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.