Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gaming on the sly: Plants, Zombies, And Yet It Moves

Travel. Between work and my recent wedding and honeymoon, I’ve been traveling a heck of a lot lately. Traveling so much that I haven’t really had a lot of time to sink my teeth into many games. Not surprisingly, my writing has suffered.

It’s abundantly clear that I need an iPhone. I don’t care to do the kind of research and amount of thought required to rent or purchase games for my DS. I want to consume games on my portable device much like I consume games on Facebook: See what’s popular, give promising looking apps a chance, and then either keep playing or move on. My biggest worry is that unlike Facebook the Apple Store doesn’t seem to support much in the way of social surfacing of games I might like. There are top sellers and reviews (both important things) but there’s no Xbox Live or Facebook Feed to help me discover what my friends are playing.

So, in the meantime I’ve been mostly doing my tried and true social Facebook games: Backgammon and Scramble. Lots of my friends also play Mafia Wars, but I just couldn’t get myself to struggle through the UI long enough to feel like the effort would be worth the fun. It still amazes me that I put up with some of the usability annoyances of Backgammon and Scramble, but these games are small and personal enough (I play mostly with far away friends who I care about) that the friction is not a deal-breaker. Really, in many ways, the games are glorified asynchronous chat clients. I hate talking on the phone or by email, so they provide enjoyable ways to keep in contact with people I miss.

That said, I have been exploring some new games. Specifically, I tried the demo of And Yet It Moves and purchased Plants vs. Zombies. I also briefly interacted with several educational "games” (and watched children play these games) at the Monterey Aquarium.

And Yet It Moves was a fun little demo. It was hard core in the way that Braid was hard core. Game play was reasonably intuitive once you “got it” but there weren’t a lot of learn as you play hints to prod you along.

That said, the designer did pay attention to some basic principles of layering and distributing game concepts. The player was not forced to learn every single concept in the first few minutes (only to subsequently forget them before they were needed). Challenges progressed from simple tasks that could be completed without penalty of failure to more and more difficult versions of the same challenge (e.g., penalty for falling to far; penalty for having object fall on you; penalty for taking to long to make a decision).

My biggest worry was that after completing level 3 (the final demo level) the puzzles would simply become frustrating instead of challenging. Why? Because the key vectors of challenge seemed to be (a) navigational (find the right direction to go in); and (b) reaction time oriented (fight the gross camera movements in order to achieve precisely timed and directed falls). The former challenge wasn’t interesting to me (this wasn’t a game about exploration in my mind) and the latter challenge seemed like it would simply become frustrating because the controls were not designed for precision.

Some other thoughts:

  • Camera was pretty difficult to use.
    • It was virtually impossible to use until a friend told me I could remap the settings. This fixed my problem of always tilting the camera the wrong way.
    • I was also unsure why the camera movement was snapped to 90 degree angles instead of free move. I agree that complete free move may have been difficult to calibrate (sometimes you want to nudge the camera; sometimes you want to turn it 90 degrees) and I don’t believe that adding more complex controls (fast vs. slow rotate) would have “fit” the feel of this game. I guess I would have just liked to see a 45 degree snap version of the game to see if it was less disorienting to use.
  • Occasionally it was hard to tell where to go next. I’m not talking about “how to solve the puzzle” but just “where in the heck is my next objective”. This mostly seemed to happen on the last demo level when the camera would zoom in pretty far. I felt like I couldn’t tell which direction I needed to go.

I did enjoy the game, but I’m not sure whether I enjoyed it enough to purchase the full version. I’ll need to look into it some more and check out pricing first.

Plants vs. Zombies, however, had a compelling enough demo to make me purchase it right away. Yeah, the strategy part was a little light… But the aesthetic was refreshing and pleasing and the production value was top notch. Moreover it is a relatively complete buffet of my casual game needs:

  • Challenging RTS/Tower Defense modes for when I want to challenge myself.
  • Fun and silly puzzles for when I want something less mentally taxing, but more addicting (time waster games).

Moreover, the time waster games served the same purpose as “grinding” in an RPG: These side games yielded points that could be spent to unlock special features in the core strategy game – which made the strategy game easier to win for folks struggling with the main progression path.

The topic of serious games is something that is gaining huge momentum. It used to be that you’d teach with TV shows and movies. These are now being supplemented by games. Interactive games are a great way for people to learn either individually or socially at their own pace.

Unfortunately the “games” that I saw at the Monterey Aquarium weren’t all that enjoyable as games. They were more like interactive exhibits with some surface features that made them seem like games (like computing a score or having a competition amongst 2 or more players).

Some of the key problems (please note I didn’t take much time to study the games, so I’ll need to validate these thoughts in the future):

  • The games weren’t very fun.
  • The games had usability issues.
  • The games taught mostly simple concepts and did not focus on generating deeper understanding or engagement with the concepts.

Given the immense popularity of children’s social/community games like Webkinz and Habbo Hotel, it seems like we could be better harnessing both technology (more autonomous mobile devices for older kids; supervised computing for younger kids) and engaging game design to improve the educational experience of an aquarium visit.

  • Children could generate quizzes for their peers to take. Give them a digital camera, a lesson plan of objectives, and a simple quiz generation utility (like the one on Facebook) and let them go.
  • You could create either real life or virtual simulation and strategy games to demonstrate the effects of scarcity, environmental hazards, over-population, disease, and other factors on our ecosystem.

In some ways the list is endless. The tools for making games are becoming easier to use and children are becoming even more savvy at content creation and sharing. I definitely need to look deeper into the world of educational and other serious games.

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