Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Gaming on Virgin America: In flight games

So, I've been telling everyone I know lately about how much I love Virgin America. Great prices, connects me to the places I want to go, and a kind of cool/club-like atmosphere in their terminals and planes.

What I want to talk about in this post is their gaming console. Like Jet Blue and other airlines, Virgin America planes have display screens in the back of every seat. The cool bonus on VA is that there is a handheld game pad (with text keypad) you can use to play games. This is in addition to watching tv, movies, listening to music, or texting with other passengers.

Not surprisingly, there were some highs and lows of the gaming system. 

On the plus side:
  • At least they're thinking "games". Kudos on understanding that games are one of many sources of digital entertainment that people enjoy in addition to music, books, movies, tv, etc.
  • They had a modified version of the original Doom. Interestingly, I never completed the original (but beat Doom 2 several times). Aside for some quirks I detail below, it was pretty enjoyable and reminded me of what a great game it was.
  • Not game related, but they had a "mature comedy" channel that played some vintage Eddie Murphy. I say "goonie goo-goo" to you, too.
On the interesting side:
  • Kudos to VA for providing mature content. I hope they did it intentionally and are prepared for the eventual flak from "concerned parents" who witness other people playing Doom or listening to the potty mouth of Eddie Murphy. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut? 
Things that could use improvement. Yeah, it's a long list, but most of it is pretty fixable. I look forward to dramatic improvements in VA's digital games offerings in the future.

The gaming console itself:
  • The game pad doesn't have predictable functionality when driving the main user interface. For instance: dpad does not appear to control the mouse pointer; "a button" is not always select; "b button" is not always back, "start" and "select" buttons yield unpredictable actions; the keys on the key pad sometimes have functions and sometimes not; there is no consistency amongst games ("q" exited without warning in one game; did nothing in another).
  • You can't listen to streaming music during game play. Whoops! I have to believe that this would be a much requested feature given the lack of music/audio in most of the available games.
The games, in general:
  • They are alpha/beta versions of relatively hard core games. One of the games actually had the work "unix" in the title. Hard core. This means that they are not very accessible, are not paced in ways that encourage casual game play, and seem outdated and unpolished. Yes, they are "free", but there is GREAT free content out there. Use that instead.
  • To take this one step further: There are tons of student and indie game developers who would love to provide content to VA. If they had a contest they could get hundreds of entries to choose from (and a ton of love from gamers and free publicity). Moreover, VA could set guidelines in terms of controls standards, quality, accessibility, etc.
  • The absence of social features is stunning. I can send text messages with my neighbors, why can't I play games with neighbors? See leaderboards (real time and historical)? Imagine if while I'm playing the anagram game I got to see the scores of other passengers bubble up on a leaderboard. Cool.
I also have specific feedback on the three games I played the most:

The Anagram Game (forget the name): 

I love anagram games and consider myself to be an expert at them (feel free to challenge me to a Wordscraper or Scramble game on Facebook). I love to anagram all the time. But still, this version could barely hold my attention for various reasons: 
  • No keypad support (holding your arm up for 5 minutes is tiring).
  • Not balanced or paced in a way that made it exciting (cf. games like Word Twist for ways to do this properly).
  • The dictionary was non-standard and confusing. OSPD, please :)
  • The top right menu options were clustered too tightly together. This led to me quitting the game by mistake instead of taking a new turn a couple of times.
  • Related to the above: It's probably easier (and it's certainly a better flow) to present an obvious "Continue" option once the player has completed a turn. 
  • Ideally the player would get feedback on how well s/he did as well (either a grade, or a ranking based on leaderboards).

I don't play much Mahjong, but I know it's supposed to be a relaxing tile matching game. This game wasn't very relaxing when played by the keypad:
  • First, make sure it's obvious to the player that this is a touch screen game. I assumed I needed to play it via the game pad and didn't realize that it was optimized for touch screen play until we landed and I saw someone else playing via touch screen. Detect for game pad usage and prompt the player to use touch instead.
  • Dpad select mode is jacked. You can only move the picker reticle left or right. Not up or down. This makes selecting tiles incredibly inefficient.
  • Need to select a tile using the "enter" key pad. This functionality should also be on the "A" button.
  • There is no sound effect feedback to confirm tile select, valid match, and invalid match.
  • I quit by mistake by pressing the "q" key (while I was trying to figure out what theup/down control was).
Gem Drop X:

Gem matching games are insanely popular. Moreover, their design and functionality is pretty much solved in terms of basic mechanics. Variants are popular because they extend/refresh the basics. This game needs a lot of work before it can be competitive with existing titles in the genre.
  • Left and right on dpad made sense (move my "guy" left and right), but why was "grab gem" put on down and "launch gem" put on up? It would have made much more sense to either have them both on "A" button (if you only allow players to grab one gem before launching it) or "A" to grab and "X" to launch (if you allow players to pick up multiple gems).
  • The basic "valid match" mechanic was hard to deduce. It seemed like only vertical matches were valid (and not horizontal matches). But when you made a vertical match it also "popped" all similar gems that were touching (horizontal and vertical). 
  • It was impossible to tell which column you were grabbing from/launching to. This is because there was no aiming reticle and there were far too many columns. Inevitably I grabbed the wrong gem or launched gems to the wrong column. Reducing the number of columns (see balance/progression comments below) and providing a target reticle would have helped a bunch.
  • There was no balance/progression curve. The game started in fairly hard core mode -- wide screen of columns, failure on one level = game over, there was no sense of progression in terms of when new objects and powerups would appear, there was no feedback on when a level was completed. Ideally the game would start with many fewer columns and would layer on new objects and powerups as the player progressed. There should be "lives" so that players can progress after setbacks and ideally difficulty levels so that expert players could jump ahead to more difficult boards.

I never completed the original. I had already beaten Doom 2 and the original didn't seem to run on my PC at the time. I spent about 15 minutes playing this game (after binding some keys properly, see below) and would have gone further had there been a checkpoint system (see below). I was reminded, however, of how scary and exciting the original was even though the graphics now seem so dated. The creature sound FX (especially when they are off-screen) are awesome. And the chainsaw and shotgun still felt great.

My basic critiques:
  • Need better key bindings (controller mappings) by default. Once I properly mapped weapons select to the QWERTY at the top of the keypad, things went much smoother.
  • Sound FX seemed to be missing for some pickups. 
  • Need a checkpoint system. Yes, the original was a PC game where players were expected to quick save and reload all the time. But most people don't really play games this way anymore and you shouldn't be required to replay a whole level if you die just before completing it.


Bill Kendrick said...

Thanks for the feedback on Gem Drop X. (Looking back, it's kind of amazing that _5_ of my games ended up on Virgin's entertainment system.)

For a little back-story, "Gem Drop X" is a port of "Gem Drop", a game I wrote on an Atari 8-bit computer (1.79MHz 6502 CPU, 64KB RAM, 48KB of which are relatively easy to get at). In turn, that game was based, initially, on how I thought the game "Magical Drop III" worked -- from observation... prior to actually playing it.

So a lot of the lack of polish you see in GDX is basically due to the fact that I was doing a direct port from a highly constrained platform. (FYI, it went from "Action!" -- a very nice high-level language for the Atari, circa 1983 -- to C + Xlib, and later replacing the Xlib stuff with libSDL.)

That said, looking at your feedback I'm thinking "wow, yes, this old game could do with some freshening up." Unfortunately, I have an extremely busy day job and growing family -- not nearly as much "sit down and hack on game code" time as I did back in the late 90s, early 00's. ;)

Fortunately, Gem Drop X is open source (GPL), written in C, and uses a popular and portable open source graphics/sound/input library, Simple DirectMedia Layer (libSDL). So maybe I should make a TODO.txt with your ideas and see if anyone bites. ;)

Thanks again!

(who got to see folks enjoying the original Gem Drop at my annual "Atari Party" in Davis, CA ;) )

Jason Schklar said...

Hey Bill,

Was delighted by your response. My site traffic is mostly russian bride spam, so it's nice to hear from someone in the game dev community.

Maybe I'll even fire up the keyboard again -- I've found that after leaving the consulting biz and starting a family of my own I have less and less time to write.

The main reason I do (well, did) this kind of blog was to help me catalog some of my thoughts and think more formally about game UX problems and possible solutions. Now that I am sleep deprived (cf. 2 kids < 3 years) I need it more than ever as a memory aid ;)

Best wishes!