Monday, December 31, 2007

Today's Lucky Numbers: 2, 16, 1333, 1543

How these numbers break down:

  • 2: I just made it to disc #2 in Blue Dragon. I'm pleasantly surprised at how much I like this game given that I have Mass Effect and CoD 4 on deck (and Puzzle Quest and Arkadian Warriors ready for some XBLA action).
  • 16: The # of points the Titans scored today. It was enough to beat the Colts and propel us into the playoffs. We'll undoubtedly lose next week (against the Chargers) but it's been a fun run.
  • 1333: My Bogglific rating. I'm 24-17.
  • 1543: My Scrabulous rating. I'm 36-3.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Just when I was about to stop: The blonde, blue eyed companion joins our team

I thought I was done with Blue Dragon. Not because of any significant faults -- I'm actually quite enjoying the game. It's more due to the fact that the game is simply too long, has a dismal Achievement curve, and is in the middle of a queue of games that I really want to play.

Then they introduce a new character for me to try out -- one that seems cool and who is definitely nicer to look at than my current lead character. A great example of how the right progression curve can keep the game feeling fresh and the player feeling motivated to continue.

We'll see what kind of cool powers and abilities she brings to the team and then decide.

Arkadian Warriors: My new supplier of crack?

I just blew through the XBLA demo of Arkadian Warriors. It was a blast remeniscient of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. The gameplay was frenetic and fun, the range of playable characters is what you'd expect (archer, warrior, sorceress) and seem to be provide varied experiences, and the Achievement curve looks suited to the more casual gamer.

More thoughts later -- but it seems like a no-brainer to pick this one up, especially given that I just received 500 free points from MS for being a 5 year member of Xbox Live.


Saturday, December 29, 2007

Mistaken Expections: The new Kingdom Under Fire Demo

I keep trying the Kingdom Under Fire series. And for one reason or another I just can't get very excited about it. The first two games in this series were action-adventure RTS games that I found unsatisfying because the core 1:1 (or many) combat just never felt pleasing and the group/tactical controls were too cumbersome for me to ever feel like I could coordinate a large scale battle in smart/strategic ways.

The newest iteration, KUF: Circle of Doom, is more of a single player experience. I didn't realize this at first, but was pleasantly intrigued by this development. The character selection (between various archetypes) made me think a bit of Otogi 2 and got me kind of excited to get going.

Unfortunately these expectations really set me up for disappointment. I was expecting a much more viscerally exciting experience where character movement and combat felt fluid and powerful. Instead I was restricted to wander narrow paths (with occasional openings for combat encounters) and combat felt very stat driven, much like WoW or other more rule based action RPGs, and less like God of War.

As an RPG, the demo didn't really do much to get me into the story at all -- which meant that for me to be interested in playing further the core exploration/puzzle solving/combat/upgrade tree needed to be engaging. Because there was no exploration or puzzle solving to speak of, I'll deal with the combat and upgrade tree in addition to general initial experience feedback.

The game began with a short and quirky movie that featured a busty woman and not much else. It didn't really make sense to me at all.

Then I was dropped into tutorial mode. Unfortunately this erred more towards power point presentation than a true learn-as-you-play mode. Concepts were introduced and you were required to practice executing various commands -- but the structure was context-less and there was no real distribution and layering of learning. In other words several bullet points were presented and the player was required to remember these points so they could be recalled later on.

There are many problems with this approach:

  • It's boring.
  • Lack of concrete examples and feedback mean that players are less likely to deeply process, understand, and consequently remember what they were taught.
  • Packing in multiple points in a short time virtually guarantees that the player will only learn some of the points -- most likely the first and last concepts that were introduced.
  • Not layering on concepts from basic and concrete (like "jump" or "attack") to more advanced and abstract (like "double jump" or "counter attack by timing the strike exactly right") means that players are less likely to discover, remember, and then use the advanced techniques where appropriate because they will have forgotten them by the time they are required (e.g., to beat an advanced enemy or to clear a novel puzzle).
Other problems with the tutorial:
  • It fails the user in a few places because "the voice" (in this case, "the text") refers to abstract concepts when the player needs explicit instructions. For instance, it tells the player to "equip a ranged item" without telling the player how to figure out whether an item is ranged or not. This problem was exacerbated by several problems with the UI that I detail below.
  • It locks out some functionality which erroneously taught me to ignore certain buttons. The game started out with non-inverted camera. I quickly tried to use the "start" button to access options, but nothing happened. I figured that there was no way to fix this short of restarting the game (in effect, resetting the game from the dash because there was no "return to main menu" option). I suffered with this problem for quite a while before I hit the "start" button again by mistake and then was given a start menu that wasn't previously available. Whoops!
  • Related to the previous point: After the tutorial ended -- and without telling me -- the game unlocked various additional abilities and rearranged the items and abilities I had selected during the tutorial. This was disorienting and confusing at first.
I have to believe that many of these shortcuts were made because this was a demo version of the game and the developers wanted players to jump into the meat of things right away instead of layering things on over the first 20 minutes or so. This highlights the difficulty of creating an experience that will throw new players into the middle of the game (where the cool powers and HFF moments are) that is both accessible and entertaining without being overwhelming.

Combat started off fast and frenetic where I was able to mash buttons and generally feel powerful. I also enjoyed how music was used to let the player know when combat had ended (and the mop up was complete) -- something that was hard to tell visually some times because enemies often ended up off-screen.

However fighting became much less fun as the game progressed for a variety of reasons:
  • Why do treasure drops clutter the screen? Each time I walk over a drop I get a context sensitive button text message telling me to press the "Y" button right in the middle of the screen.
  • Combat doesn't feel that strategic. Yes, there are different attacks with variable recharging and SP costs. But I can't target my attacks well (when there are mixed forces attacking me and I want to single out a boss) and I don't feel like I have great control of my special attacks -- nor do they feel very powerful. I know that there is depth of choice and customization (see my notes below) but I just don't feel like I'm required to do much more than mash buttons.
  • The analog nature of my special attacks works against me. I generally mash buttons for quick attacks. However, special attacks don't seem to activate on a light, rapid press. Instead, this seems to drain the recharge meter without ANY effect, which is an unfair penalty. Light button presses should either give me a weak version of the special attack or give me some sort of grace period whereby releasing early simply fizzles the attack without draining the recharge meter (or, if truly needed for balance purposes, freezes the meter for a few seconds instead of emptying it).
  • The creature mix felt very repetitive. Basically it felt like I fought the same creature mix 4-5 times in a row, got a new creature mix, lather, rinse, repeat. I realize that this happens all the time in other games -- but it felt especially repetitive in this game, possibly because the environment was relatively static which meant that each battle felt exactly the same.
The upgrade tree seemed to be deep and offer lots of choices. The economy seemed to be relatively robust in terms of character stats, abilities, weapons, armor, items, and enhancements. There also appeared to be a fairly robust system of synthesizing found objects into new components. However, this system suffered because it seemed relatively impenetrable:
    • The UI doesn't help (I've discussed the hard to read icons and text above).
    • There isn't enough help text or game fiction to explain the economy (how I trade and combine items to get new and more powerful/customized items). My first experience of these features was after bumping into an Idol who offered to trade, store, or synthesize items without really going into why I would want to do these things.
On to the User Interface. There's lots of detail and information presented on the main inventory and status screens. However, the information is presented in ways that make it hard for users to achieve their goals efficiently and effectively.
  • Icons are way too small to be readable. I play on my projector where the image is over 80" in diagonal. Yet I still can't tell at a glance which weapons are faster/slower; which ones are ranged/melee; which ones have cool special powers; etc.
  • Currently unequipped items are needlessly buried behind extra layers of UI. I initially was unable to find items I was told to equip because there was no way to tell that I had any additional items in my inventory bag. I needed to select things I had already equipped in order to get a list of alternative items that I could possibly equip.
  • Text is hard to read because:
    • At times there is too much of it on the screen and I'm not sure where to focus.
    • Text often scrolls automatically when there is more text than can fit in a window. While I can speed up the scrolling, I can't ever pause it.
I guess the introduction to the game and choice of camera and controls left me expecting something more like Otogi 2 with its over the top, fantastical and varied combat. I wanted the game to be less "spreadsheety" (e.g., hide things like SP and recharge rates under the hood) and more action adventure-like in nature.

Another (sigh -- underwhelming) Demo: Dark Messiah M&M Elements

This demo left me curious, but underwhelmed. I'd give it a chance as a rental, but probably wouldn't buy it.

Right off the bat I was curious about the multiplayer element even though I'm not much of an MP guy. I guess I kind of have a fantasy about being able to play a fun MP RPG other than an MMO (which I find boring). More about the MP demo later.

After playing through the demo, my impression was that they were going for an Oblivion meets Half Life 2 with some Tomb Raider elements. I'm not a huge fan of first person puzzler/platformers -- but HL2 does know how to make physics based puzzles pretty darn fun. Where Dark Messiah was lacking most was when it tried to make me (and my character) feel as cool as Lara Croft, because the first person perspective because doesn't allow you to see yourself in the context of the environment you are interacting with. This means that climbing and jumping feel about as cool as simply walking down a corridor.

Like many demos, Dark Messiah began with a learn-as-you-play tutorial. The experience suffered for many of the same basic reasons that other tutorials suffer:

  • I was allowed to jump into the game with a Mage which made the initial experience of combat very uninteresting (I'll detail some of my trials and tribulations below). All of the combat tutorial hints were about melee combat -- which I'm assuming would be much cooler if I were a Warrior.
  • I died 4 times before completing the first leg of the tutorial. Yes, players must be allowed to fail gracefully (failure -- and even death -- can be a great teacher). But requiring painful reload and restarts when the player makes honest and forgivable mistakes seems overly punitive. Some of the reasons for my failure:
    • Prompts and level design/lighting don't always point me in the right direction.
    • Prompts during combat are likely to be ignored. I missed key points about how the combat system worked.
    • The logic behind "safe" and "fatal" falls was hard to figure out (leading me to die a couple of times when I thought I would be safe landing in water).
    • Puzzles that require me to think outside the box and try risky behaviors resulted in death and reloads (the "cross the rope bridge" puzzle stumped me for a while -- and failure meant death + reload each time).
    • Puzzles that stump me require a progressive system of hints. A prompt that basically says "solve the puzzle" is not going to help me if I'm stuck -- and I almost gave up on the game at the "cross the rope bridge" puzzle.
  • The "voice" quickly became annoying. While most of the time it pointed me in the right direction, it failed me when it simply repeated commands when I was stuck (think of that ignorant American tourist who SPEAKS SLOWER AND LOUDER when meeting someone who doesn't understand english), it annoyed me when it pointed out the patently obvious (use the key in the lock), and it insulted me when it berated me for failing to execute a complex maneuver correctly the first time.
Next. Combat. Combat started off pretty boring and unfun. Perhaps initial combat would have been more fun had I started as a Warrior instead of a weak Mage. However, the game let me choose Mage and should have had some sort of contingency for that. About 20 minutes into the demo I gained my first offensive spell -- and combat became much more enjoyable.

One of the most disappointing aspects of combat was the fact that I kept getting told about a "power strike" ability that would get activated based on an adrenaline meter. Unfortunately this ability never came into play as it didn't seem to affect either my bow or my spells (which were my predominant attacks). Also, the cool kick attack that the game tried to highlight in a number of places (kick enemy off bridge, kick enemy into spikes) seemed less relevant to my Mage than to a Warrior. Seems like there should have been a Mage-appropriate equivalent.

The other major disappointment was enemy AI. I was able to cheese out my first victory by plinking away at an enemy with my bow. It took 20 or more arrows, but it worked because the enemy couldn't figure out a way to path itself to my hiding spot. It just stood there and repeated the same annoying taunts.

The UI was similar to other games that feel like PC ports. That is to say that the UI was cumbersome and prone to errors like casting spells/using items when you didn't mean to and required weird combinations of button presses to confirm decisions. Some thoughts:
  • Why was Inventory mapped to the B button? Weird. It made me worry that I would be required to access the Inventory menu frequently -- which made me sad because inventory management proved not to be very exciting.
  • Assigning items to quick slots was confusing (I failed on my first few tries).
  • Feedback on grabbable items was sometimes lacking or confusing. I still have no idea what "collectible" items are (I assume some sort of special quest item) and it's weird to have an A button prompt over items I can't pick up when I don't get any feedback as to why I can't pick the item up. It just feels broken (I'm still not sure why I can't pick up all the quivers).
  • The MP gameshell and setup was even worse (see my comments below).
The "finale" was underwhelming. The final boss was a large spider. I took it down using the simple puzzle mechanic (levers with flamethrowers) located in its lair. I retrieved the crystal and then the demo ended. There was no real dramatic teaser to interest me further in the story and the gameplay wasn't exciting enough to leave me craving more.

I then dived into Multiplayer to see what that was all about. After learning that this was a Source based game, I'm thinking that the experience was meant to be some sort of high fantasy Counterstrike game where one could purchase abilities (the strong tend to get stronger). However, the UI was puzzling enough and the gameplay was confusing enough to leave me uninterested in learning more.

First, the gameshell and matchmaking UI. Because "Quickstart" didn't drop me into any games immediately, I tried a "Custom" game. It took a while to load (better feedback was needed) and I got dropped in a traditional game lobby. I chose a session with the largest # of players and best connection speed and was dropped into a game lobby. I mashed my way through a setup screen that did little to educate me about the gameplay or what my choices really meant. Then I struggled for a minute or so trying to figure out how to actually start the game (which was already in progress). Frustrating.

The gameplay itself seemed to be potentially interesting. However, I took a mage that seemed to have no useful powers to contribute. I couldn't figure out how to use my special ability -- and the "help" button gave me some esoteric and jargonistic stats readout that was unhelpful. After getting pummeled by other non-Mages several times I gave up.

I'm having a feeling that I should probably try Shadowrun if I want to have a more magic vs. tech first person shooter experience.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Bogglific: The most polite yet competitive online game I've played

I've been hitting the pipe again... The Bogglific pipe. I can hardly believe that I was so down on it in comparison to Griddle. I still believe that the initial experience was less than impressive, and that it is missing some polish elements. That said, I have become hooked on the real time competitive play aspect of Bogglific -- possibly in a more powerful way than I was originally hooked on Griddle.

One of the things I've noticed is the level of politeness that I've experienced so far. Much more pleasant than other social matchmaking experiences I've had on "harder core" games like real time strategy games.

In Griddle there is a huge structural impediment to rudeness -- there is no chat functionality. Or, short of sending someone an email, any way of signaling to other players at all during gameplay. This means that someone must go the extra mile to harass other players. On the plus side, this means virtually no in game harassment. On the minus side, people can't even pat each other on the back or joke around with each other in between matches. The environment feels very sterile.

However, in Bogglific, there are real-time opportunities for the social experience to degrade. Specifically, there are chat rooms open both before and after games. However, I've noticed little (if any) chat that occurs pre- or post- random matches. Most likely this is due to the flow of the game -- there is little time for pregame chat as the game starts as soon as the first person signals "ready". And, in the post game chat people can quickly jump to new games at the click of a button. This means that even though chat is supported, it is almost never used except for a quick "gg" or "gga" before people break off and go their own ways.

It's probably also worthwhile to consider reasons other than structural impediments and gameplay flow as to why there is less rudeness in these kinds of Facebook casual games than in other competitive settings:

  • Selection pressures. These are word games played by college students. Maybe they just don't draw flamers, trolls, and griefers.
  • Lots of female players. Many times I'm the only male participant in a game. I've seen this cut both ways in online communities -- sometimes it makes for a politer social experience and sometimes it seems to invite creepy men to show up and act... well... creepy.

I haven't done much research on griefing within Facebook (games or otherwise) and I wonder whether there are other factors at work. That said, I have seen some nasty forum and conversation threads that leads me to believe that this kind of thing does go on.

That said, though lack of griefing makes the game so much more fun to play, it is a shame that there aren't better community features (e.g., "favorite" player lists) that would help these games feel more social.

Future research should try and unpack how community tool feature sets (e.g., chat, favoriting, etc) and gameplay design (e.g., matchmaking techniques, emphasis on free-for-all vs. gladitorial experiences) affect the quality of the shared social experience. Moreover, how does the shared social experience work to improve or degrade the individual experience?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bogglific is to crack what Scrabulous is to cocaine

So I no longer allow myself to play Griddle. It was simply too addictive.

Sadly, Bogglific is probably going to ride me just as hard as Griddle did -- and be equally difficult to drop.

I've discovered the joy of competitive play through matchmaking. Of course, I knew this feature already existed by preferred not to try it in favor of a more single player -- or play amongst friends -- experience.

How has this come to pass? Well there are a few reasons:

  • My friends have slowed down their Scrabulous activity (and Bogglific still has yet to catch on). Therefore I'm missing out on competitive play.
  • Even though the matchmaking isn't great (yet) on Bogglific, the games are short and sweet enough that you never feel like you wasted time losing to an obviously superior player.
  • There are new strategies to uncover and equations to solve because of the way that matches are made and scoring is done.
    • No longer do you have a controlled two person asynchronous experience. You have an experience where anywhere between 2 and 5-6 players with varying skill levels participate.
    • Penalties for guessing wrong cancel out precious, precious points.
    • Uniqueness now has a premium as duplicates are canceled.
All of these changes have made the game fresh, challenging, and exciting.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Griddle vs. Bogglific: Facebook Fight!

So, it isn't much of a fight so far. Griddle kicks the heck out of Bogglific for now at least.

I may have mentioned in a previous post that I had to stop playing Griddle because of its addictive nature. It was simply too hard to break the flow -- and I was losing hours of my day while trying to dominate the leaderboards.

After installing Bogglific (as a result of a challenge from a friend) I decided I should play a couple more games of Griddle for research purposes. Almost an hour later I emerged to jot down some notes.

Griddle just "gets it" on many levels. It is much more immersive because of its UI design and flow, and it gets the leaderboard aspects just right.

  • When you start the game, you land on a game in progress (or about to begin). There's no setup or matchmaking UI to fiddle with first.
  • You can have a completely single player experience (just focus on anagramming) or you can try and keep up with the Joneses by scrolling down and seeing the leaderboard from the previous round.
  • There is just the right length of time delay between the end of one game and the start of the next game to check stats (if you're interested), learn new words (from the long list of those you missed), and clear your mind for the next round. More importantly, the next game just starts. No need to decide -- the game basically says "yep, you're playing again."
  • The game UI is very nice. Just start typing what you see and the letters highlight on the board until you type a combination that doesn't exist. Hit the enter key and repeat.
  • The game also deviates from traditional Boggle rules in ways that improve the game experience:
    • No dictionary penalty. For someone trying to brush up on their vocabulary (I also play Scrabble) this is great. I can try new "possible" words without fear of having it count against me (other than wasted time).
    • No requirement for unique words. Yes, in effect, common words cancel each other out because we *all* score points for them. But it's much much cooler to see scores in the 50s, 60s, and beyond than scores in the single digits (which would be the case in most closely contested games using traditional Boggle scoring).
  • They have a nice meta economy where you essentially get points that you can trade in to purchase virtual gifts for other friends (or for yourself as status symbols). This means that I can share my winnings with friends who don't have the game or care to play it.
Bogglific, on the other hand, drops you into a complex looking (but well featured) matchmaking lobby when you fire it up. Although the screen looks cluttered, the flow is reasonably well thought out -- with quick start options at the top (press a button and get dropped into a game matching your basic preferences) and more custom joining and creating options below.

Some of the problems with Bogglific:
  • The setupwin (place where you set game options when creating a game) is a little intimidating because of all the options and checkboxes. However, there are smart defaults so the adventurous player can just hit the Create button and see what happens.
  • The game lobby is cramped and unnecessarily cryptic. There's no need for all the abbreviations (there's plenty of whitespace to list the selected options). One nice feature is that you can see the names of people already in each game room.
  • You can't tell by looking at a game whether the "anyone can start game" option has been selected. This makes joining a game room a scary proposition because the game might start before you're even ready to do so (which just happened to me while I was researching the feature -- luckily I won the game). What's most scary is you can't tell how the scoring options have been set from the game lobby so you might end up in a game with scoring options you don't like.
  • The actual game UI is nowhere near as polished as Griddle's. It's hard to track the words you've already entered (the long scrolling list is hard on the eyes), the board is too big to take in in a comfortable glance (the letters are too spaced out), and there is no equivalent "letter highlight" feature. I guess hardcore Bogglers might think Griddle's letter highlight feature is cheating, but I see it as an accelerator that makes the game more fun to play. It would be nice as an option at least.
Interestingly enough, after mistakenly joining a game I didn't intend to play -- and winning -- my motivation to try again was surprisingly strong. I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that I felt like I was explicitly challenged to a duel by two other players, so the emotional payoff was higher than in the laid back/less aggro Griddle game room. This is something I should think more deeply about.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Blue Dragon: Will I complete it?

I'm enjoying Blue Dragon. It has several annoyances that I've detailed separately, but it has enough going for it that it keeps me plugging away.

That said, I will probably stop playing the game well before I reach the 3rd DVD of content (I'm still on DVD #1). Here are some of the key reasons why:

  • I've been thinking more about the wandering monster minigame and while it showed initial promise that orchestrating complex monster fights would be cool, the game is not delivering on that promise. What I'm finding is that the interaction between camera behavior/controls and level design is conspiring against me.
    • Dungeon environments, where a majority of combat occurs, require constant camera manipulations because the lower camera angle (over the shoulder) makes it harder to judge enemy bounding boxes and the cramped quarters mean that you're more likely to bump into things by mistake. This would be manageable to an action-adventure gamer who was comfortable using either of the 2 supported camera control schemes. However, if you are more of a casual gamer, are used to turn based games where no camera adjustment is required, or (like me) require a camera control setting that is not supported by the game (please, please allow me to adjust X and Y axis inversion orthogonally) this task becomes very frustrating.
    • Note that this issue mostly goes away when I'm wandering around the world map. This is because the camera is zoomed out (it's like a 3d isometric view instead of an over the shoulder view) and I'm really only required to control the X axis of the camera. Also, the environments are larger and less cluttered, meaning less frequent bumping into enemies by mistake.
  • The game is too long. I've been playing close to 20 hours and I'm still not finished with the first DVD (there are 3). This just doesn't support my play habits whereby I need to complete a story based game in a week (e.g., a typical single player RPG or action adventure game) or the game needs to have a core mechanic that you can put down and then pick up and play at some later date without being penalized due to lack of practice or forgetting where you are and what you need to do next (e.g., puzzle games).
  • The Achievement curve is way too shallow. After 20 hours of gameplay I only have 10 gamer points. Moreover, scrolling the Achievements list leaves me no reason to believe that I'm destined for any more in the near future.
When I stack all of these concerns against the accumulating list of games in my queue, I'm not sure whether the next disc I insert will be Blue Dragon DVD #2 or another game like Mass Effect, Call of Duty 4, or Beautiful Katamari. It's really too bad because I am enjoying the game.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

OK, I finally get it. My life as a drummer.

I could understand the appeal. I even enjoyed watching people (especially non-gamers) play the game. But I just never enjoyed playing Guitar Hero. The gameplay was too boring at the easiest level and seemed disconnected from the actual flow of the music. Higher difficulty levels brought frustration that I knew could only be overcome with dozens of hours of practice. Practice... Not something I intentionally want to do while gaming.

On Friday night I took a few turns on the mic at Rock Band. Yeah, I've done karaoke with friends before after a few drinks and it can be fun. I'm a terrible singer, but I've gotten over that. And now I get to play a fun co-op game with my closest friends who are really into the game.

However, I've said it before that even the "fart in a bag" game can be fun if you add co-op play. What surprised me about Rock Band was that I played again on Saturday night. And this time I took over the drums. I'll admit that while watching (and listening) to others play, the drums seemed pretty lame. The dull thuds on the drum pads sound disconnected from the game's soundtrack and break the immersion of the game -- to the observer. But, to the player the feeling of flow (once you've gotten over the constant failing for the first 15 or so minutes) is incredibly rewarding.

I was hooked. And I even thought I might want to try the single player drummer career mode on my own. I started to wonder what it would be like to ramp up the difficulty and really get into it. I'm thinking about going to a friend's place this afternoon and playing again...

One challenge the game does not overcome (admittedly a tough challenge given 4 player co-op) is game setup UI and flow. Man was it ever hard to set up individual songs especially if there were first time players in the mix. The rowdiness and drinking added some extra difficulty here, but come on -- that's the kind of environment that this game is built for.

It makes me wonder what kind of field research the folks did on this game before launch. Did they actually roll it out at bars with first-time players? I have a feeling if they did they would have come up with a "party" or "social" mode where controls and sessions could be streamlined:

  • Eliminate the complex UI by ditching profiles and band member setup.
  • Have playlists that you can set on the fly (without going back to gameshell).
  • Have a "social" difficulty setting that is more equivalent to the "easy" setting on the original Guitar Hero if one of the players fails twice.
Note that I'm not saying replace band campaigns (these are obviously fun and essential) but make a party-friendly mode that fits with an evening of drinks, newbs, and livin' the rockstar fantasy.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Call of Duty 4: Finally a chance to play the movie "Final Option"


Polish, personified. What an awesome first hour of gameplay - from a great tutorial (that helped you self-assess what difficulty level to play on) to a dramatic opening sequence that was well written and completely sucked me in.

I can't wait to play some more -- most likely in the new year after I've had a chance to digest more Blue Dragon and Mass Effect. I knew it was going to be good (I loved the previous 3 versions) and I have no reason to doubt it any more.

The tutorial and difficulty setting self-assessment (which reminded me of one of my favorite guilty-pleasure movies, The Final Option) is worth studying and discussing in further detail. I will do this in a future post.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Blue Dragon: UI and Feedback Annoyances

I'm still having a reasonable amount of fun playing Blue Dragon. The world is interesting and the enemies are bizarre and different enough (at least visually) to keep me plugging away. I'm not enjoying it as much as Puzzle Quest, but it has potential.

One thing that has muted (but not extinguished) my enjoyment of this game is the handful (well, maybe two hands-full) of UI and Feedback annoyances present in the game. No one issue is enough to get me to stop playing -- but they occur frequently enough to leave me feeling a little sad at regular intervals.

Some annoyances include:

  • Useless maps. The minimap is hardly useful (too zoomed in to give me an overall sense of progress). The overall map is too zoomed out to help me navigate larger areas. The former issue isn't that much of a problem yet as the dungeons are rather small and simple to explore and navigate. The latter problem might be attenuated by the fact that there are warp gates that can be used to teleport from area to area -- thus I won't really need it to wander from place to place.
  • Inadequate camera control settings. There is no way to manipulate X and Y axis orthogonally. This means that I am unhappy either way as I require "normal" X axis, but inverted Y axis. Alas, I am constantly staring at my feet when I mean to look up.
  • Combat camera is disadvantageous when the enemy combatants have multiple ranged attackers. I can't zoom the camera out far enough to see which character I have selected.
  • Hard to tell at a glance what objects are "searchable". This one might end up being more of a serious issue now that I've discovered that quest items might be hidden in containers that don't actually look like containers. It's fine to have containers appear like background (non-interactive) artwork if their contents are not necessary to plot progression. But if I need to press the A button beside every group of pixels that looks like a world object I'll quickly get bored.
  • No feedback for when I hit the "sweet spot" on my charge meter. I'm assuming at some point I'll gain skills/spells that make hitting the sweet spot easier. But, for now, the speed and sound of the charge meter make it nigh on impossible to hit the sweet spot. Moreover, I sometimes can't tell whether I've actually hit the sweet spot or not because the meter just disappears with no congratulatory sound or visual effect.
  • It's hard to tell how to use certain abilities. For instance, I have a "barrier shield" that I seem to be able to equip in my barrier combat UI (though this, itself, was only discovered by fluke as it was buried off screen) but I can't seem to actually use the power. I also have a "guard" skill, but again haven't figured out how to use it in combat.
  • It's hard to tell at a glance what status effects are affecting my party or my opponents. I also can't tell which enemies are damaged and which ones have full health.
  • It's hard to tell whether I should plunge the Skill/Shadow tech tree deeply or for breadth. I assume that both ways will be supported -- and I'll be sad if I get penalized for choosing wrong when I had no real way to know which way was right.
  • Button presses can be scary events. What I mean by this is that sometimes button presses lead to desired behaviors (e.g., execute an order), sometimes they lead to innocuous behaviors (e.g., search an object), and sometimes they lead to consequential behaviors that I don't intend (e.g., I think I'm opening a door to a new room, not a new level that requires a load and cutscene; I think I'm navigating a UI tree to figure out my available options but accidentally cast a spell/use an item without meaning to).
Edit: I still LOVE the freshness of the barrier (cf. wandering monster) combat. It's cool to try and drag antagonistic enemies into the combat ring and watch them "Monster Fight" amongst themselves. That said, it's hard to maneuver in tight places while fighting the default camera controls (see my notes above). And I still haven't figured out how to execute a barrier combat spell.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Free games: Why not?

I decided to check out an arbitrary "best 10 free games of 2007 on the web" website via one of my gaming news RSS feeds.

I checked out 3 of them so far, with mixed (but mostly interesting -> entertaining) results.

  • Bloxorz. Very polished in terms of actual gameplay visuals and and sound. The game mechanics are accessible and fun.
    • But... There was no interactive learn-as-you-play. Starting a new game meant you had to page through 8-10 screens of boring text.
    • But... The challenge ramp was too steep. I failed to complete the 5th or 6th puzzle. I think part of this is related to the lack of a learn-as-you-play where the player is introduced to concrete principles and then gradually encouraged to develop more abstract reasoning that allows the user to feel smart and challenged while puzzles get more and more difficult.
  • Fold. I loved how the game just dropped me in and let me struggle and figure out the controls (a very console-like experience -- but risky when using a mouse and keyboard because there are so many potential inputs).
    • But... The challenge ramp was way off and I failed to complete the second or third puzzle. This, again, is related to the absence of learn-as-you-play design of the initial experience. The gameplay required some sort of abstract/advanced reasoning far too early on -- I needed more grounding in the basic, concrete gameplay first.
  • Launchball. Very nicely done game shell. I could quickly decide whether to do some tutorial levels or dive right in. The layout was clean and the gameplay was fun. Lots of good mouseover text. I completed the core game (but not the user content).
    • But... The hint system was ineffective. Generally speaking I used hints when I was genuinely stuck and required specific help (e.g., place an item for me in the correct spot, or give me a specific concrete instruction to follow). Instead, hints took the form of general statements of principles I already understood. What would have dramatically improved the hint system was an escalation chain of hints (from general principles to more specific recommendations).
I look forward to playing some of the other 7 games on the page. Kudos to the free game developers!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Steam: Taking behavioral based profiles to the next level

Lots of folks talk about profiles and personas when trying to perform User Centered Design. Obviously these techniques can help designers (and usability folks) make better decisions and recruit relevant participants in order to verify that they are serving their client needs.

I love (love) the fact that Valve are providing so much game play data via their Steam website. Obviously the data aren't presented in as comprehensive a fashion as the folks do at Bungie or on the WoW stat site but it still provides a great service to players who want to study the game and improve.

Looking specifically at the Team Fortress 2 stats, you can begin to break down behavioral profiles that can potentially be unpacked to reveal what motivates different gamers. There's already a natural experiment in that the class based system allows for multiple gaming experiences. Take a look at the top 3 most played classes (Scout, Engy, and Soldier) and the 3 least played classes (Spy, Pyro, and Medic) and then take a look at the subsequent charts that reveal behavioral differences amongst the classes:

  • Point scoring isn't the only form of motivation for players:
    • Note that one of the most popular classes (Engy) is the lowest average point scoring class.
    • Note that the 3 highest scoring classes (Sniper, Heavy, and Spy) are not amongst the most played classes.
  • That said, Flag Captures are obviously hugely rewarding:
    • Scouts are the most popular class, dominate in flag caps, but score the least overall kills and overall points.
  • Assists (which contribute to total points) are not hugely rewarding:
    • Note that Medics dominate the assists category, but they are the least favored class. This may be compounded by the fact that Medics seem to be getting ONLY assists and not any other points (even though they dominate assists, they are in the bottom tier of overall scoring).
  • Engy's are, simply, a different breed:
    • They are one of the most popular classes, yet score middle to lowest in almost all reported scoring categories.
    • However, they do tend to live longer than all other classes. Maybe there are just some folks who like the slow plodding support function that the Engy class offers.
Of course, there are many structural variables that complicate these assessments. Game play is competitive and this means that teams generally have a set number of slots for each class (no one wants an all-Medic team) so there are some artificial constraints. There are no explicit "satisfaction" measures (e.g., reports on how "happy" or "sad" people are after playing a session as one particular class) and there are also no data on class monogamy/polygamy (e.g., which players select only one class, which players rotate through a few, and which players will play 'em all).

What I'd hope to unpack (if I were able to tap the data and add some additional instrumentation) was what motivated people to choose certain classes when they could freely decide? And, what can be done to make less desirable classes more fun for folks to play when they need to take one for the team in order to fill a session and get a game started? In other words:
  • Tease out the core play style motivations and preferences in order to generate a nice set of classes and gameplay mechanics that will be welcoming to a wide diversity of gamers.
  • Tease out the social reward structure (points, kudos, etc) that will encourage gamers to pick up and play and have a good time even if they need to play a less desired class.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Blue Dragon: First hour

Not bad. Definitely has me interested in playing more. The first 15 or so minutes were a little too much movie watching. Attempts were made to make it a bit more interactive, but it still felt a bit too much like "take step, watch movie, take another step, watch another movie".

There are some definite UI annoyances (I mistakenly cast a heal spell twice on the same character) and the powerup meter is a little confusing at first, but I think that combat is new and different enough that it will hold my interest for a while. I wonder whether at some point I will acquire the skill that lets me see enemy health and status during battles -- this is crucial information given that each creature in a group looks identical so I can't always be sure I'm attacking the desired target if they shift around.

I also love how the wandering monster game -- normally a tedious/boring component of these kinds of games -- has been refreshed. An outer game combat system has been layered on that helps make entering battles seem more strategic -- and the Monster Fight idea is great (where you can strategically try and make monsters fight each other by trapping incompatible creatures in the same combat radius).

I'm having a bit of difficulty figuring out the class system so that I can optimize my leveling, but I imagine that I'll learn more details as I go.

In terms of tutorial/learn as you play, the gameplay started off simple (and restricted) enough that hints weren't really needed for me (though I'd like to at least watch some sessions to see whether it was possible to fail as far as getting lost or dying in combat). I'm not in favor of the occasional powerpoint presentations that document how to use the Main Menu UI screens in order to access key features. It seems like a necessary evil for this kind of game (lots of deep UI choices and options) but I wish that the system could be simplified so that it didn't require these occasional interruptions.

The content is kind of amusing -- and seems geared to a younger audience.

Back to smacking down the "poo snakes".

Assassin's Creed: There's a fine line between feeling cool and feeling stupid

I reached a point in Assassin's Creed where I'm not sure I have the will to plow forward. Unfortunately the narrative is not strong enough to make me want to complete the main plot line. Moreover, while I occasionally enjoy the core gameplay -- and for brief moments feel very cool as Altair the assassin -- my enjoyment is far outweighed by boredom. Not only is the main story boring (and appears to be moving towards a very predictable conclusion), but the moment to moment gameplay is rather boring. Sure there are some exciting kills and the occasional cool "extreme walking" moments. But these cool moments are far outweighed by my character simply doing stupid things ranging from cartwheeling into walls, failing to climb into gazebos (when I need to escape), being unable to run away from a mob, or having to hold the A button and walk slowly for huge sections of the map to avoid being detected.

It's just not very fun.

I have a feeling that the people who designed and tested the game could put together a highlight film of their own gameplay that would make Altair look really cool. My highlight reel would show much less coolness and much more tripping, stumbling, and mashing. Many of my target assassinations would occur off screen (or at an otherwise disadvantageous camera angle) while I furiously mashed the X button while holding down the LT.

I may play a bit more, but I think it's on to Blue Dragon or Mass Effect (in addition to a steady dose of Puzzle Quest).

Saturday, December 8, 2007

MX vs. ATV demo... Fun for Liza (mostly) and I

I'm not much of a grinder, but if it's fun to move around and do stunts I'll play a skating / snowboarding / bike riding game. MX vs. ATV didn't really provide much in the way of a fun demo (very limited, the available vehicles felt uninteresting).

What was fun was when my girlfriend (Liza) came into the room and watched me crash and burn. She loved watching the character fly off of the ATV or motorbike and skitter across the ground. She then prompted me to try and jump up to an inaccessible place. We don't always share gaming moments, but she definitely saw the sandbox I was playing one as a potential source for entertaining emergent gameplay. We tried various angles of approach and strategies -- and managed to get close (and even crash through the world once) but we eventually gave up.

Still, we laughed a bunch and had some fun trying to break the demo. It's nice when a game supports this kind of mode.

  • Features that helped in this case:
    • Sandbox arena where you can act without time pressure.
    • Easy to reset progress if get stuck (no need to watch long crash animations if you don't want to; easy to reset back on the track if you veer off).
  • Features lacking in this demo:
    • Not enough variety of objects to interact with or vehicles to control meant that actual exploration of the sandbox was quite limited. With the addition of even one souped up version of a vehicle we would have been able to do much cooler stunts (and seen a trend of progressively cooler gameplay -- which might have encouraged us to play more).

Culdcept Saga: A little confusing at first play

I downloaded the Culdcept Saga demo last night and played a bit of it. It had a learn as you play tutorial, but I found that there was a bit too much reading and not enough teaching (and reinforcing) of concepts. Compounding the frustration was that I seemed to lose every battle and in the end was decimated by my computer opponent.

See, for learning to occur there needs to be a feedback loop between the presentation of information, a player's actions, and game mechanism reinforcement based on the rules being taught. Ideally this will start out with simple, concrete applications and then move to more abstract concepts as the player masters the simpler pieces.

I think Culdcept's tutorial also failed because it didn't try and structure the user experience in any meaningful way other than having a (probably) limited deck of cards and an easy AI opponent. Lots of things can be done in this kind of game (like we did in Catan!) in order to help make it a more positive learning experience.

  • Stacking the deck: The deck of cards (for both me and AI) can be stacked in a way to maximize learning opportunities
  • Fixing the dice: This can also be done to maximize conflicts of interest and demonstrate key concepts in controlled, concrete fashion.
  • Neutering the AI: Making the AI forgiving in ways that allows the player to not screw himself. For instance, the first few combat encounters could have the AI send the *wrong* kind of counter at the player so the player could learn how counters work while winning a combat round instead of always losing. We did this in Rise of Nations where in the early game we'd detect what units the player was presenting and sending the paper to whatever scissors the player had created. This gave the tension (and excitement) of combat, but let the player weather the storm and keep learning about the interface and core economic and military components of the game.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Lumines PC Demo

It's amazing how a set of simple mechanics (rotate cube, move cube, and drop cube) can feel so right on my Xbox and so wrong -- at least according to the default keyboard setup -- on my PC.

I tried the Lumines demo from Wild Tangent today. Neither keyboard/mouse default layout was satisfying:

  • Mouse layout: LB = Drop Cube, RB = Rotate Cube (clockwise), Mouse Move = Move Cube.
  • Keyboard layout: Down Arrow = Drop Cube, Z/X = Rotate Cube (clock/counterclock), Left/Right Arrow = Move Cube.
The mouse settings were unwieldy because the mouse move never homed to the middle of the screen (which meant that my cube often started off to the side instead of near the center of the screen -- a disadvantage as the game gets harder and the pile grows higher). Also, there was no way by default to rotate the cube counterclockwise -- a severe impediment to serious gameplay.

The keyboard settings were equally unwieldy. Move cube was easier -- and it was nice to at least be able to rotate the cube clock- and counterclock-wise. However, I kept making transformation mistakes -- I'd hit the down arrow (drop cube) when I meant to rotate it and the vice versa. This was hard enough to overcome that I decided to try to modify the keyboard commands. But this didn't seem possible. Whoops!

Regardless of whether these default control schemes tested well, it is easy to think of a couple of alternative schemes that might serve equally well (if not better). The fact that I failed repeatedly tells me that it was probably hard to determine adequate default settings. Unfortunately this problem was compounded by not allowing users to select amongst some popular alternatives (or create a custom setup).

Suggested alternate control mappings:
  • Mouse/KB Layout: Space = Drop Cube, LB/RB = Rotate Cube, Mouse Move = Move Cube, experiment with some sort of mouse homing/centering algorithm after cube is placed.
  • KB only Layout: S = Drop Cube, A/D = Rotate Cube, Left/Right Arrow = Move Cube.

What are the key components that make casual games fun?

This is something that I'm going to have to more seriously investigate. Normally I like a balance of solid core gameplay (the mechanics are layered on in a fun and appropriately challenging and rewarding way) and great production values (ideally in the form of great story, polished sound and visuals, non-threatening UI, and few noticeable bugs).

That said, all these components are really just slider bars. Shoddy story can be outweighed by great gameplay. A beautiful world can make me want to explore even if controls are lacking. Bugs can be overlooked when they bend but don't break my immersion.

What I'm really trying to figure out is why I'm playing so much Puzzle Quest these days. In some ways I know I'm just filling the gaps while I wait for some other games to arrive (mainly Mass Effect and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. But, still, I have Blue Dragon, Assassin's Creed (which I'm determined to play for another 3-4 hours before making a final decision) and some new demos to try (including Culdcept Saga, a CCRPG of some sort that sounds kind of interesting).

It could also be that I just haven't had big blocks of time lately. My birthday weekend was comprised of lots of commitments (which were fun) and didn't really provide any large gaps in my schedule that are required when starting a new AAA game. Sadly, things aren't going to get much better over the next couple of weeks -- the holiday season seems to conspire against big uninterrupted blocks of time.

I think in the case of Puzzle Quest, it comes down to a few basic things:

  • The core mechanic (matching jewels) is rewarding on multiple levels.
    • The puzzles have been well balanced to keep things tense (risk of failure) but not frustrating (at least on default difficulty). I generally win against opponents I should beat, I have close matches against equal or slightly more powerful enemies, and I get destroyed by much more powerful enemies -- which inspires me to got out and rack and acquire new skills and figure out new strategies.
    • Solving puzzles makes me feel smart and strategic. Yes, the main task (matching jewels) is repetitive to the extreme. But you learn quickly that you need to be creative (and not just reliant on one strategy) in order to progress through the game.
    • The game makes good use of visuals, sound, and vibration so that the actual swapping of items and casting of spells is viscerally fun. I can't imagine, for instance, that this game would be as fun on the PS3 without the weighty controller vibration when a row thunks into place.
  • The character progression system is very rewarding. In addition to leveling the character, there are spells that can be researched, items that can be formed, mounts that can be trained, items that can be bought, etc. There are all sorts of little economies going on which generally means you are always "just one more game..." away from leveling up or acquiring something cool and new. This definitely adds to the addictive nature of the game.
All that said, my goal for the next time I have a small block of time: Try the Culdcept Saga demo.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Puzzle Quest just keeps layering on the goodness

So, after meandering through a bit more Assassin's Creed I found myself strangely not caring that I had no idea whether it would save my progress correctly given the wacky and cumbersome route you must take in order to exit the game. Not a good sign.

I turned my attention back to Puzzle Quest for the rest of the evening and was not disappointed. The core mechanic of the game, remember, is piece matching (get 3 or more in a row). There are even "minigames" that are, well, basically the same game but with slightly different rules and victory conditions. And even though the core mechanic is the same, I haven't become bored with the game yet.

In fact, the more I play the more I like the game.

I think there are a couple of reasons why it gets better over time:

  • The core mechanic is already proven and fun. Who doesn't like Bejeweled?
  • The game is easy to fit into a busy schedule. You can spend anywhere from 5 minutes to 5 hours and quit at any time without losing progress. You can leave for days and come back and it's easy to pick up. Even though you might forget some of the optimizations you've made, you'll quickly rediscover them through gameplay and as you level up and progress.
  • Just when you think that you might have had enough, another gameplay element will be layered on. For instance, I felt like I was having to penny pinch too much and was worried that this might make the game progress too slowly. Then I unlocked a siege tower and now I can besiege cities which is both cool and a way to beef up my income via the outer map game (instead of just racking gold during battles).
  • Even though I know I'm just playing a spreadsheet (and, in fact, when you level up you see all the percentages and decimal places that reinforce the spreadsheetness of the game) the systems are tied to the game fiction in cool ways (e.g., as followers, mounts, weapons, etc).
One interesting aside that might be worth exploring later: Many people criticize Assassin's Creed for the repetitiveness of the gameplay (find town, climb tower, pick pockets, assassinate boss, run away, lather, rinse, repeat). Why does Puzzle Quest get a pass in this regard?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bad Demo... Good Value?

I just finished the demo of Blacksite 51 (downloaded via 360 Marketplace). It's the second demo for this game and both have left me underwhelmed.

I didn't complete the first demo -- I got confused and lost in a parking lot and just couldn't figure out how it was supposed to be much fun.

This demo wasn't much better.

After launching on default settings (Threat Level Orange [Hard]) and dying twice while trying to figure out how to open a door, I tried the game again on Casual. Casual was too easy to a fault. I couldn't trigger the door open sequence because I didn't have to kill all the bad guys to get to the door. I didn't figure this out until I mashed all buttons and just about gave up on the game because the door to the next level wouldn't open. After wandering around I finally found the last hopeless cretin and killed him to trigger the door open. Several bugs (and a restart) later, I completed the simple "turn the corner and open the door" component of the demo level.

My squadmates did not seem intelligent, nor did they do a good job calling out threats or contributing to my situational awareness. This game made me think of a very watered down Star Wars: Republic Commando (which was an awesome squad based game in my mind). For all the polish in the movies and graphical detail (especially during the chopper mini game) not much attention seemed to be given to the actual squad based gameplay. This felt no where near as cool as Call of Duty, Star Wars: Republic Commando, or even Half-life 2 (when you get the followers).

What I'm left to wonder is: What is the value of shipping a gameplay demo that is too hard (by default), buggy, and that lacks either extremely fun core gameplay mechanics or some sort of HFF moment?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Hurray! I lost.

My reign of terror on Scrabulous has come to an end. I lost my first game today after 26 consecutive victories.

On the plus side, by churning through so many games in the past couple of weeks I've discovered 3 opponents who regularly threaten me and seem dedicated.

Next step: 50 wins!

Save game error...

Assassin's Creed has failed me. Again.

I thought I had exited the game in a state where I could resume without having to redo a whole bunch of movie watching. Unskippable movie watching I might add.


The save game system is somewhat puzzling because there are multiple levels from which to exit and save out of (while in the "matrix" and while in the "real world").

Any way you slice it, the game should have realized that I didn't need to watch the really bad cutscenes again. Unskippable? Unforgivable.

After consulting the manual (yes, I know the game already has several strikes against it) I decided to press on in hopes that the game would get more exciting -- and that I would begin to feel as cool as the character seemed in all the marketing movies. And, finally, I got a taste of it. I learned a bit more about combat through a tutorial which made completing some of the "save the poor" quests more interesting.

And then -- by accident -- I actually got to assassinate a couple of unsuspecting tower guards in very cool ways. There is a glimmer of hope after all.

It's a shame that the game is so interface driven. While I commend the designers for taking this weakness (removes some of the immersion) and trying to turn it into a strength (by writing it into the fiction of the game) it means that I'm more often than not trying to play the interface (mainly the HUD, but also the Map) instead of interact with the world.

This is most noticeable when contrasted with the platforming elements (essential to this kind of game, and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, its predecessor). These are no longer skill based -- my character can basically do whatever I want by holding the trigger and A button and only fails when there is a camera/control glitch.

At this point I don't know that the way these levers have been positioned will satisfy me. I do like a nice cerebral thriller. However, I don't want to have to learn what the 20+ icons on the minimap mean by consulting the legend each time.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

If co-op can make the "fart-in-a-bag game" fun, then...

Early on when I played some of the less than stellar Xbox live co-op offerings I remarked to a friend that co-op can even make the "fart-in-a-bag-game" fun.

I came up with the original "fart-in-a-bag" metaphor when I was idly talking with friends about Phantom Menace. Specifically I said that I was so excited about the idea of Samuel L. Jackson as a bad-ass Jedi Knight that if the movie simply had him perform one cool light saber fight, the rest of the movie could just be George Lucas farting in a bag for 2 hours and I'd go away satisfied.

Let's just say I didn't walk away satisfied from the piece of turd that was PM.

This is just a long way of me saying that adding co-op to a game is a lot like adding Samuel L. Jackson to a game. It can make a good game great and a great game into a legendary experience. But, if you give him terrible lines and upstage him with characters designed to sell Gungan shaped lollipops to kids... Then, well, shame on you for missing out on a great opportunity.

Gears of War, to me, was a "good" game. I played a bit of the single player and enjoyed the polish. I was in transition from east to west coast when it launched so I missed out on a lot of the initial multiplayer and co-op excitement. But, tonight one of my good friends from Baltimore invited me to help him through some of the single player game on Insane difficulty -- and it was a blast. It really worked on multiple levels:

  • As a great learn-as-you-play experience: I had an experienced guide with me. He could share tips and strategies as I needed them ("hey Brian, how do I do X?")
  • As a way to layer on cool elements of strategy ("you pin him down, I'll flank!")
  • As a way to take the edge off of setbacks ("unintelligible giggling and laughter as we get slaughtered, yet again")
  • As a way to discover new tips and strategies ("holy crap, I never thought to aim my grenade that way")
What was really cool was that even on Insane difficulty, the level design and balance was such that one experienced player plus one relative noob could have enough time to draw up a plan and execute it. We had to be efficient and couldn't mess around too much -- but there was just enough pressure to keep things exciting without ever feeling frustrating. There's a lot to be learned from the way the folks at Epic structured the co-op experience.

Hopefully I'll dive a bit more into it at some point!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Assassin's Creed: Initial Experience

Well, so far I'm a little underwhelmed. I actually thought the beginning of the game was quite clever -- a send up to bad tutorial/learn as you play design where the player is overwhelmed with onscreen instructions that are taught too quickly to be effectively learned and ingrained. It left me feeling initially overwhelmed and frustrated, which was exactly what I was meant to feel as the main character waking up from a puzzling and confusing voyage into the matrix. It kind of broke down the 4th wall in a cool way like Eternal Darkness did with its insanity meter.

Next came the actual tutorial (which was even called a "tutorial" within the fiction of the gameworld) and it had some of the same failings of other sub par tutorials: Lessons taught in uninteresting and disconnected ways, little opportunity just to learn by doing, and the constant worry that if I missed one of the instructions that I would never be able to retrieve it again. For instance I still can't remember the color coding scheme for the Eagle Eye ability (and can't seem to retrieve it via any of the in-game options).

Pacing was also a bit off. There was a lot of dialog. Badly written dialog. For a game that marketed itself heavily as a cinematic experience, not enough time and effort was spent on writing. The marketing movies (that had little if any dialog) were all spectacular. In-game, however, there is a lot of talky-talk that is just pitifully bad.

The game's fiction also makes explicit the deus ex machina elements of mission advancement because memories can be arbitrarily "advanced" when a task or goal is completed. Yes, there is some efficiency from the player perspective (no need to walk all the way back to the lair after a mission is done) but because it seems arbitrary it seems like it happens without my intention.

Another key annoyance is one I also experienced with Metroid Prime: Give me cool powers to start the game -- then take them all away and make me go through a boring tutorial in order to get a few of them back. And, likely, several tutorials in order to get them all back. Ratchet & Clank never did this -- and I felt cool from moment one (and only felt cooler as the game progressed).

I had reasonable expectations for this game -- I assumed that it would sacrifice gameplay and accessibility for a cinematic story experience. It seems (so far) that the sacrifice has been made. I'm worried that I will not get the story content that I expected in return.

A couple of production value nits to pick (normally I wouldn't do this, but this game really has been marketed on the strength of its visuals and production values):

  • For a next gen title, there are a lot of graphical glitches. Maybe they aren't as noticeable on a smaller LCD screen, but on my projector there are lots of really ugly moments so far (especially with regard to shadows and characters).
  • Characters don't seem situated in the world. They seem to be floating. This has been most noticeable in the cut scenes between me and my master (his feet just don't seem to attach to the ground). I realize that at some point we need to get away from simply putting dust clouds under footsteps, but I just find it distracting when characters don't seem situated.
  • Default movement seems a little slow and sluggish. It does set the mood, but can be frustrating if I just want to cover some ground. This is especially noticeable when I'm back in the lab.
  • Did I mention really bad writing? It's a combination of too much exposition and not enough Hollywood magic. Dialog is a tough thing to do well and the game so far has dropped the ball.

Scrabulous + Assassin's Creed...

Looks like I get a few hours reprieve from being the dutiful boyfriend (my girlfriend's family is in town for Thanksgiving and has kept me from my original plan to have a full month of gaming goodness to celebrate my birthday).

On deck: It's my move in 4 Scrabulous games. And I'm about to fire up Assassin's Creed.


Friday, November 23, 2007

Optimizing Scrabulous

Today was not a good day to game. Sadly I was feeling too ill earlier on to snuggle up to my 360 and projector and get some gaming in. Too ill to partake fully in a Thanksgiving meal. Urgle.

I did, however, play some Scrabulous moves. And I contemplated some notes from various discussions I've had with others about how I optimize the Scrabulous gaming experience.

The first rule of Scrabulous is to have many games going at once. I find that the magic number is between 5-7 games. Depending on the play patterns of my opponents, I find that usually this ends up in at least one move every couple of hours during the week which is about right. More plays = more fun, but with one player per hour or two I am satiated even if it means that one or two of my opponents have taken a day or two to make a move.

The second rule of Scrabulous is to nag people without nagging them. Usually I use my Facebook status to do this. I'll often tag on a non sequitur sentence to my status that mentions Scrabulous. It can either be a direct challenge (if I'm having a competitive game with a friend) or a more general "Jason is feeling a little tired. But not too tired to finish up his Scrabulous moves for the day".

The third rule of Scrabulous is to try and play as many different people as possible in order to discover similarly matched and passionate players. I want to play against people who will hit the "rematch" button as soon as the game ended because it was an exciting ride.

One improvement I'd love to make: Introduce a handicapping feature into the game. I'm not sure how this would work (I haven't really thought it through) but I think this would make it more likely that some of my less skilled friends would continue to play me because the matches would be more competitive. I did some initial research and contacted a club in Scotland to ask them about their handicapping system -- we'll see what my investigation yields.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

File for later: Investigate Mass Effect initial experience...

So, I've tried to keep myself in the dark as much as possible on Bioware's recently launched Mass Effect. Often I'll do this for big game and movie releases so I can enjoy the content without all the marketing fuss. I'll most likely be getting my copy in the next week or two.

Because I've been steering clear of most of the buzz, I haven't heard much about the game itself. The two data points I have are from a thread on a games-interest email alias at work and a Penny Arcade web comic.

A couple of my coworkers suggest that the game is somewhat impenetrable (doesn't teach you how to do basic things in-game, requires you to use the manual) but fun.

The Penny Arcade comic kind of speaks for itself.

I'm curious to see what approaches Bioware used with this title to make sure it was accessible and entertaining from the first moment of gameplay. + The joy was over before it even began...

I received the following email last night:

Dear Jason,

We have just learned that BrightSpot.TV is no longer operating as of today. While they have let us know that they intend to relaunch, we have no assurance that this will actually happen.

We realize that some of you found the Brightspot.TV service to be valuable, so we will honor all credits earned through today, November 20th. We will let you know if we learn any additional details. In the meantime, please contact if you have any questions.

Thank you,

GameFly Support


Online Help:
It's too bad, really. I could've used the $10/month savings for watching about 10 - 15 mins worth of commercials. That said, it did seem "too good to be true" at the time... And I guess it was.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Matchmaking... When it works it's Dy-no-mite!

I just finished one of the most exciting games of Scrabble yet. It was on Scrabulous, the Facebook app against one of my college friends who'd looked me up online after all these years.

Turns out, by chance (though not entirely, I guess, as we selected each other as friends) we are pretty evenly matched Scrabble players. I've been desperately searching for even matches lately as Scrabble is one of those games where large skill differentials really make for a lousy game in which neither side wants a rematch. I'm not a tournament level player, but I have played hundreds of games against a good friend (and well matched opponent) over the past couple of years and have developed a decent sense of strategy and a nose for the sweet, sweet bingo.

Back to the game.

It really got interesting at about 2/3rds of the way through the game -- really just before the end game (last few turns each) was about to begin. I was comfortably ahead by 49 points and decided to open the board slightly in hope of gaining access to a triple word score spot. I knew I opened myself up for a late game bingo from my opponent, but decided "what the heck". Whoops. My opponent fired off an 81 point bingo. I was able to play the triple word and tie the score again, but my opponent scored a 32 point word to empty the tile bag.

I tallied up my remaining letters -- I had a bingo but no place to play it. I calculated a bunch of 2 turn exits and came up with two 18 point plays that could possibly win it for me if my opponent had a tough time emptying her rack and got stuck with some point letters.

After a further 12 point play from my opponent, I was down by 26 with only an 18 point play to make that would end the game. My only hope was that my opponent's last 2 tiles added up to 5 or more points (sadly I hadn't kept track). And, they did -- they added up to exactly 5 points ("stupid V" my opponent cursed after the game). Victory was mine.

The game was characterized by good back and forth in the early game, me starting to pull ahead in the mid game, a beautiful reversal by my opponent in the last third, and then a tense end-game that resulted in a 335-333 score.

We just started a new game and made our first plays. Can't wait to see what this one brings.

Price point vs. entertaining trial version... To buy or not?

So, I've been playing some Peggle (from PopCap Games) lately. Specifically, I've been playing the demo. Like other reviewers, I went from an immediate reaction of "how is this interesting or strategic? I just fire a ball at some pegs..." to "wow, this is a cool puzzle game with interesting mechanics and challenges" in the course of about 15-20 minutes. There's a bunch of content, the core gameplay is strategic and fun, the matches are quick enough that you can learn-by-failing but not get frustrated.

The problem I'm having is that $19.95 is just too high a price point for this kind of game. Most XBLA games are in the $5 to $10 range and it's hard for me to think about this game being worth more than those games. And with XBLA I get to add achievements for completing the game to my gamerscore ;)

Now, there are replays that apparently you can save or share -- and I know that PopCap has some community features -- so maybe if I were more tied into the community I'd be more interested in picking up the game.

But, given there is so much cheap (and even free) content out there, as much as I'd like to see additional Peggle content I think I'm going to just stick with the trial version.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Trials and tribulations...

Last night I checked out a few XBLA trial version games. I needed to chill out for a bit after my hockey game and didn't want to risk getting caught up in another marathon Half-life 2 session.

It was a mixed bag of results. In a couple of instances I was pretty pleased with the initial experience, which I define as the first few minutes of gameplay after launching the game on default settings -- ideally reached by just mashing the "A" (or "X" for PS3) button a bunch of times.

The good 'uns:

  • Word Puzzle. This one benefited strongly from very straightforward gameplay -- it's basically a wordfinder game. If you're familiar with this kind of game (and like word games more generally) the core gameplay is accessible and fun. The major source of confusion was in the selection model: Two letters appear as highlighted -- your cursor and the first letter of the next word to search for. This leads to confusion over which letter is actually in focus and ready to be acted on. The left stick cursor control control was also a little "loose" which made it difficult to select letters accurately with any kind of speed.
  • Switchball. A very fun puzzler with a great learn-as-you-play tutorial. It also benefits from simple core mechanics (mostly just the left stick) and did a nice job of layering on gameplay elements with brief text hints. I did get stuck for a while at one point (could've used a hint) but managed to blow through the demo content quite quickly. Too quickly, actually, because I didn't feel like I had seen enough content to know if this was a keeper or not.
On the other hand, a couple of developers didn't pay enough attention to what the user's initial experience might be like if they'd never played the game before.

The not-so-good 'uns:
  • Screwjumper. I knew there was going to be a problem when I tried my usual "hammer the "A" button until the game starts and wound up landing on the upsell screen instead of in a game. Nope -- not gonna buy it before I try it out first. It just felt like a dirty trick (hoping I would mistakenly purchase it by mistake). The default controls were unusable (inverted in weird ways with no attempt to help me correct them) and I was constantly interrupted by huge walls of text hints/help which were annoying and promptly ignored. I died constantly without really figuring out the point of the game.
  • Shrek-n-Roll. I jumped into a default game... and failed to figure out how to play the game. The clock kept ticking down and the only thing I could do was raise or lower Shrek who was on some kind of see-saw. Mashing the buttons did nothing. Tick-tock-tick-tock. My right thumb accidentally brushed the right stick and Shrek's girlfriend then started to move. C'mon, people, casual games don't require the right stick by default. If you want players to use it (and you shouldn't force them to for the most part) you need to teach it. Think Katamari Damacy -- you can't even start the game without using both thumbsticks. Although it was infuriating at first -- I thought my controller was broken and switched it out 3 times because the "start" button didn't seem to launch the game -- the game designers made sure I knew that this game was different and required both sticks.
I also updated the right column to reflect these notes.

Also, Assassin's Creed should arrive today or tomorrow. And Blue Dragon just shipped to me from Gamefly. Ideally one of my buddies will hook me up with Mass Effect, too. November is going to be a busy month.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Catan: Worst AI evar?

So, one of my coworkers made the bold claim that the AI for Catan! (XBLA) was the worst in the universe. I'd heard some complaints about the AI before, so I asked him to explain why he felt the way he did in order to get to the bottom of the issue.

You see, I worked with the co-developers of Catan's AI... Klaus Teuber (the creator of Settlers of Catan) and Brian Reynolds ("game god" behind Alpha Centauri, Civ II, Rise of Nations). In other words, two acknowledged heavy-weights were involved in the creation of Catan's brain.

Reading into the reasoning of my co-worker, it seemed like at least part of the frustration was that the AI couldn't explain what it was doing -- and part was because the AI couldn't be reasoned with if it seemed to be acting irrationally. This is something that can be solved naturally with human friends (through chatting) but is harder to emulate with computers.

One way we attempted to address this problem was to add emotes (tickles) to help educate users about what the computer was thinking. However, while some things were easy to figure out (computer smashes the piggy bank means he doesn't have the resource you're looking for) others were much more subtle (computer flashes "not with you, now" when he is competing with you to settle an open vertex).

I wonder if one of the other things we may have done "wrong" for the SP experience is that we optimized AI play for filling in dropped players in an MP game. We specifically didn't want them to do stupid trades with the human leader as it would make the end game not fun for the other human players. The fact that even though all 3 AI players are operating independently and according to their own interests doesn't matter. What it looks like is that all 3 AI players are ganging up on the human in an arbitrary and unfun way.

Of course, when you find yourself in a game with 3 expert human players (as I often did while working at BHG) the end game will end up with a 3 against 1 mentality as no one will trade with the leader unless it guarantees them a victory that turn. We tried to mitigate against this in the Easy and Normal difficulty settings, but it's obvious that we didn't do enough. And to the player, this can seem like a broken experience.

The other thing that I find infuriating (but less so now that I know about it) is that sometimes computer players have "crises" depending on their own personality preferences and how the board is set up. This means that they will panic and be basically unwilling to engage in any behavior that won't let them make a specific play (and unwilling to assist anyone who is competing for the same play). Tournament level players (like Brian) would see the AI's inflexibility and read the board and understand the dilemma. Normal human players (like me) will only see a completely unsocial AI that seems unwilling to trade. Note that it's not the "crises" that I find infuriating (AI should have goals)... It's the fact that I don't know why the computer is behaving so anti socially.

I think I'm going to have to think much more deeply about AI as a user experience. How do we have computer operated agents that work in believable, understandable, and entertaining ways?

Instrumentation for game improvement and community zeitgeist

Both Bungie and Valve are doing a great job of sharing customer behavior data on their websites. focuses on multiplayer action in the form of heat maps that are filterable by level and weapon type.

Valve (via its steam services) focuses on the single player game, showing mission progression and heat maps to see where gamers die and where they stop playing. Actually it's hard to judge where players stop playing because you can't tell from the data whether people are just taking a break or have consciously decided not to keep playing.

These are great data to collect for franchise development -- and also help to contextualize the ranting and raving that occurs on forums and in customer support mails. These data can also be used to baseline expected behaviors in future beta launches.

From a zeitgeist perspective, these data also provide awesome fodder for community discussions and gaming press. They help keep the buzz going.

Pure genius...

Don't click unless you've completed Portal (from the Orange Box).

Jonathan Coulton sings Still Alive.

Brilliant work.

More Half Life 2 goodness (and some thoughts re: RPGs)

I'm blowing through Half Life 2. It's obviously not as fun as the first time through, but there's enough excitement there to keep me going. And, I can't wait for the new content (Episodes 1 and 2). One thing I had forgotten -- the bridge sequence. I've felt vertigo in other games when I stood on the edge of a cliff. But this game takes that whole feeling to the next level. Emotionally, I felt as stressed out as I think I would actually feel if I were walking around the scaffolding of a bridge without any safety harness. It's that compelling.

Valve just gets so many other little things right, too. On the one hand they create core mechanics that are fun to execute over and over in the little sandboxes they set up. Every encounter is a puzzle that can be solved through the basic shooting, walking, jumping, and lifting actions of Gordon Freeman. On the other hand they script sequences that help advance the plot and add in some truly rewarding (and sometimes HFF) moments. Taken together, it is a wild ride that makes you really feel clever for solving puzzles even though (in the background) they are handing you the pieces and showing you ghost images of how to place them. You just never really notice it until you sit back and start to break it down. Impressive.

Switching gears, it's time to start thinking about RPGs again. Between Mass Effect, Eternal Sonata, Blue Dragon, and Puzzle Quest, I should be doing a fair amount of this kind of gaming in the near future. So, what are the components that make up a great RPG?

  • Combat: Controls, Camera, Feedback. Feeling (moment-to-moment; preparation; post combat cleanup)
  • Exploration: Where am I? Where do I want to go? Is getting there half the fun?
  • Story advancement: Do I understand the story? Do I care about the story? Are my goals clear and interesting? How do I keep track of them?
  • Character advancement: Do I get the right amount of leveling, choice, and growth?
  • Environmental interaction: How do people and things react to me? How do my actions get reflected in the world? How does the world and its denizens communicate combat, exploration, story advancement, and character advancement to me?
  • Economy: What are the collectibles (items, people, things)? How and when do I manage them? Are these all character based or is there some meta economy as well?
  • Accessibility: How do we ensure that I get to see all the content? How do we solve for players getting lost or killed in battle?
I'm sure there's more. I'll need to work on refining this list as I go.