Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Day 5: Bubble Town: Party Plant Beta

Busy day today. I mostly want to spend some more time with Kodu (the game-making game on XBLA) tonight, but managed to get a little new gaming in today that's worth posting about.


In addition to a quick puzzle session or three on Professor Layton (my Day 4 game), I noticed a couple of line items about Bubble Town: Party Place Beta in my Facebook feed. I figured I should go check it out -- and once I loaded it up, I realized that I had installed it previously but mostly forgotten about it.

I dove deeper today and spent about 45 minutes with the game. All-in-all, it's a good free time-waster type of game. It's a variant on Match 3 games with a flick/pinball launcher type variant found in games like Peggle or Zuma. Basically you launch game pieces at clumps of similar-looking game pieces and try to make enough matches to clear the board.

Some of the cool things this incarnation has going for it:
  • The different pieces ("Borbs") have personalities. This means they have custom "you got me" sounds when you wake them up or eliminate them.
  • Elimination of Borbs isn't just via match-3. You can also eliminate anchor Borbs and all of their children Borbs will fall down to the ground and refill your Borb gun. This is super fun to do and adds elements of risk reward (do I play it safe or go for a trick shot?) and plays into the achievement system (can I figure out the most efficient way to eliminate all the Borbs).
  • As much as it is a casual (and somewhat social) game, there is a reasonable amount of strategic depth to the game. If anything, I wonder whether the game is calibrated to be too difficult for beginning players (more on this below).
I'm definitely going to play a few more games to see whether a combination of mastering some of the strategy and figuring out some of the parts of the game that confused me (next section) helps me improve my score and progress further.

Quibbles:
  • Aiming just never felt right. For this kind of game, this should have been a deal breaker, but there was enough going on that it ended up more of an annoyance. Part of it was not feeling like my mouse movement was linked 1:1 with an aiming reticle on the shooter. Part of it was that my mouse cursor was invisible -- which left me startled when it actually slid outside the game board hit zone and began to interact with other parts of the screen (power ups, friends list, achievements, etc). Interestingly, Peggle solves for this by always leaving the mouse pointer cursor on-screen so you have a sense of where you're leading the Peggle gun. Not ideal (and I actually prefer the console version better) but it does work better.
  • Related to the aiming issue was the fact that aiming guides were not that helpful. First, side guides that seemed to indicate the angle of a ricochet would mysteriously appear and disappear for reasons I could never understand. This made the feature confusing and relatively useless. Second, there were aim guide powerups, but they were hard to use for a few reasons: Because you couldn't see the mouse pointer, you couldn't just pick a spot and have the gun aim where you needed it to "automagically" as you could with Peggle; moreover, the aim guide would go on ad infinitum until it intersected with an object which made it even harder to figure out how to aim for a specific object because you couldn't understand which line you were controlling with the mouse.
  • Powerups were confusing to me for a few reasons: First, they generally were NOT introduced through gameplay, but needed to be purchased with BubbleBucks. The help text descriptions were vague and not that helpful which meant that the player needed to spend hard earned bucks before knowing the potential value of the powerup or how to use it. Second, I couldn't reliably use powerups. I moused over them several times -- sometimes I could click on one and have it activate. Other times, now matter where I clicked I couldn't activate a powerup. There was no feedback to let me know what I was doing wrong. [note: I was using Chrome as my browser, and it's possible that some sort of focus-bug was preventing me from using powerups]
  • I felt like the challenge ramp was too steep for a casual game. Thinking back to the first time I played the game about a month ago, I'm pretty sure I failed pretty early on and had to restart. This time around I still felt like it was too easy to lose before feeling a sense of success at the game.
  • I couldn't figure out the "click to adjust your performance" eye icon. It just switched back and forth between a hi-res and lo-res eye icon.
  • I did like (once I discovered it) the 3 helpful mouseover demos. I wonder if these useful demos would have been more useful and discoverable if they just ran in a sequence from top to bottom without requiring the user to mouse over each button.
  • A minor point: There were lots of typos. It's a Beta, so no big deal. But I seriously wanted to edit the typos and do some additional copy editing/writing for clarity.
A couple of "interesting" notes.

Interesting note #1: Social dynamics.

So, the game does provide a lot of achievements (which drives status updates in friends' news feeds), has leaderboards, and allows gifting amongst friends. But is that enough of a social tool set to really consider it a "social" game? Are the social aspects of the game compelling enough to drive other players to install the game, play it a bunch, and invite additional friends?

The game can take a long time to play once you get the basics down and I wonder if it might take too long to complete a game to have people play over and over again in an attempt to beat a friend's score (as compared to Farkle or Bejeweled Blitz where games take only a minute or two to play).

I was also left wondering what my incentive to give tokens and levelpacks to other friends would be. I receive no return on these investments (I don't get Bubble Bucks that I can then spend on powerups) or unlock new content for me. Moreover, I can't expect much in terms of reciprocation because I need to have something to give it away... And the "have nots" aren't likely to have anything that I might need in return. There needs to be some sort of reciprocation possible -- gift recipients need to be able to give me things I don't have and/or I need to get some sort of "reward" for being magnanimous in my giving behavior.

Interesting note #2: "Spare Change" currency.

One of my side interests in the games space that I developed while at Amazon.com is online payments. How do you convince people to put their cash into the system in order to engage in all these micro-transactions that biz types keep talking about.

I've tried out some of the "watch advertisements for credits" models with varying degrees of success in the past. One shortlived service provided me with credit towards my Gamefly account for watching targeted ads. I also tried one disasterous and shady example this via Facebook where I needed to click all sorts of ads and enter all sorts of personal information to get some in game currency (of course I refused).

If I'm actually going to shell out cool hard cash to play these games, then: (a) the game has to be compelling in a way that these games currently aren't right now; and (b) the payments system needs to be secure and low friction.

The Spare Change app is designed to try and address part (b). And I think it's getting a step closer. What it really seems like is a portal to a variety of existing payment sites (like Paypal) that people will likely have already heard of and trust. Specifically, I don't have to give my credit card to yet another internet service provider. I can even pay by phone if I have this service set up with a partner of Spare Change. This is definitely a step in the right direction -- and if I had some idea of what other games and apps currently supported Spare Change I might have added some cash via Paypal right then and there.

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