Friday, June 26, 2009

I am now an official "Seattle Game Lifestyle Examiner"

I'm not saying that the bar was exceptionally high.

I'm not saying that I'm going to set the world on fire with my posts.

But, I've now got another venue for my writing.

Play-Think-Write will continue to by my blog of choice to reflect on my own gaming experiences. My blog will be my chance to get out there in the real world and get dirty. To observe and report what "gamers" are up to and what makes them tick.

In my first post I talk about how I'm going to try and get a deeper understanding of 'gamers who don't really consider themselves "gamers"'. You know. Your parents and grand parents. Your hairdresser. The barrista at the coffee shop. Folks who might not know Pikmin from Pokemon, but who still enjoy games.

Want to learn more? Check it out today, or wait a week or so until I have an interview or two posted.

On Deck: Afro Samurai, Tomb Raider: Underworld

I'm heading off to a nice vacation and will, sadly, have to leave my consoles behind. I'll also have to leave my newest Gamefly arrivals: Afro Samurai and Tomb Raider: Underworld behind in yet another cost-ineffective attempt to cycle through lots of games.


I'm kind of looking forward to both of these games for different reasons. Afro Samurai caught my attention via the downloadable demo on XBLA. I loved the stylized look, the cool feel, and I felt like Samuel L. Jackson might be able to redeem himself with his VO work in this game (I'm one of those weird folks who really only thinks he has two "great" movie credits to his name: Pulp Fiction and The Search for One Eyed Jimmy).

Tomb Raider: Underworld caught my attention because I wanted to explore some more "dos" (and likely "do nots") in the world of Wii-mote based game play. I've been having a blast these past few months working on non-gamepad based games and figure I should dig in some more before investing in a turntable, skateboard, or new-fangled camera (yes, I already have the plastic instruments).

I've also started posting on the as a local Seattle "Gaming Lifestyle" writer. We'll see how it goes. My bio and first post should be going up soon -- I'll be sure to announce it here when it goes live.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Metal Gear Solid 4: No surprises here

I've been sitting on a couple of my Gamefly games for several months now. It's really quite frustrating because at this point my rental fees are more than the used game price of Starwars: Force Unleashed and Metal Gear Solid 4. Anyhow, they're both going back in the mail tomorrow.

I talked about SFU in a previous post. I basically got stuck about an hour or so into the game and wasn't compelled enough by the game to a walkthru and continue on.

I tried MGS4 for several hours over the weekend and lost interest as well. Truth be told, I've never been able to get into this series: There are too many movies and not enough game play for my liking. Although I imagine that many diehard fans of the IP really enjoyed the 8 minute long movie of Snake smoking a cigarette while some bizarro install process took place (I hope this isn't where console gaming is heading), it left me mostly frustrated and bored.

In terms of core game play, MGS4 was simply too convoluted and frustrating for a relative newb to the IP. The control scheme was overly complex, and not layered on or paced in ways that made it fun (or possible) to learn:
  • There were no opportunities to practice core game play controls and mechanics in safety.
  • Too many movies broke up the opportunity to rehearse and master controls.
  • Controls were not layered on in any sensible way (e.g., start with one or two items, then slowly add more items of the same category, and then new categories of items). I never really understood how to use any of my "items" and found my weapons hard to equip and aim.
  • The stealth game play HUD seemed even more complex than the one in Assassin's Creed. I was never sure what the various color codings of my Stealth Gauge meant, nor could I understand how the health bar depleted or what changes in Snake's stress level meant.
These issues were compounded by frustrating UI and game flow:
  • I could never figure out how to set my camera correctly. There were three places to select vertical camera (invert or normal) and I could not figure out a way to get my in-game camera to be inverted while NOT also inverting the map-scroll camera. And, yes, I did try all 8 permutations (3 binary choices).
  • Although almost all UI options did have help text, the help text was inevitably jargonistic and not very helpful in terms of explaining what changes to each option meant.
  • The "Drebin Store" UI hurt my brain in multiple ways. It was unclear what the "receipt" option did, how I could sell off equipment to get points to purchase new equipment, and what the various highlight colors referred to.
  • The minimap was quite confusing: It contained a large arrow (which did not denote the direction you needed to go in), a red marker (which did not indicate enemy presence), and a hard to read "N" (which was supposedly the north compass point).
  • Weapon and item selection was confusing. I tried to choose the "cycle" option, assuming that tapping the shoulder button would cycle me through available weapons/items. Nope. I couldn't figure out what that option actually did, so selecting the weapon/item I wanted to equip was a constant chore.
The game clearly recognized that users would have problems with learning and mastering the game. As such, it provided a log of helpful descriptions you could read about things you could do in the game (usually involving a lot of holding L1 and pressing R2 it seemed). The problem is that these hints were not context sensitive and thus weren't taught and practiced when players needed to acquire these skills in game.

The game also provided a training mode where you could walk around and shoot silhouetted targets. There didn't seem to be much of a purpose to the mode -- it didn't have scenarios that helped teach tactics and strategies, emphasized differences amongst the various weapons, or provided opportunities to learn more about the use of camoflauge and subterfuge (like dropping a Playboy magazine in the right place to distract a guard).

The final nail in the coffin for me was the fact that save game did not work at all like I would have expected. You could save anywhere, which seemed great. However, whenever you died you would be taken back to the last auto-saved checkpoint. Frustrating? You betcha!

I've played (and worked on) Japanese games with bizarre story lines and plot twists. I tend to like some of the RPGs (as long as they have fun turn-based combat) and some of the action adventures (as long as they are more similar to God of War and Otogi and less similar to Tenchu Z). But I just can't seem to get into the MGS series, or for that matter, the Devil May Cry or Resident Evil series. I can understand the promise and appeal of these games, but they just don't seem to play in ways that I enjoy.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On the road again (and again...) and some self-promotion

I haven't been able to play much in the way of traditional gaming since, oh, the end of April because I've been pretty much constantly on the road.

Two weeks were all about fun and games -- my wedding and honeymoon -- but the remaining weeks have been bouncing around Chicago and Eugene (OR) working for a client with a game shipping this holiday. Oh, and then there was E3 week in L.A. But that was mostly a family visit.

In the mean time, I had a couple of panels accepted at the Casual Connect conference in Seattle this summer. The first part is going to be a joint presentation by some awesome folks who have worked on a variety of casual and board games (including the inventor of Pandemic... How cool is that?). I'll be talking about my work on Catan for XBLA. The second panel will be a brief interactive workshop on how to improve your own on-site usability/focus testing. I'm super excited about putting this together with my co-panelists.

What I have been able to do is experiment with "microgaming" in the form of Twitter games. I can't say I've found the killer app, yet, but I'm guessing that there will eventually be some sort of microgame that captures my fancy to the same extent Scramble has on Facebook.

The Twitter game I'm playing most is called BeatMyTweet. It's basically an anagram name (a genre I love) where @BeatMyTweet sends out an anagram every 15 minutes and people RT @BeatMyTweet the answer. A link to results (people are ranked by time of correct RT) is tweeted and takes you to the host website. Not the best game in the world -- and I'd probably have dropped it by now if I weren't a fiend for anagrams -- but not a bad start. Some issues:
  • Limited dictionary. Seems like the same words come up fairly frequently.
  • Limited leaderboards. It's hard for an infrequent player like me to keep up with folks who are glued to their PCs or cellphones all day. I need contextual leaderboards that show me how I'm doing relevant to similar others. Unfortunately the current leaderboards only display top 5 players and there's no way to drill in further to see how I'm doing.
I've also tried Spymaster which is basically a Mafia Wars knockoff for Twitter. The level of visual polish is high, although it does suffer from some UI annoyances. Unfortunately this is just not my kind of game -- and it is far too spammy for my liking. I hate cluttering up others' feeds with some silly messages from my game. I figure my Facebook friends will tolerate occasional game feed updates (and can block them specifically without blocking me) but my Twitter followers will likely drop me if I send too many spammy messages their way.

My hope is to find a Twitter game that is compelling enough that it drives me back more often to consume interesting data from the Twittersphere and (hopefully) pipe more interesting updates out to my followers, much the same way that taking my Scramble and Backgammon turns currently drive my Facebook behavior.