puzzler that introduced controls and complexity in an engaging and well paced challenge. The "inner puzzler" was a standard find key, unlock door puzzle. You have a stick man and need to first grab the key and then unlock the door to escape the level. The "outer puzzler" was a manipulate the tiles game. Each "inner puzzle" was a tile. So you needed to switch between inner and outer puzzle (via the spacebar) to complete levels.

For me, it had just the right mixture of brief "this can't be right..." or "I don't understand why I can do X, but not Y" moments such that new concepts were puzzling and not frustrating.

Analyzing this game reminds me of my experience playing Braid. I loved Braid even though many of my usability professional friends hated it because it seemed to violate expectations about how people should be introduced (some would argue "spoon fed") to new puzzle mechanics. For a few moments early on in Continuity I thought I had uncovered a major usability flaw: I couldn't understand why I could move my avatar between some tiles and not between others even though there appeared to be a valid path. Because I didn't understand the logic behind the game (you can only move between tiles if ALL paths link up cleanly between tiles -- not just the path you want to traverse) my initial response was "this seems arbitrary" and therefore required better graphical affordances to let you know when you could vs. could not traverse a path (uncrossable paths should look -- well -- uncrossable).

For such a clean design, I realize that adding extra "this path is valid" affordances might clutter the visuals and over-fix the problem. Ensuring players figure out the logic could be done through a sequence of puzzles designed to illustrate the problem (which is mostly what happened in my case). That said, a simple idea worth trying might be to make the white tile walls transparent when two validly matching tiles are adjacent to each other. This will eliminate the initial confusion that exists when the player realizes that "some white walls I CAN move through, but some white walls I can NOT move through" because now clear = CAN and white = NOT. 

The other thing I quite liked about the game was its similarity to the board game Zendo. The game presents you with a set of tiles that ALL look valid and useful, but you quickly figure out which is the the one truly useful tile through game play reasoning and puzzling. 

Sweet stuff.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Torchlight. Oh, my.

I’m hoping that December is my “YESvember” follow up to my dismal “NOvember”. I’ve been traveling and playing games, but just haven’t had the gumption to do much writing.

Let’s jump right in to Torchlight. There’s lots to love about this game. First and foremost, it required me to return to the PC for some non-casual and non-social gaming. I’m trying to remember the last FPS, RTS, or RPG I played on the PC – and it might have been Portal (trying to check out community generated content) or even Rise of Legends (a game I worked on that shipped several years ago).

Don’t get me wrong: I still purchase and play games on my PC – they just tend to be casual games.

Anyhow, Torchlight loves:

  • Shareable loot. I got tired of my demo character and wanted to try a new one. I dropped off all of my loot at one of the shareable loot locations and it was there for my new character to grab. Nice way to accelerate my replay through the first few hours of game play. Kudos! This is soooo much more graceful than the cheesy way I accomplished the same thing in the days of Wizardry (create lots of characters, join them to your party, strip the characters, delete them, then start off with a rich and well equipped party).
  • Pet that “sells all junk”. I love the “sell all junk” feature that’s making it into RPGs. But this still requires a painful return to a merchant. Not so with Torchlight. Just send your pet away for a couple of minutes and you’re done. Sweet. Not as dismissive (or gleefully silly) as the Bard’s Tale system where looted items just magically morphed into coins, but effective and in support of a great user experience.
  • Camera lock. The designers specifically said: We don’t want you to have to worry about the camera. We’ll design levels (and provide items-display-behind-walls tech) to ensure that you never need to care about rotating or panning or zooming the camera. Hurray.
  • The initial pacing and balance on Normal difficulty was perfect for me (an experienced gamer who has played most of this game’s spiritual ancestors). Varied enemies, cool loot (and great loot rate), and my character felt powerful right out of the gate. There was no poking rats with a stick for 2 hours before I got my first cool move.

Some mostly minor annoyances of course appeared:

  • Swapping rings was tedious and confusing. You have new ring “A”. You have rings “B” and “C” equipped. You want to replace “C” with “A”. However, you can’t visually distinguish “B” from “C” at a glance – and you don’t get mouse-over comparison text when you have “A” selected and move the pointer over “B” and “C”. So it’s a 3-step process to swap a ring.
  • It’s great that you don’t need to micromanage the pet. However, it took quite a while for me to discover that you could equip the pet with gear and spells.
  • Pet as hybrid “mule” and NPC didn’t work as well as I would have liked. I wish that pets could have had a “junk” sack and a “use me” sack. Stuff in the “junk” sack would get sold back in town. Stuff in the “use me” sack would be used by the pet when needed (scrolls, potions, etc). It made me sad that my pet couldn’t use items.
  • I was also sad when I realized that I didn’t always notice when my pet had picked up some loot. I mostly assumed that stuff in the pet’s inventory had been placed there by me as “junk”. This meant that I inadvertently sold off as junk some items that were not junk because I never realized that I had received them in the first place.
  • Although the initial Fighter/Mage/Thief choice was easy to make, I had a tough time parsing upgrade paths. Specifically, class specializations didn’t seem all that coherent or compelling to me. I mostly just purchased abilities that looked cool. I would have preferred more concretely laid out class specializations that were well differentiated and compelling. In other words, there would be 9 class archetypes (3 classes x 3 subclasses) that evolved quite differently and had easily recognizable end game build outs (e.g., “this is the hefty, shooty guy who uses grenade launchers” vs.. “this is the agile, shooty guy who uses silenced pistols”).
  • As always, I found it hard to parse the spreadsheets when it came to upgrading attributes and abilities. Stats were either so precise and verbose that they became confusing (which is better: Weapon A that does 27-35 dps and has “fastest” weapon speed; or Weapon B that does 27-35 dps and has “slowest” weapon speed) or so vaguely worded that I couldn’t tell if the benefits were worthwhile.
  • Spending attribute points felt especially like throwing coins into a wishing well. Yes, there was help text that explained generally what attributes did. However, there was no clear relationship between spending points and whether or not the associated stat modifier increased or stayed the same. I had no way of knowing whether the lack of increase in associated stats meant I was throwing attribute points away, whether I was just one point shy of getting some other bonus (that I wouldn’t figure out until I leveled again and received more points to spend) or whether those points would help in other ways.
  • Merchant UIs were frustrating. There was no good way to tell which items I wanted/didn’t want at a glance, mouse over text was cluttered and made it hard to select items of interest, and there were no sort or filter options. It was clear to me that there was a carefully developed multi-variate color coding system in place to denote item strength, rarity, and equipability… But I could never figure it out.
  • Oh yeah, one more thing about pets. I totally screwed up twice when trying to teach my pet a spell. This resulted in me “burning” the expensive scroll because it bound to my character instead of my pet.

Over time (a few days) I slowed down my Torchlight playing in favor of Dragon Age Origins (Xbox version, more on that in a subsequent post). This wasn’t for any real usability or playability reason. It was more because now I tend to associated “click-fest” games with casual games. And I tend to want my casual games to be social games. And without the social – then I need other trappings to keep the game interesting. Like story, puzzle elements, platform challenges, etc.

All-in-all it was $19.99 well spent. I enjoyed it and will I’m sure play some more. I also want to investigate the editor some more – even though I’m rather fearful after my first experience with it. My technical ability (or lack thereof) requires more of a Never Winter Nights toolset and approach where first time users can get a playable level together in a few hours. But, we’ll see. There seem to be some decent developer and community resources out there.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

No(gaming)vember to remember...

Actually, it wasn't "no" gaming. It was more bite-sized gaming without leaving enough time to post thoughts.

And I was on the road for over 2 weeks this month (one week working on a game that I can't talk about yet; one week on vacation in Maui which does not lend itself to sitting down and writing at my laptop).

Things I tried (and plan to write about):

  • Getting a "sweet move" to feel just right: Comparing the challenge of catching the perfect wave with the feel of a sweet double jump.
  • My silly obsession with completing all the achievements in Plants vs. Zombies (and why it makes a great bite-sized game experience).
  • The Torchlight demo -- and my possible return to hardcore PC gaming.
  • My current Facebook games: Why I continue to suck at Backgammon and why I seem to be getting worse at Scramble -- but why I still love to play them.
  • My crush on the official Modern Warfare 2 trailer (the one with the Eminem track that hasn't generated all kinds of controversy) and why it not only got me excited about the game, but also got my wife excited.
I'm also in the midst of doing a bunch of judging for a Serious Games competition (can't talk about it yet) and the Indie Games Festival competition. I'm done with the serious games part and am super looking forward to the Indie and student games competitions.

December is going to be a bit of a reboot month for me. I'm hoping to dive deeper into several projects I'm interested in working on and will report results here.

And, of course, the stream of retail and social/online games continues... I plan to play and write about lots more games.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Steam Offline Experience: It may not be news, but it certainly is a kick in the teeth

Just pulled out the old laptop to try the Torchlight demo while on layover in SLC. 


Double cick the icon. Get "cannot connect to Steam network" error. Huh.

Try again. Same result. Notice that I'm posting this via the internet using SLC's free wifi.

Double whoops.

Having worked on multiplayer PC games (and, of course, played them) I'm aware that firewall settings sometimes prevent the connections you need to run (or in this case, apparently, update) your games. Fair enough. This is exactly the reason why I'm mostly a console gamer and only play web-based games on my laptop. I just don't have time for that kind of frustration.

But, the best part is this: Apparently it is possible to play Steam demos and games in single player mode while offline, provided you follow this confusing set of instructions. It's a multistep process that involves testing things out along the way with your computer unhooked from the internet to ensure the process has worked correctly. Perhaps my favorite step is step #4:

  • Go to Settings to ensure the Do not store account information on this computer option is not selected.

Love the double negative. Love the fact that to the layperson like myself, this makes no sense whatsoever.

Mostly, I love the fact that because I'm currently unable to connect to Steam I cannot tell my game to allow me to play it offline. It's a single player demo for goodness' sake.

Bonus points: Nothing about the original "can't connect to Steam" error message let me know that (a) the game required an online connection to play; except that (b) there are options you can set to make (a) go away.

Sigh. Guess it's back to coin harvesting in Plants vs. Zombies.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Uncharted 2, Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time. Yeehaw.

Just a brief post. This is another month that is swamped with work and travel.

I'm also going to try a more intensive writing project: I had a blast trying to blog 30 in 30 days, so I decided to try to do a "half-NaNoWriMo". 25,000 words in a month and I'm already a few days behind. Heck, I did about 15-18,000 words in August, so... Well. We'll see.

Uncharted 2. Yep, it was a sequel. Nope, there wasn't all that much new in terms of game play mechanics or depth of story. That said, Round #2 was still an incredibly absorbing and entertaining romp. Even though the twists and turns were cliche, I still got incredibly attached to the characters -- and the movie finale was as emotionally satisfying as Eternal Darkness, Prince of Persia, and Beyond Good & Evil. Why? Great dialog and acting. Naughty Dog are among the elite in this area. The only games that (in my mind) have competed are GTA IV (not a fan of the game play in these games, but the fourth installment actually made me and my wife want to watch cut-scenes they were so well written and produced) and possibly Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (not so much for the animation and physical acting, but definitely for the writing and voice talent).

Really, I kind of felt like I was playing a Joss Whedon epic in some ways. Specifically, the "Out of Gas" episode from Firefly (I actually haven't watched any of his other shows). The way that Nathan/Mal deal with adversity with humor and grit endeared both characters to me and made me care about the outcome of the game. Sure, in the back of my mind I knew that the hero of the story would "win" (i.e., kill all the bad guys and save the world). But at what cost? That of his friends and loved ones?

Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time. By my reckoning, I've given Sony over $500 of my hard earned cash and one Xbox 360 (which I traded for a PS3) because of the joy that Insomniac Games brings to me every time I get my hands on the next Ratchet & Clank installment.

My only complaint? I got stuck at the very end trying to figure out where the final boss encounter took place. It's something that I'm sure I wasn't alone in and probably was caught too late to fix. It's mainly sad, because the fix would have been pretty easy (and the issue may have, in fact, been exacerbated by a bug). Thankfully, the game is fun enough to grind around in that "being lost/unsure what to do next" wasn't really all that frustrating.

There were other minor complaints, I guess. The maps have taken a slight step backwards in terms of usefulness (hard to tell where you've been and where you have yet to explore). Flight controls felt awkward and unsatisfying. This meant that air combat needed to be nerfed so as not to block progress. The UI for inspecting, upgrading, and mapping weapons was unwieldy (I never did figure out how to map weapons to different hot spots -- but this was a minor issue because by default the game paused when I went into select mode).

But, really, none of those complaints really mattered. I was hooked from the first moment I smashed a crate and was showered by glowing, floating bolts. The feel, the look, the sound... There are few games that get this just right. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, Lego Starwars, and Ratchet & Clank. I can just wander around for hours smashing things and watching bolts swirl up and around me.

In the end, the one thing that is clear to me is that the folks at Insomniac are lovers of games. Specifically, lovers of action adventure, action rpg, and platformers. Elements of Bioshock and Lego Star Wars were perfectly integrated. Sure, I didn't have the choice to either kill or save the Zonis, like in Bioshock... But it was a super nice touch to allow me to "fix" broken items (a la Lego Star Wars) when I played as Clank. Travel between worlds was a more integrated minigame like in Kingdom Hearts 2 instead of just a choice of menu selections.

In some ways, I'm left to wonder about how Insomniac goes about figuring out "what is the right amount of choice" for players. For instance, there were too many weapons for my liking (a complaint I have about previous versions of the game). I mostly grabbed them and leveled them all up because it was something to do while grinding. I would have been happier with just one wheel of weapons. That said, I totally understand the desire to present players with a wide range of entertaining and satisfying weapons (that's a big part of the franchise vision). I just find it hard to care about all of them -- at least at normal difficulty when I can level them all up via grinding so that they are powerful enough to overcome any tactical oversights.

Moreover, the game is based on a hub system, so the player almost always has choices about what to do next and can complete many segments of the game in an arbitrary order.

However, the player is never left with a moral or story choice -- either through dialog choice or game play. There are RPG elements to the game, but there is no RP. Given the difference in powers that Ratchet (he breaks things with his wrench) and Clank (he repairs things with his rod) bring to the table, I wonder whether players could have been presented with some compelling choices in terms of how to solve game play problems in ways that had an impact on the final outcome of the game.

Anyhow, much love and respect to the folks at Insomniac and Naughty Dog. Kudos on the well executed and polished games. I look forward to next iterations and new IP.

Maybe I'll even give Resistance 2 a try... 

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Can I just say... Why does the PS3 firmware update experience suck so hard?

I use my Xbox 360 pretty much all the time. It's a no-brainer for me given my social network (mostly Xbox gamers) and desire to compile most of my achievements on one platform.

But, I do enjoy a number of Sony exclusive titles. Just finished Uncharted 2 and am about to start Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time. It seems like each time I install another Sony first party game, I need to update my firmware.

The thing is, I get updates all the time when I'm using my Xbox 360. And I never really even think to complain. Downloads are small. The UI is clear, easy to read, and pretty much pain free.

PS3 updates? Not so much.

  • I have to do a button tap dance to even start the download process. It feels like I'm trying to enable "Big Head" mode on NHL Hitz
  • Text is almost impossible to read against the dashboard background. The 360 dash does, essentially, a lightbox treatment where they bring clear focus (with no distracting background) to the updater window.
  • The text I can read is filled with tech and jargonistic terms... I just want a "yes to accept" option so I can complete the transaction and get into my game.
On the plus side, I just heard the PS3 reboot sting, so I think the process has completed.

Now, on to Ratchet & Clank!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Machinarium, Free Xbox Indie Game Code, and Serendipity

Where to begin? There's only time for a quick mid-day post and I want to cover a few things.

Just here for a free Xbox Indie Game code? Skip to the end for details :)

First, Machinarium. I played through the demo while sitting across the table from my wife. It was nearing lunch time and I asked Liza what she was up to. She mentioned that she was "trying to get a robot across a bridge." As it turns out, we were both playing the same demo at the same time.

I had read about it during my daily RSS feed troll (I try to follow lots of indie game feeds). Liza had played a previous game by the same developer called Samorost. She liked the game so much that she joined their mailing list and found out about Machinarium that way.

I just love the fact that both of us were playing the same game at the same time without even realizing it. And without either one of us telling the other about it.

Another great thing about Machinarium: One purchase gets you the Mac, PC, and Unix versions of the game. Great for a family like ours who use multiple platforms. Looks like I'll be purchasing it for the both of us.

What might be super fun (since we like to play some games together) is to play it on the big screen. I just need to hook up a wireless mouse and keyboard and we can play the game together on our Lovesac, just like we watch movies or play console games. Sweet.

Free Game Code Details Here

On to Gum Drop Celestial Frontier and Xbox Indie Games. I blogged about this game a while back and @mechagost (creator of the game) and I had some back and forth discussions about the game. His thankyou gift was a free code for the retail version of his game. Of course, I had already purchased the game. So, I pass on the savings to you, my readers.

Want the code? Tweet me @jackalshorns. Only one code available, so first responder gets the prize.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Quick thoughts: Uncharted 2 and Delta's lame in-flight game service

A couple of quick thoughts in between travel for work (doing some consulting on social games) and pleasure (Anacortes with friends, Chicago for a wedding).

Uncharted 2. This blurb appeared in a Facebook comment I wrote (a couple of friends were discussing the game -- one thought it "set the bar" the other thought "meh"). It's not really all that well considered and thought out, but is more of an initial reaction after playing a couple of hours:
So, I loved (loved loved) the first one. And I loved (loved loved) the intro to the second one -- a super treat for fans of the previous game and IP.

I've had a couple of lulls in the action through chapters 4 and 5 (getting stuck, being confused) but I'm super into it and can't wait to play more.

As far as cut-scenes go, they set the bar in v1.0. Then games like GTA IV met the bar. I think that they met the bar in this game, too. I actually WATCH all of the cut-scenes and enjoy them (PS -- I never watch cut-scenes in any other games).

Story quality-wise, so far it seems like a virtual copy of the v1.0 story. So, unless they shake it up soon my judgment is "serviceable but not great". Technically it's awesome (voice acting, mocap, direction) but the story itself is only serviceable.
In other news, while flying back to Seattle I had the "privilege" of not experiencing Delta airline's in-flight gaming options.

That is to say that I completely ignored it in disgust after being asked to pay $5 for the right to sample their game wares.

Now, $5 for 4.5 hours of entertainment is an entirely reasonable price. Heck, I'd pay more than that for a 90 minute in-flight movie. But charging for games before letting me try them out? It just doesn't make any sense.

Many of the games seemed to be versions of freely available titles already on the web. I had worries about the input device (touch screen) and have had mixed reviews trying out games on other in-flight consoles (I talked about Virgin airline's options in another post). Not having a try-before-you buy option is a non-starter for me.

But, the bigger question to me is: Why charge at all? The model that I have to believe would work better for all involved (Delta, game publishers, and the passenger) is to offer free-to-play content. Publishers would pay for access to the captive audience. Their motivation would be to provide fun addictive games to passengers to drive awareness and customer loyalty. Delta would get money from the publishers for distributing their content. Passengers would get high quality games that would endear them to both publishers and the airline.

And me -- well, I'd have a reason to request regular coach-class seating. The touch screen is too far away from my seat to reach it comfortably while sitting in an exit row.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I'm playing and working, but not thinking and writing...

I've been swamped with work lately (the kind I can't blog about) and will continue to be swamped for the next week or so. Then, hopefully, I'll come back up for air and do some more posting.

What have I been playing lately?
  • South Park (XBLA) trial version. It's a tower defense game with some co-op components. My initial experience was "meh" but I think I want to try it co-op with Liza to see whether that is where it shines.
  • Defense Grid: Awakening (XBLA). I started out quite liking the game and still do enjoy playing it. It's a little hard to pick up and play after letting it sit for a couple of weeks (unit recognition and ID is difficult at default zoom; maps are getting pretty big and unwieldy given the camera limitations). But I'm going to keep going.
  • Lucidity (XBLA) trial version. Think Braid but with time pressure right from moment one. The initial challenge ramp is just a little too steep for me to truly enjoy the game -- and this makes me worry because if the game only gets harder it will quickly become too difficult for me to play. I like the music, mood, art direction, and style of game play. I just want to be able to relax and enjoy it a bit more.
  • Need for Speed: Shift demo. It actually kind of sucked me in even though I don't get into sim racers. I should actually talk a bit about why this demo was much more compelling to me than the Forza 3 demo. I should also talk a little bit about their more "casual" control options.
  • Lots of Scramble, Wordscraper. Some Sorority Life and Cafe Wars (for Facebook).
  • de Blob. This is a pretty relaxing Wii game that I'm going to spend some more time with. Some elements of Katamari Damacy with other more Nintendo like games involving cleaning and painting.
  • Nancy Drew: Mystery of the Clue Bender Society. It's a DS game that I've been meaning to check out. I really enjoyed one of the latest ND games (a more "casual" release) but haven't enjoyed the core PC offerings and am not really enjoying the DS game.
I've been getting a lot of use from my Raptr account. I actually need to add my Wii account to it as I almost forgot about my de Blob sessions. What I'm most excited about is that now that I'm about to descend into a mostly PS3 zone with the upcoming release of Uncharted 2 and Ratchet & Clank. I'll still be able to track and share my progress with friends -- most of whom are primarily Xbox users. Thank you, for integrating pretty well into my existing social network flow.

What else am I looking forward to playing, thinking, and writing about?
  • The "Top 20 up and coming Facebook games". I'm curious to see what these social games have going for them.
  • Some previous games that I've worked on. I really need to get a couple of presentations together based on the learn-to-play tutorials I've co-designed. Because these games are published I can talk about what we learned, what we did, and how to turn these learnings and doings into best practices. It will also give me a chance to play around some more with video-capture tech I've been sitting on for a while.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Tedious learn as you play + suboptimal try-before-you-buy platform experience = FAIL

I tried a few Xbox Live Indie Games the other night. There were some hits and misses. I talked about Trino the other night (great game). This time I want to talk a little but about the XLIG platform and my experience with Blow.

First, the XLIG platform really needs to come up with better try before you buy options for its games. I’m tired of having some arbitrary timer expire, causing me to instantly quit out of the application back to (essentially) the desktop. It’s a suboptimal solution no matter how you slice it – and not having options means that game developers have a tough time putting their best foot forward for games that require more than a few minutes of game play.

That said, developers must operate within the constraints of the platform. As it turns out, Blow kind of missed the boat by not tailoring the try before you buy demo to the XLIG constraints. The entire time was spent in rather tedious and boring tutorials. As soon as the player was able to engage in some of the core game play, the timer expired. The tutorial was NOT optional, so it meant that even if I loaded the game again, I would have to waste most of my time repeating the same tutorial. Whoops.

The actual game seemed like it could be interesting in a kind of Impossible Machines way. But I couldn’t help but wonder “why does a game that is about something as simple and delightful as blowing bubbles require such a long and tedious tutorial?” The basic mechanics are simple (place fans, watch bubbles float, adjust fans). Feedback is straight forward (bubbles go where you want them to, or not). Instead of having multiple text-heavy billboards within one level, a nice sequence of simple boards could have brought new players up to speed in pleasant and engaging ways.

I really felt like I needed about 5-10 more minutes of free play to make a decision one way or the other, but sadly both the game (inability to skip the tutorial upon second load of the game) and the platform (outmoded demo rules that uses time instead of content to govern the trial experience) conspired against me.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Trino: Try it, buy it.

I just finished a play session with Trino, an Indie game available on the XBM. What a fantastic experience. Very relaxing, engaging, and fun from moment one. An excellent example of a game that starts simple and layers on interesting game play as you go.

The learn-as-you-play was great. Yes, the control scheme was simple. But other games have failed to make learning even the basics fun because they don't break down the core experience into its component parts and let players discover, master, and grow in expertise as part of game play. No boring billboards. No pausing of the action. Just a well designed initial level that provided enough safe interactivity for players to grok the basics -- and when ready, move on to new challenges.

First. Move (LS).

Then. Make Triangles (LS + A).

Then. Eat Powerups (LS).

Then. Close the Map (LS + A).

Of course, it helps that the core mechanic -- making triangles -- was relaxing and fun to do. The music and visuals made this a relaxing endeavor. Unlike other similar games (like Robotron or Geometry Wars), the music stayed calming even when the action got more and more frenetic.

In some ways, this represents a much more casual approach to its otherwise hardcore breathren. Really, it's a great timewaster game that makes me think more of Bejeweled. I wonder if this is because building triangles with three dots is kind of like playing a connect-3 game?

No real criticisms so far. I know that there are a few more advanced tricks I need to learn -- and I'm curious to find out how the game teaches them to me (bombs, shadow triangles).

The main critique I have is in regards to player death and respawning.
  • Death results in the immediate disappearance of my ship and the object my ship collided into. This is sometimes frustrating because I'm not sure *how* I died if I was glancing around looking for my next move. I actually felt somewhat cheated a couple of times because I could have sworn (based on memory) that I had enough space to avoid an object, but I ended up dying. Had player death been followed by some sort of visual freeze-frame of the incident, I could quickly direct my attention to the crash and validate in my own mind that, whoops, I did bump into something.
  • Respawning doesn't really have any obvious visual or sound cue. At some points during later levels I actually hadn't realized I spawned in right away because my eyes were drawn to all of the enemies that were circling the board and my craft was "hidden" by the lines that border the game space. The game is so relaxing that I kind of need a quick "wake up" reminder that it's about to start up and I need to interact as opposed to just sitting back, watching the pretty visuals and listening to the music.
All in all, great game and well worth the 540 points ($6).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trust, Brutal Legend (demo), and reminiscences

I loved Jade Empire and Mass Effect (except for the first 6-10 hours).

I loved Kingdom Hearts 2 (even though I disliked the original).

Will I love Brutal Legend even though I was left feeling kind of “meh” after playing the demo? I sometimes wonder how much weight I should truly put on the demo experience. The problem is that there are simply too many games out there to purchase – or even rent them all.

This problem is magnified when I think about games like the ones I list above – games where my first negative impressions were later transformed into very positive game play experiences.

These thoughts trouble me, especially because one of the core tenets of my business is that great games need to be approachable and fun from the first few moments of experience. Heck, that’s why I named my company “Initial Experience Consulting”. Yet, clearly I would have missed out on some great games had I dropped them after only a few hours of struggle.

So, the real question is: How do I determine whether I should invest several hours of drudgery into a game vs. move on to the next game if the first hour is not fun?

What I’m trying to talk about is the issue of developer trust. For instance, I trust that if I suffer through the first 6-10 hours of a Bioware console game that I will come to love it (except for Kotor). So, Bioware scores 2/3 for me.

Conversely, I struggled through the first 10+ hours of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 and only ended up enjoying the third one. So, Bethsoft scores 1/3 for me.

So, when it comes to Brutal Legend, I guess the main question is: What came before? As it turns out, I loved Psychonauts (except for the last boss battle sequence). [note: I know this is going to sound like heresy, but I haven’t played any of Mr. Schafer’s previous games]

And, if I remember correctly, it took a little while for me to warm up to the game. I wasn’t blown away in the first hour or so – but I was blown away by the amazing content that appeared later in the game.

This leads me to the reminiscences portion of this post. When I was working at Microsoft I tasked myself with playing Zelda Windwaker. It was pretty much my first Wii game and I hadn’t played any of the previous versions [note: again, heresy. I know] I started playing on a work machine with a work copy of the game. I struggled a bit and didn’t quite understand how people found the game fun at all.

Until hour 4. That’s when I checked the clock, realized I had 30 minutes before Best Buy closed, and scooped up a Wii and copy of the game and headed home for a late night gaming session.

In the case of Brutal Legend, I guess I’m just going to have to borrow a copy first and then purchase it only if it compels me in ways that the demo failed to do.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Brutal Legend: The Demo

So, I loved Psychonauts. Except, of course, for the final boss battle sequence. Frustrating way to end a great game.

I can’t tell whether I’m going to love (or even like) Brutal Legend based on the demo.

I love the idea of the game and believe that Schafer can pull it off. I love having Jack Black as the voice of the main character (I really liked his character in King Kong, too).

But the basic controls left me scratching my head, wondering whether the game would prove too frustrating to play.

  • I find it really hard to get used to having a basic attack mapped to the A button of the controller. A is mostly mapped to jump or interact in these kinds of games.
  • Moreover, I really want an easy to use jump/roll when playing this kind of beat ‘em up combat. Instead, I have to “modify” the block command to get a roll (LT + B).
  • The main reason for having an attack on both the A and X buttons is so that the Y button can be freed up for co-op attacks with my partner. I’ll discuss these a bit below, but I’m left to wonder whether this special attack could have been moved to a trigger/shoulder button and left me with a more traditional A = jump, X = attack 1, Y = attack 2 scheme.
  • Vehicle controls also seemed suboptimal. Accelerate and brake are fine (RT, LT). But why do I need to click the Left Thumbstick to activate nitro? A face button would certainly be easier – as would a shoulder button. Moreover, it was hard to tell when nitro was available and how long it actually lasted.

Combat is sometimes difficult because the camera doesn’t self-adjust in ways that make sense, meaning that I need to manually turn and fix the camera during combat sequences. This is annoying and detracts from the fun.

That said, the game does a decent job of autoaiming my attacks so that just mashing the A button carries my swing into the next available target if the current one dies. And it’s nice to have a ranged attack on the X button to help clear out harder to reach targets.

Visually, the basic ranged attacks are very satisfying (strum guitar, see baddies get zapped or thrown in the air). However, it could use some rumble sweetening for critical hits. Also, I’m not sure what sound/visual/rumble feedback I’ll get for enemies who are resistant or impervious to this kind of attack.

The melee attacks feel OK when it comes to basic chains – and sound/rumble/visuals make it clear when my attacks are being blocked/resisted. I’d have liked to have a sweeter sound, rumble, and hit stop/screen shake when I finish off an enemy with a chain. Occasionally the game will pause and show a decapitation in cinematic mode, but it’s unclear what triggers this (it’s not the last kill in a sequence and it doesn’t seem related to anything I do).

The charged up attacks (strum and axe) are visually OK, but lack visceral feedback in terms of sound, rumble, and hit stop/screen shake.

The ground pound attack has a decent look, sound, and feel upon release, but the wind up is too sterile.

The “throw ally attack” (Y button) is somewhat unsatisfying. The “ready” indicator is a flashing UI element in the bottom left of the screen. This feature would be more compelling if there were in-game sound or visual cues as to when this became available. I also wonder whether it might be more fun to “summon” your partner automatically when she was available as opposed to having to stumble upon her and time the Y button press when she is selectable. I’m thinking more like Kingdom Hearts or Beyond Good & Evil where you power up the co-op meter and then release a co-op flurry when it’s available.

So, the question becomes: If moment-to-moment combat and controls are quirky in some ways and decent in others, will I end up enjoying the game? Note that I didn’t see any evidence of either platforming or puzzle solving, so I have no idea whether these systems exist or it’s just hack and slash.

In the end, I guess, it comes down to world and story. I have forgiven many games for their moment-to-moment game play deficiencies if the world was fun to explore and the story was engaging. Will Brutal Legend deliver in these areas? I couldn’t tell from the demo, but I’m curious to learn more.

A few less important things:

Brief aside: I have been commenting on cinematics controls for games lately. Brutal Legend pauses the opening cinematic when you press the start button, but does NOT advertise that you can either press start again to resume or B to skip. The core functionality is still there, but is essentially buried and hard to discover. Once the game, proper, starts there is no way to skip the cinematic (start just takes you to the pause menu). Annoying? Yep.

Brief aside #2: I love how the game lets you choose level of profanity and level of gore from within game prompts. I wonder if these prompts respect global parental settings?

Brief aside #3: Although the UI was a little quirky and hard to use, the game does allow players to set horizontal and vertical camera controls independently (both inversion and sensitivity).

And a final question: Who was the hand model for the game shell UI? Really cool idea (a fan manipulating an album cover, liner notes, and the vinyl disc itself).

Raptr and Mirror’s Edge

So, I had a friend heckle me yesterday about my Raptr updates. Specifically, Raptr was updating my Facebook status with information about the game I was currently playing. It’s what I thought I wanted out of the service.

But, as it turns out, what I actually want is for Raptr to send updates via the Raptr application so that friends can “hide this application” if they don’t want to be spammed with what I’m gaming.

Until Raptr plays nicely with my Facebook status feed I’m going to have to disable the real time updates. Well, sort of. I’m sending real time updates to my Twitter account and will try nightly one-time status summary updates to my Facebook account.

This actually ties directly into Mirror’s Edge because the specific friend who heckled me was wondering what kind of masochist I was to have put so much time into the game.

I was profoundly affected by the question because normally I stop playing games that I don’t consider engaging and fun (unless I’m doing research on a competitor – which I’m not in this case). And I really was not enjoying Mirror’s Edge despite being 75% of the way through the single player campaign.

Several key issues emerge. I feel kind of weird talking about this game so long after its release. And I feel kind of weird making some of the exact same comments that I’m sure others have made.

The main issue is that I never once, not even for a brief minute, actually felt like I was engaging in cool and flowing parkour. Even after hours of playing I felt like:

  • Every hop, jump, and roll was activated by an uncomfortable controller input motion.
  • Every free run sequence felt like it had to be replayed dozens of times because of blind leaps to my death.
  • Every combat encounter (even after ratcheting down the difficulty to “easy”) made me feel incompetent.

The two experiments that I (and I’m sure lots of other folks) would like to do are:

  • Compare two sets of controls. The current set (where Triggers and Shoulder Buttons performed key actions) and an alternate set where Face Buttons performed key actions.
  • Compare two cameras. The current camera (first person) and an alternate third person camera.

That said, I do not think that the core of the problem is either controls or camera.

I think it is one of progression. The level of mastery required to make the game “fun” to play was unsupported by level design and progression goals. I’m absolutely convinced that this is the kind of game that shows extremely well when experienced players demonstrate cool ways to navigate the world and complete objectives.

Unfortunately for the new player, the game did not have a default path that encouraged the player to progress, grow, and master core skills in order to complete new challenges.

  • There were no real opportunities to just “free explore” levels in order to get a sense of the lay of the land and what kinds of ingress and egress routes were available.
  • There were “skill challenges” that encouraged players to try to solve a range of basic and advanced problems like a skateboarding game would.
  • Combat opportunities were too spaced out at the beginning of the game for players to understand and master it. Yes, you mostly could avoid combat – but combat was required at certain points in the game and the experience was frustrating (even on easy difficulty).

Ideally, default mission flow would have encouraged players to familiarize themselves with the world, learn new tricks and techniques, and advance their martial ability using a progression of: Problem introduction, practice with feedback (and non-penalizing failure conditions), technique mastery, and then task discrimination (learning when to use this versus other techniques).

Less ideally, there would have been additional game modes included that provided players with fun and increasingly challenging ways to practice and master techniques and learn about the environment. The Time Trial mode did not fit this bill.

In the end, I really wanted to like both Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed precisely because I love the fantasy of performing parkour moves in a video game. Yet neither of these games provided me with the same level of enjoyment of other action-adventure/platform games as Tomb Raider, Drake’s Fortune, or Ratchet & Clank.

The common denominator in my mind seems to be suboptimal controls (I found both Assassin’s Creed and Mirror’s Edge control schemes to be overly complex and unintuitive), frustrating combat (unforgiving one vs. one dueling in AC and ME), and in-game progression schemes that allow me to go off the rails and try to advance before I had mastered the core components.

In some ways, I’m just not good at dealing with crushing failure. I don’t like to try the same thing over and over again and I don’t get the hint that the game is sometimes just trying to tell me “go do something else for a while – you’re not supposed to be here yet”. I’m sure this is why I tend to prefer scripted, story based games in general over sandbox endeavors.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Moar Demos: Wolfenstein

I’ve been playing a bunch of XBM demos lately. Time to update my blog.

First off: Wolfenstein. The difficulty selection screen took me back about 20 years. Yes, it’s true that the first person shooter is a hard core genre. It’s very unlikely that a noob to the genre would have picked this game up without having played many previous shooters (including previous W games). So I won’t make my standard “why the pejorative ‘Can I play, daddy?’ label for Easy mode?” comment.

What I ask, on a much deeper level, is why include Easy mode at all. If it’s clear you despise and disdain noobs and don’t want to have them play your game, then spend the time and money refining default (Normal) difficulty level and making sure that the harder difficulties are correctly calibrated to the kinds of challenge that these folks want.

Side note: I’ve been paying more attention to cinematics controls lately, and Wolfenstein adds a new wrinkle: Pressing A calls up a bottom of screen text hint: “A to Skip; B to Pause/Play”. Very elegant in that I learn that A-A quickly skips me ahead. And you get the bonus feature of pausing it if you actually want to watch the cinematic, but just need to get up and grab a soda.

On to the more important stuff: Initial experience. After the quick reprise of Halflife and Halflife 2 (start in a train car; run past authoritarian guards who are interrogating civilians) it jumps quickly into a learn-as-you-play tutorial.

I managed to fail the tutorial pretty much right away when I was trying to complete the “Use the veil to pass through the wall task”. As soon as I started to walk through the wall I received a “press down on the dpad to exit the veil” prompt. Whoops. I exited the veil while I was in the middle of a wall. Death and restart. Last checkpoint could probably have taken me back to the underground sewer as opposed to the train car at the beginning of the level.

Otherwise, the “basics” tutorial was pretty good. I’m still not sure what “veil pools” are (vs. all the water and water runoff I see all around me in the sewer) but the learn-to-play mode covered basic navigation and exploration in a straightforward and non-intrusive manner. No interruptions to game play for modal billboard text, just navigate through the sewer and learn a few of the basic functions (walk, run, open things, climb ladders, jump, crouch).

I kind of missed the introduction of my next “magic” power because it was in the middle of a mission briefing and being handed a bunch of standard weapons. It looked like I picked up some sort of cool item, but I wasn’t really sure what it was.

Then came combat.

The “Mire” ability seemed pretty cool in terms of visual and game play effects. It’s fun to send bodies flying. It’s nice to have a combined slow time/detective mode ability when I want to take out a squad of enemies single-handedly. The standard MP40 had a satisfying sound and feel to it. The grenades, however, were lacking. Most importantly, there was no visual, sound, or rumble feedback to let you know how long you could “cook” the grenade for prior to throwing it. This is a problem given that your “use grenade” prompt basically tells you to hold the LB to burn through the timer. Needless to say I made a mess of myself.

In terms of combat feedback, there were a couple of things missing. First, there was no “tango down” equivalent when an individual enemy was finished off. I realize that this is much easier to do "within the fiction” with more futuristic games (like in Halflife 2 when you hear the flatlines), but even so it’s something that I find I miss when it’s not there. Other games use tell-tale vocal screams or grunts that accomplish the same thing. That said, there could have been an intentional decision to NOT provide this feedback in order to encourage players to use their weapon sites to visually confirm each kill – and punish players who throw caution to the wind. However, I would have expected that approach more in a survival/horror kind of scenario instead of a squad based tactics scenario.

The second part that was missing was the “end of sequence” feedback. I mostly knew we had killed all the local baddies when my squad mates moved forward and/or my objective changed. I guess I’ve just been playing a number of games that had dynamic music lately -- and other games that provided a dramatic cinematic of the last baddie’s death – which provide a nice sense of closure.

After a few standard combat encounters, the game got… weird. But in a good way. It was kind of like a combo of Bioshock, The Darkness, and Call of Duty all in one. I like a dose of sci-fi in my action adventure, especially if it makes for interesting puzzles, combat, and upgrade paths. I really enjoyed Bioshock and The Darkness for the story components and gritty upgrade paths. I missed out on fun combat for the former game because I set the difficulty level too low (I wanted to blow through the content) and never really found combat in the latter to be fun (even though I liked the powers and upgrades).

The Call of Duty experience (at least the first couple) was much more about the combat sequences. They felt polished and balanced (except in a few cases) and even though I know they were scripted and I was getting lots of cheat-y help to propel me through the levels, the game play was viscerally exciting.

The Wolfenstein demo ended shortly after I received my first sci-fi weapon (and met the upgrade vendor). Even though I was interested in continuing, I was left to wonder whether the game would be able to deliver the elements I like in a sci-fi action adventure game in satisfying ways? Specifically, will the sci-fi abilities and weapons be viscerally satisfying, make for tactically interesting exploration and combat, and be fun to upgrade? The demo didn’t really answer this question for me – and required me to make a leap of faith that I’m not sure I’m ready to make.

First person shooters are a tough sell for someone like me. I evaluate them against my favorite action adventure games and they tend to come up lacking unless they bring something new game play-wise, have a world that is super fun to explore and interact with, and/or have character-driven story that is well crafted and engaging.

Prey is a great example of an FPS that I knew nothing about before the demo and that blew me away when I saw the cool possibilities that “portal” based game play brought to the table. I don’t get that same sense in the Wolfenstein demo.

I also have a strong suspicion that story won’t carry this game – the bar has been set too high by its competitors (The Darkness, Bioshock to name a few) and, let’s face it, the Wolfenstein franchise is not known for its great character-driven story experiences.

With a ton of other content (casual, social, and console games) and Uncharted 2 around the corner, I think that Wolfenstein gets added to the Gamefly Q.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Adding to the game queue…

I’ve been buried in bizdev work (talking to prospective clients) and actual work (reviewing a game-in-progress for a current client) so I haven’t had much time to play many other games in the past few days.

I have been spending some time with Defense Grid and continue to enjoy it. For a spreadsheet game it’s pretty fun and I’m starting to get more and more into the “mathiness” of it all. My hope is that it teaches me to appreciate expert level play in RTS games more. I’ve always wanted to play them competitively, but I have just never had the patience to do the kinds of precise, systematic calculations that expert level play requires.

Anyhow, here are some more games to add to my queue:

This is, of course, on top of the games I listed in a previous post. And I also want to talk about my experience with Raptr – a social networking application that has some serious potential.

And on top of that, I’ve pre-ordered the next Ratchet & Clank and Uncharted.

Hello holiday season!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Number Jumper for Facebook

Number Jumper was surfaced to me on a recent InsideSocialGames RSS feed item. It was described as a “deceptively simple” game – something that I love mostly because I associate this with thoughts of approachability.

The game boils down to a kind of mashup between Tetris. Minesweeper, and a match-3 game. Its name made me think that it was going to be some sort of Sudoku math puzzler, but really the numbers are only nominal in nature and most likely are included to help discriminate between different colored blocks (like balls on a billiard table). Unfortunately, the chosen color scheme probably prevents them from being useful to color blind players.

Although the basic mechanics were simple – click a numbered block and click an empty space – the game was somewhat difficult to figure out. The instructions were a big intimidating mass of unformatted text.

After restarting several times and then re-reading the instructions I was able to piece together the core mechanics and, yes, it’s a pretty fun and addictive game.

Would I like to dive in and help fix the initial experience? But of course:

  • I’d love to create a learn-as-you-play sandbox mode where players could experiment in a controlled environment as they learned the basic rules.
  • I’d also love (LOVE) to make the ranking system less pejorative. I mean who really wants to be called a “noob” when they fail to shine on their first few attempts.
Addendum: I'm still quite enjoying the game, but I wish it did support more casual game modes. For instance, it would be fun to have a non-timed version just to practice moves without worrying about time pressure and the ability to tweak variables such as length of time, size of board, and number of block types (between 4 and 7 or 8). Theoretically you could figure out some interesting default modes and progressions based on the core mechanic and then have players flow through different variations depending on their skill and mood.

Monday, September 21, 2009

XBLA demos: ‘Splosion Man, Defense Grid

Fast and frenetic with almost no hint prompts vs. slow and dialog heavy campaign tutorial. I’m talking about ‘Splosion Man and Defense Grid: The Awakening, respectively.

Skip to the end: I liked both games and am agonizing over whether to purchase one or both. This is becoming more and more of a problem with the standard XBLA pricing model. I have no doubt that both of these games is worth the full $10, but there are simply too many games at that price point to for me to buy them all. It ends up putting me into a kind of purchase decision paralysis where I end up spending less overall than I think I would at lower price points because I can’t decide which one to buy.

Back to the trial versions:

Splosion Man played like its namesake. It started with a bang and was a wild ride. No boring tutorials at all – in fact, not a single billboard or prompt for the first several minutes of play. Courageous, indeed. And the payoff was very satisfying. I did get stuck once in a place where either some better visuals/level design OR a billboard hint would have eased me through it much more gracefully. Basically the suspended explosive barrel didn’t look like something I could interact with.

The game did have a billboard hint system in a couple of places – and they were completely optional. The billboards only popped up if you stood beside the “?” icon for a few seconds. This is a great idea for a game with straightforward controls. As you layer on game play concepts through puzzle elements, occasionally you need to gate advancement in order to ensure the player learns a particularly core mechanic correctly. At these gates you simply include these optional billboard hints that the player can refer to if necessary.

Defense Grid was a little more slow and plodding. The tutorial contained boring exposition on basic controls like scrolling the camera and building units (left stick, A button). I can see how this kind of tutorial evolves: You want the game to be accessible and approachable to any player, and this means teaching the player every little detail.

The problem is that this is boring for the more advanced player (or, I’d argue, the typical player who downloads an action strategy game on XBLA or Steam).

The question then becomes: How do you trade off potentially annoying a certain portion of gamers who just want to start mashing around and playing with potentially alienating a certain portion of gamers who might feel lost without an introduction to the basic control scheme (including how to use left stick and A button).

The answer, I’d like to think, is to have player-guided learning. This is something I try to accomplish in all of the tutorials (or, “learn as you play” modules) I work on. I’m not always successful. Sometimes lack of time or budget means that you need to make hard choices about how you introduce players to the game. Sometimes you just don’t know enough about how players expect to play the game – and where they succeed and fail while they struggle to learn the game without prompting.

The player-guided experiences I’m most proud of are a result of:

  • The team prioritizing the initial experience – and believing that while it should definitely NOT leave players behind, it also should NOT be boring.
  • The team committing to watching players succeed and fail at the game in order to learn what needs to be taught, what needs to be “untaught”, and what players already know. Most importantly, the team needs to be committed to breaking down concepts that initially require “teach by saying” into fun and interactive “learn by doing” modules.
  • The team iterating on that first few minutes of game play, bullet proofing it, and polishing it until it reaches a high sheen. This includes iteration in the usability lab with players who are very familiar with this kind of game (to ensure they’re not bored) and with players who are less familiar with this kind of game (to ensure that the pace of learning is appropriate and engaging and to ensure that they don’t get stuck).

In the end, I ended up purchasing Defense Grid and I’m having quite a bit of fun with it. Yes, the tutorial was a little painful. And yes, I do find it a little tiresome to listen to my AI co-pilot from time-to-time as he tries to provide helpful hints. But as a real time strategy game, it’s got some fun puzzles for me to solve and I look forward to diving in deeper.

My biggest fear about both games: That they’re calibrated for much more hard core gamers than myself and that I’ll be blocked at some point before I can get through all the content.

I’m already starting to realize that I need to start “working the spreadsheet” more precisely with Defense Grid, to the extent that I’m turning on hit point UI elements and doing balance matrix passes of units vs. towers. What I’m most curious about is whether I’ll continue to find this research intriguing and compelling or whether I’ll eventually back off, looking for a more visceral experience.

Friday, September 18, 2009

ScribbleNauts, Social Discovery, and Claustrophobia

So, I’ve been reading more about the pros/raves associated with ScribbleNauts in order to better figure out what I’m missing.

It seems to boil down to this: Some folks have identified wild and crazy (and fun) ways of completing some of the more interesting puzzles by summoning things like Cthulu or arming elephants with Bazookas or tying things to me and jetpacking across the screen. Hearing those anecdotes made me excited to dive back into the game and try these wacky things.

[As an aside, I did finally meet up with a creature that my bear could not kill: a “Megalodon”. Interestingly, my bear COULD kill a shark, its smaller cousin.]

So, what this means to me is that hardcore fans of the game who have read press releases, seen demos, and scoured fan forums will have a huge leg up on more casually interested fans who haven’t done research outside the game on how to play it.

In terms of approachability, this seems rather unfortunate. It seems like the equivalent of telling players to RTFM or search the forums before they play the game. Why can’t I learn these things as part of the actual game play experience?

What this really made me think of was Armadillo Run again. What made that game fun was that its core mechanic was quirky and fun enough to make learning by experimentation (both successes and failures) enjoyable. What made the game awesome was the tight integration leaderboards and game replays into the core experience. You learned from others’ triumphs by observing their ground breaking experiments. You were able to stand on the shoulders of giants who could see through the matrix and creatively engineer solutions that blew your mind open to new avenues and possibilities.

And you could contribute back to the community your incremental improvements – and your paradigm breaking innovations.

I’m trying to imagine what the ScribbleNauts experience could have been if it had been a Flash application for a popular social network like Facebook. Leaderboards would have links to replays. Popular levels would have their own discussion boards. Content creators could share new levels with others. It’s really the kind of game that cries out for this kind of social play.

I’m also kind of curious about potential synchronous game play modes. Imagine a sandbox where folks could strategize together in real time to solve more complex puzzles? Or where they could create simulations and ecosystems and pit them against the forces of physical and social entropy?

This sort of segues into the “Claustrophobia” portion of this post. I couldn’t help but have a sense that game screen limitations really worked against ScribbleNauts. Part of this was a controls issue (scrolling the map was tedious and the return-to-center “feature” was super annoying). Part of this was that larger objects and creatures really did take up a huge amount of screen real estate which made the environments feel cluttered. Operating helicopters and planes in rooms only 2-4 times their height didn’t really convey a sense of flight.

Which, of course, leads me back to wondering about choice of platform. Would this game be better suited for a browser window? There would be no need to scroll the map. Point-and-click controls could be made more crisp and precise.

To sum it up: I guess what I’m really talking about is how platform limits and defines the user experience. Not just input/output device platform (stylus and small screen vs. mouse and browser) but also social platform (Nintendo wi-fi vs. Facebook).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

ScribbleNauts: Addendum

Well I’ve played another couple of hours of ScribbleNauts and I’m not sure how much further I’ll be able to get.

I guess I should have read the reviews.

The controls are shaky and erratic. My avatar only occasionally does what I intend him to do when a level is more complex than a flat plane (he sometimes moves when I want him to interact; he sometimes tries to interact when I want him to move; he moves erratically or too far).

Goals and victory conditions are often difficult to figure out. Part of this is due to the fact that you can’t get a reminder of what your goals are during game play and part is due to unclear writing (which is extra strange given that the game is about using words). But the largest part is due to the fact that my mind can’t imagine the possibility-space in the exact same way that the developers did. Knowing my objective and then having to figure out ways to achieve it can be fun. Having to guess what my objective is, within the context of this game, is not fun.

So far, my most useful strategy when there are creatures standing between me and my goal is to summon a bear. He kills all the other creatures and then I just throw him in the trash. It was fun the first time (there was a beehive, bee, and fish – so he attacked the bee to get the honey and then jumped in the water to eat the fish) but is getting a bit repetitive. And there doesn’t seem to be a counter-bear – at least yet.

There are other details that have been detracting from my experience:

  • Gameshell UI is puzzling – and not in a good way. It’s hard to tell which element you have selected, and some elements don’t actually look selectable (like the wi-fi icon) or are hard to interpret (the action vs. puzzle mode toggle looks like an explosion).
  • Gameshell flow results in me restarting the first level of every new area by mistake. Over and over. When you complete a level within an new area, instead of defaulting to the next available level, the game defaults to the first area of that level. Whoops.
  • Game progression was hard to figure out – resulting in me getting stuck partway through the first area. At first glance, this game seemed to be like many other unlock-based games. Complete all levels within an area/world and then unlock the next area/world. Not so with this game. New worlds can be purchased at any time as long as you have enough “ollars”. So I almost quit out because I was stuck on area/world 1 and didn’t realize I could just switch worlds to progress further.

Following up on the last bullet: What I’m really waiting for is to figure out whether or not I’ll have the same feeling I had in Braid when I finally “got it”. This happened when I realized that I could see all the content by just blowing through each level – and that I could take what I learned from future levels and bring them back to “complete” previous levels I was only partially able to finish. The end result was supremely satisfying.

I’m imagining that in ScribbleNauts I’m also expected to get stuck in certain areas and then move on to other areas until I happen upon an item or solution that I can then bring back to my early problem-child level.

The thing is: I found this completely acceptable within the design and fiction of Braid. That game was all about going forward and backward in time; and the levels were designed to be easily “finished” for people who wanted to move ahead to the next world. They could come back later if they wanted to unlock some of the extra secrets.

For some reason, however, this doesn’t resonate with me for ScribbleNauts. There was nothing about either the fiction or the Gameshell UI flow that led me to believe this was anything other than an unlock-as-you-go game. When this is combined with the fact that my avatar is hard to control and levels are hard to complete because I can’t fathom the objectives, it makes me want to stop playing.

I’ll push on some more tomorrow and see whether I have that “eureka” moment. 

ScribbleNauts & “Learn as you play”

So, I picked up ScribbleNauts based on the hype surrounding it. I don’t often do this, but sometimes I just give in to the prevailing winds.

I hadn’t heard much about it – or seen any game play footage. I had imagined it to be some sort of DS version of Crayon Physics. But then I heard about it’s 20k+ list of supported words and I thought that maybe it was an anagram game like Scrabble.

Turns out that I was wrong on both counts.

ScribbleNauts is basically Impossible Machine or Armadillo Run except that instead of having a UI that shows you all the possible tools you can use, you need to guess which tools are available by typing in words and hoping that they are supported.

It’s kind of like Family Feud in some ways. You make a guess that “fire hose” is a piece of equipment a fireman might hold, and if a panel of American households agrees with you, a fire hose appears in the game world.

This made me think back further to some of the social psychology research that I did way back when. I was specifically examining naively held prototypes for things like “burglary”. You’d get a group of people to fill out a survey about all the things they associated with the word “burglary” (e.g., occurs at night, at someone’s house, involves a male thief, dark clothes) and what you’d find is that there were common exemplars listed by most people ("it happens at night”) followed by a medium-long tail of exemplars only listed by a few people (“my buddy Fred got busted for burglary last week”).

What we found was that when people read a fact pattern surrounding a criminal trial, they were more likely to think a defendant was guilty when the facts matched their prototype of the crime then when the facts were less prototypical (but still met the legal definition of the crime).

Apologies for the long digression… I mostly thought of this when trying to figure out the most logical way to come up with a method of building a dictionary that could be balanced for difficulty as part of a word guessing game.

Anyhow, back to ScribbleNauts.

As an initial experience, I was a little underwhelmed. I’m just now starting to get into the core game play, which I do find enjoyable. But the road to getting there wasn’t as smooth and polished as it could have been:

  • Too much frontloading of concepts. Concepts should be spaced out so that they can be learned, practiced, and mastered as part of the normal game play progression. Forcing me to learn about both core game mechanics (moving, selecting, scribbling, inspecting) and metagame concepts (puzzle vs. action modes, the “ollar” based economy) in the first 5 or so minutes of the game risks me forgetting or mislearning core concepts.
  • Somewhat related is the “too many concepts at once” problem. One particular tutorial module had me learn about “trashcan”, “budget”, and “ollars” in rapid succession. Moreover, this section was NOT interactive so I was not getting reinforcement through game play.
  • Billboard hints were too verbose and constantly interrupted the flow of the game. Particularly egregious was the example with the hammer and the wooden wall. I had just learned about picking up objects and if the wall had been made to look a little more fragile (a little dented, some loose boards, maybe some unsturdy wiggling) then the game could have just let me learn by exploring. If a player fails to proceed after a certain time then non-modal, specific, context sensitive hints could be provided. Instead, the visceral feel of smashing something was replaced with boring reading – reading that seemed insulting to me because it was obvious that the hammer was their to smash the door.
  • I failed to fly the plane correctly several times which caused me to fail ungracefully and have to restart the tutorial module. It’s unclear why the first time a new movement mechanic was introduced that it had such a difficult to complete task associated with it. Flight should have been fun, but it ended up being frustrating.

I think it’s instructive to compare this initial experience and philosophy about what tutorials should be with another recent DS game I played: Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again. I found the first hour of game play delightful mainly because they allowed me to learn by playing – and included tutorials only as optional help hint sequences if the player felt a need to look at them.

Of course, to achieve that apparently effortless “learn as you play” experience requires a lot of attention and polish to the experience. MMA could have taken the same approach, but designed early puzzles that were confusing for first time users and left them lost and frustrated.

In my experience, what it comes down to, is really understanding deeply how the first time player sees, experiences, and interacts with your world WITHOUT much prompting. Hint text can always be added as a stop-gap, but the more elegant solution is to polish self-contained learning modules in which play concepts and mechanics are introduced via game play scenarios and not tutorial text.

  • Don’t tell me to that I need to pick up an item. Leave me in a room with an item and let me figure out how to pick it up on my own.
  • Don’t tell me to throw the object at something. Give me a conspicuous target that I want to bean with a dart/ball/axe.
  • Don’t congratulate me with long text billboards for doing something obvious. Have the conspicuous target (a rickety chest) explode into sparkly gold pieces when I throw a ball at it.

Then focus on how to turn situational cues into hints that propel the player through the experience.

A separate, but related, issue worth considering is how complex actions are usually just made up of simpler constituent actions. If you’re finding that first time players struggle to figure out how to throw a ball at a target when they’re just dropped into the game, break down the requirements into smaller pieces that can be taught and practiced beforehand.

  • Act 1: Avatar stands on left side. Cool slide that leads off screen is on the right side. Player taps stylus on right side of screen, avatar moves over, leaps on slide, slides to next Act. Player fails to tap, the slide pulses and a stylus “touch me” icon appears near the slide.
  • Act 2: Avatar is on the left side facing a raised platform on the right. Player cannot climb up to the raised platform on his own. A large box is suspended in the air. The box pulses (stylus icon). Player selects box and the ground near the raised platform glows green in a box outline. Player plunks box down – and it looks like the distance between ground, top of box, and platform are easily climbable. Player taps the platform. The avatar hops up on the box, then the platform. A new slide appears and he slides to the next level.
  • Act 3: Avatar is on the left side facing a workbench with a small hammer on it. There is a rickety door blocking access to another slide on the right. Player taps the hammer and places it on his avatar (avatar glows green; avatar’s hand reaches out to grab and hold object). And so on…

The idea is that you need to break down higher order actions into its constituent parts. Then you need to figure out how to design content, levels, and UI to support the learning of these higher order actions through discovery, practice, and mastery – all reinforced by enjoyable successes.

Punishment for failure is permitted (and often required) but failure must be GRACEFUL. By this I mean that the penalty should not be unduly harsh (don’t make the player feel bad; don’t make them go through a painful reload process) and the player should receive clear and actionable feedback so that he/she can try something different next time.

Wow. I didn’t expect such a freeform and unruly digression. It’s clear I’ve been away from the blog for far too long.

I’ll post more about ScribbleNauts as I move through the game. I’m also looking forward to a bunch more indie games that I’ve come across lately: