Saturday, August 15, 2009

Day 15: Puzzle Bloom

Puzzle Bloom is a puzzle game that incorporates elements of Ratchet & Clank (when you'd take over control of various robots as Clank; obviously this mechanic is used in many other games, too) and Okami or Super Mario Sunshine where completing levels leaves them looking lush and beautiful. I played through the trial version.

You control some sort of spirit that can leap from automaton to automaton. It looks like there are going to be several types of automaton with different skills that can be used to solve various puzzles.

Config issues:

The game wouldn't run in Chrome. It also wouldn't run in IE 8 at first (maybe because I still had window in Chrome open). Eventually the game ran, but it stuttered quite a bit.

The basic issue is that as developers push the limits in terms of what browsers can handle, the user experience can degrade sharply, especially if you have an outdated or unsupported browser. At some point developers and publishers are going to need to do a better job of config testing and providing better warnings for players on unsupported browsers. They may also need to do some scalability work to optimize for common causes of browser slow down.

Tutorial / Learn as you Play.

There were only a few basic controls to learn. They were presented by onscreen UI icons. Unfortunately, prompts could fade before you had a chance to successfully complete the prompt. Also, you could be instructed to perform an action that your mouse might not be capable of (right-click on some Macs, mouse wheel scroll on some mice).

It’s important to consider that, especially for browser based games, people may be playing on laptops. This often means no mouse wheel and that right clicking is harder to do than on a regular stand alone two-button mouse. This means that there need to be keyboard accelerators for right click and mouse wheel functions.

Otherwise, the initial experience was pretty intuitive and fun. The early puzzles taught basic moving and swapping controls in a safe and easy-to-practice and progress format.

Core Game Play:

Here are several interrelated thoughts…

  • I really enjoyed the tangible reward of completing a puzzle. The music, sound, and visuals were impressive: Your boring, glum environment was turned into a beautiful oasis of peace and tranquility.
  • Moreover, this was tied nicely into game play: These sequences served as the save game/checkpointing system. When you died, you returned to the last oasis you had created.
  • Partway through the second level I was able to get the game into a degenerate state (stuck and couldn't proceed). This led me to notice a couple of things: There's no "pause menu" button. I mashed buttons and eventually found that ESC brought up a pause menu.
  • Regarding the pause menu, there's no graceful restart button at the pause menu, only "continue" or "credits". I didn't even notice the "Back to Main Menu" option that was tucked away in the corner at first. I finally held my breath and clicked "Back to Main Menu" hoping that I wouldn't lose my progress.
  • As it turns out, the above concern is much more severe than it originally seemed. The nature of the puzzle meant that if you made a common misstep when trying to solve it you could leave your guys in a state in which your creature/avatar could not jump back to another guy. After much finagling of the camera and the one automaton I could control, I managed to eke out a valid path and solve the puzzle without restarting the game again. There probably need a more graceful way of handling this issue.
  • I uncovered further degenerate states as I played deeper. The next category was when one of my automatons died while not under my control. Sometimes there was no way to retrieve the automaton which meant the puzzle was not possible to solve. There are obviously multiple approaches one could take depending on design vision. It could be like N+ or Trials HD where it's expected that the player will get stuck and need to quickly and easily restart the level by pressing a face button on the controller. Or it could be like other platform/adventure games where if an automaton dies it respawns in a safe spot so it is available for puzzle completion (which is what happened during some puzzles I encountered later on in the trial version).
  • Aiming/moving are sometimes problematic, especially when targets are moving erratically or rapidly. This is because a missed left click (intention = aim) means that my current automaton starts moving. I thought that this would have been prevented by having the move model be left click + hold, but even short, failed aim attempts end up nudging your current automaton. This can be annoying because sometimes the movement is enough to make the camera shift the map, which is disorienting. Other times this unintended movement could be fatal if you're standing too close to a dangerous object while trying to aim.
  • The default camera angle and behavior makes it difficult to tell where your cover is (when trying to use blocks as protection against laser beams). I couldn't tell whether my ass was hanging outside the zone of protection via the default camera angle and was zapped several times when I figured I was safe.
  • There are some cool puzzles that involve critical thinking. Moreover, some of the puzzles can obviously be solved in multiple ways, which is extra cool and invites me to retry some of them. One puzzle, that I had to retry several times, I assumed was a timing/sacrifice puzzle (I needed an automaton to die at precisely the right time in order to close a gate behind another escaping automaton). But after I completed the puzzle, I quickly discovered that I could have solved the puzzle using a "hot potato" approach (quickly jumping my avatar from one automaton to another until I could escape a deadly laser beam).

Main Menu:

Even though I encountered this first (when I fired up the game), I talk about some of the issues with it last.

  • There was no mouse cursor state change when I moused over clickable items (like getting the pointer switching to a hand).
  • There was no sound confirmation when I moused over menu item. There was only a slight color change to the highlighted item.
  • Selecting the "Choose Checkpoint" option didn’t appear to do anything other than make the menu text disappear. It would be helpful to use additional cues to indicate to players that they need to select a tree to choose a checkpoint.
  • Mousing over a tree/checkpoint highlighted the tree, but did not provide any useful information as to which map the checkpoint corresponded with. It would have been nice to have the mouseover behavior reveal a screenshot and/or description of where the checkpoint was and a time/date stamp of when it was created. It would have also been useful to have a clear indication of what the most recently completed checkpoint was.

Overall Thoughts:

One moment I was engaged and playing. And the next, the trial version appeared to end without any upsell screen or indication that the experience was over. I was just left at the main menu with nothing to do other than restart the game from stage 1 or replay the last stage I completed. This seems like a missed opportunity to teach me more about the game and get me excited about buying it when the full version is ready.

All in all it was a pretty fun game. However, there are some performance and controls issues that leave me a little worried about how I'll fare during more complex levels that require precise control under time duress.

  • Performance is something that needs to be addressed through a config database (if it detects I'm using an unsupported browser or old release, it should put me into a lower graphics setting so that game stuttering does not affect game play).
  • Controls probably need to be tweaked a bit to support laptop players who will likely be playing with a mouse pad. This means that right click is more awkward to perform than on a standard mouse, and that mouse wheel functionality needs to be added to some keyboard shortcuts.

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