Friday, December 12, 2008

Xbox Live Community Content... Is the game worth $2.50?

I downloaded and tried three different Xbox Live Community Content games. They were:

  • Lines: A Lumines/Tetris derivative. 
  • Being: A 2d sidescroller platformer (derivative of Mario).
  • Weapon of Choice: Another side scroller that is derivative of some Japanese side scrollers where you move with one stick and fire in all directions using the other stick.
I ended up purchasing Lines for $2.50. It was a very relaxing game, had nice music, had a reasonable amount of polish, and a decent trial version. The other two trial versions failed in that they didn't let me see enough content and stopped abruptly after a certain amount of time (as opposed to after the completion of a level). This kind of "trialus interruptus" is lame.

Interestingly, Lines' trial version was time constrained -- but it gets a pass because the time constraint was part of the game mode "time trial". I was still able to play it through several times and achieve closure before deciding to purchase the full game -- which basically unlocked the "endurance mode". If I didn't already own Lumines -- and if Lines had achievements and leaderboards -- then I'd probably play a bunch of it. But given those two limitations I'm probably done with it after tonight.

I'll be interested to see whether there will ever be a critical mass of community content games and people playing these games to make this a cool component of the Xbox Live experience. Without lots of games and gamers, you can't really come up with a good way of collecting, aggregating, and distributing social community data. This means that you can't use social tools to surface relevant, quality content.

Little Big Planet & World of Goo...

I downloaded the World of Goo demo from Steam the other day and gave it a quick spin. A fun indie game that has roots in other indie ventures like Armadillo Run but with more polish. The game was reasonably accessible to someone like myself who has played less polished physics-based games, but I wonder if it could truly be considered a "casual" game for folks who don't play a lot of these kinds of games. The challenge ramp is quite steep and I imagine that some folks would require a bit more of a graduated introduction to the game.

As an aside, Steam could really use some lessons from Xbox Marketplace in terms of surfacing demo content. Getting to fun demos and try-before-you-buy content was a UI-laden experience. It shouldn't have been so hard.

Little Big Planet gave me and my fiancee tons of belly laughs. Online co-op will do this for a game that is otherwise not remarkably fun in any particular way. My biggest hope is that the folks at Nintendo (or Insomniac) take the basic idea -- a platformer world where any number of people can hop in and out -- and include fun character control and platforming challenges.

Jump feels floaty, non-responsive (at times), and generally lousy. The whole "let's add a z-axis" to the otherwise 2-d scroller makes for a very frustrating platforming experience whenever you need to move towards the front or back of the screen. Yes, the content is fun. Yes, we had a blast messing around in some of the levels. Yes, it was fun having other people drop into the world and play with us. But, man, I wish I was playing persistent world Mario or Ratchet.

On the plus side:
  • Party formation was a breeze... and was very useful. If another player left you could follow him wherever he wanted to go. Or you could do your own thing. Because it was hard to find user created content that would be fun to play (see below) we just trusted one of the online strangers we met to drive.
  • Emotions/Gestures worked pretty well. It was reasonably simple to hold simple "discussions" about how to solve puzzles by just moving around and gesturing with the d-pad.
  • There is some great user-created content out there. Moreover, when you finish playing a level your exit pipeline includes giving a star rating, adding descriptive tags, and having the option to add it to your favorites. In other words, it is really easy for users to provide feedback that is useful to both content creators and consumers.
On the minus side:
  • Text chat was annoyingly difficult to do.
  • It's hard to find great user-created content. This is mostly due to the fact that the team decided to sacrifice efficiency with "immersive 3-d navigation". When I'm new to the game, I want to find all the 5 star levels that are easy to moderate in difficulty. This is impossible to do. I needed to scour a planet and search each and every little spot to try and find some content that I might like.
  • I hate spending significant time on PSN as opposed to Xbox Live. All my friends are on Xbox Live. My game play is auto-blogged and my activities are updated in real time on my Facebook account. I feel very alone on PSN
I'm definitely going to play some more. And I'm also going to dig further into the content discovery tools available to players. I think that Little Big Planet, like Army of Two, provides a glimpse of the potential coolness of having an experience designed around co-op. What Little Big Planet adds is the persistent world where people are constantly "hanging out" and engaging in short 5-10 minute adventures (instead of longer missions that require more investment). This means that there is little cost associated with jumping into an unfun level (or a fun level with unfun people) because it is super easy to move on to something else very quickly.

Really, when it comes right down to it, Little Big Planet is kind of what PS Home should have been. Instead of a glorified chat room where people need headsets or keyboards, there should be lots of fun activities for people to do. And if they decide to go off and play some Resistance as a party, then power to them. Instead of talking about it, just have a room with 2 buckets. All players have 10 seconds to jump into one bucket (Resistance) or the other (Little Big Planet). Everyone completes a 10 minute excursion and is then dumped back into the lobby where the next two choices are presented. 

If people have fun playing together, then they form a party and do their own thing. People will end up socializing with folks that they had fun playing with instead of standing around and waiting for a game to start.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Initial Experience: Playstation Home

I'll add more notes later... But the first (ironic) thing I noticed was that the "Playstation Home" theme that I downloaded and installed in anticipation of the open beta included a background image with lots of graphics and text.

The graphics and text naturally obscured my ability to read the download instructions when Playstation Home launched.

Sweet usability-related irony ;)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I really need to get back to blogging. Stuff on my agenda:

  • Downloaded a bunch of Steam demos that I need to play and jot down notes on. A tedious task (which reminds me I need to start my review article/presentation where I break down accessibility, community, and purchasing experience on Steam versus other places like Xbox Marketplace and
  • I need to kick my Kelflings addiction, finish Dead Space, and get back to my list of games. This includes Little Big Planet, Fallout 3, Gears of War 2, Lego Batman, and various others. I also need to decide what to do with No More Heroes and Midnight Club: L.A. I want to play more of both (research for the former, pleasure for the latter) but I'm just falling too far behind.
Part of the problem is holidays and commitments with friends. The other part is I'm in "ship" mode on one of the games I'm working on -- and another game is stating to ramp up... This means less free time in front of the console (or PC).

Oh, and I also want to figure out whether to play Left 4 Dead on PC or Xbox. I've got a bunch of friends playing the PC version on Steam... But I kind of prefer playing on my couch.

Double oh... I also need to dive back into Warhammer and WoW for some more research.

I think I need to quit my job.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Speaking of sandboxes... Kingdom for Kelflings

Kingdom for Kelflings is the kind of game I'd like to put in front of casual gamers to see whether it appeals to them or not. It's a pretty relaxing city builder game (like the Sims or a non violent RTS). You get to play using your 360 avatar (the Xbox version of a Mii) as a giant amongst peons, which is actually quite fun. And I'm assuming this will get even cooler when you get to meet up with your friends in online play.

There isn't too much to it -- there's a giant "tech shrub" that you can plow through via a combination of exploration, quest completion, and econ management. The learn as you play experience was a little jumbled at the beginning and strangely left me unsure of what to do next... I was told to "build a Keep", but unlike with any of the previous tasks there were no apparent clues as to the next steps required. It turns out that this was the LAST objective and it's the goal for the rest of the game. The problem is that the game never let me know that this was the case (I need to figure out how to advance my civ until I can build a Keep) which made me feel like I had broken the tutorial since there wasn't any obvious direction to pursue.

We did something like this with Rise of Nations -- only we made it very clear when players moved from "follow the voice of god" to "you're on your own -- take what you've learned and try and defeat the enemy". The whole frustration would have never occurred had the message been "The tutorial is now over. Try and figure out how to build a Keep to win the game!"

Oh, well.

Anyhow, the game was relaxing and fun enough for me to purchase it (800 points or $10). Reasons that I think the upsell was successful:
  • I was offered a chance to purchase the game each time I gained an achievement. I gained 3 achievements in the first 10 minutes. It's hard to pass that up if you're into gamer points.
  • The initial experience was quite pleasurable once I stopped trying to treat it like a watered down RTS that lacked important advanced features (like resource rates, quick keys, queuing up of remote peons, selecting all idle workers, etc).
The basic decision that they made was that you control an avatar (like Pikmin, Overlord, Goblin Commander) instead of a targeting reticle (like Battle for Middle Earth, Supreme Commander). What this means is that the moment-to-moment game play is all about your avatar and how he interacts with the world. And, because combat is not at the core of this game, there need to be other higher order competitive or collaborative goals. In this case it seems like world customization is important... But I'm not sure how you share and compare with other players yet. 

Maybe it has something to do with the World Traveler achievement: "play in an online game where 20 different player banners appear"?

I'm willing to play it some more to find out.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Fracture Demo: More sandbox, please...

Fracture promised mucho fun game play, but I'm not sure the demo really put the game's best foot forward.

After introducing me to a cool tech demo of various weapons, I was dropped into a heavily scripted linear experience. It seems to me that this is a game that would be most fun in some sort of cool co-op or multi-player free for all. There are lots of opportunities for entertaining game play and cool strategery.

The initial learn as you play aspect of the game was quite decent. Experienced FPS players should whiz through it and less experienced players get to explore basic movement and controls in a friendly environment before the threat of combat is introduced.

Moreover, because the weapons were so cool (well, more the environment x weapon interactions were cool) the game still felt fun even though the first 5-10 minutes had no combat at all. I could have easily played for another 10-15 minutes in sandbox mode had there been a bunch of hidden or alternative challenges/objectives buried there.

I did get hung up during the tutorial phase of the game in a classic "whoops" moment. I was introduced to grenades (LT) right away. Then I spent a bunch of time launching grenades/rockets from weapons (RT). Then I was re-introduced to new grenades. Only now I just assumed that they were ammo for my weapon. Whoops! I died several times trying to get my new grenades to work (via RT) until I randomly mashed the LT in frustration and discovered the actual way to use the grenade I was supposed to use. A simple text reminder would have gone a long way...

Unfortunately the level I was dropped into was a little frenetic and challenging for me. Again, this is a tough thing to get right: The combat experience has to be exciting (so the usual beginning tutorial isn't appropriate) but not frustrating.

What I think was most jarring was the fact that the first 5-10 minutes were spent peacefully destroying things and deforming terrain and marveling at the possibilities... And then I was dumped into a linear mission with combat that was tough enough to make me forget about all the cool things and just worry about running and gunning.

I can't help but think that the game would have been much more fun had there been a cool single player sand box mode combined with some sort of co-op against the baddies (where higher difficulty combat is much more fun and much less frustrating) or MP free for all battle component.

New Super Mario Bros: I finished it!

Great game. It's the second Mario game that I've ever finished (the previous being Super Mario Galaxy). Obviously, I'm not a hard core Nintendo gamer.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway -- and something I know I mentioned in my review of SMG -- is the focus on learn as you play. Levels are structured in ways that teach you some relatively complex problem solving skills without you even realizing it as a player.

I'll take some time to write and post screen shots of a couple of sequences in particular, but it's amazing how this DS game compares to a game like Wall-E for the DS that I watched a kid play the other day. In Wall-E, new concepts are taught via text billboards that often have jargonistic text. Not only is the text boring to read, but it breaks the flow of the game and really serves only as an apology for not having enough time to design the puzzle or level in a way that players can figure out in a fun way. This is not to say "dumb it down". Players enjoy challenges that make them struggle and experiment as long as they provide clear feedback to the player about why they either passed or failed and do not overly punish the player for failure.

I think I'll write up a quick piece that compares and contrasts two levels from both of these games to illustrate the difference in approach.

Of course, to be fair to Wall-E, the game did look fun (I wanted to play) and I'm sure they had a much smaller budget than Mario did -- which means less time to iterate and polish levels such that they encourage the player to have fun learning by doing instead of learning by reading text.

Tomb Raider: Underworld Demo... Bump it up my Gamefly Q

Creating a great demo is hard. It needs to be accessible to all gamers yet it can't be so dumbed down that it bores the core market who have played lots of similar games and maybe even previous versions.

Tomb Raider: Underworld was underwhelming in some ways as a demo in terms of game play. But it was really impressive in terms of visual polish and the "feel" of exploration. The game is flat-out beautiful. The music, the attention to detail when it comes to animating Lara Croft's climbing techniques, and the beautiful and lush world make me want to just climb and explore for hours on end.

The combat, however, was a little shaky for an initial experience. The combat system is really designed for slower targets that use cover, not large and fast (and deadly) lions. If I could have changed that one aspect and the unsatisfying ending then I think the demo would have been outstanding. Some of the specific changes I'd have made:
  • Combat vs. enemy humans. This would have been easier to balance and much more accessible. The game isn't really about free form running and gunning (well, at least the previous version wasn't) which is what the demo combat encounters were like.
  • A more satisfying ending. It was clear that after I solved the puzzle I triggered a Quick Time Event (QTE). Unfortunately the way the demo ended and cut to the upsell screen left me feeling that I had failed the QTE and died before realizing that I wasn't even going to get a chance to check out one of the core features of the game. The absence of QTE events in the demo seems weird.
  • More forgiving failure conditions during early platforming/exploration. The initial climb was long and reasonably complex for a early-middle game experience. Unfortunately this meant that as a first experience there was much falling and starting over. This got a little bit frustrating as the punitiveness of the fall tends to make the player less willing to experiment and try new things.
Other things I feel like commenting on...

Using a radial interface for the main game shell menu:
  • I'm not sure this is a great idea. The icons aren't nearly as useful as text labels. Removing text labels has simply meant that more menu selections can be put on the screen at once -- which means more bouncing around because you need to toggle through all of them to find the one you want. Moreover, there isn't any room for context-sensitive help text, so it's hard to figure out what the different toggle options are.
The "learn-as-you-play" experience:
  • I'd like to see the actual intro level to this game. The current "tutorial mode" was a standard series of text billboards that were sometimes contextually relevant (like the first time you stomp a spider) and sometimes way, way, way out of context (like the weapon aiming and firing instructions that were provided whilst I was climbing a huge pillar).
  • The climbing puzzles were a bit too advanced for an initial experience and I'm assuming that they were extra frustrating for first time players. A number of off-camera "leap of faith" maneuvers were required and failure was punished by a significant (but not unreasonable) amount of backtracking.
  • Combat was frustrating and did not feel cool. As I mentioned above, the ranged weapon system is much more suited for human-to-human combat where both sides are exploiting cover and other environmental devices. Being surrounded by multiple strong, fast enemies with little obvious way to get to cover and regroup made for several annoying player deaths.
  • That said, the game does a really neat job of providing cool environmental visual and sound cues to help guide the player. I discuss this in a bit more detail in the next section.
The "where to go/what do I do next" systems:
  • Both the Tomb Raider and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune series try to push realism and pull back user interface clutter in order to bring about an immersive experience in a beautiful world. Lighting, environmental design, character animation, music, and sound contribute to creating worlds that are fun to explore. 
  • Both series also appreciate the difficulty facing the player when they are thrown into a 3-d game world from a 3rd person perspective camera. Not only is the moment-to-moment navigation often a challenge (how do I notice targets that are off-screen?) but it's also difficult to convey an overall map-level understanding of the level (where did I start? where have I been? where do I need to go?).
  • The moment-to-moment navigation requires attention to subtle environmental details (like does Lara lean or not when you pull in a certain direction; are birds perching in a conspicuous place) and patience (letting the camera float to a "best" position if you're stuck and unsure of where to go next). You also get a reinforcing musical "ching" when you've hit the next way point, which assures you that you're making progress and not just backtracking. Of course, it would be nice to have a visual onscreen flash/text, too... But I understand why the game designers decided not to do this.
  • In terms of map-level understanding, there are a few systems in place that reflect great intentions but that fall short in execution. First, there is the 3-d Sonar map. This is a very intimidating 3-d visualization of the game world. It's possible that the player could be gradually introduced to this tool over time, but it certainly seems overwhelming and not very useful. Second is the built in hint system. The basic idea is very clever: Have a spoiler-free method of obtaining hints on your PDA. You need to press A ("hear what to focus on" -- HINT) or Y (hear what to do -- TASK). On the surface this is cool and made me think of the great hint system in Bioshock (level 1 was an in-fiction reminder of your objective; level 2 was the practical "what do you need to do next" explanation). In practice, both hints were so vague as to be unhelpful when I truly was stuck.
I bumped it up on my Gamefly Q, but won't be purchasing it (even though I did purchase the previous version).

Mirror's Edge Demo: Too short, man... too short....

So, I had a quick play of the Mirror's Edge demo. Just as things started to flow, the demo ended. Although the demo had an overall feel of polish and a nice arc from start to finish, I can't help but feel that it missed a real opportunity to sell me on the game.

The visual style is unique and refreshing. The controls feel a little wonky to start with (LB and LT as your primary controls) but might end up working. The problem is that I only had a very short tutorial and then a quick linear mission. This game begs for freestyling yet there was no sandbox opportunity for me to just play around in.

As far as visceral feel goes, the game hovers between good and great. I'd need to replay the demo and pay more attention to the sound, vibration, and camera movement to break it down in greater detail, but my initial thoughts are:
  • The first person feel kind of works (I didn't expect it to at all). That said, there should be opportunities for me to watch myself do cool things -- especially when I'm essentially waiting for a long animation to play (like hauling myself up a ledge or hurtling through the air or rolling on the ground). Maybe it would be disorienting, but I'd like to at least see what something like this would be like. I'd really like to admire my character as I get to do in games like God of War and Tomb Raider.
  • The "door crash" sequence is pretty good. I'd heard about this from a review. I think it could be sweetened a bit more in terms of sound/shake/vibrate, but it's pretty sweet.
  • I wonder whether I'll ever like combat in this game. It makes me think of Assassin's Creed. Not in terms of the combat system, but in terms of how combat just seems so lame in comparison to exploring rooftops in over-the-top parkour game play.
This game provides a really interesting contrast to Tomb Raider: Underworld (I'll be posting about that demo next) in terms of world navigation. Mirror's Edge uses bold saturated non-realistic colors, specifically red, to indicate where to go next. Tomb Raider sacrifices a bit of the "where do I go next" for environmental realism. This makes sense given the emphasis on quick athletic running in the former and slower methodical exploration in the latter.

In the end, I really want to like Mirror's Edge. What I hope is that the retail version is well paced and that combat isn't too painful. If the demo had wowed me, I might have considered buying it. But for now, especially given my current backlog of games, it's a rental.

Pre-birthday housekeeping...

I have a bunch of things to write about after a week away:

  • I finished the New Super Mario Bros (for DS). And as a comparison I watched an 8 year old kid play 30 minutes of Wall-E for the DS.
  • I played a bunch of Nancy Drew Dossier - Lights, Camera Curses (PC - Casual). I also went through the download and install from the Big Fish Games portal site.
  • I watched Liza play a bunch of Nancy Drew: The Haunting of Castle Malloy (PC - Core).
  • It would be nice to finish Dead Space and play a bit more Midnight Club.
  • Oh, and there are a bunch of downloadable demos on my 360 that I need to play already.
Lots of gaming and notes to follow!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Wheel out the DS... It's time for New Super Mario Bros

I've decided that I need to play some more handheld games. I'm mostly going to play iPhone games, but I've also had some Nintendo DS games recommended to me recently that I figured I should try.

First up: the New Super Mario Bros. I was never a big Nintendo player as a kid. It really wasn't until I picked up Windwaker that I really played a Nintendo game for more than a few passing moments (I picked up a Gamecube the night I first tried WW). I disliked Mario Sunshine (the 3-d world and mini games ended up more frustrating than fun for me) and Metroid Prime (save points and losing all my powers 10 minutes into the game killed it for me). But I did love the Paper Mario RPG except for the end battle, which I gave up on because I couldn't stand replaying 15 minutes of movies each time I failed and had to try again.

Then game the Wii. The launch version of Zelda didn't really appeal to me. Okami was fresh in my mind and I couldn't get that excited about another wolf + child game. Super Mario Galaxy blew me away, though. I've referred to it in other posts -- but quite simply it was one of the most polished and fun experiences I've had in a while. Moment-to-moment game play was interesting, fresh, and fun. And the learn-as-you-play aspect to the game really set the bar as far as how to introduce players to complexity via fun building block puzzles.

New Super Mario Bros has also been a delight. The most interesting choice that I think the team made was to use the lower touch-screen in a very circumscribed manner. Basically, if you went exploring down a pipe, the game play switched from top screen to bottom screen. The touch pad was really only used for two purposes: Moving from one world to the other and as a place to store an extra powerup that you could use when needed. This meant that Mario still felt and played like other Mario games: You didn't need to use fancy gestures or blowing motions to get him to do tricks. All that was required was the d-pad, A button, and B button.

The game also seemed to be less hardcore in terms of difficulty and challenge than previous versions I played. Maybe I'm just getting better as a gamer, but it seemed like resources (to be spent on power ups, 1 ups, and the like) were plentiful and even though some levels seemed impossible initially, they could mostly be either puzzled through through skill or brute forced through grinding and acquisition of power ups.

One issue that I'm facing right now is that of content discovery. It's clear that there are a number of interesting looking areas that are inaccessible to me right now. Because I'm probably 2/3rds the way through the game, I'm left to wonder whether I've just failed to discover how to access this extra content or whether it will be opened up as part of the final third of game play. 

I think I've mentioned before the issue of "trust" when it comes to evaluating a game and determining whether or not to continue when the initial experience (or a later section of game play) fails to meet expectations. Because I "trust" the game designers at this point (the game so far has been well paced and fun), I trust that I'm not truly missing content due to bad usability or design -- and that I will gain access to these areas when the time is right.

At some point I'd like to delve into this issue deeper to understand the intrinsic (game quality) and extrinsic (marketing, friend reviews, etc) factors that lead to increased or decreased trust -- which will lead to an increased or decreased willingness to forgive a crappy first (or later) impression. 

Friday, November 21, 2008

My Xbox 360 Avatard...

So, this is my new 360 avatar (well, I've been calling it my "avatard"). It was actually pretty easy to generate and I'm pleased with the results.

It's yet another example of a feature that sounds kind of dumb -- but is totally fun to play around with and has generated a bunch of buzz. Whether that buzz translates to more time (and, of course, money) on the XBL service is an open question.

Of course, I would have desired immediate Facebook (and other SNS) integration right off the bat. No reason why there shouldn't be an app for all 360 fans to install on day one. Instead you need to hack the URL to get your .png image.

That said, I look forward to figuring out what else I can do with my avatar on XBL. It's been fun checking out my friends' avatars -- some of them are quite clever.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Housekeeping (and more Dead Space)

I took some time this evening to clean up my game queues a bit. I need to get organized as I'm falling behind and 'tis the season for decent new releases...

Dead Space is getting most of my console gaming attention. I have 2 friends who are playing Warhammer (the MMO) with some regularity, so I want to keep active with that. My Facebook gaming has slacked off a bit, but I still feed my D&D:Tiny Adventures addiction, play Wordscraper and Scramble with a couple of dedicated friends, and achieve the top achievement (cyborg) on Word Challenge once a week so I can impress my friends.

I really want to dig back into Midnight Club: Los Angeles because I love the game and it was starting to get to the really fun parts (cooler special abilities; cooler ways to pimp my cars). But, I'm backlogged on games I need to play for research purposes:
  • No More Heroes, Alone in the Dark for a Wii game.
  • Fable 2, Fallout 3 for an RPG.
And then there's Gears of War 2, which I don't really care much about -- except for the fact that everyone I know is going to play MP, and I do enjoy going through the co-op campaign on "insane" with friends.

I'm having a feeling I'm going to need to give up on playing through more of Half-life 2 (episodes), the Portal DLC, and GTA IV (which I was really starting to like).

I still need to play Call of Duty 4 and I just updated my "on my radar" section by replacing NHL 2008 with NHL 2009. Woof.

As far as Dead Space goes, I'm definitely starting to enjoy it more and feel like finishing it. It took too long to really get into the game -- and it wasn't until I basically decided to specialize in two weapons and just power them up that combat became fun. The game really doesn't support experimentation with different weapons because you die too quickly before you can figure out how to use them. The game also doesn't support pick-up-and-play because the controller scheme is so hard to remember -- and there's no in-game controller screen to remind you. 

Although I do wonder whether my main motivation to complete the game right now is because I'm over the half way mark, I think that the environmental and combat puzzles have gotten interesting enough to keep going. I do like the world, even though I haven't really been following the story. The zero-g portions of the game are pretty interesting and fun. It feels like it captures what combat in a true 3-d space would be like without being unduly frustrating. 

I've also started having more fun with the "grav gun" which can be very rewarding both in terms of item acquisition (grabbing far away things) and combat (firing explosive tubes or sharp body parts at enemies).

I still feel that the econ and upgrade system is clunky. Moreover, the progression curve is unsatisfying because instead of being exposed to cool new items and upgrades as part of the adventure (e.g., 1 hour in have the pistol; 2 hours shotgun; 3 hours machine gun) I just end up unlocking the ability to purchase these weapons without really trying them out first and seeing them in their best light. When my choice is between the unknown (which, when I first try it I fail at miserably) and upgrading something I'm already familiar with, I tend to go with the familiar.

Unlike other games that structure the experience around the acquisition of a new item (give me a rock, then surround me with scissors) this game presumes that you can decide which weapon you need based on a vague 2 sentence description. Then, after you buy the weapon, you don't have much chance to use it in a carefree way. The game is stingy about ammo drops and there are no sandbox areas where enemies (and items / money) constantly respawn.

Games like Ratchet & Clank do a great job of layering on new gadgets and weapons as part of the core progression path. They are integrated into the story and into level and enemy design. There's an economy backend that supports upgrades and non-critical path items, but resources are so plentiful that you're not really screwed if you end up buying something you don't like.

I'm basically sticking with the pistol (Plasma Cutter) and shotgun (Force Beam) and upgrading them and my armor. I don't even think I use the alt-fire on my Force Beam (I can't even remember what it is). I noticed that one of the achievements is to complete the game with just the Plasma Cutter. I actually don't think it would be that hard to do so.

I'll keep plugging away and hopefully finish it this weekend.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Dead Space: More...

So now I'm about a third of the way through the game and I'm starting to enjoy the claustrophobic atmosphere even if the combat and econ/upgrade system seem lacking.

The econ system feels derivative of Bioshock and Ratchet & Clank -- except it feels older and more tired. There was nothing ground breaking about the econ in either of these games (they are similar to many other action-adventure w/ light RPG elements games) but they seemed cooler because of the sense of humor and the fact that some of the upgrades and new powers were pretty original and fun. Dead Space is much more like Mass Effect (and many other RPGs) where bonuses are a lot of "X% faster" and "1 point more" upgrades that just don't seem cool to me because they make me think about spreadsheets (I've talked about this before).

Combat is interesting but not very visceral or engaging. Even though aiming is required to be effective, I don't seem to be able to do it very well. Part of me would prefer a smarter aiming system (it's not a MP game, right) that maybe I could upgrade over time. I think that Crackdown has a pretty cool system for making limb/head shots interesting and fun without requiring pinpoint accuracy out of a third person shooter.

Where combat gets most visceral is when in close quarters with an enemy or during several canned sequences that are a lot like quick time events in God of War (and other games). The idea is to mash the buttons in the correct directions (or aim your weapon while you're being dragged on the ground) to try and let you experience much more up close and personal combat as opposed to always having ranged shooting. It's a great idea when done well. The problem with its implementation in Dead Space (at least so far) is that it's hard to tell when you've gone into a quick time event (I died twice mashing buttons during one sequence before I realized I was actually supposed to aim instead of mash buttons like in other sequences) and the control sequence is hard to figure out. When I'm being mugged by an enemy, an A button icon appears. But pressing A -- and even mashing A -- doesn't seem to do anything. I now mash the left stick and A button and it seems to work most of the time. That said, I have no idea how the mechanic is supposed to work.

In terms of pace, I'm torn. I get the scary claustrophobic ambience. I realize I'm in a special suit and can't just run and jump around (except in zero g, which is kind of fun). But it still feels a little sluggish and breaks the immersion when I can't just hop up or down on something waist high.

In terms of in-game controls and UI, it's a bit of a mess. It's super hard to access your inventory when you need to (for instance, to use another air cannister), the map is pretty complex and can be hard to use if you veer too far from the default setting, and the button mappings make it a lot harder to perform combat maneuvers than is necessary. 

Regarding combat button mappings, I expect LT to either (a) lock on an enemy (that I could then sub-lock onto a limb/head) or (b) sight my gun (where I get a reticle and a slightly zoomed in view. Currently it's option B, but without the reticle. It also feels extra wonky to pick stuff up and hurl it -- I feel like I need to press and release triggers and buttons in the right order or else it fails in unexpected ways. I feel like some of these decisions were made in order to have RT be both melee (alone) and ranged attack (with LT), which sort of makes sense (because you can't press a face button to melee attack while aiming the camera with RS) but ends up making default attacks (ranged, special powers) more complicated to execute.

I'm definitely torn on this game. I want to like it more and forgive it the flaws it has, like I did with The Darkness. But I loved the story and character development in that game. I'm not sure the ambience is enough to keep me going until the end -- and the story really does seem like a hodge podge combination of Aliens, Halo, and various other sci-fi movies/games.

I'll give it a couple more levels and see if it surprises me. Otherwise it's back to Midnight Club: Los Angeles.

Dead Space: Initial Experience

Dead Space piqued my curiosity a while back when I saw a teaser trailer. It looked like a survival thriller set in space. Then I heard one of my colleagues talking about the game and how it had some really cool game play mechanics and was a tense and scary experience.

So, I carved out some time for a hands on -- and after a couple of hours I must admit that it's starting to get good. The initial experience was pretty lousy. Had I not been convinced by a couple of other people I trust that the game got better I would most likely have given up and been sad that I purchased instead of rented.

Although the team tried to push the level of immersion to a new level by incorporating the standard HUD into the game world, the sense of immersion was constantly broken by awkward controls.

Some of the issues I noticed:
  • A 3rd person shooter without a reticle makes for a frustrating experience for me. Unfortunately I am generally Y axis inverted, except for some platformers and third person games that don't involve aiming. When I aim I require inversion to drive the reticle where I want it to go. Without a reticle I find myself constantly fighting the Y axis during exploration mode (constantly stare at my feet when I try to look up and vice versa). The thing is that I can't leave it non-inverted or else I won't be able to aim my weapon. I can see how the reticle could be turned off by default (like in King Kong) but there needs to be an option for folks like me.
  • The basic controls were complex enough (and not taught well enough) that I got stuck and almost had to quit when I was about 20 minutes into the game. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out how to use the "stasis" power or even how to heal myself.
  • The tutorial isn't very good. It's basically a series of billboards that relies on you remembering the lesson you were taught (if you bothered to read it) instead of having you figure it out as you play along. 
  • Moreover, because prompts often come when you're focused on something else, you often ignore or forget them. This highlights a separate problem: It's almost impossible to find where these tutorial hints are logged (who would have thunk that there would be a set of logs before chapter one?)
  • Basic and advanced controls are hard to discover. It's unclear why the buttons are mapped the way they are. Moreover, a few simple UI affordances would help make remembering controls (especially controls accessed when holding LT) much easier.
  • Progression is weird and slightly frustrating. The basic econ system seems similar to Ratchet & Clank and Bioshock. The problem is that the player is just dropped into the system of shopping and upgrading without much help. This means that the player can waste a bunch of currency by mistake because he/she doesn't understand the tradeoffs involved. There could have been much better pacing of how Credits, Power Nodes, the Upgrade Bench, and the Store were introduced.
  • The level design seems old school in terms of the basics: Find a key, use it to unlock a place you can't reach yet, and don't die. Also, the econ system seems kind of weird from a story perspective: We crash land onto a ship to try and repair it; the ship is malfunctioning and overrun with creatures; yet I still need to gather "credits" in order to spend them in a shop. It's funny how this didn't seem to bother me at all in Ratchet & Clank and only bothered me a little bit in Bioshock
  • Combat seems like it might be interesting... Lots of weapons (with alternate fire) and varied creatures means that there should be some tactically interesting scenarios. However, I have encountered some QTE/button press sequences where I'm being mobbed by enemies that I can't quite figure out (I just die).
The story started in an intriguing way, but then devolved into listening to two of my party bicker back and forth. I want to know more, but I'm not as engrossed in the story as I was with other recent RPG, FPS, and Action Adventure games. Also, I want to know a bit more about my abilities -- why am I able to use telekinesis and stasis? Is it just the suit or do I have special powers as well?

I'm going to give the game a couple of more hours and hope that it will eventually meet the bar of some of the other great single player action/shooter games that have come out in the past few years. It just feels very derivative right now -- kind of a Frankensteinian mixture of Doom 3, Half Life, and Brute Force.

Midnight Club & Dead Space

I finally got my second wind in Midnight Club: Los Angeles. It started out great -- as fun as the original and with more visual and story polish. Then I got a little lost in the wild for a bit. I guess I expected the game to be structured a bit more, so what I ended up doing was losing a lot of races that were too hard for me and spending all my money on speeding tickets. This meant slow progression in terms of performance upgrades (which makes it even harder to win tougher races) and slow progression in terms of cosmetic upgrades (which are at least a third of the fun of the game).

I finally just started milking the easiest races and got the money I needed to have fun (dominate against other low-ranking folks; being competitive against tougher foes; and being able to pimp out my car in cool ways). Now the game is getting much more fun and I can tell I'll be playing a bunch more of it.

One other thing that's really nice about the progression curve: I can earn a ton of cash racing the default car so that I can really soup up the harder-to-drive (more specialized) cars and make them easier to handle when I start out with them. I remember struggling with muscle cars in Dub Edition, but I don't think I'll have the same problem here because I'll be able to buy and upgrade one that handles well before I need to complete those missions.

That said, I need to take a quick break to check out Dead Space. It's just got too much good buzz to let it idle on my shelf any longer.

A couple of quick notes re: Midnight Club, first:
  • LB activates special move. I drove around for a long time before I could figure out how the mechanic work (powers up and then executes on LB press). See, you get the prompt to buy a special move upgrade -- and you get told to use it -- but you never get told HOW to use it. Whoops.
  • Cosmetic car customization is a bit too advanced for me. I much prefered the more restrictive options in Dub Edition because it guaranteed my car would look cool without much fuss. Between awkward camera controls and weird advanced/tecnical features required to customize decals, I think I'll be spending a lot less time on this feature. I can understand why they did this (to be competitive with games like Forza and PGR that have active online communities who love to share car porn).

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Midnight Club: L.A. First Thoughts...

I developed an unexpected love for Midnight Club: Dub Edition when it came out a few years ago. I'm not a racing gamer at all, but decided to check it out because of the rave reviews and good sales.

I blew an entire weekend pimping out my stable of cars and playing the heck out of the game. It blew me away. The arcade nature of the game, the use of special moves and map knowledge to win the race instead of having to understand a realistic simulation, and the over-the-top beauty of the cars really kept me going.

The next iteration: Los Angeles is a more highly polished version than the previous version. Cars and landscapes are beautiful. I'm sad they don't have Venice Beach (the southern border of the game is I-10) as I would have liked to drive through the neighborhood I was hanging out in last weekend. They've definitely captured the L.A. feel. The cut-scenes are as good as those in GTA IV -- maybe a little weaker in terms of story and character, but visually amazing. Driving around is fun already, and will get even more fun once I unlock cooler cars.

As an initial experience, I felt like the pacing was decent for a sequel (at least for folks like myself who played the previous version). However, I still managed to dig myself into an uncomfortable hole early on through various crashes and police chases. I'm not sure if I like the police chases and am desperately trying to remember if there was a similar element in the previous version. 

I also wonder about the realism in the game and hope that we'll still have some of the insanely cool across the rooftop races and 500+ yard jumps in souped up cars. I haven't explored the map that much, but I'm crossing my fingers.

One of the most interesting things they've done with the game is to make all transitions seemless by default, including going from game play to back button menu and from single player to Live Cruise mode. It's really pretty cool in terms of how the back button menu works and even though the rapid camera shifts occasionally feel a little nauseating, it's nice to quickly orient yourself to the game when you're dropped back in.

When I selected Quick Cruise from the Xbox Live submenu (off the start button) basically the AI cars dropped out and were replaced by people just driving and hanging out. We were all quite content to zoom around the map in 2s and 3s without purpose even though there were a handful of options to engage in more organized competitive play. I still remember my first online trip in Dub Edition. I bumped into two people who were trying to jump their SUVs onto the roller coaster tracks. It was pretty funny to watch.

I've heard multiple rumors about racing MMOs in development and I'm thinking that if someone were to cross Warhammer with Midnight Club, there might be something to it. I like the idea of having my single player world populated with other people (some of whom have similar goals, some of whom have independent goals, and some of whom have opposing goals). Not only can this be fun in terms of observation and interaction, but it can also be helpful in terms of having a helpful buddy provide tips and tricks. It was also super cool to be driving around in my old beater and see more advanced drivers whiz by me in their fancy looking cars. I kind of get the same feeling when I watch high level characters in an MMO. They visually stand out and look cool -- and inspire me to keep plugging along.

I'll need to do a bit more analysis of the initial experience. It seemed like it offered a nice way to ease players (experienced vs. newbs) into the game, but as an experienced player I'm not sure what affordances it provided for people who struggled with the first couple of races.  Maybe I'll watch Liza play the first 30 mins or so. Also, as I noted above, I was allowed to go into debt quickly (by damaging my car and getting arrested) which made the beginning drag on longer than it had to (and kept me in a less cool car for longer than needed).

I'm looking forward to spending some more time with it. And with Dead Space.

Addiction vs. Fun...

I've reached a stage in Warhammer where I need to reflect deeply on whether I'm becoming addicted or whether I'm actually enjoying the game.

I think what I like the most about the game is that it allows me to play it very casually. I can jump in and out easily and knock off a few items from my quest book or do some exploration. That said, Ive mainly been playing it as a way to relax in several sustained bouts. There's definitely an addictive quality to the reinforcement schedule that the game has put me on. Just when I think that I've reached a logical stopping point I find several new things to do.

One of the most interesting things I'm finding is that I actually want the world to be more populated. The public quests and RvR components are so fun -- and help you level up so much more quickly -- that I actually miss them when I'm wandering around doing my own thing. Again, this is a tribute to the matchmaking mechanics used in Warhammer that emphasizes communal play without requiring social interaction. It's kind of like a series of flash mobs where we all just show up and start hacking away.

What I'm really wondering is how this will work out nearer to the end game. Most MMO games require a huge amount of strategy and communication to solve difficult end boss encounters. I've even noticed in some of the tougher boss encounters in Warhammer that these affairs can become quite sloppy and hopeless. I wonder how this game will keep the cool free-for-all mentality while ramping up the challenge ramp to keep things interesting.

Next up: Sitting on my comfy couch with some console games: Dead Space and Midnight Club: Los Angeles.

EDIT: I did complete the Diedrich Bader quest. No -- I did not get to do two chicks at the same time as a reward.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Well, you don't need a million dollars to do nothing, man...

I must admit that I'm starting to really like Warhammer for all of its basic flaws (it's an MMO which requires too much chat/monogamy; it has serious usability issues mainly in terms of discoverability of core features). Between it and small bouts of Facebook word games, it's pretty much all the gaming I've done this past week.

Now that I'm spending more time working on games I'm spending less time playing them for fun. It's a known issue with folks working in the industry. And it sucks. There are lots of great games that I want to play, but I just don't have time.

I'll be the "guest of honor" at a local Usability Professionals Association dinner function next week where I'll be bringing a variety of handheld and board/card games to play and discuss with some of my usability peers. It should be interesting -- I really want to talk about pick-up-and-play experience (accessibility, initial experience) and the social surfacing of related content (something that few games do well -- with the basic point being: Now that I've found a game and given you money, could you please help me spend more money on other things I'd like).

I'll also be attending "Night to Unite", which is a charity event hosted by the ESA. It's in San Francisco and should be quite fun -- I'll be hanging out with good friends and the proceeds go to a good cause.

Oh, yeah. The title line to this post obviously refers to Lawrence and Peter Gibbons' conversation about what the two of them would do if they had a million dollars in the cult classic Office Space. I bring it up because just as I logged from my last session in Warhammer I realized that I had just accepted two quests from a man named "Diedrich Bader" (the name of the comedian who plays Lawrence and has performed in many other TV and film roles). I do like a game with a good sense of humor.

So, Warhammer.

Before I criticize the game too much, I should point out that they have perhaps the best feature ever. Well, I guess it really is the best implementation of the feature ever because other games have included it before. 

The feature I am loving is the "let me do fun stuff while waiting for PvP matchmaking to complete" feature.

Prior to this, the best "waiting for a game to start" feature was to provide a sound effect so that players knew to Alt-Tab back to the game window from their email or websurfing. Nothing struck me as so lame and painfully boring as watching folks in other MMO and competitive MP games chatting and bitching while waiting for one more person to fill the last slot. Thus I never grouped in games like World of Warcraft (which limited its appeal because you can't progress very far without questing in groups) and why I only played RTS games that had quick match (so I didn't have to sit in a lobby or staging area and listen to 14 year old kids talk about their homework until the game started).

Warhammer does an awesome job of dropping the player into interesting and well balanced PvP group game play. You simply join a queue (off of a UI widget on the main screen) and wait until the queue fills. Then you continue going on about your normal questing business. When a slot is ready and the game is about ready to go, you get a simple popup that allows you (and your party if they're interested) to join -- or decline if you're in the middle of something cooler and don't want to be interrupted.

The BEST part is that when the PvP instance is over, you're dropped right back where you started and lose absolutely no progress. Wow.

This encourages loners like me to group with folks because it's painless (the combat is so tactical and frenetic that there isn't time for people to bitch and chat much -- it's more like an MP objective map in a first person shooter). This makes things much better for PvP people because they get hot and heavy action without having to stand around and spam chat channels for groups.

The closest I've seen to this quality of implementation was in Halo 3 which allowed the player to surf for Live games while in SP mode. However, you lost all mission progress when you left the SP experience which meant that you had to make a tough choice: Do I join my friends' game and lose 30 mins of progress? Or do I decline and finish the level?

Warhammer: The downside...

So, I'm really interested in Warhammer because I'd like to start working on some more casual MMO games. This means that the game play needs to be accessible, deep but not overly complex, and lend itself well to more casual game play patterns.

In terms of accessibility, it's clear that Warhammer did not pay much attention to the initial experience for non-MMO players in general -- and did not do some basic work on feature discoverability for more seasoned MMO players.
  • The game is full of jargon which will be unintelligible to the newb to the genre. It's very stat heavy and relies on people knowing about differences amongst a variety of concepts like DPS, corporeal vs. spirit effects, reknown vs. XP, etc.
  • The game UI is OK when it comes to text windows (although more useful help text in several places would be great) but is very difficult to use when it comes to the illustrated UI screens. It's hard to know what parts of the UI are interactive as these screens tend to look like 2d art. I missed basic features (like how to travel across the map, how to abandon a quest) and more esoteric features (like how to give myself a cool title) because controls were undiscoverable.
As far as an initial experience for seasoned MMO players, the game actually does do a good job of guiding players to the cool new features by a thoughtful quest progression. There's a nice mixture of forcing the player's hand (doing the quest explicitly forces you to learn a new feature) and letting the player "happen upon" a cool feature -- like landing in the middle of a public quest that is already underway. 

In terms of complexity... Wow. Given that there are really only a few basic concepts (there are two opposing sides that are fighting an epic war on multiple fronts; there are some PvE events and some PvP events; players can help their side win by engaging in a mixture of both kind of events) they are represented by frighteningly complex visualizations in both game UI and map screens. The UI widgets and map screens look like charts from some PhD dissertation on quantum physics. Although the designer in me thinks it's cool how deep and complex the systems are, the player in me has to simply ignore it all in order to focus on the immediate task at hand.

In terms of play patterns, I'm curious how it's going to work. I'll be AFK for the next week, leaving my buddy (Kyle) behind. Then he'll be gone for a couple of weeks. I've been doing some play by myself and some with Kyle. I wonder whether we will end up growing apart -- and whether I will end up leaving the game because I can't just give it 3-6 hours per week so that I can keep up with my other gaming needs (and my life outside of games).

I guess time will tell.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Spore... Bye...

Well, I tried the "Civilization" phase of Spore tonight. It was pretty much an impenetrable mess of unplayability. Impossible to tell friend from foe. Impossible to conduct useful diplomacy because you needed to remember made up city names in order to get an ally to assist you (without even the aid of team color as a mnemonic). Terrible feedback: I had no idea how to interact with the neutral villages. Hard to wield 3-d camera -- unconstrained freedom means that I can get myself lost and into disadvantageous angles.

The weirdest part of it all is that they had so clearly ripped elements from the greats: Civilization, Rise of Nations, Warcraft, Starcraft, Age of Empires... But all they could come up with is Impossible Creatures -- a great concept, but quite unplayable for all of the above listed reasons. I finally Alt-F4'd out of the game when I couldn't figure out why my apparent ally got pissed off at me and turned on me after we'd taken out a foe's city together. Burgle.

Of course, none of this was done deliberately. I think the biggest "enemy" of good usability in this case was the desire to allow the user unfettered freedom to create things and interact with the world as they saw fit. Unfortunately this means that players are going to be penalized for "bad" decisions (positioning the camera in a place where it's hard to control units; design units that are hard to read against the background; minimize team color to allow for custom looks; etc) when it comes to game play.

One of the coolest, but slightly hidden, features of Spore is the volume of community content. Once I figured out how to simply grab someone else's prefab building or vehicle and drop it into my world, I realized that something cool was there. This is where friends could share funny experiments and where the virtual community could surface awesome creations through voting and form cool alliances and clans who worked together on larger projects.

Unfortunately most of this potential is lost behind the few "tic tac toe" buttons that indicate you can go to the Spore community for content... It's conceivable that you could play the game for a long time without ever realizing that there is a ton of content being created behind the scenes by other creative individuals. 

Not only is finding the content hard to do, it is also hard to discover GOOD content because there is no way to filter it in terms of "coolness," however the community defines it. I can sort by date created, date downloaded, and type of content. But nowhere can I see any social stats like how many people gave it a thumbs up? How many worlds it already populated? How many had been built/harvested/destroyed... All these stats exist, why not expose them to users in interesting ways.

Of course, there may not be great community data yet because active sharing (thumbs up or marking as inappropriate) are buried deep in the UI. There should be frictionless ways for users to compliment other players' hard work. There should also be lots of passive measures (how many times inspected; how many times encountered; how many times befriended vs. killed) to let people know that their creations are getting their time in the lime light. These are the kinds of data being collected at community sites like and and in community game worlds like Everybody Votes for the Wii.

It would also be nice if there were some more social presence data. Why do players have to be so isolated from each other? Why can't I open up my borders and let observers and players into my world? 

When I think about all the hype and all the potential, I guess I'm left to wonder: When does the Lego MMO Beta start? In essence Spore provides us with lots of lego bricks but no meaningful and enjoyable way to share and play with others both asyncrhonously and syncrhonously.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Spore... High.

So I finally muscled my way through the RTS phase of things. Now I'm just starting the more Civilization meets Rise of Nations portion of the game.

I must admit that I loved being able to customize my home city and land vehicle. I also love the idea that if other people see my stuff and like it, they can import it into their world.

Even though my opponents are controlled by AI, it's still fun to know in the background that the units themselves are generated by other players. And that my units/buildings will start appearing in other peoples' games.

Hopefully this section of the game will be more fun than the RTS section...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Spore... Sigh...

So, I'm still stuck on the "tribal" stage in Spore. Sigh. I'm on normal difficulty and need to figure out how to put it on "easy".

The strange thing is that I'm no RTS dummy. I'm not a competitive player, but I've worked on several RTS games and can usually hold my own against an average player -- or a default AI setting.

Spore suffers from enough usability issues to make this whole process annoying and frustrating instead of challenging and fun.
  • Even though I'm obviously having difficulty, there seems to be no dynamic difficulty adjustment. I get crushed the same way every time: Trying to defend one group, attack another, and be diplomatic with a third. I feel like there is some hidden "correct" way to do things that I'm not able to discover.
  • As an RTS, this game has all sorts of problems that most 2d and 3d RTS games have solved like: Unit identification (I can't tell the difference between various unit types; it's also hard to tell friend from foe some times); unit selection (there is so much popup text and the camera is allowed to zoom/pan to really into unusable positions); camera controls in a 3d world (why do I need to do so much of it?)... and the list goes on.
I really want to see the rest of the content so I guess I'll try and figure out how to lower the difficulty level (I know there's a setting, I just couldn't adjust it while in game). Failing that I guess I'll have to look on Youtube or GameFAQ for some hints.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Fun with cell phone usability...

My 360 is dying. It no longer displays video.

I was supposed to call 1-800-4-My-Xbox. Of course, my Samsung Blackjack doesn't have the standard letters that correspond to the digits on the phone (e.g., ABC = 1). So I had to go to to decipher what the letters translated to.

It turns out that I'm out of warranty (I bought it 3 years ago) so I'm just going to buy a new one with a larger hard drive.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Aging 360, Projector Woes, Braid, No More Heroes...

First things first. It looks like my 360 might be on its last legs. I've been noticing degraded video quality for a few weeks now. I figured it was due to the capture device I have attached, but I was able to rule that out. Then I wasn't able to change from 480p to any other HD mode. Then I wasn't able to get any video signal (but I do get audio). I checked the cable with a demo kit that I have and it seems to work fine.

This leads me to believe that my 360 is dying. Sadness. It's an original that I lined up for on the original launch date. It's served me well, but I guess it's time to move on. Thankfully there are big price cuts right now.

On another "aging tech" issue, my projector seems to also be dying. At first I thought it might just be the bulb, but after doing some research online I learned that the problem I am experiencing (projector display turns off after a few minutes until I power cycle it, then it works fine) might not have to do with the bulb and might have to do with some other defect. I'll do a bit more research, but hopefully it's just a bulb issue.

I "completed" the main quest line in Braid tonight. I use the quotation marks because I had to cheat on 2 of the 60 puzzles. Maybe if I'd read the text more closely -- or maybe if I'd struggled a little longer I would have solved it. Interestingly, both puzzles had the same solution (you needed to kill yourself to grab the puzzle piece). It was something I just didn't grok.

All in all it was a very satisfying experience -- right from moment one. It felt different and special in all the right ways. The design was intensely clever and really blew my mind. I can still think of a number of levels that I could solve in a way that made sense at the time -- but that I could never explain in words to anyone else.

I also decided to start plowing through my Gamefly Q a bit since the 360 is down. I popped in No More Heroes -- a Wii game that received some critical acclaim but not any real commercial success. It's a mature rated title for language, violence, and I'm assuming subject matter. You play an aspiring hitman who is 11th best. Your goal is to eliminate the 10 hitmen above you. The art direction of the game pokes fun its own low-res (at least compared to most 360 and PS3 games) look by deliberately adding some old-school pixel UI elements and game components. I guess this is supposed to be nostalgic to the older more hardcore player this game is meant to appeal to.

It's interesting that I picked this one up at the same time as Alone in the Dark. Both games are trying to make motion-control mechanics a centerpiece of game play. I reviewed the AitD demo a while back -- and I have a feeling that my conclusion of that review will be similar to my review of No More Heroes: It's worthwhile as a case study of what works and what does NOT work in terms of motion-controlled core game play mechanics. Hopefully the gems will be mined and the crag will be left behind.

One of the coolest moments (even though it took me a while to figure out) was when I received a cell phone call. I heard the phone ring and my Wii-mote vibrated. Then I watched my character pick up his phone. But I couldn't hear the conversation. All I could hear was a low scratchy voice.

Then I realized that the scratchy voice was actually coming from my Wii-mote. Yep, I had to lift the Wii-mote to my ear to hear the conversation that was being played over the cheap internal speaker. Clever!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Spore, Braid & Nintendogs...

First, Nintendogs. I broke down and bought Liza (and I) a DS Lite the other day. I thought it might be more relaxing for her than playing games on her huge MacBook Pro. And I know there are a ton of great games available for it. And I am somehow hoping that I find time to do some DS gaming myself.

Sadly Nintendogs wasn't very accessible as a game. It mostly entailed a lot of yelling at the screen, having the game tutorial break on us (we couldn't progress no matter how hard we tried), and searching the manual for the cheat code to delete the save games so we could start anew. Thankfully, Liza now has a Corgi puppy that is somewhat trainable -- but it shouldn't have taken a thorough reading of the manual and the tedious reverse engineering required to figure out things like "2 syllable pet names work better than monosyllabic names".

We're going to have to borrow some other games or else the DS is going to just sit and gather dust. 

Braid has continued to amaze me. I think that one of the levels (where you have a shadow version of yourself) is too mindblowing for me to ever complete without cheating, but I actually believe I might solve the rest of the puzzles with perseverence. And not just because of masochistic or obsessive-compulsive behavior. It's actually quite pleasurable to try and work out the puzzles even if requires being "stuck" for long periods of time as I try to reverse engineer the level. The game is really making me realize that I need to think more deeply about what it means to be "stuck" and under what conditions this becomes frustrating and leads to quitting vs. when it is OK and actually motivates me to engage in deeper, intensely pleasurable, problem solving behavior.

Spore had me going for a while. After conceding that world exploration and creature upgrades were fun enough to outweigh unsatisfying combat (impossible to tell friend-foe in the heat of battle; impossible to select your guy; impossible to run away when you're about to die), I wasn't prepared for how frustrating the RTS portion of the game would be. Combat was somewhat unmanageable and unexciting when I only controlled one creature. It was completely unmanageable and frustrating during the "Tribal" stage of the game. The camera and controls were part of the issue, but there was an even bigger issue with friend-foe detection and selection. It was impossible to manage my units in any strategic fashion and inevitably we were killed off time and time again. I tried to figure out the social game mechanics of the game (which were kind of fun to play with at the creature level) but found myself puzzled and lost.

I'll probably fire it up again at some point as I'd like to explore more of the features and progress through the game. I am also curious to see how the social and community aspects of the game continue to develop:
  • Will there be socially connected instances or places to hang out? Will there be a deeper guild or alliance system?
  • Will there be mods -- puzzles or scripted scenarios that tell a narrative or provide some other guided experience?
  • Will there be a better way to streamline the discovery of cool new community content and provide rewarding feedback to quality content contributors? I left a comment for some guy who created a creature I befriended (and that became an effective tank for me) but I never heard back. Nor do I know whether he benefitted in any way by getting a note of thanks from me.
In some ways Spore reminds me of Impossible Creatures. The idea (custom creature creator + RTS) sounds great and yields some fun units to play with. But, ultimately, the game suffered because it just wasn't that fun to play.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I played a bunch of Braid today, lost several hours of game play due to a corrupted save file in Spore, and completed a few missions in GTA IV (my fiancee wants me to off my in-game girlfriend -- but she must know something is up because she is ducking my calls).

I have LOTS to talk about re: Braid, but not enough time to do so tonight.

I've also got No More Heroes and Alone in the Dark sitting around waiting to be played from my Gamefly account.

And I've got a half dozen 360 demos (XBLA and full retail) and a bunch of DVDs lying around.

Time to get to work.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Spore... First impressions & PC gaming redux

Well, I'm reminded of what the "state of the art" is in terms of the PC install experience now that I've got Spore up and running on my machine.

There are downloads and installs (and uninstalls of previous downloads) and Readme.txt files and debug commands and...

You know what I'm talking about.

It's a tough call. Users want customization and community content. Console makers and publishers seem to need a much more closed ecosystem. So the pain gets pushed back on the user in terms of having to develop the technical expertise necessary to participate.

Interestingly, social computing applications have been trying to solve this by lowering the hurdles to participation. Utility must be instantly grokkable for an application to succeed, then there must be a sharing pipeline that fits within normal social computing scenarios. No fancy plugins should be required -- just an updated browser.

Given the new focus on browser stability and performance (Chrome, IE, and Firefox are all trying to address this with new releases) and the relatively frictionless barrier to entry for web based games, it's no surprise that more casual games (and casual game portals) are where we expect to see exponential growth in the next few years.

I wonder how growth on the EA Online, Steam, and offerings (digital distribution of PC content) will compare with browser based distribution systems that provide a console like user experience? 

I'm not saying there isn't going to be a market for AAA PC games... But how do you take 14 million active Steam users and make it 140 million users? 

Probably not by requiring Readme.txt files and console commands.

As far as Spore itself, I'm having a little fun with it. It seems kind of like a cross between Viva Pinata and FloW and some of the other Wrightian Sim games. The game has a very polished feel, but doesn't yet feel like it is going to have much depth in terms of creating intricate social and cultural puzzles for the player to solve in the ecosystems that are (I assume) evolving in response to the player's actions.

I think that the part I find least satisfying about the game so far is that I don't get a chance to really leave my mark on the world. I don't think I get to run into any of my genetic ancestors. I haven't yet started cross breeding with other tribes, but hopefully there will be some interesting emergent evolution where my allies mate with my tribe members and create their own mutations.

I'm also wondering whether there is a deeper social game -- or whether players can only show movies and pictures to their friends. Like Viva Pinata or Animal Crossing or even Mii Parades, I want to have creatures from other people's worlds making the leap into mine. Not in a sucky "all the 13 year old griefers dump their level 900 spider of chaos onto my little herbivores" way, but in a socially interesting way.

Most of all, I really want to be playing this game on my couch with a controller instead of a mouse and keyboard. Yes the interface is more elegant than Viva Pinata's, but I think that as a casual and accessible game there's no reason why options can't be pared down and presented in a console friendly way. I'm assuming that this is already in the works.