Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Can I just say... Why does the PS3 firmware update experience suck so hard?

I use my Xbox 360 pretty much all the time. It's a no-brainer for me given my social network (mostly Xbox gamers) and desire to compile most of my achievements on one platform.

But, I do enjoy a number of Sony exclusive titles. Just finished Uncharted 2 and am about to start Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time. It seems like each time I install another Sony first party game, I need to update my firmware.

The thing is, I get updates all the time when I'm using my Xbox 360. And I never really even think to complain. Downloads are small. The UI is clear, easy to read, and pretty much pain free.

PS3 updates? Not so much.

  • I have to do a button tap dance to even start the download process. It feels like I'm trying to enable "Big Head" mode on NHL Hitz
  • Text is almost impossible to read against the dashboard background. The 360 dash does, essentially, a lightbox treatment where they bring clear focus (with no distracting background) to the updater window.
  • The text I can read is filled with tech and jargonistic terms... I just want a "yes to accept" option so I can complete the transaction and get into my game.
On the plus side, I just heard the PS3 reboot sting, so I think the process has completed.

Now, on to Ratchet & Clank!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Machinarium, Free Xbox Indie Game Code, and Serendipity

Where to begin? There's only time for a quick mid-day post and I want to cover a few things.

Just here for a free Xbox Indie Game code? Skip to the end for details :)

First, Machinarium. I played through the demo while sitting across the table from my wife. It was nearing lunch time and I asked Liza what she was up to. She mentioned that she was "trying to get a robot across a bridge." As it turns out, we were both playing the same demo at the same time.

I had read about it during my daily RSS feed troll (I try to follow lots of indie game feeds). Liza had played a previous game by the same developer called Samorost. She liked the game so much that she joined their mailing list and found out about Machinarium that way.

I just love the fact that both of us were playing the same game at the same time without even realizing it. And without either one of us telling the other about it.

Another great thing about Machinarium: One purchase gets you the Mac, PC, and Unix versions of the game. Great for a family like ours who use multiple platforms. Looks like I'll be purchasing it for the both of us.

What might be super fun (since we like to play some games together) is to play it on the big screen. I just need to hook up a wireless mouse and keyboard and we can play the game together on our Lovesac, just like we watch movies or play console games. Sweet.

Free Game Code Details Here

On to Gum Drop Celestial Frontier and Xbox Indie Games. I blogged about this game a while back and @mechagost (creator of the game) and I had some back and forth discussions about the game. His thankyou gift was a free code for the retail version of his game. Of course, I had already purchased the game. So, I pass on the savings to you, my readers.

Want the code? Tweet me @jackalshorns. Only one code available, so first responder gets the prize.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Quick thoughts: Uncharted 2 and Delta's lame in-flight game service

A couple of quick thoughts in between travel for work (doing some consulting on social games) and pleasure (Anacortes with friends, Chicago for a wedding).

Uncharted 2. This blurb appeared in a Facebook comment I wrote (a couple of friends were discussing the game -- one thought it "set the bar" the other thought "meh"). It's not really all that well considered and thought out, but is more of an initial reaction after playing a couple of hours:
So, I loved (loved loved) the first one. And I loved (loved loved) the intro to the second one -- a super treat for fans of the previous game and IP.

I've had a couple of lulls in the action through chapters 4 and 5 (getting stuck, being confused) but I'm super into it and can't wait to play more.

As far as cut-scenes go, they set the bar in v1.0. Then games like GTA IV met the bar. I think that they met the bar in this game, too. I actually WATCH all of the cut-scenes and enjoy them (PS -- I never watch cut-scenes in any other games).

Story quality-wise, so far it seems like a virtual copy of the v1.0 story. So, unless they shake it up soon my judgment is "serviceable but not great". Technically it's awesome (voice acting, mocap, direction) but the story itself is only serviceable.
In other news, while flying back to Seattle I had the "privilege" of not experiencing Delta airline's in-flight gaming options.

That is to say that I completely ignored it in disgust after being asked to pay $5 for the right to sample their game wares.

Now, $5 for 4.5 hours of entertainment is an entirely reasonable price. Heck, I'd pay more than that for a 90 minute in-flight movie. But charging for games before letting me try them out? It just doesn't make any sense.

Many of the games seemed to be versions of freely available titles already on the web. I had worries about the input device (touch screen) and have had mixed reviews trying out games on other in-flight consoles (I talked about Virgin airline's options in another post). Not having a try-before-you buy option is a non-starter for me.

But, the bigger question to me is: Why charge at all? The model that I have to believe would work better for all involved (Delta, game publishers, and the passenger) is to offer free-to-play content. Publishers would pay for access to the captive audience. Their motivation would be to provide fun addictive games to passengers to drive awareness and customer loyalty. Delta would get money from the publishers for distributing their content. Passengers would get high quality games that would endear them to both publishers and the airline.

And me -- well, I'd have a reason to request regular coach-class seating. The touch screen is too far away from my seat to reach it comfortably while sitting in an exit row.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I'm playing and working, but not thinking and writing...

I've been swamped with work lately (the kind I can't blog about) and will continue to be swamped for the next week or so. Then, hopefully, I'll come back up for air and do some more posting.

What have I been playing lately?
  • South Park (XBLA) trial version. It's a tower defense game with some co-op components. My initial experience was "meh" but I think I want to try it co-op with Liza to see whether that is where it shines.
  • Defense Grid: Awakening (XBLA). I started out quite liking the game and still do enjoy playing it. It's a little hard to pick up and play after letting it sit for a couple of weeks (unit recognition and ID is difficult at default zoom; maps are getting pretty big and unwieldy given the camera limitations). But I'm going to keep going.
  • Lucidity (XBLA) trial version. Think Braid but with time pressure right from moment one. The initial challenge ramp is just a little too steep for me to truly enjoy the game -- and this makes me worry because if the game only gets harder it will quickly become too difficult for me to play. I like the music, mood, art direction, and style of game play. I just want to be able to relax and enjoy it a bit more.
  • Need for Speed: Shift demo. It actually kind of sucked me in even though I don't get into sim racers. I should actually talk a bit about why this demo was much more compelling to me than the Forza 3 demo. I should also talk a little bit about their more "casual" control options.
  • Lots of Scramble, Wordscraper. Some Sorority Life and Cafe Wars (for Facebook).
  • de Blob. This is a pretty relaxing Wii game that I'm going to spend some more time with. Some elements of Katamari Damacy with other more Nintendo like games involving cleaning and painting.
  • Nancy Drew: Mystery of the Clue Bender Society. It's a DS game that I've been meaning to check out. I really enjoyed one of the latest ND games (a more "casual" release) but haven't enjoyed the core PC offerings and am not really enjoying the DS game.
I've been getting a lot of use from my Raptr account. I actually need to add my Wii account to it as I almost forgot about my de Blob sessions. What I'm most excited about is that now that I'm about to descend into a mostly PS3 zone with the upcoming release of Uncharted 2 and Ratchet & Clank. I'll still be able to track and share my progress with friends -- most of whom are primarily Xbox users. Thank you, for integrating pretty well into my existing social network flow.

What else am I looking forward to playing, thinking, and writing about?
  • The "Top 20 up and coming Facebook games". I'm curious to see what these social games have going for them.
  • Some previous games that I've worked on. I really need to get a couple of presentations together based on the learn-to-play tutorials I've co-designed. Because these games are published I can talk about what we learned, what we did, and how to turn these learnings and doings into best practices. It will also give me a chance to play around some more with video-capture tech I've been sitting on for a while.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Tedious learn as you play + suboptimal try-before-you-buy platform experience = FAIL

I tried a few Xbox Live Indie Games the other night. There were some hits and misses. I talked about Trino the other night (great game). This time I want to talk a little but about the XLIG platform and my experience with Blow.

First, the XLIG platform really needs to come up with better try before you buy options for its games. I’m tired of having some arbitrary timer expire, causing me to instantly quit out of the application back to (essentially) the desktop. It’s a suboptimal solution no matter how you slice it – and not having options means that game developers have a tough time putting their best foot forward for games that require more than a few minutes of game play.

That said, developers must operate within the constraints of the platform. As it turns out, Blow kind of missed the boat by not tailoring the try before you buy demo to the XLIG constraints. The entire time was spent in rather tedious and boring tutorials. As soon as the player was able to engage in some of the core game play, the timer expired. The tutorial was NOT optional, so it meant that even if I loaded the game again, I would have to waste most of my time repeating the same tutorial. Whoops.

The actual game seemed like it could be interesting in a kind of Impossible Machines way. But I couldn’t help but wonder “why does a game that is about something as simple and delightful as blowing bubbles require such a long and tedious tutorial?” The basic mechanics are simple (place fans, watch bubbles float, adjust fans). Feedback is straight forward (bubbles go where you want them to, or not). Instead of having multiple text-heavy billboards within one level, a nice sequence of simple boards could have brought new players up to speed in pleasant and engaging ways.

I really felt like I needed about 5-10 more minutes of free play to make a decision one way or the other, but sadly both the game (inability to skip the tutorial upon second load of the game) and the platform (outmoded demo rules that uses time instead of content to govern the trial experience) conspired against me.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Trino: Try it, buy it.

I just finished a play session with Trino, an Indie game available on the XBM. What a fantastic experience. Very relaxing, engaging, and fun from moment one. An excellent example of a game that starts simple and layers on interesting game play as you go.

The learn-as-you-play was great. Yes, the control scheme was simple. But other games have failed to make learning even the basics fun because they don't break down the core experience into its component parts and let players discover, master, and grow in expertise as part of game play. No boring billboards. No pausing of the action. Just a well designed initial level that provided enough safe interactivity for players to grok the basics -- and when ready, move on to new challenges.

First. Move (LS).

Then. Make Triangles (LS + A).

Then. Eat Powerups (LS).

Then. Close the Map (LS + A).

Of course, it helps that the core mechanic -- making triangles -- was relaxing and fun to do. The music and visuals made this a relaxing endeavor. Unlike other similar games (like Robotron or Geometry Wars), the music stayed calming even when the action got more and more frenetic.

In some ways, this represents a much more casual approach to its otherwise hardcore breathren. Really, it's a great timewaster game that makes me think more of Bejeweled. I wonder if this is because building triangles with three dots is kind of like playing a connect-3 game?

No real criticisms so far. I know that there are a few more advanced tricks I need to learn -- and I'm curious to find out how the game teaches them to me (bombs, shadow triangles).

The main critique I have is in regards to player death and respawning.
  • Death results in the immediate disappearance of my ship and the object my ship collided into. This is sometimes frustrating because I'm not sure *how* I died if I was glancing around looking for my next move. I actually felt somewhat cheated a couple of times because I could have sworn (based on memory) that I had enough space to avoid an object, but I ended up dying. Had player death been followed by some sort of visual freeze-frame of the incident, I could quickly direct my attention to the crash and validate in my own mind that, whoops, I did bump into something.
  • Respawning doesn't really have any obvious visual or sound cue. At some points during later levels I actually hadn't realized I spawned in right away because my eyes were drawn to all of the enemies that were circling the board and my craft was "hidden" by the lines that border the game space. The game is so relaxing that I kind of need a quick "wake up" reminder that it's about to start up and I need to interact as opposed to just sitting back, watching the pretty visuals and listening to the music.
All in all, great game and well worth the 540 points ($6).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Trust, Brutal Legend (demo), and reminiscences

I loved Jade Empire and Mass Effect (except for the first 6-10 hours).

I loved Kingdom Hearts 2 (even though I disliked the original).

Will I love Brutal Legend even though I was left feeling kind of “meh” after playing the demo? I sometimes wonder how much weight I should truly put on the demo experience. The problem is that there are simply too many games out there to purchase – or even rent them all.

This problem is magnified when I think about games like the ones I list above – games where my first negative impressions were later transformed into very positive game play experiences.

These thoughts trouble me, especially because one of the core tenets of my business is that great games need to be approachable and fun from the first few moments of experience. Heck, that’s why I named my company “Initial Experience Consulting”. Yet, clearly I would have missed out on some great games had I dropped them after only a few hours of struggle.

So, the real question is: How do I determine whether I should invest several hours of drudgery into a game vs. move on to the next game if the first hour is not fun?

What I’m trying to talk about is the issue of developer trust. For instance, I trust that if I suffer through the first 6-10 hours of a Bioware console game that I will come to love it (except for Kotor). So, Bioware scores 2/3 for me.

Conversely, I struggled through the first 10+ hours of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 and only ended up enjoying the third one. So, Bethsoft scores 1/3 for me.

So, when it comes to Brutal Legend, I guess the main question is: What came before? As it turns out, I loved Psychonauts (except for the last boss battle sequence). [note: I know this is going to sound like heresy, but I haven’t played any of Mr. Schafer’s previous games]

And, if I remember correctly, it took a little while for me to warm up to the game. I wasn’t blown away in the first hour or so – but I was blown away by the amazing content that appeared later in the game.

This leads me to the reminiscences portion of this post. When I was working at Microsoft I tasked myself with playing Zelda Windwaker. It was pretty much my first Wii game and I hadn’t played any of the previous versions [note: again, heresy. I know] I started playing on a work machine with a work copy of the game. I struggled a bit and didn’t quite understand how people found the game fun at all.

Until hour 4. That’s when I checked the clock, realized I had 30 minutes before Best Buy closed, and scooped up a Wii and copy of the game and headed home for a late night gaming session.

In the case of Brutal Legend, I guess I’m just going to have to borrow a copy first and then purchase it only if it compels me in ways that the demo failed to do.