Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Brutal Legend: The Demo

So, I loved Psychonauts. Except, of course, for the final boss battle sequence. Frustrating way to end a great game.

I can’t tell whether I’m going to love (or even like) Brutal Legend based on the demo.

I love the idea of the game and believe that Schafer can pull it off. I love having Jack Black as the voice of the main character (I really liked his character in King Kong, too).

But the basic controls left me scratching my head, wondering whether the game would prove too frustrating to play.

  • I find it really hard to get used to having a basic attack mapped to the A button of the controller. A is mostly mapped to jump or interact in these kinds of games.
  • Moreover, I really want an easy to use jump/roll when playing this kind of beat ‘em up combat. Instead, I have to “modify” the block command to get a roll (LT + B).
  • The main reason for having an attack on both the A and X buttons is so that the Y button can be freed up for co-op attacks with my partner. I’ll discuss these a bit below, but I’m left to wonder whether this special attack could have been moved to a trigger/shoulder button and left me with a more traditional A = jump, X = attack 1, Y = attack 2 scheme.
  • Vehicle controls also seemed suboptimal. Accelerate and brake are fine (RT, LT). But why do I need to click the Left Thumbstick to activate nitro? A face button would certainly be easier – as would a shoulder button. Moreover, it was hard to tell when nitro was available and how long it actually lasted.

Combat is sometimes difficult because the camera doesn’t self-adjust in ways that make sense, meaning that I need to manually turn and fix the camera during combat sequences. This is annoying and detracts from the fun.

That said, the game does a decent job of autoaiming my attacks so that just mashing the A button carries my swing into the next available target if the current one dies. And it’s nice to have a ranged attack on the X button to help clear out harder to reach targets.

Visually, the basic ranged attacks are very satisfying (strum guitar, see baddies get zapped or thrown in the air). However, it could use some rumble sweetening for critical hits. Also, I’m not sure what sound/visual/rumble feedback I’ll get for enemies who are resistant or impervious to this kind of attack.

The melee attacks feel OK when it comes to basic chains – and sound/rumble/visuals make it clear when my attacks are being blocked/resisted. I’d have liked to have a sweeter sound, rumble, and hit stop/screen shake when I finish off an enemy with a chain. Occasionally the game will pause and show a decapitation in cinematic mode, but it’s unclear what triggers this (it’s not the last kill in a sequence and it doesn’t seem related to anything I do).

The charged up attacks (strum and axe) are visually OK, but lack visceral feedback in terms of sound, rumble, and hit stop/screen shake.

The ground pound attack has a decent look, sound, and feel upon release, but the wind up is too sterile.

The “throw ally attack” (Y button) is somewhat unsatisfying. The “ready” indicator is a flashing UI element in the bottom left of the screen. This feature would be more compelling if there were in-game sound or visual cues as to when this became available. I also wonder whether it might be more fun to “summon” your partner automatically when she was available as opposed to having to stumble upon her and time the Y button press when she is selectable. I’m thinking more like Kingdom Hearts or Beyond Good & Evil where you power up the co-op meter and then release a co-op flurry when it’s available.

So, the question becomes: If moment-to-moment combat and controls are quirky in some ways and decent in others, will I end up enjoying the game? Note that I didn’t see any evidence of either platforming or puzzle solving, so I have no idea whether these systems exist or it’s just hack and slash.

In the end, I guess, it comes down to world and story. I have forgiven many games for their moment-to-moment game play deficiencies if the world was fun to explore and the story was engaging. Will Brutal Legend deliver in these areas? I couldn’t tell from the demo, but I’m curious to learn more.

A few less important things:

Brief aside: I have been commenting on cinematics controls for games lately. Brutal Legend pauses the opening cinematic when you press the start button, but does NOT advertise that you can either press start again to resume or B to skip. The core functionality is still there, but is essentially buried and hard to discover. Once the game, proper, starts there is no way to skip the cinematic (start just takes you to the pause menu). Annoying? Yep.

Brief aside #2: I love how the game lets you choose level of profanity and level of gore from within game prompts. I wonder if these prompts respect global parental settings?

Brief aside #3: Although the UI was a little quirky and hard to use, the game does allow players to set horizontal and vertical camera controls independently (both inversion and sensitivity).

And a final question: Who was the hand model for the game shell UI? Really cool idea (a fan manipulating an album cover, liner notes, and the vinyl disc itself).

Raptr and Mirror’s Edge

So, I had a friend heckle me yesterday about my Raptr updates. Specifically, Raptr was updating my Facebook status with information about the game I was currently playing. It’s what I thought I wanted out of the service.

But, as it turns out, what I actually want is for Raptr to send updates via the Raptr application so that friends can “hide this application” if they don’t want to be spammed with what I’m gaming.

Until Raptr plays nicely with my Facebook status feed I’m going to have to disable the real time updates. Well, sort of. I’m sending real time updates to my Twitter account and will try nightly one-time status summary updates to my Facebook account.

This actually ties directly into Mirror’s Edge because the specific friend who heckled me was wondering what kind of masochist I was to have put so much time into the game.

I was profoundly affected by the question because normally I stop playing games that I don’t consider engaging and fun (unless I’m doing research on a competitor – which I’m not in this case). And I really was not enjoying Mirror’s Edge despite being 75% of the way through the single player campaign.

Several key issues emerge. I feel kind of weird talking about this game so long after its release. And I feel kind of weird making some of the exact same comments that I’m sure others have made.

The main issue is that I never once, not even for a brief minute, actually felt like I was engaging in cool and flowing parkour. Even after hours of playing I felt like:

  • Every hop, jump, and roll was activated by an uncomfortable controller input motion.
  • Every free run sequence felt like it had to be replayed dozens of times because of blind leaps to my death.
  • Every combat encounter (even after ratcheting down the difficulty to “easy”) made me feel incompetent.

The two experiments that I (and I’m sure lots of other folks) would like to do are:

  • Compare two sets of controls. The current set (where Triggers and Shoulder Buttons performed key actions) and an alternate set where Face Buttons performed key actions.
  • Compare two cameras. The current camera (first person) and an alternate third person camera.

That said, I do not think that the core of the problem is either controls or camera.

I think it is one of progression. The level of mastery required to make the game “fun” to play was unsupported by level design and progression goals. I’m absolutely convinced that this is the kind of game that shows extremely well when experienced players demonstrate cool ways to navigate the world and complete objectives.

Unfortunately for the new player, the game did not have a default path that encouraged the player to progress, grow, and master core skills in order to complete new challenges.

  • There were no real opportunities to just “free explore” levels in order to get a sense of the lay of the land and what kinds of ingress and egress routes were available.
  • There were “skill challenges” that encouraged players to try to solve a range of basic and advanced problems like a skateboarding game would.
  • Combat opportunities were too spaced out at the beginning of the game for players to understand and master it. Yes, you mostly could avoid combat – but combat was required at certain points in the game and the experience was frustrating (even on easy difficulty).

Ideally, default mission flow would have encouraged players to familiarize themselves with the world, learn new tricks and techniques, and advance their martial ability using a progression of: Problem introduction, practice with feedback (and non-penalizing failure conditions), technique mastery, and then task discrimination (learning when to use this versus other techniques).

Less ideally, there would have been additional game modes included that provided players with fun and increasingly challenging ways to practice and master techniques and learn about the environment. The Time Trial mode did not fit this bill.

In the end, I really wanted to like both Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed precisely because I love the fantasy of performing parkour moves in a video game. Yet neither of these games provided me with the same level of enjoyment of other action-adventure/platform games as Tomb Raider, Drake’s Fortune, or Ratchet & Clank.

The common denominator in my mind seems to be suboptimal controls (I found both Assassin’s Creed and Mirror’s Edge control schemes to be overly complex and unintuitive), frustrating combat (unforgiving one vs. one dueling in AC and ME), and in-game progression schemes that allow me to go off the rails and try to advance before I had mastered the core components.

In some ways, I’m just not good at dealing with crushing failure. I don’t like to try the same thing over and over again and I don’t get the hint that the game is sometimes just trying to tell me “go do something else for a while – you’re not supposed to be here yet”. I’m sure this is why I tend to prefer scripted, story based games in general over sandbox endeavors.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Moar Demos: Wolfenstein

I’ve been playing a bunch of XBM demos lately. Time to update my blog.

First off: Wolfenstein. The difficulty selection screen took me back about 20 years. Yes, it’s true that the first person shooter is a hard core genre. It’s very unlikely that a noob to the genre would have picked this game up without having played many previous shooters (including previous W games). So I won’t make my standard “why the pejorative ‘Can I play, daddy?’ label for Easy mode?” comment.

What I ask, on a much deeper level, is why include Easy mode at all. If it’s clear you despise and disdain noobs and don’t want to have them play your game, then spend the time and money refining default (Normal) difficulty level and making sure that the harder difficulties are correctly calibrated to the kinds of challenge that these folks want.

Side note: I’ve been paying more attention to cinematics controls lately, and Wolfenstein adds a new wrinkle: Pressing A calls up a bottom of screen text hint: “A to Skip; B to Pause/Play”. Very elegant in that I learn that A-A quickly skips me ahead. And you get the bonus feature of pausing it if you actually want to watch the cinematic, but just need to get up and grab a soda.

On to the more important stuff: Initial experience. After the quick reprise of Halflife and Halflife 2 (start in a train car; run past authoritarian guards who are interrogating civilians) it jumps quickly into a learn-as-you-play tutorial.

I managed to fail the tutorial pretty much right away when I was trying to complete the “Use the veil to pass through the wall task”. As soon as I started to walk through the wall I received a “press down on the dpad to exit the veil” prompt. Whoops. I exited the veil while I was in the middle of a wall. Death and restart. Last checkpoint could probably have taken me back to the underground sewer as opposed to the train car at the beginning of the level.

Otherwise, the “basics” tutorial was pretty good. I’m still not sure what “veil pools” are (vs. all the water and water runoff I see all around me in the sewer) but the learn-to-play mode covered basic navigation and exploration in a straightforward and non-intrusive manner. No interruptions to game play for modal billboard text, just navigate through the sewer and learn a few of the basic functions (walk, run, open things, climb ladders, jump, crouch).

I kind of missed the introduction of my next “magic” power because it was in the middle of a mission briefing and being handed a bunch of standard weapons. It looked like I picked up some sort of cool item, but I wasn’t really sure what it was.

Then came combat.

The “Mire” ability seemed pretty cool in terms of visual and game play effects. It’s fun to send bodies flying. It’s nice to have a combined slow time/detective mode ability when I want to take out a squad of enemies single-handedly. The standard MP40 had a satisfying sound and feel to it. The grenades, however, were lacking. Most importantly, there was no visual, sound, or rumble feedback to let you know how long you could “cook” the grenade for prior to throwing it. This is a problem given that your “use grenade” prompt basically tells you to hold the LB to burn through the timer. Needless to say I made a mess of myself.

In terms of combat feedback, there were a couple of things missing. First, there was no “tango down” equivalent when an individual enemy was finished off. I realize that this is much easier to do "within the fiction” with more futuristic games (like in Halflife 2 when you hear the flatlines), but even so it’s something that I find I miss when it’s not there. Other games use tell-tale vocal screams or grunts that accomplish the same thing. That said, there could have been an intentional decision to NOT provide this feedback in order to encourage players to use their weapon sites to visually confirm each kill – and punish players who throw caution to the wind. However, I would have expected that approach more in a survival/horror kind of scenario instead of a squad based tactics scenario.

The second part that was missing was the “end of sequence” feedback. I mostly knew we had killed all the local baddies when my squad mates moved forward and/or my objective changed. I guess I’ve just been playing a number of games that had dynamic music lately -- and other games that provided a dramatic cinematic of the last baddie’s death – which provide a nice sense of closure.

After a few standard combat encounters, the game got… weird. But in a good way. It was kind of like a combo of Bioshock, The Darkness, and Call of Duty all in one. I like a dose of sci-fi in my action adventure, especially if it makes for interesting puzzles, combat, and upgrade paths. I really enjoyed Bioshock and The Darkness for the story components and gritty upgrade paths. I missed out on fun combat for the former game because I set the difficulty level too low (I wanted to blow through the content) and never really found combat in the latter to be fun (even though I liked the powers and upgrades).

The Call of Duty experience (at least the first couple) was much more about the combat sequences. They felt polished and balanced (except in a few cases) and even though I know they were scripted and I was getting lots of cheat-y help to propel me through the levels, the game play was viscerally exciting.

The Wolfenstein demo ended shortly after I received my first sci-fi weapon (and met the upgrade vendor). Even though I was interested in continuing, I was left to wonder whether the game would be able to deliver the elements I like in a sci-fi action adventure game in satisfying ways? Specifically, will the sci-fi abilities and weapons be viscerally satisfying, make for tactically interesting exploration and combat, and be fun to upgrade? The demo didn’t really answer this question for me – and required me to make a leap of faith that I’m not sure I’m ready to make.

First person shooters are a tough sell for someone like me. I evaluate them against my favorite action adventure games and they tend to come up lacking unless they bring something new game play-wise, have a world that is super fun to explore and interact with, and/or have character-driven story that is well crafted and engaging.

Prey is a great example of an FPS that I knew nothing about before the demo and that blew me away when I saw the cool possibilities that “portal” based game play brought to the table. I don’t get that same sense in the Wolfenstein demo.

I also have a strong suspicion that story won’t carry this game – the bar has been set too high by its competitors (The Darkness, Bioshock to name a few) and, let’s face it, the Wolfenstein franchise is not known for its great character-driven story experiences.

With a ton of other content (casual, social, and console games) and Uncharted 2 around the corner, I think that Wolfenstein gets added to the Gamefly Q.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Adding to the game queue…

I’ve been buried in bizdev work (talking to prospective clients) and actual work (reviewing a game-in-progress for a current client) so I haven’t had much time to play many other games in the past few days.

I have been spending some time with Defense Grid and continue to enjoy it. For a spreadsheet game it’s pretty fun and I’m starting to get more and more into the “mathiness” of it all. My hope is that it teaches me to appreciate expert level play in RTS games more. I’ve always wanted to play them competitively, but I have just never had the patience to do the kinds of precise, systematic calculations that expert level play requires.

Anyhow, here are some more games to add to my queue:

This is, of course, on top of the games I listed in a previous post. And I also want to talk about my experience with Raptr – a social networking application that has some serious potential.

And on top of that, I’ve pre-ordered the next Ratchet & Clank and Uncharted.

Hello holiday season!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Number Jumper for Facebook

Number Jumper was surfaced to me on a recent InsideSocialGames RSS feed item. It was described as a “deceptively simple” game – something that I love mostly because I associate this with thoughts of approachability.

The game boils down to a kind of mashup between Tetris. Minesweeper, and a match-3 game. Its name made me think that it was going to be some sort of Sudoku math puzzler, but really the numbers are only nominal in nature and most likely are included to help discriminate between different colored blocks (like balls on a billiard table). Unfortunately, the chosen color scheme probably prevents them from being useful to color blind players.

Although the basic mechanics were simple – click a numbered block and click an empty space – the game was somewhat difficult to figure out. The instructions were a big intimidating mass of unformatted text.

After restarting several times and then re-reading the instructions I was able to piece together the core mechanics and, yes, it’s a pretty fun and addictive game.

Would I like to dive in and help fix the initial experience? But of course:

  • I’d love to create a learn-as-you-play sandbox mode where players could experiment in a controlled environment as they learned the basic rules.
  • I’d also love (LOVE) to make the ranking system less pejorative. I mean who really wants to be called a “noob” when they fail to shine on their first few attempts.
Addendum: I'm still quite enjoying the game, but I wish it did support more casual game modes. For instance, it would be fun to have a non-timed version just to practice moves without worrying about time pressure and the ability to tweak variables such as length of time, size of board, and number of block types (between 4 and 7 or 8). Theoretically you could figure out some interesting default modes and progressions based on the core mechanic and then have players flow through different variations depending on their skill and mood.

Monday, September 21, 2009

XBLA demos: ‘Splosion Man, Defense Grid

Fast and frenetic with almost no hint prompts vs. slow and dialog heavy campaign tutorial. I’m talking about ‘Splosion Man and Defense Grid: The Awakening, respectively.

Skip to the end: I liked both games and am agonizing over whether to purchase one or both. This is becoming more and more of a problem with the standard XBLA pricing model. I have no doubt that both of these games is worth the full $10, but there are simply too many games at that price point to for me to buy them all. It ends up putting me into a kind of purchase decision paralysis where I end up spending less overall than I think I would at lower price points because I can’t decide which one to buy.

Back to the trial versions:

Splosion Man played like its namesake. It started with a bang and was a wild ride. No boring tutorials at all – in fact, not a single billboard or prompt for the first several minutes of play. Courageous, indeed. And the payoff was very satisfying. I did get stuck once in a place where either some better visuals/level design OR a billboard hint would have eased me through it much more gracefully. Basically the suspended explosive barrel didn’t look like something I could interact with.

The game did have a billboard hint system in a couple of places – and they were completely optional. The billboards only popped up if you stood beside the “?” icon for a few seconds. This is a great idea for a game with straightforward controls. As you layer on game play concepts through puzzle elements, occasionally you need to gate advancement in order to ensure the player learns a particularly core mechanic correctly. At these gates you simply include these optional billboard hints that the player can refer to if necessary.

Defense Grid was a little more slow and plodding. The tutorial contained boring exposition on basic controls like scrolling the camera and building units (left stick, A button). I can see how this kind of tutorial evolves: You want the game to be accessible and approachable to any player, and this means teaching the player every little detail.

The problem is that this is boring for the more advanced player (or, I’d argue, the typical player who downloads an action strategy game on XBLA or Steam).

The question then becomes: How do you trade off potentially annoying a certain portion of gamers who just want to start mashing around and playing with potentially alienating a certain portion of gamers who might feel lost without an introduction to the basic control scheme (including how to use left stick and A button).

The answer, I’d like to think, is to have player-guided learning. This is something I try to accomplish in all of the tutorials (or, “learn as you play” modules) I work on. I’m not always successful. Sometimes lack of time or budget means that you need to make hard choices about how you introduce players to the game. Sometimes you just don’t know enough about how players expect to play the game – and where they succeed and fail while they struggle to learn the game without prompting.

The player-guided experiences I’m most proud of are a result of:

  • The team prioritizing the initial experience – and believing that while it should definitely NOT leave players behind, it also should NOT be boring.
  • The team committing to watching players succeed and fail at the game in order to learn what needs to be taught, what needs to be “untaught”, and what players already know. Most importantly, the team needs to be committed to breaking down concepts that initially require “teach by saying” into fun and interactive “learn by doing” modules.
  • The team iterating on that first few minutes of game play, bullet proofing it, and polishing it until it reaches a high sheen. This includes iteration in the usability lab with players who are very familiar with this kind of game (to ensure they’re not bored) and with players who are less familiar with this kind of game (to ensure that the pace of learning is appropriate and engaging and to ensure that they don’t get stuck).

In the end, I ended up purchasing Defense Grid and I’m having quite a bit of fun with it. Yes, the tutorial was a little painful. And yes, I do find it a little tiresome to listen to my AI co-pilot from time-to-time as he tries to provide helpful hints. But as a real time strategy game, it’s got some fun puzzles for me to solve and I look forward to diving in deeper.

My biggest fear about both games: That they’re calibrated for much more hard core gamers than myself and that I’ll be blocked at some point before I can get through all the content.

I’m already starting to realize that I need to start “working the spreadsheet” more precisely with Defense Grid, to the extent that I’m turning on hit point UI elements and doing balance matrix passes of units vs. towers. What I’m most curious about is whether I’ll continue to find this research intriguing and compelling or whether I’ll eventually back off, looking for a more visceral experience.

Friday, September 18, 2009

ScribbleNauts, Social Discovery, and Claustrophobia

So, I’ve been reading more about the pros/raves associated with ScribbleNauts in order to better figure out what I’m missing.

It seems to boil down to this: Some folks have identified wild and crazy (and fun) ways of completing some of the more interesting puzzles by summoning things like Cthulu or arming elephants with Bazookas or tying things to me and jetpacking across the screen. Hearing those anecdotes made me excited to dive back into the game and try these wacky things.

[As an aside, I did finally meet up with a creature that my bear could not kill: a “Megalodon”. Interestingly, my bear COULD kill a shark, its smaller cousin.]

So, what this means to me is that hardcore fans of the game who have read press releases, seen demos, and scoured fan forums will have a huge leg up on more casually interested fans who haven’t done research outside the game on how to play it.

In terms of approachability, this seems rather unfortunate. It seems like the equivalent of telling players to RTFM or search the forums before they play the game. Why can’t I learn these things as part of the actual game play experience?

What this really made me think of was Armadillo Run again. What made that game fun was that its core mechanic was quirky and fun enough to make learning by experimentation (both successes and failures) enjoyable. What made the game awesome was the tight integration leaderboards and game replays into the core experience. You learned from others’ triumphs by observing their ground breaking experiments. You were able to stand on the shoulders of giants who could see through the matrix and creatively engineer solutions that blew your mind open to new avenues and possibilities.

And you could contribute back to the community your incremental improvements – and your paradigm breaking innovations.

I’m trying to imagine what the ScribbleNauts experience could have been if it had been a Flash application for a popular social network like Facebook. Leaderboards would have links to replays. Popular levels would have their own discussion boards. Content creators could share new levels with others. It’s really the kind of game that cries out for this kind of social play.

I’m also kind of curious about potential synchronous game play modes. Imagine a sandbox where folks could strategize together in real time to solve more complex puzzles? Or where they could create simulations and ecosystems and pit them against the forces of physical and social entropy?

This sort of segues into the “Claustrophobia” portion of this post. I couldn’t help but have a sense that game screen limitations really worked against ScribbleNauts. Part of this was a controls issue (scrolling the map was tedious and the return-to-center “feature” was super annoying). Part of this was that larger objects and creatures really did take up a huge amount of screen real estate which made the environments feel cluttered. Operating helicopters and planes in rooms only 2-4 times their height didn’t really convey a sense of flight.

Which, of course, leads me back to wondering about choice of platform. Would this game be better suited for a browser window? There would be no need to scroll the map. Point-and-click controls could be made more crisp and precise.

To sum it up: I guess what I’m really talking about is how platform limits and defines the user experience. Not just input/output device platform (stylus and small screen vs. mouse and browser) but also social platform (Nintendo wi-fi vs. Facebook).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

ScribbleNauts: Addendum

Well I’ve played another couple of hours of ScribbleNauts and I’m not sure how much further I’ll be able to get.

I guess I should have read the reviews.

The controls are shaky and erratic. My avatar only occasionally does what I intend him to do when a level is more complex than a flat plane (he sometimes moves when I want him to interact; he sometimes tries to interact when I want him to move; he moves erratically or too far).

Goals and victory conditions are often difficult to figure out. Part of this is due to the fact that you can’t get a reminder of what your goals are during game play and part is due to unclear writing (which is extra strange given that the game is about using words). But the largest part is due to the fact that my mind can’t imagine the possibility-space in the exact same way that the developers did. Knowing my objective and then having to figure out ways to achieve it can be fun. Having to guess what my objective is, within the context of this game, is not fun.

So far, my most useful strategy when there are creatures standing between me and my goal is to summon a bear. He kills all the other creatures and then I just throw him in the trash. It was fun the first time (there was a beehive, bee, and fish – so he attacked the bee to get the honey and then jumped in the water to eat the fish) but is getting a bit repetitive. And there doesn’t seem to be a counter-bear – at least yet.

There are other details that have been detracting from my experience:

  • Gameshell UI is puzzling – and not in a good way. It’s hard to tell which element you have selected, and some elements don’t actually look selectable (like the wi-fi icon) or are hard to interpret (the action vs. puzzle mode toggle looks like an explosion).
  • Gameshell flow results in me restarting the first level of every new area by mistake. Over and over. When you complete a level within an new area, instead of defaulting to the next available level, the game defaults to the first area of that level. Whoops.
  • Game progression was hard to figure out – resulting in me getting stuck partway through the first area. At first glance, this game seemed to be like many other unlock-based games. Complete all levels within an area/world and then unlock the next area/world. Not so with this game. New worlds can be purchased at any time as long as you have enough “ollars”. So I almost quit out because I was stuck on area/world 1 and didn’t realize I could just switch worlds to progress further.

Following up on the last bullet: What I’m really waiting for is to figure out whether or not I’ll have the same feeling I had in Braid when I finally “got it”. This happened when I realized that I could see all the content by just blowing through each level – and that I could take what I learned from future levels and bring them back to “complete” previous levels I was only partially able to finish. The end result was supremely satisfying.

I’m imagining that in ScribbleNauts I’m also expected to get stuck in certain areas and then move on to other areas until I happen upon an item or solution that I can then bring back to my early problem-child level.

The thing is: I found this completely acceptable within the design and fiction of Braid. That game was all about going forward and backward in time; and the levels were designed to be easily “finished” for people who wanted to move ahead to the next world. They could come back later if they wanted to unlock some of the extra secrets.

For some reason, however, this doesn’t resonate with me for ScribbleNauts. There was nothing about either the fiction or the Gameshell UI flow that led me to believe this was anything other than an unlock-as-you-go game. When this is combined with the fact that my avatar is hard to control and levels are hard to complete because I can’t fathom the objectives, it makes me want to stop playing.

I’ll push on some more tomorrow and see whether I have that “eureka” moment. 

ScribbleNauts & “Learn as you play”

So, I picked up ScribbleNauts based on the hype surrounding it. I don’t often do this, but sometimes I just give in to the prevailing winds.

I hadn’t heard much about it – or seen any game play footage. I had imagined it to be some sort of DS version of Crayon Physics. But then I heard about it’s 20k+ list of supported words and I thought that maybe it was an anagram game like Scrabble.

Turns out that I was wrong on both counts.

ScribbleNauts is basically Impossible Machine or Armadillo Run except that instead of having a UI that shows you all the possible tools you can use, you need to guess which tools are available by typing in words and hoping that they are supported.

It’s kind of like Family Feud in some ways. You make a guess that “fire hose” is a piece of equipment a fireman might hold, and if a panel of American households agrees with you, a fire hose appears in the game world.

This made me think back further to some of the social psychology research that I did way back when. I was specifically examining naively held prototypes for things like “burglary”. You’d get a group of people to fill out a survey about all the things they associated with the word “burglary” (e.g., occurs at night, at someone’s house, involves a male thief, dark clothes) and what you’d find is that there were common exemplars listed by most people ("it happens at night”) followed by a medium-long tail of exemplars only listed by a few people (“my buddy Fred got busted for burglary last week”).

What we found was that when people read a fact pattern surrounding a criminal trial, they were more likely to think a defendant was guilty when the facts matched their prototype of the crime then when the facts were less prototypical (but still met the legal definition of the crime).

Apologies for the long digression… I mostly thought of this when trying to figure out the most logical way to come up with a method of building a dictionary that could be balanced for difficulty as part of a word guessing game.

Anyhow, back to ScribbleNauts.

As an initial experience, I was a little underwhelmed. I’m just now starting to get into the core game play, which I do find enjoyable. But the road to getting there wasn’t as smooth and polished as it could have been:

  • Too much frontloading of concepts. Concepts should be spaced out so that they can be learned, practiced, and mastered as part of the normal game play progression. Forcing me to learn about both core game mechanics (moving, selecting, scribbling, inspecting) and metagame concepts (puzzle vs. action modes, the “ollar” based economy) in the first 5 or so minutes of the game risks me forgetting or mislearning core concepts.
  • Somewhat related is the “too many concepts at once” problem. One particular tutorial module had me learn about “trashcan”, “budget”, and “ollars” in rapid succession. Moreover, this section was NOT interactive so I was not getting reinforcement through game play.
  • Billboard hints were too verbose and constantly interrupted the flow of the game. Particularly egregious was the example with the hammer and the wooden wall. I had just learned about picking up objects and if the wall had been made to look a little more fragile (a little dented, some loose boards, maybe some unsturdy wiggling) then the game could have just let me learn by exploring. If a player fails to proceed after a certain time then non-modal, specific, context sensitive hints could be provided. Instead, the visceral feel of smashing something was replaced with boring reading – reading that seemed insulting to me because it was obvious that the hammer was their to smash the door.
  • I failed to fly the plane correctly several times which caused me to fail ungracefully and have to restart the tutorial module. It’s unclear why the first time a new movement mechanic was introduced that it had such a difficult to complete task associated with it. Flight should have been fun, but it ended up being frustrating.

I think it’s instructive to compare this initial experience and philosophy about what tutorials should be with another recent DS game I played: Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again. I found the first hour of game play delightful mainly because they allowed me to learn by playing – and included tutorials only as optional help hint sequences if the player felt a need to look at them.

Of course, to achieve that apparently effortless “learn as you play” experience requires a lot of attention and polish to the experience. MMA could have taken the same approach, but designed early puzzles that were confusing for first time users and left them lost and frustrated.

In my experience, what it comes down to, is really understanding deeply how the first time player sees, experiences, and interacts with your world WITHOUT much prompting. Hint text can always be added as a stop-gap, but the more elegant solution is to polish self-contained learning modules in which play concepts and mechanics are introduced via game play scenarios and not tutorial text.

  • Don’t tell me to that I need to pick up an item. Leave me in a room with an item and let me figure out how to pick it up on my own.
  • Don’t tell me to throw the object at something. Give me a conspicuous target that I want to bean with a dart/ball/axe.
  • Don’t congratulate me with long text billboards for doing something obvious. Have the conspicuous target (a rickety chest) explode into sparkly gold pieces when I throw a ball at it.

Then focus on how to turn situational cues into hints that propel the player through the experience.

A separate, but related, issue worth considering is how complex actions are usually just made up of simpler constituent actions. If you’re finding that first time players struggle to figure out how to throw a ball at a target when they’re just dropped into the game, break down the requirements into smaller pieces that can be taught and practiced beforehand.

  • Act 1: Avatar stands on left side. Cool slide that leads off screen is on the right side. Player taps stylus on right side of screen, avatar moves over, leaps on slide, slides to next Act. Player fails to tap, the slide pulses and a stylus “touch me” icon appears near the slide.
  • Act 2: Avatar is on the left side facing a raised platform on the right. Player cannot climb up to the raised platform on his own. A large box is suspended in the air. The box pulses (stylus icon). Player selects box and the ground near the raised platform glows green in a box outline. Player plunks box down – and it looks like the distance between ground, top of box, and platform are easily climbable. Player taps the platform. The avatar hops up on the box, then the platform. A new slide appears and he slides to the next level.
  • Act 3: Avatar is on the left side facing a workbench with a small hammer on it. There is a rickety door blocking access to another slide on the right. Player taps the hammer and places it on his avatar (avatar glows green; avatar’s hand reaches out to grab and hold object). And so on…

The idea is that you need to break down higher order actions into its constituent parts. Then you need to figure out how to design content, levels, and UI to support the learning of these higher order actions through discovery, practice, and mastery – all reinforced by enjoyable successes.

Punishment for failure is permitted (and often required) but failure must be GRACEFUL. By this I mean that the penalty should not be unduly harsh (don’t make the player feel bad; don’t make them go through a painful reload process) and the player should receive clear and actionable feedback so that he/she can try something different next time.

Wow. I didn’t expect such a freeform and unruly digression. It’s clear I’ve been away from the blog for far too long.

I’ll post more about ScribbleNauts as I move through the game. I’m also looking forward to a bunch more indie games that I’ve come across lately:

Friday, September 11, 2009

Arkham Asylum, Fable 2, 9/9/9

I ended August with a bang. Lots of new games played. Lots of writing. Then I was called out on an emergency usability run for a week. I’ve quietly slipped back into relaxing and gaming at home and am looking forward to what September has to bring in terms of both game play and game creation.

My hope is to have some very productive down time. I’m not sure whether it will be another “30 in 30” idea or an effort where I focus more deeply on one or two tasks before being crushed by the onslaught of holiday titles.

For now, here are some brief thoughts.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Wow. Loved the downloadable demo. Loved the first few hours of game play. Loved the entire story mode. Hate the fact that I got so sucked in that I am now rather pissed off that I can’t get the last stupid hidden item likely due to a game play bug. Those “chattering teeth” don’t appear on any map and were probably lost in some sort of combat chaos and dropped through the world never to be seen again.

The thing is, I don’t go “completionist” in many games at all. Really, Lego Star Wars and Ratchet & Clank are the only games in recent memory I can think of where I was motivated to try and find all the hidden pieces. Lego Star Wars required cheating. Ratchet & Clank used a similar (and AWESOME) technique to B:AA in that they let you find maps that hinted where hidden objects were. Great idea, especially when the core mechanic (smashing things for bolts or navigating the world as the Dark Night) is so darn fun.

I knew I was setting myself up for failure early on in Arkham Assylum because the whole “chattering teeth” mechanic seemed fragile. They were often hard to see, were sometimes placed in precarious or hard to reach areas, and did not appear on the Riddler maps. But, I trusted the game because it did so much to earn that trust along the way. Core game play was incredibly rewarding, acquisition of new gadgets gave me confidence that once inaccessible areas would become accessible, great save game and check point system…

Ultimately, though, I feel a little let down. I’m going to do a bit more research online, but it bugs me that I couldn’t find those last three sets of “chattering teeth” on my own after finding the other 240+ hidden items. Sigh.

Still – great game. Go out and play it and tell me that you don’t actually feel like the Dark Knight from pretty much moment one. Combine that with some cool moments that evoke Eternal Darkness and wow. Favorite game of the year for me.

Fable 2

Yes. I know. Another game that I should have played long ago. I just found the first one so infuriating that I held off as long as I could. I still remember vividly the scene in which I pressed the B button by mistake early on in the game and took out a huge chunk of innocent bystanders. Then the guards came and my progress was halted. And then I did it again. And again. Never once meaning to do so.

And I quit the game because in my world, a mistaken press of the B button should never accidentally cause you to do something so bad that it makes you have to restart.

This is especially true in a game where the B button is usually “cancel” or “back” when accessing UI screens.

Guess what? Fable 2 has me doing the exact same thing. View NPC details. Think I need to exit the gestures menu by pressing B one too many times. Blast all friendly villagers (including my wife) unintentionally.

Then do this several times spaced out over several hours of game play. Grr.

The game tries to help players by adding a “turn off friendly fire” feature. As a toggle switch. I still don’t know whether I want it “on” or “off”. I think I have it set right as no one seems to die now when I make the mistake. They just get pissed off so I have to dance and sing and entertain them for a bit until they forgive me.

Other usability complaints are, really, too long to list. Inability to select NPCs easily (I gave a ring to the wrong person on a couple of occasions), useless maps that are too cluttered and small (and, strangely, no access to a larger version of the map on the BACK button), a “smart” d-pad that reminds me of Clippy in that it never guesses correctly what I want and makes me fear using the d-pad because inevitably I punish my dog instead of using a health potion, a difficult to navigate item system that makes it tedious to try and use consumables, and a completely impenetrable magic spell UI. Completely impenetrable.

I probably would have quit at about the same point I did with the original Fable at about 4 hours in, except that my wife was with me and we were playing together. Really, I blame my schizophrenic character development to her prodding: I’m a polygamous lesbian defender of the light. After about 10-12 hours of game play I’m at that strange point where I’m unsure whether I’m having fun with the game or just strangely addicted to the Sims world I seem to inhabit. So, I’m going to take a friend’s advice and drive the story forward a bit and see if the game doesn’t pick up.

After all of the above criticisms, I actually am somewhat hopeful.

One thing that is completely and utterly worth noting (and I know others have) is the inclusion of social “presence” data. I turned on the “let anyone show up in my world” option and have been fascinated by the presence of little avatars throughout the lands that I wander. Sometimes there are clumps of them chatting to each other in various hubs. Sometimes they are off wandering just like me.

It made me think back to Little Big Planet and how social presence made an otherwise not very interesting game (to me – I didn’t like the feel of the platforming mechanics) a great experiment and step forward.

I really think (and hope) that ALL games eventually include social presence into their games (multiplayer and singleplayer). It doesn’t always have to be synchronous – I’m playing Fable 2 almost a year later, but with less popular games there would probably be very few people playing at the same time I was. But the idea would be that people could help each other through the game through real-time chat and asynchronous notes/messages/movies.

You’d need a reputation system – one that allowed people to express their inner gamer. From “trusted helper” to “the guy who shows you how to cheese your way through an encounter” to “the folks who find each and every hidden object”. You could navigate the world, calling in assistance from others as you like.

And you could contribute if that was something that motivated you. Contributors could compete on leaderboards for different kinds of advice weighted by quality of their contributions. It would be like meets Xbox Live (or PSN, Steam, etc).

No need for the controversial Miyamoto “autocomplete this puzzle” feature. Just follow in the footsteps of those who went before you.


So, I list this date for two reasons. First, I pre-ordered Beatles RockBand for Liza and I. She’s a huge Beatles fan and does like Rockband. I have the Guitar Hero instruments and such, so I’m assuming everything will work together just fine. Yeah, we don’t have 2 mics, but I doubt both of us will do much singing anyhow.

We also went to see the movie “9” today as a matinee. The reviews on RottenTomatoes mostly got it right. Visually and stylistically it had its moments. However, the story reminded me a lot of the kinds of weak story we often get in videogames. It may have started out with something really strong and compelling and cool. Something that was told through interesting and engaging action and character development.

But, instead, the resulting story was one that seemed like it had been cobbled together as mortar for the various set piece bricks. Moreover, the actual plot line – if thought about like a quest system you’d have in a game – was pretty boring. It mostly involved 3 locations with the characters tracking back and forth amongst them. Think: The bard asks you to retrieve the wine from the rat cellar. You kill the rats and retrieve the wine. You return the wine to the bard and he tells you that he forgot his ring there, too. And the cave now has more rats because you forgot to take out the queen rat who has been breeding like crazy during your journey back to the bard.