Saturday, August 22, 2009

Day 22: Country Store Beta

Day 22. And I've sadly fallen behind in a serious way from my 30 in 30 goal. And to add insult to injury, I forgot that there are actually 31 days in August. I guess I should rename this challenge '31 in 31'.

Luckily when I get back to Seattle I'm going to have a bunch of free time to start working through the backlog of games that I've meant to play along the way.

After today I will be 15 games in 22 days. Now, I did play and write about 3 Intuition Games, but I'm only counting them as one game as they were really short 'gamelets'.

Before I dive into Country Store Beta, I should mention that I played a bunch of N+ yesterday afternoon and evening with a good friend. We worked through the co-op multiplayer campaign so he could play throught the single player campaign on his own. Although the challenge ramp was uneven, we had a blast and were entertained for hours. It reminded me of some Gears of War co-op sessions I had with a friend on insane difficulty. I was a terrible player and we died over and over again. But the death sequences were hillarious and eventually we perservered through a couple of missions. Both GoW (co-op) and N+ (co-op) remind me to always be mindful that there is a fine line between frustration and engaging challenge -- and that we need to calibrate these challenges based on both social and individual game play needs.

Now, on to Country Store Beta. It's another in a series of farm games that are, apparently, hugely popular in China. After playing a couple of sessions across two days, I'm definitely enjoying it more than I enjoyed Farmville. Farmville seemed, to me, less like a game and more like just another social "pass-me-a-drink" application on Facebook. Sure, adoption is huge (and still growing, at least among my friend base). But its entire focus on the "social" (gifting, messaging, inviting, reciprocating) make it less fun to me in terms of moment-to-moment game play.

Country Store Beta seems to take a different approach. It instead focuses on the solo game play experience in order to draw new players in. There's a ton to do (questing, exploring, farming) and the learn-as-you-play seeding of activities is pretty well thought out, at least over the first hour or so of game play.

I haven't encountered many social quests yet, so I worry a little bit about the ability of this game to grow virally. Yes, I love the fact that it doesn't seem to require me to spam my friends. What I wonder is whether it will keep me playing long enough so that when I get to the "invite" call to action I actually follow through. I took a quick glance at the current quest list and there do seem to be some "introduce yourself to your neighbors" quests. But, this will not work well for folks who are early adopters and who don't have many friends who have installed the app already (I currently only have two friends who have installed the app).

In terms of usability quibbles, I have a few:
  • I do appreciate mouse cursor state changes (something Farmville and other Flash applications seem to be missing). That said, there are not enough of them. It's great to show my character holding various objects (watering can, hoe, etc) but they aren't readable from certain angles.
  • Perhaps more importantly, I need better sound and visual confirmation of when I've performed a valid vs. invalid action. When I click an unharvestable plant with my basket I should realize right away that the game registered my click and why it is an invalid click. This should be differentiated from a "missed" click on a valid target and a "hit/engaged" click on a valid target.
  • I love the fact that I can interact with a neighbor's garden (other than just to "rake up leaves" by clicking OK on a text billboard). But the options, beyond just watering their gardens, are somewhat confusing. I can't tell whether I'm "stealing" by taking some of the crop yield (which would be an antisocial act -- and could lead to serious griefing) and I also couldn't tell how to use "friend points" when asking a friend for assistance.
  • I couldn't figure out how to gift coins/items. Whoops. I have the quest item to do so, but there was no explanation of how to do this and I've tried multiple things (clicking on my UI buttons, visiting neighbors and clicking on their UI buttons). No luck.
All in all, the options and depth of this game are keeping me interested at this point. I'm going to do a little more questing and try to figure out some more of the social mechanics.

We'll see if more of my friends notice these actions in my stream and jump in.

EDIT: A couple of extra notes after I went back and played some more.
  • I eventually figured out how to gift. It was buried in the "Storage" menu, so I mainly discovered it by accident.
  • There could definitely be some improvements to the general buying and managing resource UI flows. There are lots of examples of where I need to make extra clicks to close pop ups when I could instead have buttons leading to associated/related actions.
  • 'Reverse questing' seems to work some times and not others. By 'reverse questing' I mean when I complete a quest objective without realizing it (before it becomes available; or after it's available but before I noticed it in my quest log) and then return to the quest giver. I'd like the quest to autocomplete and remind me what I did to complete the quest. This seems to happen some times, but not all the time (I need to leave the quest log and wander around or re-do part of the quest to complete it).

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