Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Update from the road: Games I worked on, games I'm looking forward to

I'm currently on the road working on stuff that I can't talk about...

But, I can at least mention that Ninja Blade hit the shelves last week. I'm credited as a lead external producer and mostly provided production, combat design, and usability feedback. Working with FROM Software was an awesome experience: They are a talented and hard working studio and a fun development/publisher partner. I look forward to working on more of their games.

And, I can also give a "shout out" to my homies at Big Huge Games, now that the details of their RPG have been made public. I provide them with usability feedback on controls, combat, and various other systems that touch the user experience. They are really fun to work with and are committed to making awesome games.

As far as new games hitting the marketplace, I'm pretty excited about:
  • New Left 4 Dead DLC. I'm assuming that this will add even more cool ways to enjoy one of my fave co-op experiences of the year.
  • Lode Runner 3d for XBLA. I played a demo at GDC and had a blast. I have a feeling there will be a few usability/readability issues due to the visual upgrades, and of course there's always the fact that the Xbox controller has no good digital stick or d-pad... But I'm still excited.
Notes to follow.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Some fun with Tag: The Power of Paint (student game)

I found Tag: The Power of Paint while trolling for student games. It is representative of many of the polished, enjoyable games coming from student game developers these days. As a 3-d puzzler, I enjoyed playing the game for about an hour or so and have a few comments about what I liked and some of the things I'd love to see improved.

As far as setting and theme go, I loved it. It has the parkour feel of Mirror's Edge both in terms of art direction (desaturated world highlighted by colorful points of interest) and level design (dashing around rooftops, making impossible jumps). It also uses conventions from great games like Portal and Braid by having text/story/icons/graffiti be both "in world" (as advertising signs and graffiti messages) and helpful to mission progression (the slogans are actually helpful hints).

The very initial experience (first few minutes) were really nice in that you were dropped in the world and left to explore in safety. Initial hint billboards were non-modal and stayed onscreen, but unobtrusively so, until you had learned the basics (how to move, look, and step in paint).

The mid initial experience (next 15 or so minutes) were a little more uneven -- I'll detail some of my complaints below. But the "core game" (which I consider to be the level just before the first subway train) was quite enjoyable. The world became an interesting street puzzle that I needed to solve using my brain and my spray paint cans.

My main complaints are mostly about reducing the cost of failure when learning a new trick and a couple of camera/controls issues.
  • The camera felt too low to the ground (about knee level). This actually made me feel queasy -- which never happens to me in FPS games (well, maybe a bit in Halflife when I peer over a cliff edge). This felt extra disorienting to me before I picked up the paint gun (there was no onscreen representation of my character -- not even a bare hand).
  • Some of the initial puzzles may have been too challenging for people not as familiar with FPS controls or who have not played many 3d platformers before. I'm thinking specifically about the wall jump puzzles (which also require figuring out how to time the W and D button presses to use your inertial force).
  • The blue paint ("Stick") was initially very disorienting because I ran into the fire hydrant and got stuck to it. This led to my character to being flipped on his back, which totally confused me. The "ground point" arrow might help a bit in terms of orienting me to where the ground (and thus gravitational pull) is, but there might be better environmental cues to use than this like lighting, decals, dust particles, etc. Finally, I wonder if there needs to be some sort of sound/visual cue and FX when I switch to "Stick" mode. If I were playing on a console with a vibrational controller, I would expect a bit of rumble and maybe some camera movement as well.
  • There probably needed to be one or two additional checkpoints (or some level redesign) near the first vertical wall and first lateral wall ricochet puzzles. I, personally, needed to retry these puzzles several times to get them right which meant I needed to replay a big chunk of the level each time I failed.
  • More of a polish thing: Hitting the "Full Screen" button from the main menu was very disorienting. Without warning my screen blinked and fluttered for several long seconds. Then the game appeared in windowed mode, but I was unable to mouse outside the window so I could not reposition it in order to quickly move between my notepad and the app. I know it's a tough call whether to lock the mouse pointer inside the window (to prevent errant mouse movements from deselecting the game) or allow the user to click outside the game window, but I expect my windows to behave like windows -- and this means I can mouse and click outside of them (and move them around).
Perhaps the most important missing element, to me, was a sense of story and how my character fit into this world. When I think of two relevant competitors (Braid and Portal), both of them have set the expectation that even simple puzzler/platformers should have some sort of story line that pulls me in. What is my motivation? Do I have a crew that I'm trying to impress? I enjoy the flow and puzzle solving, but I really expect more depth from a game like this. Maybe I shouldn't, but I do.

I was also left to wonder whether there were any plans for social play (coop or competitive). It seems like this would be a logical direction to take this game.

Finally, I realize that this was a student project and that they may have just run out of time/energy, but it seems like there should be some support for a community of level creators. I have to believe that games like Armadillo Run and Crayon Physics succeed in many ways because they facilitate user generated content creation and distribution.

XBLA meet Amazon.com: You got your peanut butter in my steak

Eventually there will be a better way of surfacing great XBLA content to prospective buyers. Selling Arcade titles on Amazon.com is a step in the right direction in terms of infrastructure (Amazon has a great system of reviews, ratings, and recs), but not in terms of user task flow so the match is not perfect.

I waited a couple of weeks to post this article because I wanted to give Amazon customers a chance to add enough customer input to make ratings and reviews data useful. But, even though thousands of units of the most popular games have sold over the past two weeks there are only a handful of ratings and reviews.


User task flow. When are users most likely to give accurate star ratings and reviews? Immediately after playing the game. It still amazes me that XBLA (and, for that matter, Steam) still do not make it easy for players to rate and review content while within the service playing a game. Players are much less likely to rate and review content when they are on the website in "purchase mode".

Of course, this innovation is more about making a Gifting purchase pipeline (something that Steam has already -- I've talked about its weaknesses in another post). This leads me to wonder why, in the day of unique Gamertag identifiers, we need to purchase codes that we then enter in the dash via console controller [NOTE: it looks like you can also enter purchase codes via keyboard at Xbox.com]? It seems to me like you would just include a Gamertag picker during the purchase pipeline (there could be a validation screen that displayed the gift recipient's profile information). The purchaser could type in the name and store it in his/her address book. Then the next time the gift recipient logs in to XBLA he/she receives a gift notification.

Moreover, from a purchase pipeline perspective, this whole exercise would be easier to accomplish within the dash, anyhow. Simply add a "Buy as gift" option for all purchasable content. Of course this would only work when both giver and receiver are both XBox Live members.

The true brilliance (in my mind) of having an external-to-XBLA purchase pipeline is to enable non-gamers (e.g., parents, non-gaming spouses, etc) to buy gifts for their loved ones who do like to play games.

Imagine a world where:
  • I could add premium content I wanted to my Amazon.com wishlist from the Xbox dash and with a few clicks my fiancee could purchase these items for me on the website and they'd automagically download and unlock on my Xbox.
  • XBLA customers could rate, review, and tag (in a Little Big Planet console friendly way) game play content on the Xbox and these ratings would appear on Amazon.com so that purchasers not familiar with these games could use these ratings and recs (combined with gift recipient purchase data) to make purchasing decisions.
I have to believe that this kind of convergence is in the works.

If not... Why not?