Thursday, February 26, 2009

Afro Samurai, Skate 2, Hardwood Backgammon, Sonic Chronicles

So, I spent some time gaming this evening. That is, gaming in addition to the usual dose of Facebook Scramble and Turn Play Backgammon

First, I had to dive back into Sonic Chronicles, the DS game from Bioware. As I mentioned in a previous post, the initial experience was rather tedious and frustrating. Having played Bioware games for years, I figured I should still give it a chance as pretty much every one of their games has had a kind of grim first hour or two of game play.

Turns out that it got a lot more fun. That said, I'm not sure it's something I'll spend much more time playing for a variety of reasons:
  • The IP isn't compelling enough. I'm just not a Sonic fan.
  • I've played similar RPGs that have more interesting combat and character selection and advancement. I do like a 4 person party (with lots of characters to acquire and choose from). I do like turn based combat. I just don't find the character advancement, available skills and equipment upgrades, and combat options to be as well done and polished as similar other games I've played recently. 
  • I really don't like the exploration mode: I want to explore the world as I would a platformer, not a pixel hunter. Yet because my movement input is a stylus, I am drawing all over the screen to try and get my characters to move where I want them.  Even more frustrating is the fact that my hand covers most of the screen when I'm using the stylus, blocking my view.
  • That said, I do like the idea of using the stylus during combat -- both for QTE minigames and for target selection. However, there needs to be a clear visual and auditory cue when the player is about to be presented with a QTE. More importantly, the QTE minigames are not well calibrated, especially for the beginner.  The QTE need to ramp up in difficulty from simple to more complex. The QTE UI elements could probably be a little more intuitive (it took forever to figure out some of the "timing" elements -- and I failed many, many times without realizing why).
  • I find myself skipping all the reading parts. I just don't see Sonic as much of a reader or talker and can't for the life of me begin to care about what all the characters have to say to each other. Maybe if I was more into the IP I would read more? I'm not sure. I read the heck out of Mass Effect ... It's not that I don't like reading dialog, but maybe I just don't expect to have that much reading in what I consider to be a platformer universe.
I also managed to play a few 360 demos.

I've played Hardwood Backgammon before, but decided to try it again given my new interest in playing Backgammon on Facebook. The Hardwood version isn't very exciting, but it mostly gets the job done and is certainly easier to use than the Facebook version. Of course, it does NOT allow asynchronous play (none of the XBLA turn based games do as far as I know), which is a shame. Taking my turn in various Facebook games has certainly been a key reason I log in so often -- and I have to believe I'd do the same if XBLA supported play-by-email options.

The highlight of the night was Afro Samurai. I loved the art direction and integration of comic book design into cutscenes. I think it really takes what the Penny Arcade folks did to the next level. Having great VO by Samuel L. Jackson doesn't hurt, either. Outside of combat the game feels very well written and polished.

As far as combat goes, I'm going to have to spend a bit more time breaking it down (the demo was quite short -- but sweet). Basic attacks and combos didn't feel quite right. I'm not sure whether it was my character poses/animations, the enemy hit reacts, the rumble, the camera, or "all of the above". There were some cool finishing animations and slo-mo attacks, but the nuts and bolts of combat vs. multiple enemies felt a bit off.

I was unable to figure out exactly how combos fed into my power meter. Truth be told, I was given a lot of functionality right off the bat -- and I'm assuming that the actual game layers these components on a little more slowly so the player can absorb them more deeply. Still, I'd like to know how I power up the "over" attack mode which functions a bit like Ninety Nine Nights orb spark (you dash quickly in different directions doing massive damage to anyone standing nearby).

Criticisims aside (and there are others, including: inability to switch options in the pause menu; inability to set the horizontal camera control to inverted even from the main game shell), the demo was tight. I'm not familiar with the actual source material (graphic novels or animated series) but I definitely felt like I was dropped into a world that I thought was cool and that I wanted to explore. Even though I have some concerns about combat, the demo left me wanting more.

Enough to buy the game? Not sure. I'm definitely bumping it up my Gamefly Q -- but we'll see. If I work on another action/brawler title, I'll definitely have to study it and Conan (which is also on my desk).

Finally, Skate 2. Not a genre of game I usually play for no reason other than none of the skateboarding games ever made me feel cool. The only extreme sport game I ever liked was Aggressive Inline. It had a pretty low bar in terms of accessibility, hot female skaters, and really cool environments. Basically, it was fun to skate and explore.

Skate 2 is another example of a game that is completely geared towards its (hard)core market. It was completely inaccessible to me. After 15 minutes of game play, I could barely stand up on the skateboard. Career mode left me stuck and unable to continue about 10 minutes in. The Freeplay mode started with a "bang" that meant every 12-15 seconds my character died and I had to restart. Whoops.

Although it hardly seems worth mentioning, I actually did bother to try to customize my skater. Stupidly, in retrospect, I chose a female skater. I should have known something was up when I got a dialog box asking me to confirm that I was sure I wanted to change the gender of my skater from male to female -- the default female characters were fuh-uh-ugly. Whoah. Freakishly ugly. Not just out of shape (though some of them were) but not even average in appearance. Hair, eyes, facial structure, you name it. The clothes were mostly unflattering.

Seems to me that character creation and customization is a pretty known and solved science:
  • Start with attractive and popular defaults. At least have 2-3 presets that have "buy in" from some sort of art director.
  • Add a "random" character generator button. Let players jam the button a bunch of times to get a sense of the possibilities and either accept one as is, or take one he/she mostly likes and tweak the rest.
  • Yeah, it's cool to let me know that there are lots of unlockables in the game. Still, try to organize options such that it's easy to scroll through the currently available options instead of having to stream through pages of locked content.
In some ways I wonder whether the demo might have been better with the following:
  • True freeskate mode. One map available as SP or as online play (can join/host). Default attractive skaters as playable characters (but allow players to customize from a small set of content).
  • 4-5 self-paced tutorial modules. These could be executed as quests in the freeskate mode. Break down a few of the basic skills and let players practice them at their own pace -- not when under the stress of some arbitrary time constraint.
It's too bad (in my mind) that skate games are so hardcore. In my mind I still have the fantasy of relaxing while listening to music and skating around and exploring a cool world. Possibly coordinating stunts with friends like we did when we played co-op Crackdown

Maybe I can still hope for an Aggressive Online MMO. That would be cool.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bejeweled Blitz Sound Off. Why is BB harder to play without SFX?

I'm sure other folks have addressed the issue more thoroughly, but I've definitely noticed that I obtain much higher scores "sound FX on" than "mute" whilst playing Bejeweled Blitz.

Part of it must be that I'm getting additional information that I can somehow process in parallel to the visual stimuli I'm already paying attention to. I can tell a chain reaction is continuing while I scan for the next match; I know I need to speed up as the clock is about to run out.

But I also think that part of it has to do with the rythm and flow of the game. Successes are much more visceral and exciting when combined with the solid reinforcing crashing sound; matches made "to the beat" form chains that lead to greater points.

It's hard to believe that such a quick and simple matching game has captivated me... And though I am improving over time, I still feel like it has a lot more to teach me in terms of game design and gamer goals/expectations.

On a side note, it's interesting to consider the use of sound FX on websites. If I had been asked 5 years ago, I would have hastily concluded that sound FX on websites = bad. But I'm not sure this is a universal truth anymore.

Obviously some websites are dedicated to streaming media and require sound to be useful.

Well designed sound feedback could help give user interfaces a more solid "feel" when subtle (and well designed) cues are combined with mouseover and click events. We see this in games all the time.

The basic problem is that the bad apples spoil it for the well-intentioned sound designers. I need to mostly surf with the sound turned off because I hate annoying SFX, VO, and music. I wonder if there's a browser-based solution that defaults to "no sound please" but lets you permit specific sites to broadcast sound if they've earned your trust. It's kind of like the headset for Xbox Live. Great idea when I'm in a party with friends. Never going to use it otherwise.

And, on a completely unrelated note, I'll post some more on Sonic Chronicles in the next day or so. I forced myself to play some more -- with mixed results.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Just tell me why can't this be love? (by love, I mean a great demo)

After watching a really terrible movie on the 360, I decided to cruise some of the recent demos that I have downloaded. Some of them were trial versions of XBLA titles and others were demos of upcoming console releases.

I spent a few minutes in each and will have to return to some of them for deeper analysis. But the overwhelming sense I got from the demos was "meh". None of them sucked me in from moment one. None of them filtered me into an experience that left me wanting more. And certainly none of them made me want to purchase full retail versions.

The demos I tried were:
  • On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness (ep. 2)
  • Resident Evil 5
  • Tom Clancy's HAWX
  • Three on Three NHL Arcade
So, 2 sequels and 2 new IP (well, reasonably new IP). 2 XBLA trial versions and 2 retail demos. A variety of different genres.

Were there any unifying flaws of these try-before-you-buy experiences? Not really.

In some ways, it was unlikely that I would really get into the first 2 titles. I've played previous versions of the games and just can't get into the core mechanics. 
  • RE5 is great in terms of mood and suspense, but like Condemned, I just can't get into the claustrophobic game play. In some ways, I'm still not sure how I managed to enjoy Dead Space so much (given it's another plodding/claustrophic action horror game), but I never did finish it so maybe the setting and zero-grav game play could only carry it so far.
  • Precipice is just too UI and word-driven. I love the use of comic strips to tell story (which has been used to great effect in other games like Max Payne) but I feel like I'm constantly waiting for another UI element to load or to quit out of a dialog tree that goes on forever. I never even got to explore the core combat systems. Given that I didn't get very far in the original Steam download, maybe the game is mostly about dialog trees and reading -- which isn't really my kind of game. I also found the world hard to navigate, the UI difficult to parse, and the penalty for clicking the wrong item is severe (you play the waiting game for the next screen to load).
HAWX started out with a bold (but not obvious) premise: To get players flying around in co-op mode with other folks. I'm always skeptical of this kind of experience (I hate playing with strangers for all the usual reasons) and generally skip demos that are MP only. But, ever since I had a blast playing through the Army of Two demo with a stranger, I've been more open to this kind of experience.

The basic flaw with the HAWX demo was that it had no real quick start mode that dumped you into a sandbox "fly around" mode. Instead you needed to worry about decisions like "Starting" a game vs. "Joining" a game (and all sorts of other options). Once the game started you were presented with boring tutorials that were easy to fail or skip by accident which left you stuck, having to guess what the designers meant for you to do to trigger the next sequence.

Unfortunately the co-op experience wasn't a great teaching experience, either. Unlike in a "walking around" game where you are in constant contact with other players and can observe and mimic their behavior in order to figure out what's going on, in a flight combat game usually other players are merely blips on the radar screen. 

There were other critical failings as well: Knowing that 50% of users will probably want to invert their camera/yaw, there should be an easy way to adjust this. The feature is buried under an options submenu that has jargonistic working with no useful help text. Moreover, there is no UI feedback to let you know whether your change registered or not, so I exited out twice without actually changing the option as intended.

But, when it comes right down to it, there is one main reason why I probably won't play HAWX again. Flying the plane is not fun. It feels slow, sluggish, and weightless -- all at the same time. Yeah, there's some rumble when I launch a missile, but I don't really feel like I'm flying a top of the line jet fighter. I realize that it's hard to simulate the kind of speed that these jets are capable of in a way that makes for fun game play. But, still, there are things that could be done to make the plane feel more powerful and deadly. At the very least, using the afterburners should rock my world and make me feel like I've got several g's of force pushing back against me.

Three on Three never really had a chance, unfortunately. I'm too big a fan of NHL Hitz (with 2002 being my favorite version). For a simple arcade game, they managed to make the default controls pretty darn awkward. I think that they violated the basic conventions of most other hockey games which made it hard for me to tell what was going on for the first few minutes (I'd switch players instead of speed burst, for instance).

The awkward controls made the game feel random, the weak team AI made the game feel like an episode of "chase the puck around", and the fact that somehow I managed to "win" even though the score was 0-0 at the end of the game still confuses me.

Sometimes I do wonder about the state of the traditional and console game industry. I know that there will always be awesome games out there (and I've been playing a bunch recently), but when I want to have a guaranteed relaxing and fun time, more and more I'm just firing up Facebook and playing some Scramble, Bejeweled Blitz, or my newest interest: Backgammon (by Turnplay). 

Friday, February 13, 2009

I'm a swinger: Pandemic, FEAR 2 Demo, Left 4 Dead MP, Bejeweled 2

I've had a chance to do a bunch of "brief" gaming over the past couple of days. There were highs and lows and in-betweens. I dealt with my biggest "low" in a previous post re: Sonic Chronicles (the DS game by Bioware).

Some of the highs and interestings:

Pandemic is a great co-op board game. There are many things that this game does well, but I think that the key things it executes on are: 
  • Vicissitude: The game plays like one imagines a real pandemic might play out -- lots of ups and downs, some randomness that never seems arbitrary or unfair, and a constant feeling of tension.
  • Flow: Unlike many competitive turn based board games, the fact that players are constantly engaged and working together means that you're always "in the game".
  • Accessibility: I can't remember a board game that had such instant appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike. I still remember the first night of game play (over New Years) when I was listening to people play (a mix of gamers and non-gamers). The non-gamers were the first to chime in with "Can we play again?" after they'd watched the world succumb to pandemic.
The FEAR 2 demo had its ups and downs. On the plus side, I love the IP and the feel of the world. 
  • The initial experience was very well polished: Creepy, engaging, and it taught me the game play basics in an engaging and entertaining way.
  • Controls seemed a little overly complex. But I'd recently been playing Fallout 3 (as a small arms gunner) and Left 4 Dead, so I did expect a learning (and unlearning) curve.
  • I also appreciated their Game Shell UI: It had a nice flow that only a few other games have used. First it helped me calibrate my display screen (it's a dark game, so it needs to be optimized based on display device -- CRT, Projector, LCD, TV, etc). Second, it had helpful descriptive labels for difficulty settings (self-reported behavior) to help players get into the right experience.
  • My main dislike is that I don't like the way my character moves. I can't remember if there was the sense of gravity and inertia in the original (I played it a bit on the PC). But it's distracting and even slightly nauseating to me -- and I can't turn it off or reduce it. I like a little bit of loping/head bobbing (I think Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay got it right) or using some gravitational force/drag when my character is injured, but I think it was ratcheted up a little too high for default running around. Felt almost like Conker when he woke up hungover and unable to move. Frustrating.
  • I'm torn re: health packs. I thought I never wanted to see them again after playing a bit of Call of Duty 3 (rest and recover model) and then trying Resistance: Fall of Man (old school med kits). However, games like Left 4 Dead remind me that health packs can add to the experience.
I then jumped into Left 4 Dead to play some MP. Basically I wanted to find out what it was like to play as a zombie. True to most Valve games, there was a ton of depth and a myriad of cool things to explore from the zombie side of things. The stats were detailed so as to make the scoring system transparent -- although I still never really grasped how team points really worked. 

One of the coolest parts of playing as a zombie (other than vomiting, strangling, and otherwise tormenting survivors) is that you get to see the game through several different sets of fresh eyes:
  • As director: You get a glimpse of the "set" from behind the scenes. You see the "actors" (the survivors) doing their thing and fade more into the background. It's really quite surreal and often it is quite fun to just watch the action unfold while waiting to respawn.
  • As a study in AI: You have goals (kill survivors, score points, retribution) and abilities (climbing, moving, attack, special). The level is seeded with various grippy UI (where undead can climb and go); closed doors are marked as "breakable"; and you can see silhouttes of your various conspirators and the survivors. I couldn't help but try to deconstruct how AI bots must "see" the level and pursue their "goals" because many of the in-game UI elements seemed like debug tools (albeit with a fine sheen of visual polish) to study and optimize AI behavior.
I kind of wish I could play as the zombies against an entire AI party of survivors. maybe the survivor AI hasn't been optimized for "leaderless" level progression, but still it would be cool to see (although I concede it may not be fun to play).

I finished the night off with some XBLA Bejeweled 2. I've written about my love-hate relationship with Bejeweled Blitz (Facebook) elsewhere, but I basically just wanted to check out the mechanics on the Xbox controller and see if I couldn't learn some more strategies by being able to take turns > 1 minute in length.

As it turns out, Bejeweled isn't very fun to play with the Xbox controller. It's hard to quickly move your selector to a place of interest and there are aiming issues (I often moved a gem the wrong direction by mistake) which makes the game very different, strategically speaking, from the tightly time-constrained FB version. 

I also think that playing on my projector made the game harder to play because I had to physically turn my head to see parts of the board instead of being able to take the whole board in at a glance on the PC monitor-sized version.

That said, it was still a relaxing game to play. I had fun trying to cheese out some Achievements even though I didn't really learn any new strats.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Quick Diversion: Sonic Chronicles

I'm not a big DS RPG player -- and I don't think that Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is going to make a convert out of me.

The biggest problem so far (the first 10 minutes) is that there is no flow. The UI is cryptic and hard to manage, there's far too much reading (for my liking), and far too much flipping between the dual screens to make it easy to follow along with the story. Moreover, control is constantly being ripped from the player's hands by "cut scenes" that introduce too many characters and concepts at once.

The core mechanic should be fun enough to just "play with" in some sort of sand box mode until the player is ready to layer on some additional features and concepts. Ideally the first few few minutes will proceed more at the player's pace as he or she figures out the basic mechanics and controls. 

The other thing I noticed right away: I couldn't figure out which buttons to press to have Sonic move and jump. I soon realized that this was because the game is intended to be played button-free. Just the stylus. Now, I love me a good pixel hunter game and am generally a fan of the stylus input. But if I have an avatar in a 3-d isometric world and there are rings for me to pick up and ledges for me to jump up to, then I really (REALLY) want to use the Dpad and face buttons to interact with the world. 

If it looks like a platformer, it should play like a platformer. Sure, you can add RPG elements (maybe more story; maybe some skill advancement like in Ratchet & Clank). But the core mechanic of world exploration, jumping, and ring-picking-up needs to be more satisfying than pressing the stylus on the screen.

The problem gets worse when it comes to the "chase" minigame. What might normally be a fun challenge (running a course where you need to dodge obstacles and hit power ups) becomes tedious and boring. 

If there was a cool and inviting flow, I could probably look past some of the glaring usability issues that confuse and annoy me. But there wasn't, so I couldn't.
  • The chase sequence seemed optimized for right handed pen users. My stylus hand blocked the screen when I tried to tap Sonic to make him jump. 
  • Moreover, during the chase sequence I couldn't figure out whether or not I was making progress, whether Sonic had to beat his pink sidekick to win a race, or even who I was racing against in the end.
  • The UI screens require far too much text explanation -- and similar to other Bioware games, the first time players visit a new UI screen they are blasted with a wall of explanatory text that has no context and is skipped or forgotten immediately.
  • Dialog trees were hard to figure out and difficult to navigate.
Interestingly, combat was one area that I thought was kind of fun. Mainly this was because it was a familiar turn-based format that is typical of many jRPGs, with an improved selection model (target an enemy with the stylus instead of toggling through them with the Dpad).

Although use of the stylus should have made spell casting/special moves even more fun to execute, the stylus UI indicators were hard to parse and the initial "spell" that Sonic was equipped with was too difficult to execute properly.  The game would have benefitted immensely by starting players off with simpler spells that recharged quickly (instead of a hard to execute spell that takes forever to recharge).

I'll keep the game in my backpack for now. I figure I need to spend at least another hour or so in order to pass final judgment. 

That said, it's hard for me to imagine whether the story behind Sonic will be enough to keep me interested in what is, after all, a DS platformer.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Guitar Hero: World Tour and Left 4 Dead

It was a weekend of high profile titles: One new IP (Left 4 Dead) and one sequel (GH: 4).

Left 4 Dead is an example of a game that is built for co-operative play from the ground up. Notice even that the top option on the Start Menu is to play the co-op campaign. Second option: MP. Third option: Single Player game.

I haven't played with strangers yet (or MP variants), but so far the game has been a blast. Nail biting suspense, tactical depth that makes the game challenging and fun, and decent bots to substitute for when you don't have enough friends online and don't want to play with strangers.

When you get to spend 3 years loving, crafting, and building a game that -- at its core -- is based on an extremely fun premise (co-op survival horror vs. zombies) and you are committed to iterative design, you have an opportunity to deliver a powerful and polished experience. Valve has done just that.

Guitar Hero: World Tour is a game I'd been meaning to pick up for a while. I've written about the "flow" that I've experienced on a couple of occasions while playing Rock Band with friends and I wanted to study that a bit more. The initial experience was daunting and not really optimized for a more "newb" like myself... But once I got going I definitely got sucked in and I can't wait to play some more.

I'll have more specific comments and updates as I dive deeper into both of these games. I also have 2 DS games on the way (I'll be traveling a bunch, so I figured I should): 
  • Sonic Chronicles (the Bioware RPG starring Sonic)
  • Nancy Drew: Mystery of the Clue Bender Society (I want to see how these games translate to other platforms)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Some gaming updates: Wii Fit, Guitar Hero, Conan, Bejeweled Blitz

First things, first.

I finally cracked 100,000 points on the Facebook app Bejeweled Blitz. I've been struggling for over a month to do so while some of my "less serious gamer" friends reached this mark with little or no struggle at all. 

I've been trying to figure out "what gives?" Many folks tell me "it's all luck". But I guarantee that I've played more rounds of BB than these friends, so that kind of rules chance out. What I'm left to believe that I was systematically pursuing strategies that were leading me to perform worse than chance.

As someone who spends his professional career breaking down core game play mechanics, this has been a very humbling experience. Now I need to see if I can replicate my success (as my other friends have done) and then analyze what I'm doing now that I wasn't doing before.

On another note, I just received a copy of Conan. I don't know much about the game, except that it's from THQ and I know one of the design leads who provided a lot of combat mechanics, balance, and pacing feedback to the development team. He wrote an article about it in Game Developer that was quite instructive. I'm curious to see how the "learn as you play" was structured and how the challenge ramp was built with the goal of applying some of those findings to other games I am working on.

And, just to take a completely different tangent, I also fired up Guitar Hero: World Tour and watched Liza play some Wii Fit. GH:WT has some interesting usability challenges associated with it. I only spent a few minutes with it, so haven't formed any complete impressions. It looks like the kind of game where the design intentions were noble (Quick Play mode; Tutorials; customer generated content sharing; "Beginner" difficulty level) but somehow along the way it crossed the fine line of "you're killing me with all this help". It's already a game about sensory overload (especially when you add band mates and beers), so the question becomes: How do you please everybody (and this is a game with a mass following of diverse gamers) without failing certain basic use cases (like easy to jump into party mode; co-op tutorial sessions; etc).

More thoughts to come.

The night ended with Liza demonstrating some of her new Wii Fit accomplishments and having a quick 27 minute workout. It's amazing how all of the sudden it hits you that you've done almost a half an hour of exercise. Yeah, there are problems with the trainers (they're creepy) and the challenge ramp (it seems like there should be at least one more step between Basic and Advanced for some exercises), this is one of those games that could probably change someone's life around. I'm excited about doing some of the stretching and balance exercises -- they'll be really helpful for hockey. And some of the strength exercises also look pretty darn useful.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Tweaks to the blog...

I've been spending a bunch of time over the past few days twiddling with this site. Mostly I've been fiddling with widgets and trying to integrate my Twitter feed.

I decided to try a new name for now, as well. I like "Think - Play - Write" for its directness. "Jackalshorns" keeps it fun (and ties it into my online gaming presences)

For fun I looked up some possible latin translations (a sort of equivalent to the classic "veni, vidi, vici" or "cogito ergo sum"). I made some fairly entertaining discoveries regarding the word "play".

Some translations
  • Ludo - "To Play" (the most literal translation)
  • Desipio -- "To Act Foolishly / To Play the Fool / To Make an Ass of One's Self" (this could easily describe some of my gaming experiences)
  • Ineptio -- "To Play the Fool / To Trifle" (kind of interesting and funny at the same time)
  • Lascivio -- "To Run Riot, Play, Be Wanton" (oh, yeah!)
I almost went with Desipio - Cogito - Perscribo as it works on multiple levels, but thought it might be too meta.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009 Initial Experience

So, in a much anticipated move after their acquisition of Reflexive Entertainment, launched their videogame download store beta:

Here are some thoughts re: Initial Experience.

First, the good:
  • As an existing Amazon customer, time from "hit the download button" to "playing the free demo" was less than 5 minutes. Not bad considering I needed to install the downloader first. The default install pipeline was simple (with advanced options available) for someone like me who has used other installers and is familiar with the drill.
  • Every game has a Free Demo. Yes, yes, and more yes. You listening Wii Ware?
  • First hit is free. I failed to notice the Free Demo policy initially (see my comments below), but even better than that is the offer of 3 games for free. Basically Amazon games is saying "try our product and install pipeline for free -- we're banking on you liking it so much that you'll be back and buy some games". This is the kind of personal utility that will cause people to log in -- or even sign up for a new account if they don't already have one.
Now, the "Needs Improvement" (I realize that many of these features are probably already in the works for the next Beta or full release, but mention them to be thorough):
  • Free Stuff. Free Trial. I didn't notice any of these messages on the page at first (even though they are featured prominently above the fold). Why not? Probably because I'm there for content (I'm scanning box art to see if I recognize any games or if any of them look cool and fun to play). I'll bet if we used eye-tracking we'd find that the user's flow was from 'pretty game box art' to 'pretty game box art'. And the only other thing there is "Price: $9.99" in bold red text. There needs to be a way for the user to learn that the game he or she is interested in has a free download version just by looking at the box art. It should be at least as prominent as the price sticker.
  • Box art was too small for most games. There is cool and well-branded content available -- but it's hard to notice. I like the fact that there is lots of white space (easier on the eyes), but I want bigger pictures. This is supposed to be FUN.
  • Note that Amazon has attempted to solve both of the above issues on other pages by having larger images with mouseover hot spots that provide purchase/wish list options. Just change this to purchase/download free trial options.
  • Where are my community features? I want ratings, reviews, discussions, tags, uploading of high scores, videos of game play cheats and quirks...
  • Where are my personalization features (obviously we need to wait for better data before implementing this, but I can't wait!)
  • The top-center graphic (a rack of dozens of games) looks like the interactive "lazy susan" on other pages that I should be able to spin by mousing over it. But I can't. And that makes me sad.
But what do I most want to see? I want a platform experience that rewards my loyalty. I want Achievements and Gamer Points. I want Friends Lists and Leaderboards. I want aggregated play data on what folks are downloading, playing, and loving. And I want to share all this information via a Facebook App.

All in all, a great first step. I can't wait to see future iterations.

NOTE: Full disclaimer... I'm a former Amazon employee (community and social features) and frequent customer.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Lego Batman... Finally got around to it.

I'm wondering if the novelty has worn off of the Lego series. I find this hard to believe as I still just love (love) busting objects and collecting blocks/bolts/what-have-you.

Lego Batman promises more of the same goodness that Lego Starwars delivered in spades. They've taken a few lessons from Ratchet & Clank, which I think is a great idea given that this game is more about gadgets than about swapping heroes (if it was "Lego DC Heroes" then they could have had more emphasis on hero swapping). The Batcave seems very similar to some platform areas in the various Ratchet & Clank games; the magnetic boots (and winding metal paths) are clearly a tribute to the R&C goodness.

Maybe I'm not excited enough by the IP to forgive the Lego series' flaws... Or maybe some of the flaws are exacerbated in this version. I'm just not that compelled to continue on:
  • Movies seem longer and not as good as the Starwars versions.
  • Geared towards more hard core/experienced players (easier to fall to death early on; combat difficulty is a little challenging for the first 2 levels).
  • Severe level design x camera interactions that make for cluttered/obstructed game play.
I wonder if I'm also a little bit sad that the combat system is so shallow. I've been playing a lot of action and action RPG games where more than just button mashing is required and I feel like my combat options in this game aren't that exciting. Pair this with the fact that the default gadget (boomerang) is not very easy to use in combat, I feel like it doesn't really matter what I do in combat -- just don't hit Y (switch by mistake) or hold X (go into boomerang mode).

I also wish there was a little more gravitational pull for the blocks -- I think I've become spoiled by other games where the essences released by a player's desctructive actions are automagically scooped up (instead of requiring me to run everywhere to try and pick some random block up).

No big surprise, but the UI and game shell menus could use some work.
  • The classic "binary option; both of which look highlighted" problem (one is in yellow text; the other is in blinking white text).
  • Jargonistic terms in the settings pages ("adaptive difficulty") and missing contextual text when having to choose upgrades (what the heck is "silhouette mode"?)
Considering that I've now basically spent $25 on it (2 months on loan from Gamefly) I should probably return it in favor of the next two games in my Q (two DS games: The Sonic rpg and a Nancy Drew game).

I'm an idiot...

So I've had a copy of No More Heroes sitting on my desk (well, I did play about 2 hours) since Aug 28, 2008.

How do I know this?

Because that's when Gamefly shipped it to me. I am on the 2 games out program for $25 per month. That means I've spent 5 months on it at $12.50 per month. The "buy now" price is $17.99. So, basically I paid $62.50 to evaluate part of a game that I could have bought for $17.99.

Like I said above, I'm an idiot.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Time to dust off the blog-webs... Light, Camera, Curses!

I just completed the recently released Nancy Drew: Lights, Camera, Curses game. It was available on Big Fish Games as one of Her Interactive's first "casual" releases on the portal.

All in all it was a pretty fun game. Good production values, well polished visuals, interesting art direction. Moreover, there were definitely some additional affordances (like skipping ahead in dialog trees, more mouseover text, balanced for non hardcore Drew fans) than in the recent box copy releases.

That said, I have circled a few areas for improvement:
  • Minigames were a little outdated and could have used some usability polish. Some of the mini games had confusing UI elements (like which block is going to be dropped next; where will the block land). Controls did not feel that responsive. The minigames seemed dated because I've played more polished versions of them already.
  • Game shell UI needed some work. The options screen could have used some more friendly descriptive text (what's the difference between "fullscreen 1" and "fullscreen 2"). The main in-game menu (where you review progress) had a hidden tabbed menu system that I didn't figure out until I was almost finished the game.
  • Laptop support is needed. There was no "low battery" indicator and the game doesn't work well with mousepad and standard laptop RB controls.
This is really the kind of game that I would like to play on a mobile device (DS, iPhone, etc). I look forward to future versions.

As an aside, I have a bunch of gaming housekeeping to do:
  • I finished Fallout 3. The ending was kind of lame, so by "finished" I mean I finally reached level 20. I'll download the DLC and play some more. As much as I hate the fact that it took me about 10 hours to get into the game, I ended up really liking it.
  • I have a metric ton of demos that I have downloaded and I need to try and write about.
  • Liza and I also tried out the Wii Fit the other day. I need to start playing it more and probably blogging about the results. At the very least I need to describe our initial experience.