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.


Freaky.


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