Saturday, April 26, 2008

Now I'm gaming... And Portal still rules

I just breezed through Portal again... This time on the PC.

It still holds up as a great game. This time I listened to all of the director's commentary, which was a nice addition. It's nice to hear about game developers talking so much about their play testing learnings and how they incorporated those learnings into guiding principles (e.g., "how do we correct for the fact that players don't usually look up?") in addition to specific fixes (e.g., "how do we calibrate this level for the first time player?").

Of course, what I'm really looking forward to this time through is the community content. Unfortunately, even though this is a huge selling point of the game *and* Steam has added a bunch of community features (and a community tab to their client), there doesn't seem to be a straightforward way for me to access this content from within the game.

I'll dig around and see what's up. Note that folks who bought the game and *don't* already know that there is community content might never even think about this possibility unless they navigated past the included bonus materials to an empty subdirectory that hints (abstractly) that you could have more content if you found it and placed it in the correct place.

This stuff really excites me -- and I can't wait to see next revs of the game and Steam client to hopefully make grabbing high quality community content much easier for gamers.

I'm not gaming, I'm updating drivers

Well, I decided that I needed to test my new PC gaming rig with a retail title in order to see what the current state of the industry is. I haven't played a retail PC game in just over a year, I think.

I don't think I've completed a PC game since Halflife 2.

So, I fired up Steam, and after retrieving my old user name and password, I decided to purchase the standalone PC version of Portal. I already completed the Xbox version (I love the Orange Box) but I know that there is a level editor and a lot of community generated content to mess around with, so I plunked down the $19.95.

I also briefly explored the community features -- which felt pretty uninviting given the competition out there. As I mention below, Steam definitely reduces the friction of playing PC games, but really only for power PC gamers who understand that they need things like "drivers" to play games. I'm going to spend a separate post reviewing the community features in terms of their accessibility to the much wider casual games market -- one that the folks at Valve should be exploiting because they could clearly dominate in that space.

Anyhow, back to Portal. Upon launch, I received a warning that informed me that I really, really (REALLY) should update my video driver. I could skip the warning, but it seemed clear that I should do it. Luckily they had a handy link (they already knew what my system profile was).

I clicked the link and was taken to an nVidia web page. It wasn't too badly laid out -- though, again, it did focus on the core user. The top part of the landing page was dedicated to folks who knew the specs of their video card. Interestingly, the selector was prepopulated to a card that was NOT my own (even though Steam could have transmitted this data to the website). I wonder how many folks would have just hit "search" and wound up installing the wrong driver?

Luckily, I stumbled upon the below part that was more of a one click solution. It installed some sort of app that automagically detected what I had and filtered me to the file I needed to download and install. A few minutes later (and after signing up for email updates) I restarted my machine and am good to go.

Ah, PC gaming. The experience is getting better, but man, the process is still so fragile. Imagine the family bringing a box home from Costco, hooking it up, and having their game not work at all due to... well... they have no idea. If they were hard core enough to know about Steam (or the Windows game optimizer) they would still be bogged down in the process for hours while trying to get their machine up to speed.

Yeah, consoles have upgrades. But you never have to do more than just press the A button and wait for a reboot. No thinking required (except, of course, for modders and cheaters who don't want to have their shenanigans ruined by the latest update).

Friday, April 25, 2008

I'm not writing, but I am gaming...

I've actually been doing some gaming this past week -- just nothing that I can talk about due to NDA restrictions.

I've been fighting hockey schedule, setting up the apartment (moving into a new place with my awesome girlfriend), leaving my current job, setting up my new business... Lots of stuff.

Thankfully, my gaming "cave" is ready to go. I may even do some PC gaming to celebrate. Perhaps some Portal mods that I can't get on the Xbox 360.

Can't wait to dive back in and start playing and writing again. The Darkness awaits.

For now, I'm just pestering my friends to take their Scrabulous, Text Twirl, and Scramble turns. And I'll be playing some World of Warcraft: CCG this weekend, too.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Text Twirl: A decent head-to-head version of Text Twist

I'm a big fan of most word games... and an especially big fan of Text Twist. The basic premise of the game is to anagram various words from a 6 letter rack. You have a certain amount of time and score points based on the number of words you guess, with more points for longer words. You also get an "extended play" if you guess the 6 letter word -- after the round ends, you get a new 6 letter rack.

The game was quite fun and the 6 letter rack would get "harder" each round. One of my quibbles with the original game was that I couldn't tell what dictionary it used. Personally, I play a lot of Scrabble, so I like to use TWL/OSPD4.

Once of the nicest features of Text Twirl, a recent Facebook addition, is that it lets you select amongst various dictionaries, including SOWPODS and TWL. The single player game is also fully featured, unlike competitor: Word Twist which has a sub-par single player experience (you only get one round even if you guess the 6 letter word).

Like Scramble, I love Text Twirl because you don't really have to worry about all the cheating that goes on with Scrabulous. Yes, technically, you could cheat -- but because the game is timed, you really need to want to cheat as opposed to just being lazy.

Text Twirl's user interface is as delightful and easy to use as the original Text Twist. Simply type letters and press the "enter" key, or press Space Bar to shuffle the letters.

That said, there are a few quibbles:

  • There doesn't appear to be audio feedback. One of the nice things about Text Twist is that you got audio feedback for "correct" vs. "invalid". This meant you didn't need to pay attention to the on screen text messages as you played the game. My one complaint with the audio feedback on Test Twist is that they didn't have separate sound effects for "already played" vs. "invalid".
  • Once out of every several times I load the application I am directed to the "Start a game with friends" page instead of the "my current games" page. This is annoying because you get the "start a game" page (which is intended for you to spam friends with invites) when you are simply expecting to take your next turn in a game you are already playing. I see why they do this (and why Scrabulous can afford not to do this since it already has a huge active user base) but I still disapprove.
  • Current Leader board functionality (like Scramble) is lame for the competitive player. The top players are so clearly cheating that it makes overall leader boards useless. One nice thing is that the Friends portion of the leader board has been better thought out than in Scramble. At least top scores are recorded instead of cumulative scores -- this rewards better players (who get higher average scores) over prolific players (who get lower average scores but play more games). Still, the experience is far inferior to my beloved (but sadly defunct) Griddle.
  • There doesn't seem to be a current/completed game inspector where you can view individual boards to see what words you got/missed after the game is over. It's nice to be able to study old games and see patterns that emerge, but this simply isn't possible right now (all you can see are winner/loser and final score).

Sunday, April 13, 2008

PMOG: I'm so very confused...

So, I figured I should check out the borderline memetic PMOG (passively multiplayer online game).

I signed up for the beta, waited a few days for an invite, and then installed the Firefox extension. Now I have a cute little toolbar at the base of my browser that is skinned -- well -- like a UI you might find in Ye Aulde RPG from a decade or so ago.

Problem is: I can't figure out how to play the game. I see that there are missions and have queued a couple up and launched them. But nothing special seems to happen. I land on a web page and have no idea what to do next.

Yes, there are lots and lots of help pages on the PMOG website, but I just want to goof around and start playing. I have no idea why there aren't a few standard learn-as-you-play missions that are suggested to new players. I have a feeling it would be really easy to design a mission and landing page that would teach the player the basic mechanics without having to dig through a bunch of menus and read a bunch of text.

I'll keep the toolbar up for now and maybe try again later. But so far, the initial experience has been disappointing.

Edit: I did finally find a "learn about the game" link. It took me to a mission that must have been broken because it simply dumped me in a shopping UI where I couldn't purchase anything because I hadn't yet acquired any of the in-game currency. Meh.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

More The Darkness

The Darkness is still enjoyable, but it is seeming less and less like an action adventure and more like an adventure. It really does fall more in line with Eternal Darkness than Chronicles of Riddick.

I'm finding the story and character development engaging even though it plays on rather tired stereotypes of New York lowlifes and mobsters. The main character reminds me a bit of the main character in Prey: Rough around the edges, but likable.

The combat aspect of game play, sadly, is not all that satisfying. While there is the promise of interesting/tactical/puzzle solving squad based combat, this has yet to be delivered in any compelling way.

Another frustrating aspect is in-game lighting and level design. I often find myself lost and not sure where to go next and need to refresh my memory with the journal or (worse) check street maps to figure out where I am and where I need to get to. Seems like the designers could do a better job subtly pointing my nose in the direction I need to wander in.

I think I'm engaged enough in the story that I'll try to blow through and complete the game in order to get some resolution. It still does amaze me that I'm willing to set aside the varied complaints I made in order to complete the story.

Monday, April 7, 2008

You have to burn the rope...

Yes, the little internet meme game You have to burn the rope has crossed my PC. Well, interestingly, it did not work on my personal lap top (and crashed my browser) but it ran fine on my computer at work.

Of interest, to me, was the learn-as-you-play feature that was incorporated into the game. It was partially like some of the annoying "tutorial by billboard" designs found in games and demos (the game pauses several times in the first few minutes to tell you make you read non-context relevant hints) and partially like what OneNote 2007 does in terms of providing a default "tutorial" document that is prepopulated with helpful text and data that suggest hints about some of the cooler features worth trying out.

Unfortunately the "game" felt much more like a productivity application in that by simply following the text directions I was able to complete the task. There was no real joy of discovery nor was I provided with additional content that would reward me from using my newly mastered skill and knowledge by applying them in different contexts.

Scrabble on Facebook: Initial experience failure

I tried to play the "legit" version of Scrabble on Facebook today. It was a failure.

I realize that Scrabble is currently in beta, but there's still no excuse for auto-detecting that I'm in North America, giving me a popup that says "you can't play in North America" and dropping me onto a dead page with no way to navigate out.

Having done some research in the area, I understand the legal reasons for not allowing me to play the game yet. Still, there needs to be a fail gracefully fallback:

  • Maybe tell me that it's coming soon and allow me to become a "fan" of the game?
  • Maybe ask me to join a mailing list or petition to help them gauge interest in the game?
  • Maybe ask me to sign up to participate in a North America beta?
  • Maybe even advertise the Hasbro/Mattel store and generate some revenue (this is what it's all about, anyhow).
Unless Scrabulous (the widely popular but illegitimate version on Facebook) is physically removed from the Facebook servers, Scrabble already has a tough row to hoe in terms of winning over fans. Not only does social inertia favor Scrabulous, but hard core fans are already annoyed with Hasbro/Mattel for shutting down Bogglific without offering any decent substitute -- and they've already signed petitions appealing to Facebook to not kill Scrabulous.

Hopefully the Scrabble team will be as nimble and quick to update and polish their game as the Scrabulous folks have been. The regular updates have greatly improved the user experience -- moving from fixing serious performance issues and bugs to the nice polish iterations (most recently adding a text link to jump immediately to your next game where you have a move).

Friday, April 4, 2008

Received my Dualshock 3 today...

I'm dedicating this weekend to setting up my new place -- especially my office/gaming/viewing room. I can't wait to be settled, gaming, and blogging at my usual pace.

Today the Sony Dualshock 3 arrived. I'll have to re-rent Resistance: Fall of Man to give it one last try. Maybe the third try with a meaty, vibraty controller will be the charm? In the meantime I do have God of War 2 at home, waiting to be played and returned to Gamefly. Maybe I'll try some of that this weekend instead of returning to The Darkness (which, as of my last post, had started to pick up).

I sincerely hope that the Dualshock 3 does for the PS3 what Akibono/Controller-S solution did for the Xbox. Say goodbye and good riddance to the Duke and the 6 axis controller.