Archive for June, 2011

Entry 16: Fruit Ninja and Pewpew: Android quickies

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Recently I’ve been downloading many Android apps as to study as I am hoping to develop some games for the platform. There are several kinds of Android/mobile games; some, like Gameloft’s library of games, attempt to reproduce the home console experience on tiny smartphone devices.  But another kind of game caters specifically to the mobile format and the usually very short game times associated with it. This short playtime means that they resemble older arcade games in many ways; like those early games, they are designed for a quick turnaround. These games often work best as reflex-based sensory experiences, a trait both the games considered in this entry share. Pewpew is clearly based on the Geometry Wars series of games and serves as an adequate replacement for that series on Android.

Like those games, it is played with dual joysticks (in this case, virtual touch-based joysticks). Though not quite as accurate and responsive as the dual analog sticks of an xbox360 controller, the virtual sticks work remarkably well. The left “stick” controls the player ship’s movement, and the right stick controls direction of fire. The game’s bright, colorful, but simple graphics, replete with fast, exciting particle effects, make for a game that is as much light show as shooter. This is reinforced by the heavy beats of the game’s soundtrack. The game is very challenging, and while game modes technically last until the player is eliminated, in practice each play session lasts only a few minutes. The end result is a pleasant, stimulating, but shallow gaming experience, but that is perhaps its intent.

Though very different in subject matter and control system, Fruit Ninja is in many ways a similar experience.  The player “slices” fruit apart by making a “swiping” motion across the touch screen with a single finger; the fruit are tossed up from the bottom of the screen, arc, then fall back below the screen. If the player is unable to slice three fruit, the game ends and the player is given a score for his performance. Combos and corresponding extra points are awarded for slicing multiple fruit in a single swipe. The game is attractive to look at. Colorful, well textured 3D polygonal fruit are well drawn and seem reasonably accurate; when sliced, their insides also accurately portray the fruit they represent. Sound design is excellent. The sound of slicing fruit and the splash of juice against the game’s “back board” are particularly satisfying. Like Pewpew, Fruit Ninja makes for a pleasant, fast-paced sensory experience. It is similarly shallow, but satisfying for short play sessions.

Entry 15: Drop7

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

The next title in the list of digital games assigned for class, Drop 7 is a mobile (iOS, Android) “puzzle” game. At first glance, the game plays like a strange combination of Bejeweled and Connect Four, but that description does the game a disservice. Essentially, the player has to drop numbered disks (randomly assigned by the computer) onto a grid; the discs quickly begin to form rows and columns. If a disc is in a column or row with a number of discs equal to its number, that disc disappears. Additionally, there are “solid” numberless discs that must be dealt with. These discs “shatter” whenever a disc next to them disappears; when this happens twice, the numberless disc becomes a random numbered disc and can be dealt with as normal. As discs disappear, the number of discs on that row or column changes, which may trigger the disappearance of other discs, allowing for a clever (or lucky) player to get “chains” of disappearances.

Difficulty arises from the game’s level mechanic. After a certain number of discs are dropped, a solid line of numberless discs appears from the bottom of the grid, pushing all other discs upwards. While these numberless discs may be dealt with as normal, with the accretion of discs from the top and with a reducing number of moves between “levels”, eventually the columns fill up and the player runs out of places to drop the discs, or one of existing discs is pushed out of the grid by an entering line of numberless discs as a new level is reached. In either case, the game ends.

I have to say I rather liked this game. I’m not a huge fan of puzzle games of this type, and this game is even simpler in terms of art and interface than most; only the bare minimum information is supplied; no pretty sparkling jewels or shiny metal hexagons to be found here. Still, the mechanic is very solid. There is essentially no time-based pressure whatsoever, as the player gets to choose when and where to drop each disc; this is a nice change from most Tetris/Dr. Mario style games. In fact, at times I felt it had more in common with the number-based logic of Sudoku than with traditional “block dropping” games. The steady, predictable, but ever-present pressure presented by the diminishing number of moves between levels is an interesting alternative to the time-based mechanics of other games; almost like playing against an incredibly patient opponent who knows she will win in the end. A clever, fun little game that I’ll be sure to play from time to time, though like most puzzle games it’s a somewhat predictable challenge where the only reward is a higher score.

 

Entry 14: Guild Wars

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Guild Wars is a unique online computer role-playing game. Some consider it an MMO along the lines of World of Warcraft, but while it has many qualities in common with an MMORPG, it remains very different in a lot of aspects. It’s hard to encapsulate my play experience with Guild Wars in a single notebook entry, since I’ve been playing it on and off since its release in 2005. Still, as it is a unique departure from the established MMO “genre” in both mechanics and business model, I consider it worthy of analysis.

From a business model point of view, it’s worth noting that Guild Wars was the first major “MMO” to offer subscription-free play in North America. Players needed only to buy the boxed version of the game, and they could play for an unlimited amount of time on ArenaNet’s servers. ArenaNet planned to keep a steady revenue stream by offering paid expansions over the next few years that would present new chapters in the game narrative, along with new items and new missions. Indeed, two standalone expansions were introduced in the next couple of years, along with a final expansion, Eye of the North, which required any of the three standalone boxes. This unique business made Guild Wars an attractive alternative to the standard, subscription-based MMOs. I myself have found it to be a perfect “WoW antidote”; without the subscription, GW requires far less commitment than other MMOs; I have found myself giving up GW for months at a time, only to pick it back up after a while and explore whatever new content has been introduced while I was away. In this way, over the years I have purchased every expansion to the game as well as some minor items from the in-game store (a now ubiquitous feature of MMOs) but only when I have the money and time to invest in the game. Overall, I feel there is a more relaxed relationship between game and player using this business model.

Besides its odd business model, the mechanics of Guild Wars are different in many ways from the standard MMO. I wouldn’t necessarily say its systems are more successful than the leading MMOs, but I do believe it deserves credit for attempting some new things. The first thing one learns about Guild Wars is that it’s not really an MMO after all. While the cities, towns, outposts and other “safe” areas of the game are indeed large spaces shared with dozens or hundreds of players, all of the mission and explorable content of the game exists in instanced spaces, seldom allowing more than eight players to be in the area at once. Guild Wars is then mostly a cooperative multiplayer online game with elaborate shared “safe zones” for players to meet, socialize, buy and sell items, and group for missions. Another interesting feature of Guild Wars is that it permits the game to be played “solo” by allowing the player to “hire” AI-controlled characters to create a larger group. While the character does have some very indirect control over these characters, for the most part they act independently, which in my opinion has mixed results. On the one hand, it allows the player to experience much of the game without the need to always be in a group; on the other hand, sometimes I get the distinct feeling the game is “playing itself”. This has been mitigated somewhat of late by allowing the player greater control of the skills and items the AI characters carry into battle, which at least brings tactical considerations about group synergy and playstyle back into the game.

Another unique thing about Guild Wars is that the game has a level cap on characters at level 20. Unlike most modern MMOs, the expansions have never altered this level cap in the least. Level 20 is achieved early on in the player’s career, and essentially all inherent stat-based advancement stops at this point. The reason for this can be found in the game’s skill (discussed below) and PvP systems. Guild Wars has a separate, entirely consensual PvP system and the vast majority of PvP combat occurs between level 20 characters. In fact, players are allowed to create PvP-only characters, separate from their “open world” characters. The reasoning behind this is that the developers believed strongly that player skill, not character stats, should determine who wins in a PvP match. The same reasoning is applied to weapons and equipment; after reaching a certain power level, most weapons found in the game are different only in appearance and special abilities, which are for the most part all balanced against each other. This ties into the game’s skill system; there are literally hundreds of different skills to be found in the game; these are special maneuvers, spells, and attacks. However, no player may have more than 8 such skills equipped at once. This mechanic was inspired by “Magic: The Gathering” and similar card games; instead of one level 20 character being inherently more powerful than another, it is the synergy between the character’s various skills and equipment that make him or her more effective. This is similar to how a well-built Magic deck where the cards play off of each other more powerful than a lesser deck; one is trying to build a character that is greater than the sum of its parts.

 

This is an ingenious system, but it does have its flaws. One of the great hooks of MMOs has always been making your character more powerful by leveling up and acquiring better equipment. While there is indeed the desire to gain more skills and periodically try to create a superior “build”, it can sometimes feel like my character has not truly grown much over the last three or four years. It also means that there are some well-known builds out there that have been found to work very well and have therefore become common; while it can be fun to experiment, it is often simpler to create one of the established builds and play that way. Since much of the game’s challenge (by design) comes from creating these “builds”, I often feel that playing it has become a matter of choosing a build, getting the skills for it, then simply pressing buttons in order to reveal new parts of the narrative. ArenaNet has tried to remedy this by increasing the difficulty of new missions, almost assuming that the player will have one of these effective established builds. This means that they are either too hard for players attempting their own builds (unless they have come up with something on par with the established builds) or they rely on other game aspects such as positioning, attacking in a certain order, splitting up the enemy, and other such tactics. While this has been somewhat successful, it too often means relying on game mechanics that were never meant to do the “heavy lifting” and can therefore feel clumsy. Positioning, for example, can feel awkward since the game was never meant to feature very precise character movement.

Still, I find GW to be a remarkable achievement. From an artistic standpoint, GW is bright and beautiful, often resembling a fantasy painting come to life. Even more impressive is the tech that powers it; it is a six year old engine that runs just fine on six year old hardware (and was never very demanding, even upon its release) yet it doesn’t look anywhere near as dated as by all rights it should. Furthermore, it is consistently updated and upgraded, and has found a great deal of success, selling millions of copies in a market dominated by World of Warcraft. While its gameplay mechanics entail certain trade-offs as opposed to other MMOs, this uniqueness, for all its faults, means that it has remained in my play rotation even as I have mostly given up on other games in the fantasy MMORPG genre.

 

Entry 13: Darkspore

Monday, June 27th, 2011

I recently had the opportunity to play the beta for Darkspore, a game still unreleased as of this writing. Darkspore is an interesting creature. Created by Maxis, best known for Will Wright’s Sim and Sims games, it is a kind of spin-off of Spore, Wright’s latest published game, which is perhaps best known for its creature creator.

Darkspore is essentially a fusion of that creature creator with a traditional Diablo-style “Action RPG” game, with a strange dash of Pokémon-style “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality thrown in. Though it initially seems to be an odd combination of elements, the end result is a revitalizing of the action RPG genre, made a little stale by too many Diablo clones set in varied but similar medieval fantasy worlds. Much of this is simply a change in visual aesthetics and narrative; where most action RPGs feature warriors, wizards, and rogues wielding swords, bows and spells, Darkspore has genetically altered creatures; from cyborgs, to multi-limbed plant-beings, to mutated insects; fighting scores of bizarre aliens with energy blades, natural weapons, and strange alien energies. True, these extraordinary life-forms are all controlled in a manner quire reminiscent of other game’s warriors and mages, but they certainly look and sound different. Further, instead of being locked to a single character, the player chooses three to bring along per mission and switches among them. Creatures are unlocked by purchasing them with points gained from missions and by reaching certain levels; there are literally a hundred creatures to unlock and take into battle, all with unique stories and abilities. Further, the creatures can be dramatically altered in both look and ability in the Spore-based editor, making each player’s version of a given creature unique in both looks and capability.

Another aspect where Darkspore seemed to stand out for me was in terms of how the abilities interacted. I quickly found myself combining different skills for maximum effect, adding a definite tactical dimension to the hack-and-slash gameplay. For one mission I teamed up with a stranger for a co-op session, and when I realized he was essentially going to charge in blindly using a melee-strong character, I switched to a six-limbed plant-based healer and ranged attacker; I spent most of the mission healing him and enhancing his attacks, while laying down a steady rate of fire from my distance attack. While many co-op games have complementary skills like this, Darkspore’s vast number of characters and skills allow for organically evolving teams of complimentary abilities, which I found quite satisfying. Further, every kind of creature has a base element and is weak against creatures of the same element. Care must be given then to what creature you use against what kinds of opponents, adding another layer to playing strategies. While it may be tempting to stick with a handful of favorite creatures, consideration must be given to keeping a balanced stable of creatures of different capabilities across all the elements.

Visually, Darkspore is a breath of fresh air. Strange, colorful creatures do battle over truly bizarre alien worlds; an early stage even has the battle occur on small planetoid shards spiraling towards a black hole. Definitely a nice change of pace from orcs and elves. The few stages I played were all very visually distinct and featured unique attackers and environmental hazards. This was enough to make me want to keep playing, to see what new bizarre landscapes the game had in store for me.

I honestly hadn’t expected much from Darkspore. The original Spore is known as a very innovative and unique game that is as much, or more, about creation than destruction. The idea of turning it into some kind of mindless dungeon crawl seemed to me like a quick cash-in that cheapened the franchise. Having been offered the free beta, I played it more out of curiosity than excitement; now I find myself eagerly awaiting the game’s release. My (admittedly brief) impression of the game is that instead of being an Action RPG with Spore elements tacked on, it’s an action game truly built around the idea of mutable alien beings that has enough unique twists and aesthetics to make it stand out from the crowd. It may yet fall into the classic Action RPG trap of repetitive gameplay, but my initial impression was very positive.

 

Entry 12: VVVVVV

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

The next game on the “required playing” list for this Notebook is simply titled VVVVVV and is an interesting contrast to Spelunky. Like Spelunky, VVVVVV is an unforgiving platformer; unlike Spelunky, VVVVVV’s uniqueness comes not from randomness, but from a single mechanic. Aside from moving left and right, there is a single action the player can take: reversing gravity. This is perhaps the most basic action set available to a character in a videogame since Mario’s days as Donkey Kong’s “Jumpman”. In fact, the sparse (but not unpleasant) graphics actually look like they might have come from the Donkey Kong era (with the exception of some interesting, but still minimalist, background animations).

 

In a way, though, it’s fascinating that you can’t jump; not in the traditional sense. The game takes this “up or down” mechanic and explores it in incredible depth. Most areas and obstacles in the game introduce new and ever more fiendish puzzles where precision timing of the gravity flip and direction changes are the only way to get through and avoid a horrible death. And you will die. A LOT. The game’s obstacles often span multiple screens; I often found myself simply changing the direction of gravity and taking a “leap of faith”. More often than not, my faith proved unjustified and I ended up impaled on one of the ubiquitous spikes that are found throughout the game. I felt the game required me to die; these leaps were more a “scouting mission” than a serious attempt to get through an area. I did this knowing I would immediately re-spawn at one of the game’s many, many save capsules, which seem to be placed just before and immediately after each challenge of any difficulty. In many ways, VVVVVV is the reverse of Spelunky; where Spelunky forced you to do things right the first time and play as conservatively as possible, VVVVVV makes you hurl yourself into the void and explore and react fast, with few, if any, consequences for failure.

 

Amazingly, despite the demonic and at times frustrating challenges of VVVVVV, I found myself enjoying it more than Spelunky. The sense of persistent accomplishment and thin but present narrative of trying to find lost crew members aboard the hellish station are more appealing to me, and I went ahead and bought VVVVVV on Steam; I hope to keep playing and rescue the whole crew. I wonder what that says about me as a gamer.

 

Gameplay Notebook Entry 11: Spelunky

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

So, the Gameplay Notebook returns. This time, ten of the games I’m going to be looking at will come from a list of assigned titles. Frankly, I’m glad to try them; these aren’t games I’d usually play, and I definitely welcome new gameplay experiences.

First up on the resurgent GN is Spelunky. At first glance, Spelunky appears to be a cutesy, retro-styled action platformer. The main character is clearly styled after Indiana Jones, and most of the interaction consists of running, jumping, and attacking with a whip, while ropes and bombs represent a finite resource the character must use carefully. Judged by these elements alone, Spelunky might be considered a charming and entertaining, but average, platform game. What really sets Spelunky apart is the difficulty (if you die, it’s game over, and you start from the beginning) and most importantly, the randomization. The entire game is randomized, and as far as I know, it’s never the same game twice. This is a very interesting mechanic with two important effects: the first one is that each playthrough feels unique and precious. Your chance to explore the level is fleeting; if you play poorly, you’ll never again have the chance to do it correctly. This also adds weight to your choices of where to spend your consumable items; if you waste one at a bad spot and then need one later, you cannot restart and play the level differently with knowledge from a previous playthrough. The second main effect this has is to alter the perception of difficulty and reduce frustration. On the one hand, you cannot get “stuck” in a specific area or get frustrated with a specific challenge; it will simply not be there again. On the other hand, there is no memorization; with traditional platformers, players often memorize the various levels and enemy patterns of the game (leading to the speed-run phenomenon). With Spelunky this is simply not possible.

 

I find Spelunky to be a fresh take on the platformer genre; it’s both a throwback and an original concept. Still, with its relatively limited variety of interactions and having little to no narrative, I doubt I’ll play it as anything more than an occasional diversion. I can see how the challenge and unpredictability would be very appealing to some, however, and I applaud the concept.

 

Summer Updates

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

After an insanely busy pair of quarters, summer is finally here. With it comes a new round of updates. First up is a new set of gameplay notebook entries, which will be uploaded daily for the next forty days. Next up is some new information about my recent and current projects, along with (hopefully) some new editorial entries.