Tuesday, March 31, 2009

When I say I need you, you say “you Peggle, you Peggle, you bet!”

I’ve talked in a previous post about the PC downloadable version of Peggle. My basic conclusion at that point was that $19.95 was too much, but I would consider purchasing it for 400-800 points on XBLA ($5-$10).

A few months and $10 later, I now own Peggle for XBLA. It’s a fun, well-polished, “time waster” game that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed with few reservations.

My reservations are these:

  • A few of the “master” special abilities seemed less fun to play with. I specifically think about the crab claws (which did not seem responsive to my taps of the A button and whose physics didn’t seem congruent with what I would expect) and the sonic boom which I still don’t really understand in terms of why I would ever choose it instead of, say, the flower ability. Yes, it affects both blue and orange pegs, but somehow its visual effects make it seem less cool and useful – in fact the first few times I tried it, I didn’t even realize what had happened.
  • Peggle party mode seemed a little under-developed. I didn’t play Xbox Live mode but I did try a duel with my fiancee. The fact that there was only one competitive mode (and no co-operative play) seemed rather limited. Moreover, there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to who shot first/second. It seemed like I almost always shot first, which was almost always a big advantage. Finally, while “hotseat” games can be fun, they are really much more a PC convention than a console convention. When I think of a console “party” game, I mostly think of everyone mashing buttons at the same time – even though I recognize that there are a number of very fun turn-based party games.
  • A related, but much more minor, complaint is about the critter-select UI (where you select which “master” you play as during duel/party mode). First, the screen is very flat and doesn’t appear interactive at first glance. Mostly this affects “player two” who didn’t realize she was required to press A to jump in and then select a master to play as. A slight variable interval pulse and subtle sound cue might have helped a bit. Second, there was no confirming “thunk” audio reinforcement when a master was selected. A minor thing, but it stands out against an otherwise incredibly polished game and game shell UI.
  • Achievements require me to play (and be competitive at) multiplayer. As a “time waster” game, this seems somewhat antithetical to the way I want to play Peggle. I can understand the desire to foster viral adoption through competitive multiplayer, but I think that leaderboards and Xbox Live Rich Presence are similar to Facebook status updates in encouraging other players to pick up and play the game. Why should I have to play *and beat* a stranger to max out my gamerscore?

The rest, as far as I’m concerned, is chock full of addictive Peggle goodness.

  • Even though I complained about the underwhelming local party play options, Liza and I had a blast shooting pegs and comparing successes and failures. The core mechanics are fun and the visuals and sounds are pleasing and reinforcing whether you succeed or fail at any given play.
  • The game and theme are completely congruent. From the initial whimsical “debug” text that scrolls by when loading, to the use of different musical notes to indicate which game shell button is currently highlighted, to the “ode to joy” finishing song the game sets the expectation of light, fanciful fun, Peggle completely delivers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Update to Jewel Quest 2

So, I've been playing a bit more Jewel Quest 2 on my flight back to Seattle. I must say, that although I'm still enjoying the core mechanic (gem swapping), there are a couple of system design and usability issues that are annoying me.

First: Usability

  • It's hard (especially in windowed mode) to see whether the background of a square is colored in or not. This makes it really hard to tell at the end game which are the last few squares that need solving. I live in constant fear that I'm going to be struggling to figure out which spot is still incomplete when time runs out. That kind of "challenge" is not fun. The fun challenge is knowing which spots you need to fill in and then racing against time to fill them.
  • I dislike the fact that I can't click-drag to swap a gem or to cue up another swap as I wait for a cascade to complete. Bejeweled Blitz (and I believe other variants of it) have this feature and it's one of those things that makes the game feel less polished in comparison to its competitors.

Next: Systems

  • I'm wondering why the cascades (when multiple columns and rows collapse) and > 3 gem matches are less exciting than in Bejeweled. I miss getting point multipliers when I have a large cascade and I miss getting special gems when I complete >3 gem matches. To me, this just reduces the depth of the game -- and makes completing larger cascades/matches less rewarding.
  • I also wonder why I need to be double penalized when I use a bunch of Specials but fail to complete the level in time. This results in losing a bunch of specials AND a life. Seems to me like it would be more fair to the player to return specials that were used if the game ends in failure. This is compounded by the fact that there is no obvious "grind" mode (you need to dig into the options menu to find it) and is rendered absurd by the fact that if I actually want to "game" the system, I can quit/Alt-F4 to exit the game completely and restart at no penalty (other than the time it takes to close and re-open the game) as long as I do it before the clock runs out. No loss of life or Specials. Restarting the level costs me a life (after the first minute or so of play).

I'm guessing that these design choices resulted from the desire to have a leaderboard (have players grind in the tournament section instead of during the single player mode) and a sense that progression-based games are only challenging and fun if there are dire consequences for running out of lives and having to restart from the beginning.

What this means for me (someone looking for mental relaxation and flow) is that I need to find another variant that lets me do more free play grinding. I don't mind being entered into leaderboard contests (like Bejeweled Blitz) and like games part of the progression is unlocking new content (like Puzzle Quest).

Of course, to be completely fair to the makers of Jewel Quest 2, their game came out in 2007 -- well before either of the other competitors I mention in this review. Game development is an iterative process and I look forward to new variants in the future.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Some more housekeeping

So, I've been trying to find ways to compose and edit posts whilst off-line.

This is my first attempt using Windows Live Writer. So far, so good.

Here's what it looks like on my desktop. The biggest usability issue I've detected so far (and it's HUGE) is that I have to manually scroll through a popup listbox in order to add tags to my article. Why can't I just type and have them autopopulate/validate? I understand that in an ideal world this would get me to use more tags per post (the task would be "recognition" instead of "recall") but it just makes me not want to use the feature at all because it's so painful to scroll through dozens of entries just to find the one or two I want to use.

Untitled picture Blah

Friday, March 13, 2009

Questing for Jewels: Jewel Quest 2 (retail) and Jewel Quest Mysteries (30 min trial)

So, I don't think these are the most recent incarnations of the Jewel Quest games, but they were all I had installed on my laptop during my SEA->AUS flight. I did have the GotY edition of Galactic Civilizations 2 in my bag... but the bag was in checked baggage.

This isn't to say I dislike object matching games. Not at all. I love them. I just think that the bar is quite high in terms of nailing core game play, feel, and level of polish. I was hopelessly addicted to Puzzle Quest  on XBLA and I am hopelessly addicted to Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook

I picked up JQ2 and Jewel Quest Mysteries on the Amazon.com/games site (I talked about the site and download/install process in a separate post).

For free games (one was free retail; the other was a free 30 minute trial) they were pretty decent. Some feedback on both follows.

Jewel Mysteries 30 minute trial:

This game included a bunch of different puzzle solving mini games, but was mostly a "find the object" pixel hunter game. I have been known to enjoy a good "find the object" game (I recently reviewed Nancy Drew Dossier: Lights, Camera, Curses) and enjoy games that have a variety of puzzles and challenges to mix it up a bit.

I did have a few quibbles with this game, though.

First question: Why the 30 minute trial? I wonder why any "mission" or "level" based games would use a time cutoff instead of a progression cutoff (e.g., you get the first 2 missions and a tutorial). I felt stressed out the whole time that the game was going to end before I really had a chance to explore the available content. 

The learn as you play hint system was a little overbearing. Modal popups that require a confirmation break up the flow of the game and are unnecessary except in the most dire failure cases. What this makes players do is click the "no more help" option box which means that they won't receive help when they actually do need it. Game mechanics should be discoverable through game play, game feedback, and UI element behavior. Even more frustating was the fact that the hints were not contextual: The "Find 3 Gold Coins  for an Extra Hint" prompt came up 2 minutes into the game and had nothing to do with the task I was working on. Why not wait for me to discover a Gold Coin and then give me the hint... Or just bubble up "1 of 3" to tease me to find out what 2 more get me.

The one example where a modal popup did make sense was when I made 3 clicks in a row in error. The game warned me that I was penalized every time I make three erroneous clicks. That said, this might have been done more gracefully via some sort of non-modal "bubble up" text "Strike 1..." accompanied with a punishment sound/visual. At "Strike 3...." there could be a nice animation and message that shows the time penalty deduction. The other problem was that the sound feedback for an invalid click was so subtle that I often didn't realize the click registered and thus clicked multiple times getting multiple strikes without realizing it. 

The initial "find the object" puzzle was too hard. It took forever to find the thermometer (which looked like a cell phone to me, see my note below) so, most of my trial version time was spent being frustrated. 

NOTE: It is puzzling to me why one would choose a non-stereotypical thermometer art asset in the game. Seems to me that you could easily test how recognizable certain art assets are via online survey and then use the most prototypical exemplars as game pieces.

Some other issues with the "find the object" game mode:

  • I knew there was a hint mode and I could unlock it using coins. But I couldn't find the third coin required. On the plus side, while trying to figure out where it was, I somehow discovered that I could look at other maps to try and find coins and solve puzzles. However, once I got the coins, they seemed to disappear. I pressed the "empty lightbulb" on the top right of the screen (seems a likely "hint" icon, right?) and got a penalty strike assessed against me (whoops). I thought I wasted my coins. Then I noticed "Specials". Not "Hints" but "Specials". I pressed it and a spot glowed on the screen. I didn't see a thermometer there -- but I did see what I thought was a cell phone. I pressed Specials again (casting my second and final Special) and the same space glowed. I touched the "phone" thinking it must be a "special" item to pick up. Guess what. It was a thermometer. Only 6 "hint" coins wasted. Sigh.
  • The jewel matching minigame was a little sub par compared to the great freely available versions. It felt a little flat in terms of visuals and sound effects and the actual swapping mechanic was not as slick and smooth as Bejeweled. The jewel matching minigame felt way too easy compared to the "find the object" game. I'm not sure how best to calibrate difficulty in these games, but I'm not sure they were set correctly (one was too hard; one was too easy). 
  • The "upgrade screen" seemed pretty hard core to me. It included some second order unlocking rules that you needed to learn. The basic gist of the upgrades was to bolster your weaknesses (suck at object find, take extra hints; suck at jewel match, start with some squares already completed) so that if you get stuck/don't like a certain kind of puzzle you can cheat your way through it by grinding your way through other puzzles. I'm all in favor of having deep systems that improve user experience -- but there's only so much "under the hood" wrangling most players will want to do. 
  • The puzzle assembly game (place different sized objects onto a puzzle board so that they fit together correctly) was a little hard core for the first time player. The mechanics were cool, but took a few moments to figure out. A more obvious first puzzle would have been less jarring.
I didn't get much further because -- BAM -- midway through clicking an item on my screen, the screen went black and I was kicked out and given an upsell option. It seems (to me) like it would be a better experience to give players a section of content (say 5-10% of the total game) that they could play however they liked for as long as they liked. If the game was fun enough, people would buy it for the additional content.

Jewel Quest 2 

I think I've already blogged a little about this game during my original Amazon.com/games post. Anyhow, I played a bit more of it when my Jewel Quest Mysteries demo expired. It's pretty good, but not quite state of the art in terms of gem matching games anymore.


I love the interesting rules and jewel variants that get layered on as the game progresses. However, the learning curve seems to be a bit steeper than necessary. I didn't expect to lose a life on the second board. I wonder if part of the difficulty of launching a sequel is that you don't want to bore your core audience who are ready for a steeper curve and more challenging puzzles off the bat. Seems to me like this would be a great opportunity to include old content as a "learn-to-play" mode to ease newbies -- or folks who want to start at a more leisurely pace -- into the game.


Also, I'll never understand why some of these kinds of games don't have a "free flow" jam mode where you can just play the basic mechanics over and over again and never die (if you just want to match gems) or include several different time attacks so that you can quickly jump in a game that fits the length of your gaming break.

The game did include a Tournament mode, but hid it behind scary descriptive text: "Challenge players from around the world". I only thought to try it after this review (to see if it included some sort of free low jam that I referred to in the previous comment). Note that I would NOT have just checked it out on my own -- too scary. I don't generally like playing games with strangers.

Turns out that this game play mode is completely asynchronous. You just complete puzzle modes and your score is compared head-to-head against the score of someone who has already played the game. It was actually kind of interesting.

More compelling (in my opinion) would be to have included some live leaderboard data in the game shell that would have let players know that they can compare against other players if they want to. Leaderboards (especially if they contain cool info like "top scores from France") are much more approachable than a "Tournament" or "Challenge Players" mode.


A couple of usability issues emerged with the game:

  • The hover/mouseover feedback is too subtle, which resulted in me making swapping errors. This is super frustrating when you're operating in a challenging area of the puzzle and have spent a bunch of time lining up the jewels just right -- only to blow it by mistakenly clicking the wrong tile. I actually wasted a "special" by mistakenly targeting the wrong square. Adding a more noticeable (but still pleasant) sound, some gravitational pull, and a visual pulse/bulge would go a long way to prevent this issue from happening.
  • The other frustrating part is the "final countdown alarm" that happens when your timer is almost at zero. It isn't apparent how many ticks/seconds there are left before Game Over once the alarm goes off. This makes it hard to decide whether to keep pushing forward to solve the last few spots or to spend your specials. I spent a special when the timer lit up as I didn't want to risk losing the game. But if I had 30 seconds before time ran out, I would have tried to complete the game myself for 25 or so seconds before resorting to my special.

One kind of "freaky user experience" note:


I was playing the game on the plane with my noise cancelling headset on. On one of the levels there is some tribal music and a bunch of voices chanting and arguing in the background. I kept turning my head to see what all the fuss was about before realizing it was just the game.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

I purchased (with effort) World of Goo on Steam for $5

I've talked a bit in the past about Valve's Steam platform. My basic complaint is that it mainly appeals to hardcore PC gamers who are familiar with things like directory trees and who don't mind browsing, essentially, a tabbed web browser that is more difficult to use than standard browsers because it violates a number of web UI conventions. 

In terms of surfacing content, it doesn't do a great job of suggesting things that are popular in the community. This is weird because Valve is very open with their server data and if a user had the gumption to dive in to these data they could figure this out. Moreover, subjective player ratings data would be easy to collect and compile given the "constantly connected" status of the Steam client.

Anyhow, World of Goo was on sale for $5 and I wanted to pick it up. Good job, Steam for setting that price point because I was originally just going to buy the Wii version, but $5 was perfect for an impulse buy.

My critique of Steam this time around is more from a traditional purchase-pipeline perspective.

Thankfully the World of Goo sale was being heavily promoted. This meant that I got a huge "buy me now" pop up and welcome when I launched Steam. Other times I've had trouble finding the game I wanted to buy.

Some issues with the purchase pipeline include:
  • Default size of the browser meant that it was hard to find the primary "add to cart" action button. I needed to search the page and scroll down to find it.
  • After I added it to the cart I was taken to my cart where the primary action button was "return to shopping" instead of "check out". I hit "return to shopping" without really thinking because the "purchase for myself" button was hidden below the fold. I just assumed, because "return to shopping" was primary, that it took me to the place where I pay for the game. I understand the desire to get users to add more games and make a bigger purchase, but why not lock them in when they're ready to hand over the cash instead of letting them wander off and potentially lose interest. As much as I dislike the HUC ("High Upsale Cart") on Amazon.com, it is a very effective way to tease users with add ons without having them go back to the main product browse/search pages because the ONLY decision the player has at that point is to immediately add something to the cart or pay for the stuff that's already in your cart.
  • Steam should probably already know that I'm over 13 if I've made a purchase before and indicated as such. That said, I appreciate that the issue of minors using the system is tricky and hard to solve gracefully.
  • Steam should allow me to store my credit card info so I don't have to type it in every time. Moreover, the various fields are aligned in a bizarre way that make it hard to simply tab through and enter the appropriate data. I also had problems with drop down lists when they were located at the bottom of the visible screen (they popped down, off screen). And, not specific to Steam, I wonder when it's going to become standard to enter Zipcode first so that City and State are prepopulated automatically.
  • The actual "click to Purchase" experience was puzzling. I hit the button and its text was replaced with an animated "waiting..." graphic. But the rest of the page remained the same. I sat and watched and wondered what was going on, unsure whether to refresh the page, cancel out or just keep -- well -- waiting. If it's known that the wait can be more than a second or two then a less stressful user experience would be to take the user to a new page (proof that their command was being processed) and explain that the purchase request had been submitted and they just need to wait for the transaction to process. 
  • I was dead-ended at the purchase confirmation screen. Yes, there was an option box in the download pop-up that asked if I wanted to return to the game tab when the download was complete, but I never thought to check it. I just assumed that I would be dropped there when the game was downloaded and ready to play.
  • I went to the "game tab" and wondered where my download went. I have about 20 or so items on my Steam player list. At first glance I did not see World of Goo amongst the titles. Part of the problem is that games are listed alphabetically, so I didn't see the W title at first. Finally I did notice the yellow text (in the middle of the table listing) that was indicating download progress and looked left and saw World of Goo. Since users are likely going to want to play the game as soon as it's ready, it might be worth coming up with a more obvious recent purchase indicator.
In some ways, I think that one of the core limitations of Steam in terms of user experience is the fact that it is trying to emulate a web browser when it is not a web browser. I think this is also a source of frustration when trying to use the PSN market place with a console controller. I don't think of either platform as a web browser when I'm using them, so I don't think to try to resize the window (on Steam) or to scroll page up or page down (on either). Applications, especially gaming applications, contain all the vital information on one page and (should) have obvious primary action buttons that both educate the user as to what options are available and allow the user to take an action without lots of thought.

All that said, I of course still made the purchase and Valve continues to make huge profits off of its Steam service. Offering great content at great prices using a trustworthy and respected service means that you can get away with a certain amount of friction in the user experience of the content discovery and purchase pipelines.

But, remember: There are lots of folks out there who love games who don't necessarily know the titles of great content they might like, or who aren't familiar with Steam and the first person shooters that they make. These folks have lots of places to go and find games, and if Valve wants to capture a larger swath of this huge and growing market, it may need to pay a bit more attention to the more casual and less savvy consumer.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Co-op/social Dungeon Master: Left 4 Dead as a proof of concept

So, I never did play the original Dungeon Keeper, but before I got into the games industry I did try to DM some modules using the Neverwinter Nights mod tools. There were some cool features for both dungeon construction and real-time DM'ing. But there were a number of hurdles:

  • Content creation was time intensive. The level editor was pretty usable, but it still took many hours to craft an adventure that you might only play once with friends.
  • Too many tools. In the hands of an experienced designer with lots of iterative playtesting feedback, this makes for great, polished, balanced dungeons. As one-offs, with an amateur designer and just a few friends (or maybe the occasional stranger) playing the game, it was hard to generate quality entertainment.
  • DM'ing in real time could be a lonely, unthankful, and potentially overwhelming task. You needed to keep track of one or more adventurers who were navigating your dungeon in real time.
Juxtapose this with some of the game play elements and systems that exist in Left 4 Dead and I think I see potential for a really cool role playing game system that encourages social play -- both as adventurers and as DMs. 

I kind of stumbled onto this line of thinking while trying to break down why spawn times of upwards of 30 seconds (as Infected) or even longer (as Survivor) didn't seem so horrible as a player experience. What I realized, as a game designer/user experience person, is that I could spend this time navigating the level (through other players' eyes, or as a ghost when I did spawn in as Infected) and essentially watching the movie of the game play unfold. 

As an Infected caracter (and like a movie director or Dungeon Master) I could choose to let things unfold, or, through my own actions and communications with my team mates, guide and direct the Survivors' game play experience.

Some revelations:
  • Messing around with, essentially, dev/debug tools can be fun as a game play experience. Another examples of this is "the line" feature in Forza. Originally designed to help debug race tracks, team members (and later playtesters) liked the feature so much that they spruced it up visually and added it as a game play feature. In L4D, you are able to "spy" on the world through other players eyes, move around as "ghosts", see and move through walls, and access areas of the map that are inaccessible to Survivors. In a sense when you play as Infected you are playing the role of Dungeon Master. 
  • Well, more like Dungeon Master's assistant. Someone else (the game developer and designer) has done a lot of the hard work in balancing and polishing the core experience. You get to "tweak" this experience given a limited toolset that is fun to use and accessible via entertaining game play mechanics (instead of through code or script). 
  • Actually, more like a community of Dungeon Master assistants. There can be division of labor, group strategizing, and socially reinforcing "atta boy" chatter.  
In other words, the tight constraints (basic content is already balanced, polished, and fun at its core) and social nature of DM'ing makes for a great experience for all players involved. Players can trip and fall into a fun experience that, when the DMs are firing on all cylinders, can become sublime for both DMs and adventurers.

One constraint that Left 4 Dead must operate under that is worth considering is that players must find playing as Infected or Survivor equally (or almost equally) enjoyable. There is some leeway as players swap sides as part of the campaign, but if people generally hated playing one side vs. the other side, the Vs. mode wouldn't be fun to play (unless preferences were split 50-50 and players were just constantly placed in matches playing for the side they preferred). 

It's also worth thinking about role preferences that might not be evenly distributed -- and that may even be underrepresented by current gaming experiences.

Sure, class-based games (like Valve's Team Fortress and many other RPGs and shooters) and other asymetrical play experiences (e.g., RTS games like Starcraft with different races or Rise of Nations with different national powers) exist to fill these kinds of desires.

But what about game players who want to "play" as Dungeon Master? Folks who are willing to do a little more preparation and behind the scenes work in order to direct other players' experience? And I'm thinking about it more broadly than just in terms of stimulating the creation of quality "user generated content" (e.g., games like Spore and Little Big Planet and, of course, most of Valve's own PC game line up).

I think about DMs much the way I think about content contributors to social computing sites. Some folks love writing reviews, posting to discussion boards, uploading videos, and acting as matron or concierge in chat rooms. These folks derive personal pleasure in doing work that improves the experience of the vastly larger number of content consumers. "Deriving pleasure" means that there is a feedback loop (kudos from fellow content contributors and from content consumers) and that that these kudos outweigh the potential pain involved in creating the content in the first place.

The question then becomes: What can we learn from successful social computing sites that would apply to developing the kind of game (or game platform) that would create great game play for players by encouraging people who love to DM game content to participate?

Some other thoughts:
  • What social/co-operative components are critical to make both content creation and real time (in game) participation fun for DMs?
  • What feedback loop elements are needed (what are the internal goals and desires of people who like to DM? Are there a few prototypical subcategories or personas of DMs? how do we reinforce their goals/desires?)
  • How much freedom is enough to keep DMs interested, but not too much to be either overwhelming or result in unbalanced/unpolished game play?
  • What should be the balance between "away from the game" planning and development (e.g., using content creation and editing tools) and real time participation (e.g., wandering around as ghosts, spawning in as NPCs or creatures)?
Whew. A fun digression.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Time to play ketchup... er... catch up...

Lots of games on my radar. Fiancee is away for the weekend. I do have lots of non-gaming work to do, but I should at least try and make some headway.

  • Galactic Civilizations 2. Got the GOTY edition cheap from Amazon.com.
  • Left 4 Dead. Lots of friends lining up to play tonight and on Saturday (add Jackalshorns if you want in).
  • MGS4: Guns of the Patriots and SW:Force Unleashed arrived via Gamefly.
  • I got a free copy of Big Fish Games' Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst that I should check out.
  • The Vin Diesel IP XBM demos (and a variety of other fight/arcade demos).
  • Some new and existing boardgames. Hurray!
  • Potentially an in development TCG. Can't talk about it (it's in development) but I'm curious to playtest it.
  • Oh, and a new build of an in development action-rpg that I'm working on.
Better get my writing and emailing done so I can actually sit down and play this weekend.


Testing #2: Apologies!

I think I broke something. Checking to see if it is fixed.

Mind the gap... Nothing to see here (housekeeping)

Just doing some tweaking to the backend -- mostly making sure that my feed can get "autoslurped" into various feed aggregators.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Gaming on Virgin America: In flight games

So, I've been telling everyone I know lately about how much I love Virgin America. Great prices, connects me to the places I want to go, and a kind of cool/club-like atmosphere in their terminals and planes.

What I want to talk about in this post is their gaming console. Like Jet Blue and other airlines, Virgin America planes have display screens in the back of every seat. The cool bonus on VA is that there is a handheld game pad (with text keypad) you can use to play games. This is in addition to watching tv, movies, listening to music, or texting with other passengers.

Not surprisingly, there were some highs and lows of the gaming system. 

On the plus side:
  • At least they're thinking "games". Kudos on understanding that games are one of many sources of digital entertainment that people enjoy in addition to music, books, movies, tv, etc.
  • They had a modified version of the original Doom. Interestingly, I never completed the original (but beat Doom 2 several times). Aside for some quirks I detail below, it was pretty enjoyable and reminded me of what a great game it was.
  • Not game related, but they had a "mature comedy" channel that played some vintage Eddie Murphy. I say "goonie goo-goo" to you, too.
On the interesting side:
  • Kudos to VA for providing mature content. I hope they did it intentionally and are prepared for the eventual flak from "concerned parents" who witness other people playing Doom or listening to the potty mouth of Eddie Murphy. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut? 
Things that could use improvement. Yeah, it's a long list, but most of it is pretty fixable. I look forward to dramatic improvements in VA's digital games offerings in the future.

The gaming console itself:
  • The game pad doesn't have predictable functionality when driving the main user interface. For instance: dpad does not appear to control the mouse pointer; "a button" is not always select; "b button" is not always back, "start" and "select" buttons yield unpredictable actions; the keys on the key pad sometimes have functions and sometimes not; there is no consistency amongst games ("q" exited without warning in one game; did nothing in another).
  • You can't listen to streaming music during game play. Whoops! I have to believe that this would be a much requested feature given the lack of music/audio in most of the available games.
The games, in general:
  • They are alpha/beta versions of relatively hard core games. One of the games actually had the work "unix" in the title. Hard core. This means that they are not very accessible, are not paced in ways that encourage casual game play, and seem outdated and unpolished. Yes, they are "free", but there is GREAT free content out there. Use that instead.
  • To take this one step further: There are tons of student and indie game developers who would love to provide content to VA. If they had a contest they could get hundreds of entries to choose from (and a ton of love from gamers and free publicity). Moreover, VA could set guidelines in terms of controls standards, quality, accessibility, etc.
  • The absence of social features is stunning. I can send text messages with my neighbors, why can't I play games with neighbors? See leaderboards (real time and historical)? Imagine if while I'm playing the anagram game I got to see the scores of other passengers bubble up on a leaderboard. Cool.
I also have specific feedback on the three games I played the most:

The Anagram Game (forget the name): 

I love anagram games and consider myself to be an expert at them (feel free to challenge me to a Wordscraper or Scramble game on Facebook). I love to anagram all the time. But still, this version could barely hold my attention for various reasons: 
  • No keypad support (holding your arm up for 5 minutes is tiring).
  • Not balanced or paced in a way that made it exciting (cf. games like Word Twist for ways to do this properly).
  • The dictionary was non-standard and confusing. OSPD, please :)
  • The top right menu options were clustered too tightly together. This led to me quitting the game by mistake instead of taking a new turn a couple of times.
  • Related to the above: It's probably easier (and it's certainly a better flow) to present an obvious "Continue" option once the player has completed a turn. 
  • Ideally the player would get feedback on how well s/he did as well (either a grade, or a ranking based on leaderboards).

I don't play much Mahjong, but I know it's supposed to be a relaxing tile matching game. This game wasn't very relaxing when played by the keypad:
  • First, make sure it's obvious to the player that this is a touch screen game. I assumed I needed to play it via the game pad and didn't realize that it was optimized for touch screen play until we landed and I saw someone else playing via touch screen. Detect for game pad usage and prompt the player to use touch instead.
  • Dpad select mode is jacked. You can only move the picker reticle left or right. Not up or down. This makes selecting tiles incredibly inefficient.
  • Need to select a tile using the "enter" key pad. This functionality should also be on the "A" button.
  • There is no sound effect feedback to confirm tile select, valid match, and invalid match.
  • I quit by mistake by pressing the "q" key (while I was trying to figure out what theup/down control was).
Gem Drop X:

Gem matching games are insanely popular. Moreover, their design and functionality is pretty much solved in terms of basic mechanics. Variants are popular because they extend/refresh the basics. This game needs a lot of work before it can be competitive with existing titles in the genre.
  • Left and right on dpad made sense (move my "guy" left and right), but why was "grab gem" put on down and "launch gem" put on up? It would have made much more sense to either have them both on "A" button (if you only allow players to grab one gem before launching it) or "A" to grab and "X" to launch (if you allow players to pick up multiple gems).
  • The basic "valid match" mechanic was hard to deduce. It seemed like only vertical matches were valid (and not horizontal matches). But when you made a vertical match it also "popped" all similar gems that were touching (horizontal and vertical). 
  • It was impossible to tell which column you were grabbing from/launching to. This is because there was no aiming reticle and there were far too many columns. Inevitably I grabbed the wrong gem or launched gems to the wrong column. Reducing the number of columns (see balance/progression comments below) and providing a target reticle would have helped a bunch.
  • There was no balance/progression curve. The game started in fairly hard core mode -- wide screen of columns, failure on one level = game over, there was no sense of progression in terms of when new objects and powerups would appear, there was no feedback on when a level was completed. Ideally the game would start with many fewer columns and would layer on new objects and powerups as the player progressed. There should be "lives" so that players can progress after setbacks and ideally difficulty levels so that expert players could jump ahead to more difficult boards.

I never completed the original. I had already beaten Doom 2 and the original didn't seem to run on my PC at the time. I spent about 15 minutes playing this game (after binding some keys properly, see below) and would have gone further had there been a checkpoint system (see below). I was reminded, however, of how scary and exciting the original was even though the graphics now seem so dated. The creature sound FX (especially when they are off-screen) are awesome. And the chainsaw and shotgun still felt great.

My basic critiques:
  • Need better key bindings (controller mappings) by default. Once I properly mapped weapons select to the QWERTY at the top of the keypad, things went much smoother.
  • Sound FX seemed to be missing for some pickups. 
  • Need a checkpoint system. Yes, the original was a PC game where players were expected to quick save and reload all the time. But most people don't really play games this way anymore and you shouldn't be required to replay a whole level if you die just before completing it.

What I've been up to (includes some shameless self-promotion)

So, I've been out of town -- but not away from games -- for a few days. I can't talk about a lot of the work I'm doing while it's in progress, but I figure I'll post some of these kind of "What I've been up to" posts every once in a while.

  • Ninja Blade is shipping soon! Here's a preview video done by the folks at G4TV: http://g4tv.com/xplay/previews/36987/X-Play-Preview-Ninja-Blade.html. I did some design, production, and user experience consulting on this title on behalf of Microsoft Global Publishing Partners. Mostly I focused on core combat and initial experience (the first 2 hours of game play). Takeuchi-San is a genius and FROM Software was a great developer/publisher partner. I hope to work on more of their titles in the future. 
  • I met with other panelists on the "Funology" talk we're giving at South by Southwest in a couple of weeks: http://sxsw.com/interactive/talks/schedule?action=show&id=IAP0900867. Interesting group of folks -- come by and check it out if you're at the conference on Fri March 13 (5PM).
  • I also spent some time networking with various game and film industry folks. As much as I could never see *living* in L.A., there is a lot of energy and it is infectious. I came back refreshed, energized, and ready to push forward on several projects. 
  • I'm becoming a HUGE fan of VirginAmerica as an airline to fly on. In addition to great fares and a cool club-like feel to the plane, they also provide a console in each seat that allows users to watch movies, tv, listen to music, and game. I'll talk more about the gaming in a separate post.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Space Game: A Casual Collective Joint

I've been experimenting more with Twitter lately as a way to keep up with interesting folks in the game and social computing world.

One of the people I've been following posted a link to The Space Game which is hosted on the Casual Collective website. It's a Tower Defense variant that is pretty fun to play and addictive. 

The game is pretty polished with lots of content. There are several help pages and semi-interactive tutorials. Moreover, the first few basic missions are pretty non-threatening and allow players (like me) who don't like playing boring tutorials or reading lots of help text to learn by playing.

Game play is very much like an RTS: The player needs to manage resource gathering and allocation. There are few "building" types and upgrades, so the game isn't overly complex to learn.

That said, there is some room for improvement when it comes to core game play UI and the structure of the initial experience:
  • There is an initial discoverability issue with the main build menu. Specifically, if you have something selected you no longer get to see the build menu. This is especially problematic early on when you are just learning the game and can't figure out how to retrieve this menu (you need to click on an empty space on the screen to do so).
  • Feedback on "noff nuff resources" (don't have enough to purchase an item) and invalid placement is confusing. For the first few minutes I couldn't figure out why sometimes I could build objects and sometimes I had to wait. The lack of confirm/noff-nuff resources sound FX and the non-standard use of color to indicate valid/invalid placement of buildings added to the confusion.
  • The rock-paper-scissors was not that easy to understand. This could have been helped a bit by having specific "good vs." information on both "buy" and "upgrade" buttons (the help text currently has vague text about size and speed of ships) and by having mouseover help text for the various enemies (e.g., "use missiles against this foe".)
  • I didn't understand the role of "electricity" as a resource until after playing several games. This speaks mostly to the "learn as you play" structure of the game. There really wasn't much need to introduce electricity in the first couple of games, but by the third game it would have been nice to have the scenario "trick" me into managing the electricity resource in ways that made me pay attention to it and learn it while playing. 
That said, the game was fun to play on my laptop using the mouse touchpad, which is nice.

The other interesting thing about The Space Game is the fact that it lives on a casual games portal called Casual Collective. I haven't checked out some of their other games, but it looks like a promising website:
  • It encourages you, but does not require you, to register. You can play mostly full versions of the game -- but miss out on awards, credits, MP, save progress unless you choose to register. It lets me get hooked before I need to commit instead of scaring me away before I even get started, which is great!
  • The games, themselves, seem interesting. I look forward to trying some of the other titles.
On the negative side:
  • Although the registration pipeline *seemed* simple and pain-free (just fill out nickname, email, and provide a password) I somehow failed to get an account. There was no confirmation screen and no mention that I should check my email for a validation key. I'm not sure what happened other than I don't seem to actually be registered. Sadness.
  • Social/Community features on the site tend to be buried in tabs as opposed to surfaced at all times. There are leaderboards, forums, and real time presence is being tracked. These data should be surfaced in useful places to let users know that this is a social place.
  • There doesn't seem to be any integration with existing social networks (e.g., no Facebook application).
I'll give it another chance when I can figure out how to register... I'm curious about how it holds up as a platform vs. some of the other more popular digital distribution platforms.