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.

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