Sunday, June 6, 2010

Word Spasm -- It's no Griddle, but it'll mostly do for now

I've been taking a look at some game portals on Facebook recently and all complaints aside, I've managed to discover a game or two here and there that has captured my attention.

MindJolt brings us Word Spasm. It's like Boggle in a number of ways, and the leader board takes me back (almost) the the incredibly fun times that were Griddle before it got yanked.

Word Spasm is like a mash up between BoggleBookworm Tiles, and a gem matching game (forget the name, but it might be Jewel Quest) where you have to fill in a certain number of board tiles before you can move to the next level.

On the plus side:

  • Games are quick, so spoiled/sub par turns don't feel that painful (and there are easy ways to fail as I'll note below).
  • Keyboard accelerator is present. I'm amazed that there are still word games out there that do not let you type words in.
  • Leader boards are reasonably well designed to encourage both social play with known friends, and to provide "stranger" top scores to inspire the more hard core competitor (like me).
On the minus side:
  • The keyboard accelerator is suboptimal when it comes time to choosing a particular letter path. Unlike in Boggle where you just need to submit valid words (doesn't matter which 'L' tile you use if there are 2 or 3 valid ones), this game sometimes makes you care which tile you use when there are multiple options because you need to make sure that a certain percentage of tiles are used at least once. There is an option to Tab through various valid permutations, but this is frustrating and inefficient -- especially when time is running down.
  • When time starts running out, the game just gets plain unplayable. A huge countdown timer displays over the playing surface. Although it is translucent, it is RED AND SCARY and completely distracts me. It effectively means that I hit the Game Over point when there's 10 seconds left because I can't play at all during that time.
  • Although the basic rules are fairly simple to learn, there's no good way to uncover some of the scoring rules either officially or through embedded forums and discussion groups. Certainly I can try to optimize my score by trying different strategies, but I'd rather have a few hints or be able to chat with fellow players to collectively discuss the scoring system as opposed to having to break it down systematically.
  • The lack of forums and discussion groups also highlights the real lack of community features here. I became completely addicted to Griddle precisely because there was always a group of people playing and we could briefly chat and congratulate each other between each round as we were checking the results of the previous round.
  • More of an annoyance: The "gratz" messages the game displays each time you complete a level have spelling and grammatical errors. Kind of ironic for a word game :)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Red Dead Redemption, FB Game Portals... In Brief.

They did it. Finally Rockstar invented a car that handles in a way that I like to drive and doesn't totally make me feel like an idiot. This car, of course, is a horse (of course, of course...). I'm obviously talking about Red Dead Redemption which I'm currently pretty much loving.

It makes me think of riding my horse around Oblivion but with enjoyable combat and a set of challenges and crafting opportunities that strangely interest me, but that don't trigger an OCD behavior that Oblivion did for me. I played that game for 100+ hours and spent 90+ hours just harvesting stuff for the alchemy bench and transporting things from town to town to hide in various chests and closets. Weird and creepy.

RDR just captures (for me) the fantasy of roaming around the countryside in a way that none of the GTA games ever really captured. GTA IV appealed to me for the story and I quite enjoyed the mission progression through the first 15 or so hours. But RDR represents a place where I'll just go and hang out and relax and do missions if I please.

Are there problems? Yep. There are a number of rather jarring user experience issues I have with the game. And while they're mostly niggling in nature, they really do break me out of the relaxing and immersive experience I'm normally having.

  • Sometimes (but not predictably so) when I exit a cut-scene my character decides to equip the revolver instead of the item I was previously equipped with. I've shot dead a number of poor bandits that I've meant to lasso instead, which is pretty darn frustrating. 
  • Buggy quests. Well, at least they seem buggy because I can't figure out why I failed them. I'm just mosying along, thinking I'm on track and then I get a red "quest failed" notification. This has mostly happened on random/emergent quests and Stranger quests, which makes it extra frustrating because you can't repeat those quests.
  • Frustrating weapon select model. I really only switch between a couple of weapons. Mostly it's between my Rifle and Lasso. Some encounters require use of more close-quarters guns, but most don't. I've been killed -- or let the target get away -- so many times when I fiddle around with the radial menu, wondering whether the weapon I selected has been equipped or not and wondering which weapon I have currently equipped. There are really a bunch of problems at work here: (a) can't tell what weapon is currently equipped when the weapon is NOT drawn; (b) hard to tell what weapon is equipped when there is a weapon in hand -- not big enough exaggeration in pose/animation/weapon model; (c) the selection wheel is too complex and doesn't have a satisfying "confirm" reinforcement sound and visual; (d) the selection wheel is too large - which makes my eye have to wander all over the screen while I'm getting shot at and losing sight of the enemy; and (d) there's no option to pause the game while switching weapon (a la Bioshock or DAO/ME2). 
  • Change of weapon aim model 1/3rd way through the game. Dead eye starts out as an easy to use "paint" system (paint reticle across targets and highlight them to put them in a shooting queue). Then I arrive in Mexico and have to use a new "press RB to paint the target" aiming system. Is this cool as an option? Yep. But why require this for someone like me who starts on Default (normal) difficulty and is doing fine, thank you very much. I couldn't see a "revert to previous aiming model" option, so I tried the Casual aiming mode even though I feared it would make combat completely boring. Nope. No luck there either. I just lost a very cool feature that (to me) is something that could have been taught, but reserved for players who wanted to use an Expert aiming system.
  • Too easy to get on NPC hate lists. I don't mean to grab the wrong horse (and quickly learned never to mount a horse that I hadn't whistled for). I don't mean to knock you over when I walk by you. Yet this happens constantly and is annoying because I end up in fights that I just don't want to be in.
 But enough about RDR. I'm going to still play a bunch more of it before migrating on to the newly arrived Super Mario Galaxy 2.

On to  Facebook game portals. I talked about the Konami experiment a while back:

Sadly, the two most recent portals I've checked out suffer from similar issues:

  • No effort is made to drive users into the “best” (i.e., most approachable, interesting, addictive, and fun) games. The user is left to choose from a multitude of options.
  • The home landing page feels cluttered.
  • The games mostly appeal to hard core gamers who like to also play casual games. For instance, I played the enviro-tower defense game (Bio Bots) offered on “easiest” (grass map) and had my ass pretty much handed to me.
  • They don’t handle “stranger danger” gracefully. All I see are faceless profile pictures. On the plus side, the Real Games portal does try to contextualize strangers by providing flags to indicate nationality.
    They have to deal with split communities (mocha, game house, and Facebook leaderboards are all separated).

  • The landing page is cluttered and doesn't drive players into top rated content. It's too easy to get dropped into a lousy game.
  • There are lots of categories of games -- and most regular casual game players can sort themselves into the relevant categories -- but the link to the game category view of the game is hard to find amidst the clutter.
  • Unlike GameHouse, the leader boards don't actively divide the community, which is nice (you can filter by "friends" or "world"). 

I'm also reminded by how much cooler these portals are once they start becoming popular amongst your own social graph. I love seeing updates in my feed when someone beats my score -- and I'm much more likely to try a new game if I see that a friend is playing it and likes it enough to post a feed update.