Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sometimes geolocation can suck

So normally I love the way that software applications incorporate geolocating tech. Google Maps seem to work better when they know where I am, the iPhone has several apps that provide great experiences because take into account my location (well, my wife’s location).

However, there are some edge case scenarios when geolocation can be a pain in the ass. I’m in Canada this weekend visiting family and I’ve been hosed twice because of the fact that my computer is hooked up to a Canadian run internet service provider.

Case #1: Trying to purchase a game on Steam. I tried to purchase the full version of Everyday Genius: SquareLogic after playing through the demo. Nope. Steam provided me with an error message “credit card holder address not the same country as current location”. I then had a typical Steam user experience when trying to trouble shoot: Figure out where to go on the web, create a new account for customer service purposes (no, my Steam login wasn’t enough – I needed to create a completely new account), be solicited through this account for my credit card information, and then finally 2 days later sent a new link to try in order to complete the purchase. I almost backed out and purchased the game off of the Mumbo Jumbo site using Paypal but decided to hold off as I really didn’t want to sign up for yet another ecommerce site.

I get that software developers and publishers have complex relationships with digital content providers like Steam. But this doesn’t have to translate into a frustrating user experience. There have to be more graceful ways to handle the purchase request of a loyal customer than “find forums, create new account, wait for email response”.

Case #2: Google search. My wife and I are currently researching home ownership and I had a few questions about closing costs that I wanted to research. Of course, all of my search results for “closing costs” were links to Canadian content sites. Close, but no cigar.

I’m sure if I did more research and futzed with my settings I could have tricked Google into giving me the standard search I wanted. But, again, why make it so hard for me? I am constantly logged into Google (gmail, blogger) and it should recognize that I’m traveling and might need access to my default Google experience, not the Canadian version.

Truth be told, Google’s contextualization of my search based on geolocation was a plus and minus this trip. It was very nice to use Google Maps on the wi-fi enabled MegaBus (Buffalo to Toronto) to help me triangulate my location by typing in the names of the various landmarks we passed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cogs demo

I also downloaded the Cogs demo from Steam to try out on my SEA –> BOS flight. It was a sliding tile puzzle game (arrange the tiles to complete a pattern via a series of moving them into the empty slot) with a few additional puzzle elements.

It wasn’t nearly as approachable and usable as Everyday Genius SquarePuzzle. The player is immediately thrown into time-pressure situations while still learning the basics of the game. As it turns out, it didn’t matter if time ran out in the demo mode…. But the artificial pressure made it a much more stressful introduction to the game than was needed.

The demo also seemed to be structured more towards showing a breadth of puzzle styles which meant that I was introduced to interesting looking, but ultimately too frustrating to figure out, puzzles. My initial reaction was that “if I’m already stuck on the 5th puzzle of the demo, will I be able to solve ANY of the puzzles in the full retail version?”

Because I was a captive audience (stuck on a red-eye flight) I actually gave the game more time. And once I discovered an important rule that I missed (the sliding tile mechanic worked in a slightly looser fashion than other versions that I’ve played) and discovered how to rotate and view 3-d puzzles the game started to pick up a bit. These “eureka” moments combined with very satisfying “mission success” puzzle/object animations to reignite my interest in the game and I went back and figured out how to solve some puzzles that had previously frustrated me.

Will I buy the game? Probably not unless it is super cheap. I still fear that the puzzles will be too difficult for my liking. Although it’s true that in the free play mode I can make as many moves as I like to solve the puzzle, I find that I just don’t “grok” these kinds of tile-sliding puzzles the way I “grok” math square puzzles.

Everyday Genius SquareLogic Demo

Wow. Fantastic. I got the Everyday Genius SquareLogic demo from Steam before I headed out to the airport. Being a little gun shy from my last experience (Steam made a fuss about me playing a demo while not connected to the internet) I verified that I had completed the tap dance of commands to enable offline play before leaving for the airport.

EGSL provides a wonderfully constructed demo that makes Sudoku-like math puzzles accessible to casual and hard core math puzzlers alike. I skipped the tutorial and jumped straight into game play and was not disappointed. The game presented a couple of tips as I played and I was on my way.

The first few puzzles were obvious and easy to complete so that players could focus on basic controls and learn some of the helpful decision aids that the game provided. If I do have one concern about the learn-to-play component, it’s that the game did load a few too many advanced features early on that weren’t required to solve the puzzles – thus they became forgotten by the time I would have wanted to actually use them.

Puzzles were untimed and you had unlimited moves to solve them. You could guess if you wanted, but the game encouraged you not to by insisting that each puzzle could be solved without guesswork. The game did NOT penalize you for incorrect guesses, but instead provided non-derogatory feedback that you might change your response.

After playing several puzzles I realized that there was a move counter and that if I wanted to challenge myself I could try to minimize the number of decision aids I used in order to solve the puzzle. Moreover, I soon figured out that there was a “perfect” solution to the puzzles I tried. 16 squares meant that puzzles (at least the way they’ve been constructed so far) could be solved in 16 moves.

Achievements were rendered as progress were made – some rewarded loyalty (keep playing and you get them) and others rewarded skill gains (start beating par) and still others rewarded mastery (solve more difficult puzzles gracefully).

One of the most interesting takeaways from the game was its use of gating and locking content. The designers clearly understood that some people would want a long, gradual introduction to the game. They would need to start slow and build up their confidence before being capable of solving more difficult puzzles without frustration. The default progression pattern allowed players to do exactly this, providing a fun and non-threatening challenge ramp. More complex puzzle types were unlocked after winning the “boss” challenge at the end of a long incremental chain of puzzles.

However, more advanced puzzle solvers who wanted to dive into the harder puzzles could easily do so if they were feeling bored with the current puzzle type. They could hit, essentially, the “I’m ready” (or maybe “I’m bored with the current challenge”) button and skip to the boss battle. If it looked like too much of a leap, they could go back and continue the default progression. Otherwise they could beat the boss and unlock the next set of puzzles.

This game is a shining example of how to make a game approachable to all interested players regardless of skill level. The learn-to-play components were excellent (except for the introduction of a couple of advanced decision aids too early on which led to me forgetting them) and I look forward to examining the stand alone tutorial to see what it brings to the table.

Before I knew it the 60 minutes were done. I found myself wishing I were on a wi-fi equipped flight so I could purchase the full version of the game. I’ll do so tomorrow.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Continuity... A fun little puzzler within a puzzler

Whilst procrastinating from doing some work (and judging IGF entries) I came across Continuity via a tweet from @raphkoster. It's a student game that sucked me right in.

It's a fun puzzler within a puzzler that introduced controls and complexity in an engaging and well paced challenge. The "inner puzzler" was a standard find key, unlock door puzzle. You have a stick man and need to first grab the key and then unlock the door to escape the level. The "outer puzzler" was a manipulate the tiles game. Each "inner puzzle" was a tile. So you needed to switch between inner and outer puzzle (via the spacebar) to complete levels.

For me, it had just the right mixture of brief "this can't be right..." or "I don't understand why I can do X, but not Y" moments such that new concepts were puzzling and not frustrating.

Analyzing this game reminds me of my experience playing Braid. I loved Braid even though many of my usability professional friends hated it because it seemed to violate expectations about how people should be introduced (some would argue "spoon fed") to new puzzle mechanics. For a few moments early on in Continuity I thought I had uncovered a major usability flaw: I couldn't understand why I could move my avatar between some tiles and not between others even though there appeared to be a valid path. Because I didn't understand the logic behind the game (you can only move between tiles if ALL paths link up cleanly between tiles -- not just the path you want to traverse) my initial response was "this seems arbitrary" and therefore required better graphical affordances to let you know when you could vs. could not traverse a path (uncrossable paths should look -- well -- uncrossable).

For such a clean design, I realize that adding extra "this path is valid" affordances might clutter the visuals and over-fix the problem. Ensuring players figure out the logic could be done through a sequence of puzzles designed to illustrate the problem (which is mostly what happened in my case). That said, a simple idea worth trying might be to make the white tile walls transparent when two validly matching tiles are adjacent to each other. This will eliminate the initial confusion that exists when the player realizes that "some white walls I CAN move through, but some white walls I can NOT move through" because now clear = CAN and white = NOT. 

The other thing I quite liked about the game was its similarity to the board game Zendo. The game presents you with a set of tiles that ALL look valid and useful, but you quickly figure out which is the the one truly useful tile through game play reasoning and puzzling. 

Sweet stuff.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Torchlight. Oh, my.

I’m hoping that December is my “YESvember” follow up to my dismal “NOvember”. I’ve been traveling and playing games, but just haven’t had the gumption to do much writing.

Let’s jump right in to Torchlight. There’s lots to love about this game. First and foremost, it required me to return to the PC for some non-casual and non-social gaming. I’m trying to remember the last FPS, RTS, or RPG I played on the PC – and it might have been Portal (trying to check out community generated content) or even Rise of Legends (a game I worked on that shipped several years ago).

Don’t get me wrong: I still purchase and play games on my PC – they just tend to be casual games.

Anyhow, Torchlight loves:

  • Shareable loot. I got tired of my demo character and wanted to try a new one. I dropped off all of my loot at one of the shareable loot locations and it was there for my new character to grab. Nice way to accelerate my replay through the first few hours of game play. Kudos! This is soooo much more graceful than the cheesy way I accomplished the same thing in the days of Wizardry (create lots of characters, join them to your party, strip the characters, delete them, then start off with a rich and well equipped party).
  • Pet that “sells all junk”. I love the “sell all junk” feature that’s making it into RPGs. But this still requires a painful return to a merchant. Not so with Torchlight. Just send your pet away for a couple of minutes and you’re done. Sweet. Not as dismissive (or gleefully silly) as the Bard’s Tale system where looted items just magically morphed into coins, but effective and in support of a great user experience.
  • Camera lock. The designers specifically said: We don’t want you to have to worry about the camera. We’ll design levels (and provide items-display-behind-walls tech) to ensure that you never need to care about rotating or panning or zooming the camera. Hurray.
  • The initial pacing and balance on Normal difficulty was perfect for me (an experienced gamer who has played most of this game’s spiritual ancestors). Varied enemies, cool loot (and great loot rate), and my character felt powerful right out of the gate. There was no poking rats with a stick for 2 hours before I got my first cool move.

Some mostly minor annoyances of course appeared:

  • Swapping rings was tedious and confusing. You have new ring “A”. You have rings “B” and “C” equipped. You want to replace “C” with “A”. However, you can’t visually distinguish “B” from “C” at a glance – and you don’t get mouse-over comparison text when you have “A” selected and move the pointer over “B” and “C”. So it’s a 3-step process to swap a ring.
  • It’s great that you don’t need to micromanage the pet. However, it took quite a while for me to discover that you could equip the pet with gear and spells.
  • Pet as hybrid “mule” and NPC didn’t work as well as I would have liked. I wish that pets could have had a “junk” sack and a “use me” sack. Stuff in the “junk” sack would get sold back in town. Stuff in the “use me” sack would be used by the pet when needed (scrolls, potions, etc). It made me sad that my pet couldn’t use items.
  • I was also sad when I realized that I didn’t always notice when my pet had picked up some loot. I mostly assumed that stuff in the pet’s inventory had been placed there by me as “junk”. This meant that I inadvertently sold off as junk some items that were not junk because I never realized that I had received them in the first place.
  • Although the initial Fighter/Mage/Thief choice was easy to make, I had a tough time parsing upgrade paths. Specifically, class specializations didn’t seem all that coherent or compelling to me. I mostly just purchased abilities that looked cool. I would have preferred more concretely laid out class specializations that were well differentiated and compelling. In other words, there would be 9 class archetypes (3 classes x 3 subclasses) that evolved quite differently and had easily recognizable end game build outs (e.g., “this is the hefty, shooty guy who uses grenade launchers” vs.. “this is the agile, shooty guy who uses silenced pistols”).
  • As always, I found it hard to parse the spreadsheets when it came to upgrading attributes and abilities. Stats were either so precise and verbose that they became confusing (which is better: Weapon A that does 27-35 dps and has “fastest” weapon speed; or Weapon B that does 27-35 dps and has “slowest” weapon speed) or so vaguely worded that I couldn’t tell if the benefits were worthwhile.
  • Spending attribute points felt especially like throwing coins into a wishing well. Yes, there was help text that explained generally what attributes did. However, there was no clear relationship between spending points and whether or not the associated stat modifier increased or stayed the same. I had no way of knowing whether the lack of increase in associated stats meant I was throwing attribute points away, whether I was just one point shy of getting some other bonus (that I wouldn’t figure out until I leveled again and received more points to spend) or whether those points would help in other ways.
  • Merchant UIs were frustrating. There was no good way to tell which items I wanted/didn’t want at a glance, mouse over text was cluttered and made it hard to select items of interest, and there were no sort or filter options. It was clear to me that there was a carefully developed multi-variate color coding system in place to denote item strength, rarity, and equipability… But I could never figure it out.
  • Oh yeah, one more thing about pets. I totally screwed up twice when trying to teach my pet a spell. This resulted in me “burning” the expensive scroll because it bound to my character instead of my pet.

Over time (a few days) I slowed down my Torchlight playing in favor of Dragon Age Origins (Xbox version, more on that in a subsequent post). This wasn’t for any real usability or playability reason. It was more because now I tend to associated “click-fest” games with casual games. And I tend to want my casual games to be social games. And without the social – then I need other trappings to keep the game interesting. Like story, puzzle elements, platform challenges, etc.

All-in-all it was $19.99 well spent. I enjoyed it and will I’m sure play some more. I also want to investigate the editor some more – even though I’m rather fearful after my first experience with it. My technical ability (or lack thereof) requires more of a Never Winter Nights toolset and approach where first time users can get a playable level together in a few hours. But, we’ll see. There seem to be some decent developer and community resources out there.