Sunday, August 30, 2009

Day 30: It's a wrap... I aimed for the sun and hit a pigeon

I started the month with the best of intentions. 30 posts about 30 games in 30 days. Then I revised it to 31 in 31 when I realized that August has 31 days.

Alas, my sights were set too high.

I officially credit myself with 23 "units" of blogging over 29 days. In that span, I covered:
  • 19 games that received full treatment of their first hour or two (or demo/trial mode). These ranged from Console to PC to Web to Mobile.
  • 9 games that received brief treatment while covering other topics (2 game platforms, one experimental game portfolio).
  • 2 game platforms (one that allowed creation and user distribution of user generated content).
  • 1 social application that has a meta game for content creators.
So, why did I stop short? I finally lost the battle to work. I brought on a great new client and it turned out that they needed more work than I originally estimated. Good for the pocketbook. Bad for the blogging because I can't talk about client work.

I still plan to get back to Kodu and/or some other game content generation tools this month. I won't promise 30 posts in 30 days, but I will keep active.

Thanks to all the folks who left comments -- I'll keep in touch and I look forward to seeing the next versions of your great, inspiring games.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Day 28: Call of Duty 4

I know, I know. The game has been out forever. But as I mentioned in a previous post, I've been saving Call of Duty 4 for a rainy day.

As expected from previous posts, it delivered an awesome user experience right from moment one. It's clear that the team spent a lot of time defining what the first 5 minutes, 30 minutes, and hour of game play would be like for players of all ability levels.

Well, all ability levels except for players who have never played a console FPS before. I talked more deeply about this issue in some of my writings about Portal. I'm left to wonder: When does it make sense for game developers to design for complete newbies to a genre. In the case of Portal, it saddened me that my wife (then fiancee) who loves puzzle games could not play the game because the intro was calibrated for folks who'd played FPS before. There were no stepping-stones tutorials for players who were unfamiliar with console controllers and who had a tough time right thumbing between camera controls and face button actions.

In some ways, as a sequel (in this case, the 3rd sequel) I guess having a "complete newbie" tutorial doesn't make much sense. Why provide additional content given that most people who can't already play console FPS are already so scared of the genre that they hadn't tried the first 3 iterations.

I guess I wish there were some in-between games that introduced FPS type game mechanics and controls to people fearful of the genre so that they could learn and practice the basics of moving, looking, moving while looking, and then performing actions while moving and looking.

All that said, I guess it's also possible that some folks simply don't like the idea or feeling of interacting via a controller in a 3d space -- and simply making them more comfortable with the controls won't make them interested in this kind of game play. But I find this somewhat hard to accept given some of the work I did on Rise of Nations in which we brought in non-gamers (folks who had never even right-clicked a mouse before) and built learn-to-play tutorials around their strenghts and weaknesses. With a lot of work we were able to get these folks up to speed and able to play and enjoy the game. Of course, we never found out whether these folks would ever *buy* a game like Rise of Nations for themselves.

Back to COD 4.

As I mentioned in my previous brief posting about the game, I felt that the learn-to-play component of the game pretty much took the bar from the original Halo experience and raised it higher. The behavioral self-assessment of difficulty level was great, the prompts were subtle and well placed, and this was all done in an entertaining manner within the fiction of the game.

One of the best things, from a user experience perspective, that this game does is recognize that in the chaos of combat it is difficult to figure out what's going on, remember what my goals are, and figure out what to do next. Accordingly, the game has a number of feedback systems designed to propel the player along through game play.
  • Feedback is given to the player via various modalities. There are briefings between missions that foreshadow what the player should expect (these are short, well paced, and skippable). Current objective text appears on the HUD. Weapon fire (by friendlies and enemies) is very noticeable and helps point the player in the right direction. Weapon fire intensity/deadliness is exaggerated so that players can quickly determine choke points. Friendly units reinforce this learning by calling out key threats "Look out for the RPG on the 2nd floor". Player deaths are treated as teaching devices: The player "sees" the enemy who shot him, or the player gets an explanation of how to detect and avoid grenades and exploding vehicles.
  • Feedback modality is governed by whether the game is in full-on chaos mode or in the middle of a break in the action. In the heat of combat there is no time to read objective text or listen to long helpful suggestions. Chatter is brief and to the point. Generally speaking chatter is also concrete and specific: There is less "beware of RPG fire, it's dangerous" and more "RPG on the second floor" followed by a streak of smoke and explosion that illustrates the point. Pauses in the action are used for more exposition and to set expectations for the upcoming action.
  • Feedback is responsive to current obstacles and player success or failure in overcoming those obstacles. Feedback is most useful when it is concrete and specific to what is currently happening in the game and how successful your current actions are (or are not). The game is determined to help the player succeed by providing constant engaging, immersive, understandable, actionable, and predictable feedback.
Worst case scenario? The "Start" button pauses the game and lists current completed and open objectives. The game recognizes that when players pause the action they're often trying to get their bearings and figure out "what next?"

There's obviously a lot more going on with COD 4 than just the quality of feedback, but really this is the element that stands out the most to me so far. Without engaging, understandable, actionable, and predictable feedback systems it would be impossible to have such a fun and immersive learn-as-you-play experience. No heavy handed prompts or text billboards are needed.

All this writing about COD 4 makes me want to put down the keyboard and resume my campaign. At least until Batman: Arkham Asylum arrives.

15,000 Gamer Points


Just hit my next Gamer Point milestone. I was getting close and feeling a little burned out. I had been saving Call of Duty 4 for just such an occasion. I knew it would be good based on it's pretty awesome initial experience and some fun multiplayer.

I was not disappointed.

More thoughts on it tomorrow before Batman: Arkham Asylum shows up.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Day 27: Konami Play

I've been playing a bunch of social and casual games from the "native biggies" like Zynga, Playfish, Playdom, etc. Then there are the casual games portals who are also jumping on the social bandwagon (like Real, Big Fish Games, Oberon).

The big traditional publishers have also been getting into the social game. I haven't paid as much attention to these offerings, but Konami Play currently caught my attention based on a posting I saw on Indie Social Games (a great site).

The first thing to note is that searching for "Konami" or "Konami Play" on Facebook yields zero helpful results. Even clicking on the Konami Fan site doesn't help -- there's no mention of Konami Play or link to a relevant website. Perhaps there has just been a soft launch that will be followed up with an official campaign (notifications to fans of Konami, links to the portal, etc).
NOTE: Later on I discovered a link to the "Konami-Play" fan page -- but it still doesn't show up in any Facebook search results at the time of this writing.
Luckily I had a direct link to the external website from the blog posting and went straight to the portal page.

The portal page is a little cluttered and claustrophobic. Basically it suffers from the "I need to expose you to everything all at once" syndrome that many olde-schoole portals seem to do. It's hard to argue with success, but as an initial experience it's pretty overwhelming.

On the plus side, there is a "featured games" slide show that appears in a large bucket above the fold. The "play now" button is a tiny and easy to miss call to action, but the fact that you can jump right into a game from the home page is a big plus.

Jumping into a game was easy. More importantly, I did NOT have to register or log in. I could just start playing. Get me into the game in as pain-free manner as possible -- and if I'm having fun I'll bother to register/share/etc.

The games (and Konami) are oriented to the more retro gamer (Track and Field, Double Dribble) and more recent console offerings (Metal Gear Solid, DDR). To the extent that they are fun and have leaderboards, these games seem like a natural fit for Facebook's ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the game experiences themselves, are uneven. I got right into Frogger and played a bit of Double Dribble, but found Track and Field to be calibrated too hard for me to make progress in and was completely unable to figure out how to play Loco Roco 2 and Metal Gear Solid 4.

As it turns out, I lucked into Frogger first. Unfortunately there didn't seem to be any way for me to post results of my game to my news feed. There is a chat room for all Facebook users who are currently logged in and viewing/playing Frogger, but the actual sharing of a story with my friends is not contained in the normal game play flow. I can play as many games as I want and never be prompted to share the results with my friends. There are buttons labeled "Share" and "Challenge Friends" that appear outside the game window, but these are weak calls to action compared with a "You just scored 7,000 points in Frogger and unlocked the 'top fly eater' achievement... Publish to your friends?" prompt in between games.

The login/register/connect with Facebook pipeline could also use some tuning:
  • The home page does have a couple of "Connect with Facebook" buttons, which is good. But it's unclear why I would do such a thing to begin with. All the pictures of people are strangers to me -- and it's unclear why I'd sign in to a website before I figured out whether it provided personal and/or social utility.
  • Once I launch a game, my only call to action to "get social" with the game is buried under a really unfriendly button labeled "register". No one wants to register at this point. However, after I play a game or two of DDR I may decide that I'd like to share this information with my friends on Facebook. The problem is that I'd never think "register"... I might, however, click a clearly labeled "share with your Facebook friends" button. As I mentioned above, this call to action should be included in the "game over" flow.
  • If I do think to click the "register" button, it does take me to a "scary registration page". The easy, one click "Connect with Facebook" option is kind of hidden on the right side of the page and might not be noticed before the visitor backs out or leaves the site altogether. Interested in learning more about improving sign-up/registration? Check out Bokardo's deck.
  • Clicking on the "Connect with Facebook" button actually deadends the user at a boring "account" page. If I choose to read my profile information, I learn that I'm given some strange User Name and my only option is "Edit" (not sure why I'd do this -- and the edit page is rather scary) or Invite Friends. Note that my original intention was to play a game -- a game that I have no way of finding from this deadend page...
  • At this point I want to log out. Logging out actually logs me out of both Konami Play and Facebook. I'm not sure if this is a requirement for Facebook Connect partners, but it does seem strange that I need to be logged out of Facebook when I only want to be logged out of Konami Play.
To summarize, I may not be the fan that Konami is looking for. Maybe I'm just too old and bad at games or don't care enough about some of their core IP offerings to ever become a passionate player of these games.

But, I still do like Frogger and played it on XBLA and tried to beat the highscores of my friends. And I'm still willing to try new games and share my results/thoughts with my friends to the extent that it's easy to discover these games via existing social network channels (for me, this means Facebook or Twitter) and that game results are fed into interesting and entertaining stories by default (as opposed to having to figure out how to share them outside the normal "play->game over->try again" loop).

I look forward to see how Konami Play evolves over time -- and how other external game publishers and portals continue to integrate into existing social networks.

Day 26: Part 3, Arkham Asylum and WET demos.

I tried two very different demos with two very different initial experiences that both left me intrigued and curious about getting my hands on the full retail versions of the games.

First off: WET. This is the kind of game that I want to like. It offers the fantasy of cool gun play, over-the-top action sequences, set on a cheesy wire-fu movie set. What I was hoping for was Stranglehold but... fun.

Unfortunately, the initial experience was a mess. I was dropped into billboard prompt tutorials that were easy to fail. And fail. And fail.

Part of the problem was that the controls being introduced were quite difficult to execute: They mostly involved manipulating the Right Trigger, Right Thumbstick, and Face Buttons. Moving your right thumb quickly between Thumbstick (for fine grained aiming) and Face Buttons (for mashing) is very hard to do.

Another part of the problem was that the aiming model was confusing. The reticle did not seem to auto-lock on targets, but shots fired seemed mostly to hit targets. It felt exceptionally hard to aim during slow-mo gun play, but then aiming didn't seem to matter because bullets just kind of found targets.

When this was coupled with the fact that the tutorial tasks were very easy to fail within a few seconds, the deck was stacked against the player feeling any sense of competence.

Sure, it's a demo. Players were only provided with a limited amount of content and needed to be rushed up to speed. Hopefully the weapons and special moves are layered on a little more sensibly in the retail version. Ideally players would have opportunities to practice and master core mechanics through well paced challenges.

Although I found the grainy film art style of the opening sequence a bit distracting -- and even nauseating in places -- I loved some of the other art direction choices. The silhouetted background level was fantastic and really provided for some cool stylized violence that I haven't seen before in a game. The guys in bright white shirts and black pants coupled with the red of the background and blood effects really drew me into the game in a way that I haven't experienced since some of the crazy and brilliant levels in Psychonauts.

The final sequence in the demo combined some QTE events with a fantastic car-to-car combat sequence. It made me think of what the Wheelman demo should have been -- and even gave Ninja Blade a run for its money in terms of the sheer insanity of some of the sequences.

After a rough start, the WET demo took me for a wild ride and left me wanting more. Because of the poor initial experience and the fact that combat felt very mash-y and not very strategic, I do worry that the game will end up feeling unpolished and that combat might get a little repetitive. I'm definitely adding it to my Gamefly Q.

On the other hand, Batman: Arkham Asylum provided an exceptionally polished demo that felt good right from the very start. The controls were almost as complex as those in WET, but they were introduced in a way that made the game approachable and fun. I felt like Batman right from the get-go.

Instead of large obtrusive billboard hints, smaller onscreen help prompts triggered at key moments (e.g., "X to strike opponent"). Combat proceded from simple punches to counters and takedowns at a reasonable pace. Moreover, at least during the demo, there were on screen tool tips that reminded players of some of the cooler combat moves that Batman could perform.

One of the more interesting decisions was to calibrate controls such that the player always felt cool. There was no manual aiming of basic melee attacks; ranged attacks had a lot of target assist, and special moves required very little aiming and were pretty much fire and forget (ensure the enemy or target is in your site and then press the appropriate button). The tactical and strategic feel comes from using a mixture of stealth and sleuthing in order to outwit enemies who are too powerful to take on via a frontal assault.

My main concern after playing the demo was that the game would be too much of a one trick pony: Hop around from high ledge to high ledge and swoop down on unsuspecting loners who get separated from their squad. A secondary concern was how boss battles would play out: It seemed unlikely that I'd be able to grapple with the rather large monster/creature that the Joker unleashed on me just as the demo ended.

Those concerns aside, I did get sucked right into the story. I love the prison/asylum as a setting for a horror/action adventure game (or movie), and I immediately thought of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and The Darkness, two games I enjoyed immensely.

Interestingly, when I think about whether to buy or rent this game, I find myself leaning more towards buying it. Why? For the same reason that I bought Bioshock. I loved the demo, and because I saw a bunch of my friends playing through it via Xbox Live, it made me think that it must be worth owning and playing right away as opposed to waiting for a rental.

The power of the social network compells me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Day 26: Part 2, Quiztastic

So, I've been paying attention to some of the Playfish applications on Facebook. They seem to be releasing some interesting and polished user experiences that are worth investigating further.

Today I played with Quiztastic. It's a usable and polished quiz creator, aggregator, and distributor that is similar to Everybody Votes for the Wii. Before I talk about the application itself, what I would really like to see Facebook (and FB app developers) figure out is how to let people discover and share this kind of content without spamming everyone's news feeds. Most of my friends have started to self-police their quiz taking, and those who don't self-police get hidden from my news feed.

What I wonder is whether Quiztastic might be too late to the party if all it is really going to do is make it easier for people to annoy their friends.

The social power of the application is clear, though. It allows users to easily distribute quizzes to select groups of friends, all friends, or the entire Facebook community. So, as a platform, it's easy for people to target their creations in meaningful ways (do they want to come up with custom content for a few close friends; or do they want to create the next quiz sensation that ripples through and beyond the Facebook platform?)

In terms of usability and user experience flow, this application serves both content consumers and content creators very well.

For content consumers, the application surfaces interesting quizzes in many ways.
  • It has a feed that tells you what quizzes your friends have taken (and with one click you can compete against them).
  • After completing a quiz it suggests other content-related quizzes.
  • You get awarded (or penalized) with points after taking each quiz, which can be very reinforcing. I haven't played long enough to figure out if there is some sort of leveling system or economy where you can spend points on socially/personally desirable things.
  • Browsing quizzes allows the user to filter by relevant categories and sort by useful categories (e.g., star rating, recency, number of people who completed it).
  • And there's a "Quickmatch" feature whereby with a couple of clicks you're dropped immediately into a new quiz.
For content creators, the application does a number of cool things.
  • Players are required to rate each survey after completing it. Ratings are great ways to reinforce good surveys and punish bad ones.
  • Although it's hard to find, there is a dashboard where creators can monitor their quizzes (how popular, how rated) and edit or delete them.
  • The content creation pipeline is straight forward and easy to use.
A couple of quibbles:
  • For the Personality Quiz, I'm not sure how to set thresholds (e.g., if you get a certain score you are a "big jerk", otherwise you're only a "medium" or "smalll" jerk).
  • It's hard to find the dashboard (where you can monitor quizzes you have created). Burying it under "profile" doesn't seem like the right place for it. Note that there is plenty of usable space on the Main Menu (where there are only "play" and "create" options) that could be used to tease recent updates/stats on quizzes the user has created. This could also be teased on the Create Menu page (something like "monitor your existing quizzles").
  • I wish there was a better way to design the status update blurb. It's a huge chunk of screen real estate that essentially includes a generic icon for the application (not needed) and a large image that may or may not be related to the quiz itself.
  • It also seems like there should be a better way to educate the content creator about how best to make the headline and image associated with the quiz inviting and engaging, and there might be a better way to streamline the feed item so that it isn't so aggravatingly large.
Overall, I think that this application is pretty easy to use for both content creator and consumer. I just wish that there were better ways to integrate these kinds of social data into my already cluttered Facebook feed.

Day 26: Ergon Logos

The folks at Play This Thing brought Ergon Logos to my attention and I figured I'd give it a try.

It's a text adventure -- but not the kind that you think. You don't actually type in commands in response to text descriptions of your surroundings. It's more of a choose your own adventure in which you trace scrolling text and select which branch you'd like to pursue.

As best I can tell (and without giving away any "spoilers") it seems like the author of the game has something to say about how traditional adventure games are merely linear adventures with only the illusion of choice. Not profound, but it's interesting to experience this through interactive play as opposed to just reading a plain text journal article or blog posting.

In terms of mechanics, here are some quibbles:
  • It was hard to tell at a glance whether an upcoming intersection of words offered a free choice or forced the player in a specific direction. It was also hard to tell whether a choice had been registered. Words were highlighted in RED when they were hovered over, but the selection model was not mouse click but hover until some sort of timing threshold had been reached. It seems like more could have been done with sound and visuals to let players know when choices were available and to confirm choices that had been made.
  • The "game" seemed more like a QTE than an action or adventure game. There was a lot of linear exposition (like watching a cinematic) and only brief moments of interactivity. In some ways, it was really just like a dialog tree that required you to read the text options slowly, word by word, before making a choice. The problem is that when it comes to written text, the drama comes from the meaning of the text and not the speed at which words are revealed. In other words, I wonder whether the game would have been any more or less "fun" had I just been presented with a standard dialog tree where I could read phrases more quickly and choose from options more efficiently.
  • The choices were rather limited. Moreover, there was no real way to anticipate the potential consequences of your choices through moment-to-moment game play. After playing through the experience a few times I caught on to what the author was getting at and could "guess right" when it came to making a choice, but this experience was unlike normal learning by playing in which you figure out a game through the feedback it provides on your moment-to-moment actions.
  • There didn't seem to be any obvious "game over" screen. There was no score, no "you failed" or any kind of victory salutation (like the display of credits). This was actually more severe than just a polish issue: I wasn't sure whether I had broken the game or had exited gracefully. It just seemed to stop providing me with a way to proceed.
All in all, it was an interesting experience and I'll check out more of Paolo Pedercini's work. It seems he's done a bunch of advergames and subvergames (subversive games) worth checking out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Day 25: Gum Drop Celestial Frontier, Chrono Trigger (DS)

Well, it's day #25 and progress has been slow, slow, slow. I doubt I'll get to 31 in 31, but I do have some down time over the next few days so I might be able to catch up a bit.

First up: Gum Drop Celestial Frontier. I'd been watching some posts from the developer and am glad he finally got it up on the Xbox Indie Game market place. I downloaded the trial version and played for about 30 minutes.

One note: Similar to my feedback on Kodu, the Indie Game platform stacks the deck against a great user experience. Trial versions seem to have a maximum time length you can play before having to reset to the XBLA menu which is really annoying. Being able to sort by "top download" and "top rated" seems great, but they don't answer the really important questions: What's the "top purchased game?" and "top rated by people who actually bought the game?" Yes, the ones with "Zombie" in the title are going to be downloaded over and over and over again (as are ones with low rez images of cute girls). But are they great games? Do people end up buying them? Moreover, why do I care about ratings from people who haven't bothered to purchase the game? Even if the system could solicit ratings only from those folks who played the demo for 5-10 minutes it might provide more useful data to me.

Back to Gum Drop. I like the idea of the game and the core mechanic intrigued me because I've been playing a bunch of more physics based games lately (N+, Trials HD). I was curious to find out how replacing shooting with smashing was going to play out -- would it be kind of like Robotron meets N+?

As an indie game, it felt polished. The main menu attract mode was pleasing, and getting into a game was easy to do because the top menu option always advanced the player to the next menu and was always selected by default. Menus also had useful persistent help text.

As an aside, it might have been nice to have a representative screenshot and recent stats for levels that have already been completed on the mission select screen.

The initial experience, itself, was a little lacking. There's actually a lot going on with this game and it was hard to grok in terms of terminology (what does it mean to "Recall S.M.A.S.H."?) and basic game play (see comments below).
  • Billboard hints were too abstract to follow, were disassocated with controls (how do I "Grab"? "Grabbing" isn't listed in the controller scheme layout), and contained too many concepts to learn at once.
  • Moving and aiming were more confusing than they needed to be. Left stick moved the ship, right stick "pointed" the ship. What would have made more sense would be to have left stick move ship (and the ship always turns to face the direction it moves in) and right stick "aim turret" by controlling an independent turret.
  • Game feedback (visuals, audio, screen shake, and controller vibration) requires additional work. Screenshake was mostly satisfying when I took an enemy down. Bigger enemies could probably have had a longer hitpause/freeze. Vibration was kind of a let down. Mostly I noticed it when I took a big hit, but this kind of feedback is also needed when I make strong vs. weak contact against an enemy ship. Sound design is tough to do well in a game like this, but it really is essential. For instance, I should be able to tell which power up I'm using, whether my Base or my Ship is taking damage, and which enemy type has spawned in/died by sound alone. Visuals were generally pleasant, but it was hard to distinguish different ammo types from the enemies and I couldn't tell at a glance whether my ship, my base, or enemy ships were at full health, partial health, or about to die. It also would have been cooler for "healing" to have a more obvious sound and visual effect (with occasional vibration pulses) as opposed to an onscreen text tip.
  • Powerups seemed cool after I played with them for a while, but because they didn't provide clear and obvious sound and visual FX they didn't feel as exciting as they could be. It might be worth thinking about having fewer of them available, but having each one be way cooler sounding and looking (and behaving).
  • After almost an hour of game play, I was still unsure what the Left Trigger (Recall S.M.A.S.H.) did. After focussing on it for about 5 minutes, I think what it does is recall your starting wrecking ball in case you have released it (via the B button). It does NOT reattach them to your ship, but just moves them on screen and you can re-grapple them if you want to. The problem here is two-fold. First, nothing in the game play has really taught me the need to release objects that I'm already grappled on to. Second, I don't receive any feedback when I tap and then hold the Left Trigger so I'm left to wonder what it really does. Perhaps if there were a "retrieval" noise that increased as the wrecking balls got closer, it would help. It might also be nice to have some sort of pulse or ship animation activity that let me know that my ship was trying to retrieve the wrecking balls while I held the Left Trigger down.
After an hour of play, the game ended up being kind of fun as a time waster game. It didn't seem to have the strategic depth of other competitor shooters like Geometry Wars and it didn't have the visceral fun of other physics games like N+. What I'd really like to see is some refinement to the core controls and feedback -- and then I'd like to see the game figure out how to hit either the strategic fun bar (by layering on puzzles and challenges that ramp up) or the physics fun bar (by allowing the player to trigger crazy and fun chain reactions and have both enemy destruction and player failure be entertaining).

Next up: Chrono Trigger for the DS.

I don't think I'm going to count Chrono Trigger (DS) as one of my 31 reviews. I just didn't get far enough into the game in order to feel like I didn't just cop out.

Why did I quit so early? Well, I died during my first real combat encounter and there was no recent save/resume point. Yep. I had been playing for about 30 minutes, had entered custom names for various characters, had explored parts of the map, performed minor quests.

And then I lost everything and had to start all over because I lost an early combat encounter. No "continue" or "load last saved" option. Just reset to main menu where my only option was to start a "new game".

Life is, sadly, too short for this kind of experience. This kind of experience violates my sense of trust in the game that it will reward me for progressing and NOT penalize me unduly when I fail.

Usability quibbles:
  • Too many early billboards and out-of-context instructions. It's nice to have an in-game manual that you can visit whenever you want. However, it doesn't make much sense to have to make me read a bunch of information about systems that I won't be using for a while. It's boring and I forget things before I need to use them.
  • No clear indication of which response (yes or no) will provide me with MORE information or will allow me to exit a dialog tree quickly. Sometimes I was asked "would you like to know more?" and sometimes I was asked "would you like to learn more later?" Inevitably I would click the wrong response because I always assumed "saying yes" means "teach me more". A couple of ways around this: (a) be consistent and always have the "yes" option (or the "no" option) provide more detailed information; or (b) like Mass Effect, design the dialog tree so that it's clear which responses are for optional information and which ones are likely to cut the conversation short and focus only on the task at hand.
  • The real-time combat system did not provide enough feedback for me to figure out how it worked. I felt like I should have been doing turn-based combat (there was an option to do so) because there was no way for me to tell whether I was being ineffective/inefficient or whether the combat difficulty for the first couple of encounters was tweaked way too high.
As I mentioned above, I didn't get very far with the game. I may try it again during some down time, but I'll probably return it soon in order to keep plowing through my Gamefly Q.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Day 22: Country Store Beta

Day 22. And I've sadly fallen behind in a serious way from my 30 in 30 goal. And to add insult to injury, I forgot that there are actually 31 days in August. I guess I should rename this challenge '31 in 31'.

Luckily when I get back to Seattle I'm going to have a bunch of free time to start working through the backlog of games that I've meant to play along the way.

After today I will be 15 games in 22 days. Now, I did play and write about 3 Intuition Games, but I'm only counting them as one game as they were really short 'gamelets'.

Before I dive into Country Store Beta, I should mention that I played a bunch of N+ yesterday afternoon and evening with a good friend. We worked through the co-op multiplayer campaign so he could play throught the single player campaign on his own. Although the challenge ramp was uneven, we had a blast and were entertained for hours. It reminded me of some Gears of War co-op sessions I had with a friend on insane difficulty. I was a terrible player and we died over and over again. But the death sequences were hillarious and eventually we perservered through a couple of missions. Both GoW (co-op) and N+ (co-op) remind me to always be mindful that there is a fine line between frustration and engaging challenge -- and that we need to calibrate these challenges based on both social and individual game play needs.

Now, on to Country Store Beta. It's another in a series of farm games that are, apparently, hugely popular in China. After playing a couple of sessions across two days, I'm definitely enjoying it more than I enjoyed Farmville. Farmville seemed, to me, less like a game and more like just another social "pass-me-a-drink" application on Facebook. Sure, adoption is huge (and still growing, at least among my friend base). But its entire focus on the "social" (gifting, messaging, inviting, reciprocating) make it less fun to me in terms of moment-to-moment game play.

Country Store Beta seems to take a different approach. It instead focuses on the solo game play experience in order to draw new players in. There's a ton to do (questing, exploring, farming) and the learn-as-you-play seeding of activities is pretty well thought out, at least over the first hour or so of game play.

I haven't encountered many social quests yet, so I worry a little bit about the ability of this game to grow virally. Yes, I love the fact that it doesn't seem to require me to spam my friends. What I wonder is whether it will keep me playing long enough so that when I get to the "invite" call to action I actually follow through. I took a quick glance at the current quest list and there do seem to be some "introduce yourself to your neighbors" quests. But, this will not work well for folks who are early adopters and who don't have many friends who have installed the app already (I currently only have two friends who have installed the app).

In terms of usability quibbles, I have a few:
  • I do appreciate mouse cursor state changes (something Farmville and other Flash applications seem to be missing). That said, there are not enough of them. It's great to show my character holding various objects (watering can, hoe, etc) but they aren't readable from certain angles.
  • Perhaps more importantly, I need better sound and visual confirmation of when I've performed a valid vs. invalid action. When I click an unharvestable plant with my basket I should realize right away that the game registered my click and why it is an invalid click. This should be differentiated from a "missed" click on a valid target and a "hit/engaged" click on a valid target.
  • I love the fact that I can interact with a neighbor's garden (other than just to "rake up leaves" by clicking OK on a text billboard). But the options, beyond just watering their gardens, are somewhat confusing. I can't tell whether I'm "stealing" by taking some of the crop yield (which would be an antisocial act -- and could lead to serious griefing) and I also couldn't tell how to use "friend points" when asking a friend for assistance.
  • I couldn't figure out how to gift coins/items. Whoops. I have the quest item to do so, but there was no explanation of how to do this and I've tried multiple things (clicking on my UI buttons, visiting neighbors and clicking on their UI buttons). No luck.
All in all, the options and depth of this game are keeping me interested at this point. I'm going to do a little more questing and try to figure out some more of the social mechanics.

We'll see if more of my friends notice these actions in my stream and jump in.

EDIT: A couple of extra notes after I went back and played some more.
  • I eventually figured out how to gift. It was buried in the "Storage" menu, so I mainly discovered it by accident.
  • There could definitely be some improvements to the general buying and managing resource UI flows. There are lots of examples of where I need to make extra clicks to close pop ups when I could instead have buttons leading to associated/related actions.
  • 'Reverse questing' seems to work some times and not others. By 'reverse questing' I mean when I complete a quest objective without realizing it (before it becomes available; or after it's available but before I noticed it in my quest log) and then return to the quest giver. I'd like the quest to autocomplete and remind me what I did to complete the quest. This seems to happen some times, but not all the time (I need to leave the quest log and wander around or re-do part of the quest to complete it).

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Day 17: Great Red Herring Chase, Gray, Effing Hail

I’ve been doing a mix of indie and more mainstream games lately. Today (well, in bits and pieces over the last few days) I focused on IntuitionGames titles: Great Red Herring Chase, Gray, and Effing Hail. These games are definitely more experimental in nature. From what I can tell, only Effing Hail was a commercial release via

What these games really made me think of is the philosophical debate my mother and I would get into when she was preparing one of her art exhibits. She would often include artist vision statements as part of the exhibition. My argument was always that the art should stand for itself: People should be able to infer artist intention from the art and no further exposition should be necessary. Her feeling was that the work and thought and emotion that went into the work was important enough to be discussed directly through exposition.

I’m not sure who was “right” in their way of thinking. Clearly, it’s easy for me as a critic to take points away from a piece of art (or a game) that requires exposition and explanation in order for the viewer (or player) to understand and appreciate the game. The question of interest is: How much work do we require of the viewer/player to get over approachability issues in order to appreciate the core meaning of what the art/game is about?

As concept/statement/art games, IntuitionGames are not instantly accessible. Some might argue that they aren’t really games, but rather simulations or expositions that incorporate game-like mechanics. If I wasn’t focused on playing and writing about a broad array of games that I could consume while on an extended road trip, I probably wouldn’t have given them a second glance.

And, of course, it would be easy for me to break these games down solely through the lenses of approachability and usability.

Instead, I’m going to just say a few words about each game in terms of what I learned form each experience.

Great Red Herring Chase was a film-noire adventure where the core mechanic was typing (a la Typing of the Dead or Typing Maniac). In some ways the player was role playing as the writer of a car chase sequence in a novel. Ultimately, I was left unsatisfied because I expected tense, challenging game play: I needed to catch a car that was speeding away. However, the mechanic and feedback mechanisms in place were more consistent with a romance novel than a high speed/tense car chase. I’m wondering whether the game would have been more enjoyable had the content been about finding, pursuing, and courting a romantic interest instead of “following that car…”

Gray was a more “serious” game that tried to make a point about how difficult (verging on futile) it is to persuade members of an opposing mob to change their point of view. And then, once the mob is persuaded, it becomes a pain in the ass again to persuade them to another point of view if the change isn’t quite right. It’s a rather depressing view of mob mentality – and I half expected the game to give up (a la the computer in War Games) and say that it simply wasn’t winnable in the end.

Effing Hail was one of those games that seemed impossible at first. Core game mechanics were tough to figure out because it was hard to deduce how your actions were affecting the game state. Control of the wind was abstract and behavior of the hail was hard to predict. Like some of the best puzzle games it offered an apparently impossible goal that you knew (deep down) was solvable by attaining some sort of “eureka” breakthrough after struggling mightily through various unproductive paths.

However, unlike some of these other puzzle games, I wasn’t able to understand and predict core game play controls and feedback mechanisms which made it less enjoyable to experiment. Learning by experimentation (at least in my mind) involves allowing a player to control certain variables and systematically deduce other relationships by manipulating the remaining variables. If none of the variables can be perfectly understood and controlled, then experimentation becomes mere guesswork without useful and informative feedback. To me, this leads to frustration.

I look forward to seeing future games from these folks. To the extent that they are interested in producing games that have more pick up and play approachability, I’m curious to see how the developers address these issues.

The larger question, of course, is: Under what conditions are the goals of approachability and usability antithetical to the  user experience of a game? Or, when is it OK to say to players “you must figure out the artist’s intent before playing this game?”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Day 16: GTA Chinatown Wars

I’ve had a hate-love relationship with the GTA games over the years. Bottom line is that I just never feel cool playing the games. I find the cars too hard to drive, missions too hard to complete, and I just don’t get into sandbox games that don’t have a nice linear quest line.

The love part is easier to explain. GTA: Vice City had one of my favorite in-game experiences of all time. I was listening to 80s music on the radio, and driving along, and I slowly realized that some of the words to the song were mangled. And then some of the words were completely wrong.

And then I realized that what I was hearing was my character singing along to the music – and he (like I) was screwing up the words as he sang along. Brilliant.

I actually played a big chunk of GTA: IV because of the production values. The writing was excellent and the voice acting and character animations were so immersive and engaging that they kept me motivated to play more. I actually watched the cut scenes. And my wife would shout from the other room “don’t trust that bitch, she’s gonnna set you up!” She was listening in on my phone calls to my love interest and got engaged enough to pipe in.

GTA: Chinatown Wars is one of the highest rated games for the DS and I figured I should try it out. The opening cut scene was cool in terms of music and art style. The writing was a little too cheesy for me, even though I recognize that the cheese was intentional.

Tutorial/Learn as you Play:

The game does a decent job of introducing you to some of the core mechanics. There’s a nice mix of minigames (where you use the stylus and touch screen) and core game mechanics (walking, shooting, kicking, driving).

Most of the tutorial prompts were within the context of game play and fit in with current player goals. That said, there were a few prompts that were unrelated to current player goals and I quickly forgot them. Grabbing a cab was one of the prompts that I missed – and unfortunately no amount of button mashing later on revealed how to do this.

Learning Curve/Progression:

This is where I fail at most GTA games and what drives me to quit. As I’ve talked about in other posts (re: N+ and Trials HD) I don’t mind failing and retrying many times as long as failure is entertaining and it’s super fast and easy to retry the mission that I failed.

This is something that Crackdown did really well. There were generous respawn points, and your super powers (driving or agility) made it so that you could cover huge sections of the map in very little time.

GTA: IV took a big step forward in this area, as well. The GPS device was a great help and made it so much easier for someone like me (who tends to focus more on completing goals and quests and less on freeform game play).

GTA: Chinatown kept the GPS and added additional features that helped keep me on track and make it less painful to replay missions I had failed. Quick presses of the “Start” button (skip movie) and “Select” button (skip me to the mission start) allowed me to replay a mission quickly within a couple of button presses.

Quick restarts were important because I failed early and often. Too early and too often as far as I was concerned. I failed the first mission involving stealing a car because I couldn’t drive the car effectively. It was hard to tell which way the car was facing (so was I supposed to step on the gas? or back up?) I failed the second mission (chase the car driving enemy down) for the same reason.

I failed the third mission (steal 3 cars in X time) because it was calibrated for someone with much more skill than I had. After a few tries I succeeded (barely), but was left to wonder why it was calibrated so hard.

UI & Controls:

One of the hardest parts of playing a touch screen game is knowing what to do with the stylus when you’re trying to play the game, especially when there are large chunks of game play that don’t involve the stylus.

The other interesting part of the game is having a 50:50 ratio of user interface to game window. The touch screen is mostly mini map and PDA functionality and is really only game play during minigame sequences.

  • On the one hand, the large amount of real estate relegated to user interface meant that there was lots of room for help text, the “?” more information system was great, and generally it worked well in terms of providing access to all sorts of information about the world.
  • On the other hand, I still have a tough time monitoring the lower screen UI elements while engaged in complex game play on the upper screen. This mostly means that I have a tough time following the GPS/minimap while trying to complete a mission.

There were several other controls issues I discovered in the first hour or so of game play:

  • As I mentioned above, it was hard to tell car front from back for some of the car models. This meant I didn’t know whether to go forward or reverse when starting a car chase sequence. By itself, it’s not a huge issue, but when combined with camera issues (see below) and tight time constraints to complete a mission (see issue of mission difficulty calibration above), this became a major hassle.
  • Camera control was awkward at times. When I wasn’t under pressure, it was relatively easy to let the camera correct itself (while in a car) or adjust it manually (while on foot). But, in a tight confined space under time constraints, the car felt virtually undrivable at times. This is one of those issues with character relative controls with a fixed camera that is hard to solve.
  • I couldn’t figure out the aiming model (which target would be selected when I pressed the right shoulder button).
  • Sometimes it felt like I had a loaded gun, but it wouldn’t fire when I pressed the A button. I’d mash the button for a while, switch targets, cross my fingers… And eventually the gun would seem to work properly after a few seconds. I haven’t been able to reproduce this reliably, so I don’t have a clear understanding of why this was happening.
  • I could never figure out how to hail a cab. I know it has something to do with pushing and holding the X button, but it never seemed to work for me.

Overall thoughts:

I’m going to keep playing this game. I keep wanting to love the GTA IP and with each new revision it gets closer and closer to the kind of game I want to play. GTA: IV brought polish and production values that got me interested in the story and kept me playing for the first 10-15 hours.

I’m going to give GTA: Chinatown Wars another 2-3 hours to see whether the additional practice will get me to a place where I can succeed more often – or whether the challenge ramps up at a rate that I’ll find frustrating. Mostly I want to get more proficient at driving and figure out how aiming works so that I can be more effective in combat. In some ways I wish that there were some RPG elements to the game so I could level up my driving and weapon skills as per Crackdown. In other words, I’d like these two core aspects of game play to be less motor skill-based and more based on how my character progresses

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Day 15: Puzzle Bloom

Puzzle Bloom is a puzzle game that incorporates elements of Ratchet & Clank (when you'd take over control of various robots as Clank; obviously this mechanic is used in many other games, too) and Okami or Super Mario Sunshine where completing levels leaves them looking lush and beautiful. I played through the trial version.

You control some sort of spirit that can leap from automaton to automaton. It looks like there are going to be several types of automaton with different skills that can be used to solve various puzzles.

Config issues:

The game wouldn't run in Chrome. It also wouldn't run in IE 8 at first (maybe because I still had window in Chrome open). Eventually the game ran, but it stuttered quite a bit.

The basic issue is that as developers push the limits in terms of what browsers can handle, the user experience can degrade sharply, especially if you have an outdated or unsupported browser. At some point developers and publishers are going to need to do a better job of config testing and providing better warnings for players on unsupported browsers. They may also need to do some scalability work to optimize for common causes of browser slow down.

Tutorial / Learn as you Play.

There were only a few basic controls to learn. They were presented by onscreen UI icons. Unfortunately, prompts could fade before you had a chance to successfully complete the prompt. Also, you could be instructed to perform an action that your mouse might not be capable of (right-click on some Macs, mouse wheel scroll on some mice).

It’s important to consider that, especially for browser based games, people may be playing on laptops. This often means no mouse wheel and that right clicking is harder to do than on a regular stand alone two-button mouse. This means that there need to be keyboard accelerators for right click and mouse wheel functions.

Otherwise, the initial experience was pretty intuitive and fun. The early puzzles taught basic moving and swapping controls in a safe and easy-to-practice and progress format.

Core Game Play:

Here are several interrelated thoughts…

  • I really enjoyed the tangible reward of completing a puzzle. The music, sound, and visuals were impressive: Your boring, glum environment was turned into a beautiful oasis of peace and tranquility.
  • Moreover, this was tied nicely into game play: These sequences served as the save game/checkpointing system. When you died, you returned to the last oasis you had created.
  • Partway through the second level I was able to get the game into a degenerate state (stuck and couldn't proceed). This led me to notice a couple of things: There's no "pause menu" button. I mashed buttons and eventually found that ESC brought up a pause menu.
  • Regarding the pause menu, there's no graceful restart button at the pause menu, only "continue" or "credits". I didn't even notice the "Back to Main Menu" option that was tucked away in the corner at first. I finally held my breath and clicked "Back to Main Menu" hoping that I wouldn't lose my progress.
  • As it turns out, the above concern is much more severe than it originally seemed. The nature of the puzzle meant that if you made a common misstep when trying to solve it you could leave your guys in a state in which your creature/avatar could not jump back to another guy. After much finagling of the camera and the one automaton I could control, I managed to eke out a valid path and solve the puzzle without restarting the game again. There probably need a more graceful way of handling this issue.
  • I uncovered further degenerate states as I played deeper. The next category was when one of my automatons died while not under my control. Sometimes there was no way to retrieve the automaton which meant the puzzle was not possible to solve. There are obviously multiple approaches one could take depending on design vision. It could be like N+ or Trials HD where it's expected that the player will get stuck and need to quickly and easily restart the level by pressing a face button on the controller. Or it could be like other platform/adventure games where if an automaton dies it respawns in a safe spot so it is available for puzzle completion (which is what happened during some puzzles I encountered later on in the trial version).
  • Aiming/moving are sometimes problematic, especially when targets are moving erratically or rapidly. This is because a missed left click (intention = aim) means that my current automaton starts moving. I thought that this would have been prevented by having the move model be left click + hold, but even short, failed aim attempts end up nudging your current automaton. This can be annoying because sometimes the movement is enough to make the camera shift the map, which is disorienting. Other times this unintended movement could be fatal if you're standing too close to a dangerous object while trying to aim.
  • The default camera angle and behavior makes it difficult to tell where your cover is (when trying to use blocks as protection against laser beams). I couldn't tell whether my ass was hanging outside the zone of protection via the default camera angle and was zapped several times when I figured I was safe.
  • There are some cool puzzles that involve critical thinking. Moreover, some of the puzzles can obviously be solved in multiple ways, which is extra cool and invites me to retry some of them. One puzzle, that I had to retry several times, I assumed was a timing/sacrifice puzzle (I needed an automaton to die at precisely the right time in order to close a gate behind another escaping automaton). But after I completed the puzzle, I quickly discovered that I could have solved the puzzle using a "hot potato" approach (quickly jumping my avatar from one automaton to another until I could escape a deadly laser beam).

Main Menu:

Even though I encountered this first (when I fired up the game), I talk about some of the issues with it last.

  • There was no mouse cursor state change when I moused over clickable items (like getting the pointer switching to a hand).
  • There was no sound confirmation when I moused over menu item. There was only a slight color change to the highlighted item.
  • Selecting the "Choose Checkpoint" option didn’t appear to do anything other than make the menu text disappear. It would be helpful to use additional cues to indicate to players that they need to select a tree to choose a checkpoint.
  • Mousing over a tree/checkpoint highlighted the tree, but did not provide any useful information as to which map the checkpoint corresponded with. It would have been nice to have the mouseover behavior reveal a screenshot and/or description of where the checkpoint was and a time/date stamp of when it was created. It would have also been useful to have a clear indication of what the most recently completed checkpoint was.

Overall Thoughts:

One moment I was engaged and playing. And the next, the trial version appeared to end without any upsell screen or indication that the experience was over. I was just left at the main menu with nothing to do other than restart the game from stage 1 or replay the last stage I completed. This seems like a missed opportunity to teach me more about the game and get me excited about buying it when the full version is ready.

All in all it was a pretty fun game. However, there are some performance and controls issues that leave me a little worried about how I'll fare during more complex levels that require precise control under time duress.

  • Performance is something that needs to be addressed through a config database (if it detects I'm using an unsupported browser or old release, it should put me into a lower graphics setting so that game stuttering does not affect game play).
  • Controls probably need to be tweaked a bit to support laptop players who will likely be playing with a mouse pad. This means that right click is more awkward to perform than on a standard mouse, and that mouse wheel functionality needs to be added to some keyboard shortcuts.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Day 14: Osmos Demo

I'm now up to 11 in 14 days. Some of my posts have been a little more rushed that I'd normally like, but it's hard to dive in deep while I'm on the road. Either I'm way too focused on a specific project or I'm spread way too thin amongst social/family engagements.

Today I played through the Osmos demo. It's another PC download from the PAX 10 list. It seems intended to be a nice time waster game that incorporates elements of flOw, Katamari Damacy, and Spore. You start as a blob and try to accumulate mass by swallowing other blobs. Key barriers to success: You expend blob mass to propel yourself forward; if you bump into larger or hostile blogs you lose.

The way I really wanted to play this game was with some sort of controller, sitting on a couch, watching on my projector. The soothing music and pleasing visuals make me want to be in a very relaxed position.

The demo was a little short, I think, and I did not walk away from it knowing how much more content there was and how many more game play variants there were. In other words, it was hard to assess whether the amount and quality of content would be worth a purchase.

A few quibbles with the game include:
  • Osmos seems more of a simulation than a game. This is mostly fine if my goal is to simply float around and try and pick up successively larger objects. What really needs to be emphasized is some sort of risk-reward decision making. Right now, game play modes are mostly about how to deal with subtle variations in the target (does it have AI? does it have similar polarity as the reflector?)
  • Keyboard shortcuts are hard to discover and hard to use. "Alt-O" is not a very discoverable command, especially if the player quickly learns that mashing the keyboard more generally does not yield useful results. There are few enough controls that it seems like they could be taguht effectively through structured encountes -- and that there might be a place that lists all shortcuts from within the main game start screen.

Day 13: Part 3, Trials HD

This is the third installment from Day 13. Trials HD for XBLA. I started out with the demo version and found it entertaining enough to plunk down the whomping 1,200 points to pick it up. Part of it was the fun game play. Part of it was the non-stop laughter of my wife as I played “Motorcycle Ramp Dismount”.

This game has a lot going for it.

Good default UI flow

  • The top option off of the main menu gets you going. Tap the A button a few times and you move from Play Game -> Beginner -> Tutorial
  • Each time you finish a level you just press A to go to the next bit of content.
  • There are lots of modes and options, but I don't have to care about them until I'm further into the game and ready to layer on more learning or try new challenges.


  • Love the use of non-modal billboards (in the background) like in Braid, Closure, Burn the Rope. Sometimes I missed a billboard as I flew past it, but really I only needed to see the billboard if I wiped out or was stuck, so this wasn’t a problem.
  • Simple controls, the game is to master them.
  • In terms of pacing/distribution of learning, having 2 billboards side-by-side is probably a bit much. I tended to miss the second billboard on my first few runs (brakes)

Game Flow

  • Quickly introduces the player to the fact that dying is hillarious and fun and you should be prepared to do it often. The deck is stacked against you early on (you explode to a flaming death by default on the second level). There are tons of checkpoints and you can quickly (B button) restart from the last checkpoint or Back button takes you to the beginning of the level.
  • It teases achievements early on -- which is always a great upsell. Whoops, well sort of. A bug led the game to reset and I did NOT get my gamerpoints. Blarg. Luckily I was able to nail the same achievement soon after restarting with the retail version.
  • Well crafted challenge ramp. It’s easy to blow through the early levels if I just want to see new content or unlock new content. It’s fun to just screw around if I wanted to see how crazily I could wreck the bike and myself. And it was clear that there was lots of room to improve skills and really master the levels if I wanted to put time into that (getting gold ratings). The stats screen after every run tells you how you did and what you need to do to get the next medal.
  • Most importantly, I could progress at my own pace... If Beginner was too easy, after a couple of levels I unlocked the Easy track and could switch to that mode. If I was enjoying Beginner I could stay there and practice some more.
  • From a Trial/Demo perspective, both of the above points made for a great experience: I was given a nice vertical slice from beginner to hard to see how the content changes and progresses over time. I felt like I really understand where this game was going and was better able to make the decision to purchase it. And, because it is very easy to complete the "bronze medal" version of each level and move on, there wasn't much risk of me failing to make it through the entire demo because I could at least finish the advanced levels, if not master them.

Social Play

  • I really liked the persistent leaderboard indicator at the top of the screen. It lets you see how well you are doing compared to your friends in real time as you complete the level.
  • You also get a static leaderboard at the end of each race. You can see how close you were to your buddies before deciding whether to replay the level (to beat them) or move on.

User generated content

  • As I've mentioned in other posts, I'm super excited that this is becoming the de facto standard for games. I'm still looking for the community platform that will be the Amazon/Etsy/Ebay in terms of matching me up with content that will delight me. Note that this does not just mean friendly consumption tools (recommendations, ability to sort content by ratings) but also means that the content generation tools need to be usable and fun to use -- and that there needs to be a low friction feedback mechanism in place so that content creators get rewarded for their work.
  • Sadly, however, there is only sharing amongst friends. This is a huge strike against the game. You need a much larger pool of people to draw from to get quality content. Conversely, if I’m an aspiring level designer, I want a potential audience of thousands or millions – not just my hundred or so friends.
  • I complained about the Kodu method of sharing content, but sadly Trials HD doesn’t even reach that low bar.

Do I have regrets about purchasing the title? Nope. I do think it is more of an 800 credit purchase, though given the lack of practical access to user generated content.

I think about what could have been – and what likely will come soon (if not for this franchise, then for others):

  • Access to “best of” packs of levels that are aggregated based on gamer feedback.
  • Access to Youtube channels within XBL where you can watch highlight films and training videos for the level editor.

NOTE: This was written on the 13th, but posted on the 14th (we flew the red eye from SEA to JFK).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Day 13: Part 2, Closure

I decided to try another Pax 10 finalist: Closure.

I made it to level 10 before getting stuck and having to go to for some walkthrough help. Man, what did we do before Youtube and

As a proof of concept, Closure definitely worked for me. I liked the basic art style of the game, and loved the fact that it's following the trend of Braid, Burn the Rope, and other games (I guess that Halflife really kind of started it) where you learn some basic controls during the opening credits sequence.

As a platformer/puzzler, it was engaging and managed to mostly walk the fine line of being hard and punitive (lots of player deaths) yet not so frustrating that I stopped playing immediately. One of the hardest user experience questions I have yet to find a satisfactory lesson for is: When is it OK to really punish the player (and have them learn this way) vs. when is it best to help the player grow and flourish through successive approximation?

The former technique can be immensely frustrating and cause people to quit the game before they even figure out to play. The latter technique can be really boring if the teaching is heavy handed and the player feels like he/she is simply being spoon fed game play solutions.

Some of the factors involved are likely: Player expectations (do I expect to get clobbered every time I fail? or is this just supposed to be a fun flow game?), how failure is handled (Liza and I have been having a blast with unforgiving physics based games because the failure-death sequences are so darn hillarious), and core game play goals (is the game more about mastering mechanics and using them to solve complex puzzles, or more about controlling my avatar in a quest to see, explore, and interact with new content?).

Although I did enjoy the first 10 levels of Closure, I'm kind of at a stopping point. I've got a number of puzzle games that I'm playing right now, and I kind of feel like I've reached the end of what I can learn from this particular game.

Some of the issues that detracted from the user experience:
  • I didn't get a chance to grok key concepts (like the difference between light and dark spheres) before being required to use them in advanced ways under time pressure. It's hard to develop deep understanding of abstract concepts while under stress -- and I wonder whether I would have been better prepared for level 10 (and beyond) had there been a few more intermediate steps in between that carefully (though not ploddingly or boringly) helped me discriminate amongst core game play concepts.
  • It was often unclear from level design and art style whether revealed paths were legitimate or whether they were graphical artifacts. Big budget action adventure/platformers use fancy art and lighting to make platforming elements look interactive. In this game, it was sometimes unclear whether I was intended to jump onto a jaggy edge or whether it was hostile terrain.
  • The game required me to make "leaps of faith" at several points. Sometimes I leapt and landed safely. Other times I leapt to my death. I wanted ways for the game to allow me to deduce when a given leap made sense or was suicide. Instead I felt like I needed to flip a coin.
  • The game shell (start menu) was a little cluttered and hard to parse. I was distracted by ads (and almost clicked on it by mistake thinking it would start the game) and the Begin button didn't look like an interactive button. Basically, the game shell needed to make super clear what the primary action was -- and then let the other options fade into the background.
All in all I enjoyed Closure. What I would love to do with this game is collect attrition data and find out where players get stuck and stop playing and then either refine those puzzles OR come up with interstitial puzzles that help players learn to master the required concepts/mechanics so that they can proceed.

[This represents 9 of 13... I'm catching up]

Day 13: What is Bothering Carl?

I found a link to the trial version of What is Bothering Carl? on the PAX 10 list of finalists. It's an interactive e-book for kids aged 3-6. The demo took me about 10 minutes or so to get through. Obviously, I'm not the intended market for this (I'm not 3-6 nor do I have kids... yet).

Digital distribution of story-book content is, of course, a great idea. Integrating this into either a parents' or childrens' social educational/learning network would be a fantastic next step. It makes me think back to book clubs when I was a kid -- imagine being able to get badges and update your online presence with creatures from the books you read? Being able to talk to other friends about stories and maybe do some interactive story telling online with others (think fan fic).

Although I enjoyed the book's content, I found it to be lacking in three major areas:
  • The book was frontloaded with boring billboard tutorial instructions. The book is simple enough to navigate that there's really no need to front load instructions. Moreover, it seems to me that kids enjoy reading the same book (or watching the same movie) over and over again, so even if a key feature is missed the first time through, it's not the end of the world because it can be discovered at a later date.
  • The book is interactive, but does not include actual game play. I'm not an expert on children's cognitive development, but it seems like this would be a great opportunity to teach some basic game mechanics and incorporate learning through game play. Here's a chance for kids to try things out and get feedback when they make mistakes and encouragement when they succeed. Game play content could be layered on in several ways, including having variants for different age ranges so that if you were reading to 2-3 kids of different ages they could jump in and try and play the relevant games at the relevant places. Alternatively, the same child could revisit the book later on and try and complete some of the more advanced games.
  • Along the same lines, it would be really cool to have had some sort of co-operative game play elements that both parent and child could enjoy. One can imagine some sort of "hide and seek" game (where the parent hides objects and gives out clues for the child to try and find it).
One other note: It was nice to break up all of the reading with a song/video. But this seemed like a missed opportunity for an interactive sequence. There are all kinds of rhythm minigames that could have been included to work on hand-eye/fine grained muscle coordination that would have kept the child actively engaged during the musical number.

I like where Story Fort is going with this, and I can't wait to see newer iterations. Ideally they'll incorporate more game play that keeps both parent and child(ren) actively engaged and while learning new concepts and improving muscle coordination skills.

NOTE: As an interesting aside, I'm up to game/post 8 of 13, which coincidentally is today's date (8/13). Professor Layton would be proud.

30 for 30 update: New plan of attack

So, I just finished Professor Layton (great puzzles, decent pixel hunt, bizarre story) and have received a couple of new DS games just in time for my trip out east.

I also played the trial version of Trials HD, the XBLA motorcycle physics game. There's something about physics games that have horrific and gory death sequences that Liza, my wife, loves and can't get enough of. She laughed hysterically through both N+ (which she also played with me) and the Trials demo. I'll post some thoughts on Trials in a later post, and I'll probably pick it up even at 1200 points (ouch!)

I've also tagged the PAX 10 list of games as candidates for my 30 for 30. Puzzle Bloom was already on my list, so now there are a few more.

I also had a quick look at the newest update of XBL and learned of a community update/facelift/overhaul over at Big Fish Games, so I might add these to my 30 in 30 list as well.

It's now Aug 13th and I've only got 7 days worth of reviews. I feel like I need to solve for a puzzle in Professor Layton by estimating "at two games and write-ups per day, how many days will it take Jason to get back on track?"
EDIT: A couple of additions
  • New Games for Windows Update: I've talked about the Xbox side of things for a while, but I should also investigate the PC version.
  • Some games at Intuition Games. Not sure what they're all about, but I'm curious. I played about 30 seconds of a typing-based car chase game...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

30 for 30 update: Rained out games will be made up

So, I've been too mentally swamped on this road trip to do any play and analysis of new games. I kind of get like this when I'm diving deep into client work.

So, I'll have to bat a couple of double headers in order to catch up for Day 8 and 9 misses. Or, maybe, I'll do a triple header one day.

In my few spare moments I revisited Puzzle Quest: Galactrix and Professor Layton (and of course still found time to take my Backgammon and Wordscraper moves).

Friday, August 7, 2009

Day 7: Puzzle Quest Galactrix

I started out excited to play this game. I'd played the XBLA version before and quite liked it, except for the fact that it seemed more suited to a mouse or stylus input device. I figured the DS version would be a blast.

And, in terms of core game play, I was not disappointed. I'm about 45 minutes in and even though in my heart of hearts I know PuzzleQuest is just a fancy launcher for a match-3 game, I already know that I have found another great time-waster game that will fill my bite-size game playing needs.

That said, the initial experience of the game was a little rough:

  • I failed right off the bat when it came to naming my character. I couldn't figure out the backspace key to delete the pre-populated name. And then I couldn't find the back button to try and start over. I had to accept a name I hated and then restart. Bad omen, right?
  • The basic tutorial/hint prompts for navigating around the world were fine. However, the tutorial totally broke down when it came to playing the match-3 game. The tutorial hints never fired -- but I did get a single "Tutorial" prompt a couple of times with a checkbox. It was impossible to tell from the graphical representation of the checkbox whether it was "on" or "off". Moreover, clicking the check also accepted the input, so I either turned it off or no (not sure which) and could not revert. I tried launching the game a couple of times and was unable to engage tutorial hints for the match-3 game.
Luckily I had played a previous version of the game and understood the basic concepts (different colored gems serve different purposes) well enough that I could eventually figure things out for the most part. There were some struggles, though:
  • It took me a while to figure out that mines were the way to damage the enemy.
  • It took me even longer to realize that there was both a shield and a health bar.
  • I'm still not sure what a couple of the colored gems do (I assume they're related to experience points and some other spendable currency).
For the most part, the initial experience seems structured well. You follow a linear path to begin with that introduces you to the core systems and mechanics of game play. Basically you get to explore an entire galaxy and engage in match-3 sessions to accomplish various goals. You have leveling, inventory, crafting, and NPCs to care about and monitor as well as a journal and map -- in other words, enough RPG-like components to keep you moving along and progressing.

My biggest complaint is that I've leveled up 4 times in 45 minutes and I still don't have a clear idea of why I should pursue any given strategy. You can allocate upgrades across one of four tech paths, but because I have no idea why I would want to specialize along any one path, I tend to just spread upgrades out evenly. I need to see some examples of "master techs" -- hints of what I can get if I choose to specialize in one or two of the paths -- in order to decide which path I want to plunder. My main fear is not wanting to feel burned if I find out I misspent my upgrades once these "master techs" are revealed .

Usability-wise, there are a number of annoyances, but nothing that blocks or significantly impairs the experience so far.
  • On the plus side, the game does make good use of on-focus help text. Tap an item on the touch screen and often there is some useful information to read about it on the top screen.
  • However, it's not always obvious what is tappable (for hint text) and where you need to tap it to engage the hint text.
  • The pause menu (off of the select button) has multiple tabs labeled with icons that are mostly incomprehensible. A "done" button appears at the bottom of each tab -- which is confusing because often I found myself "done" with the screen, but not wanting to exit the pause menu... Which is exactly what tapping the "done" button did. The bigger issue is one of discoverability, though. It seems like this menu should be available by tapping an on-screen menu/command icon. I also wonder whether it should have been teased on the Start button options as well (where I expected to find these options in the first place).
  • All in all, this is going to be a fun time-waster game. It's not as mentally stimulating (at least at this point) as Professor Layton's puzzles, but that's a good thing.
  • Also: Bonus points for easily skippable dialog.
Whew. Wrote all that on the quick plane ride from SEA->YEG. I have a feeling these next few posts are going to be a little briefer and more scattered than normal.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Day 6: Kodu Game Lab (with a shout out to "Polarity World" and "Kodu Portal"

So, I'd been meaning to take the leap into Kodu Game Lab for a while and managed to spend a couple of hours of quality time with it over the last day and a half.

The idea is simple: Provide a visual programming language and a sandbox and let nascent game designers go crazy. The UI: controlled by an Xbox controller (and I imagine I can type prompts in using my USB keyboard, but I haven't tried yet).

The initial experience is not for the faint of heart. The Kodu team include a few basic sample lessons, but none of them are compelling interactive tutorials. You need to WANT to master the system and learn by breaking down existing levels and mods and basically learning by tinkering.

That said, there is a lot of help text available to the user and it's reasonably easy to try things out, debug them, and then iterate.

There are thousands of strikes against Kodu in terms of user experience content creators and content consumers alike. And I'll get to a few of them in this note.

However, there is also some very exciting potential contained here.
  • As a co-op puzzle/brain teaser, this game was fun to play with my wife. We had fun navigating the various menus and trying to figure out ways to make our little guys do useful things.
  • Although the Kodu staff's creations weren't incredibly interesting or informative, they were enough to get other folks going. I downloaded a bunch of shared levels (see my notes on the sharing process below) and found a couple so far that were inspiring.
Polarity World and Kodu: Portal were two shining examples of where this tool can go -- and also exposed some of its key limitations.

  • Designers committed to the iterative process (both were v. 10) can make interesting content within the constraints of the Kodu system. Both games suffered through initial usability hurdles (failure to learn key commands; failure to be able to retrieve hints) but showed promise after the initial struggle.
  • Polarity World introduced game play based on magnetic forces and how they interacted with various positively and negatively charged magnets. Kodu: Portal was a clever take on the well-known and loved Portal. And yes, you got to eat cake at the end.
  • Finding quality content is hard. The sharing process is tedious (you need to join a session and hope that people with cool content are there and willing to share) and slow. Moreover, there is no way to discover quality content: There are no metrics associated with each download (e.g., # of favorite tags; # of download tags) so there is no way to sift through content and find the good stuff quickly.
  • Leaving feedback is difficult/impossible. I would have loved to sent notes and comments to the developers of Polarity World and Kodu: Portal, but I can't figure out how. I think I can tell the gamertags of the primary authors, but there is no within-platform way of me connecting with them.
  • There is no way to "package" a finished product. Games must always be played in what feels like debug mode instead of a release build. There are no save points (failure means starting over) and there are limitations to the amount of content you can have in a level without seriously bogging it down. Having a game in separate modules wouldn't really work, either, as I don't believe the game state from one module can be transferred to another module. I'm not sure whether this kind of game play mode will ever be accessible to more casual consumers who are used to having foolproof products (where pressing the select button won't take you to a debug screen).
So, where does this leave me? I'm still super excited about playing around with Kodu some more. For all the complaining I've done about various other games and their tutorials that include hint billboards that are disconnected from game play situations, I guess I have an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and design a learn-as-you-play experience that I would be satisfied with. I'm a little worried about the ability of the tech to support some of the kinds of things I'd like to do (given some of the wonkiness of the tutorial hints in the Polarity World and Kodu: Portal games)... But I guess this is just a constraint that I need to work within.

I'm thinking that my September project might be Kodu related. Maybe I'll spend 30 days on constructing a series of learn-as-you-play experiences. At the very least, I'd like to spend half the month doing this -- and maybe half the month working with some other game content creation tool. I've dug up a few candidates and I guess I'll need to start fooling around with them, too.