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.

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