Wednesday, 19 May 2010

XBIR: A Robot's Conundrum

You are a robot. You are capable of flying, drilling Lode-runner-style when on land and pushing one block at a time. You must push a box to the target area, at the bottom.

The simplest lessons involve filling holes with another block, working out a route so the box only falls the permitted distance and taking notice of unstable platforms.

level 4 had me stumped for a minute until I realised what I was meant to do. I was forced to take notice of an 'ability' I had had all along but thus far overlooked - something I always love.
Unclear graphics. Until you learn to study the screen, bullets blend into the bg and the unstable platforms look similar to the bg.
Level 3 involved skipping half the level - something that irritated me. It seems like wasteful design to have only a few extra 'unneeded' elements. If the designer wanted to confuse us with extra elements, I feel that they should have gone all-out. Half-measures, like a stylisation that applies to only a single letter in a typeface, are more likely to look 'messy' and like mistakes.

I'm tempted to buy this (since it costs 80 pts, not the 200 alluded to in-game) but would like some assurance that the later levels will reach a reasonable difficulty without relying heavily on trial and error.

Lesson: (Level) design is much an art of subtraction as it is of addition. Unnecessary elements will only irritate.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

XBIR: A Perfect Massage

Not perfection, but maybe as good as the 360 pad can offer in terms of a 'massage'. Realtime control and 4 programs. Better than the '360 Mega App Pack'.

More direct control over the motors.
Some variance in the 'programs'.
...(For what it is, I don't really have any criticisms.)

Though an OK novelty, a 'real' massage seems massively superior.

Some things just aren't for me. Other folk may like them. That's OK. I wouldn't want a world full of identikit people.

Monday, 17 May 2010

XBIR: A Kitchen Sink War

Spacewar reskinned to feature overly large kitchen utensils (and a lamp...) in a sink. After a player is killed, each has the option to purchase different weapons. £ successful rounds make for a winner.

Differing abilities in the different weapons adds some potential for strategy.
Terrible conveyance of information. Hitboxes are near-impossible to work out based on the shape we see. The fact that the plug 'absorbs' projectiles is counter-intuitive. The 'weapon purchase' screen doesn't give any indication of what we may purchase until we buy it, then fails to tell us how it will behave in-game (something that could have been done using iconography) until we start the next round using that weapon. I couldn't find any indicator of ship health and it was never clear whether hitting an 'asteroid' was actually harmful.
No 1-player mode, despite what the summary says.

Ultimately, this just feels like someone made a few arbitrary changes with the purpose of distnguishing their game but there was no clear focus nor any deep understanding of what would make this genre work. Nothing suggests to me that there are any deep strategies to be found here.

Lesson: Computer games, by their nature, can be completely opaque in their rules and mechanics compared to, say, boardgames or sports. Better signalling and hence more transparency is nearly always desirable.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

XBIR: A Killer's Dream

Watch a video. Occasional letters and symbols flash onscreen. You must 'guess' the killer by remembering the letters - only those used in the killer's name will flash up.

Tests quick recognition of lettershapes. This is something that no other game - to my knowledge - does.
No evidence of thought given to escalation in difficulty, variation in activity or anything else that might make this game fun for longer than the first game.

The trial is somewhat insidious - allowing you to 'play' the game (watching various videos) until you choose to guess the killer. Only purchasing the game will let you know if your guess is correct or not. This seemed - to me - such an egregious practise (preying upon your compulsions rather than trying to offer something of value) that I'm deterred from purchasing any of the company's other games - including one that I expected I would soon purchase.

Lesson: Though some may be suckered by psychological ploys, some will be turned off. Of course, Farmville suggests that the power of compulsion makes the first group stronger. This, if course, in turn raises various questions regarding one's own ethics and morals.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

XBIR: A Game of Tennis

Pong. Many 2p options exist. 2 1p modes: either play 'first to X' or 'how many points can you get before the CPU attains X'. X is definable.

The main-menu bg is kinda pretty.
The ball's trajectory can't be changed by either your paddle's speed or relative position. So you can't actually do anything to increase the chances of the opponent losing.
When the computer missed, it seemed to be for no good reason rather than because of my own skill. I think that in a 2-player competitive game, having your opponent make a random mistake just validates your own skill and attests to your superiority. And no-one minds that. But in a 1player game, assuming you're playing what is allegedly a game of skill - random mistakes by the computer opponent just make your score feel arbitrary.

Lesson: CPU flaws need to lie in their limitations. Not in random screwups.

Friday, 14 May 2010

XBIR: A Game for Alexander

A toy. Moving the left stick causes a circle to move, trailing same-coloured particles. Pressing X, A or B causes the colour to be said, turns the circle that colour and flashes that colour in the entire bg. Pressing Y makes rude noises. Bumpers do something unknown.

Really, this is the kind of thing that I'm only mentioning for the sake of completionism. But since I am: I certainly respect the idea of a 'game' that is more about getting to know the buttons than overcoming any extra challenges. However, I'm not sure that the 360's pad is something that is important enough to merit training a baby for. I think that I would rather give my actual niece or hypothetical future child a physical toy since learning about real physics seems more worthwhile. Or when she's old enough to benefit from computer games, maybe a physical rhythm-based game or a simple 2D platformer would be a better starting point.

I think that ultimately, I maybe just disagree with this dude in when children should be introduced to videogames (specially looking at the picture). I applaud the broadening of the medium though.

Saying 3 of the colours out loud could help them be learned.
It seems a bit arbitrary and generally unexciting for the right analogue stick, d-pad and the triggers to do nothing.

Lesson?: Not everyone thinks alike. Some people have totally different opinions. Maybe all opinions are justified.
(Alternative lesson): some things are better in our real environment rather than being turned into a computer game. Like childrens' toys - so many interactions are possible with 2 plastic bricks, let along 5 of varying sizes! Or like cycling.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

XBIR: A Frog Game

Press A to make the frog jump along a predefined path between two points. Assuming you also remember to click a trigger, the first fly encountered is caught. Jumps must be timed so that a fly is in the area that will result in its capture. You can either play a timed game lasting 17s or a game that involves catching a certain number of flies.

Utterly disposable pap.

The music made me smile.
Why click to get the frog to stick its tongue out? It seems we can only stick its tongue out once per jump and the tongue doesn't retract, it seems that you're as well off always clicking a trigger just after A. This adds an unecessary complication.
Opaque scoring. The scoring described in the rules seems to be a vague hint as to what the 'real' scoring method is. Jumping without capturing any flies clearly detracts points but what exactly brings about the higher points given for successful captures? Some sort of on-screen counter for your combo or any other relevant stats would have helped a lot to make thi all intelligible.

With random introduction of flies, the score seems mainly constrained by luck (a constant stream allowing for constant jumping and thus maximum points). I had a serious issue with this and I think my beef is that the game FEELS like it should be a game of skill. The basic mechanics encourage this line of thinking and in the end this will probably please no-one. It seems like the developer wasn't sure exactly what kind of game it should be - just realising the mechanics and settling for the first incarnation.

Lesson: Even in the simplest games, further simplification and better signalling is important.

Lesson2: A good game should probably have a clear focus: on how much skill it requires, what mood is established and where the fun comes from. Then everything should probably follow on from this focus.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

XBIR: A Fading Melody

A platformer interspersed with evasive story snippets. I will undoubtedly buy this.

A lovely soundscape. Chimes when enemies are struck, piano bgm and rain pouring down... the mood is pensive and thoughtful, making the story somehow meaningful.
The 'movement' felt wrong initially with no acceleration to speak of, instant stops and little bounce after jumping on an enemy.

I was almost ready to write the game off when the trial first ended but I played it again and then - now understanding the 'darkness' mechanic and the ramnifications of the new rolling skill - a 3rd and 4th time, eventually managing to complete level 2 within the time limit.

Lesson: Carefully chosen sound and music can do wonders in setting a mood. I found the character's animation a little jerky but having the graphics all adhere to the same restrained mood gives the game a weight that made me more eager to retry it.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

XBIR: A Dreamland Chronicles Game

Pages from a webcomic, navigatable on your TV. Accompanied by a short quiz essentially testing your reading comprehension. Seems almost worthless, given that the comic is freely available online.

The comic itself seems good.
The format seems completely unsuited to displaying the comic. Scott McCloud once mentioned that folk should be making webcomics in landscape orientation to fit a screen better. On a TV with lower resolution, the problem is exarcerbated. The controls to zoom, move and 'quick-move' the page offer nearly all the navigation I could have hoped for (though I would have preferred 'quick move' to jump a screen rather than to the extremities) but in the end, it's still a square peg/round hole.

The fact that this is a free webcomic me wonder if this app was ever really meant to make money or if it was just meant as a marketing exercise to draw people in. In my case, it's been a success at drawing in a new reader.

Maybe not every game is meant to make money?

Or maybe that adapting something to a new medium takes a lot of work and it might even be simpler to rebuild it from the ground up.

Monday, 10 May 2010

XBIR: A Bomb's Way

A platformer. Collect objects in each stage whilst avoiding enemies to progress. Collect objects in a certain order for bonus points. The world can be rotated into one of 4 orientations.

Rotating the world is an unusual ability. It's always empowering to be able to do things in a virtual environment that you can't in real life, whether it be rewinding time, jumping 20metres or rotating the world. Though the ability isn't used to create puzzles, it is used to turn the single-screen levels into a more interesting playground, with more possible paths to take.

Random movement. I don't think the RNG is needed in this game. There were certainly times when a flying critter just lurked around a group of objects, rendering them unattainable, until the timer ran out.

Attained a score of 2,200ish once I finally understood how we're meant to know the 'correct' order in which to collect items. I enjoyed it and would have bought it if it wasn't for the random enemy movement. That just caused loads of frustration.

Don't use random numbers unless their presence has been considered. No-one likes dying because of what they perceive as an unfair situation.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

XBIR: 3D Infinity

Whilst a ship flies through a series of tunnels, we move it on a 2D plane, avoiding hazards and shooting enemies for points.

Focus. There's something lovely about a game that only has one play mode; only one level. Given the score-based nature and the memorisation required, a single level - which you will be replaying the first few minutes of repeatedly, learning the best paths and constantly beating your high score - works far better than having multiple.

Lack of a decent high-score table. 10 lines, showing your previous bests. Is that so much to ask?
I found the signalling (of what would hurt you and which part of the screen it would end up) really poor. Given the constant 'camera' twists and turns, the only way to know which orientation you will reach a pole at is to either predict the camera correctly or to memorise it based on past failures. 2-3 minutes in, a blue 'E' appears that I failed to pick up on 3 attempts, certain I passed straight through it. On the 4th I miraculously picked it up. You can't move around the periphery of the screen and when combined with the camera movements, there are a few times when it's unclear whether we must pass over or under an obstacle.

The game is entertaining and contains some visceral thrills. When playing though, I feel like I'm constantly getting annoyed at it. Though the constant twists etc. add some graphical excitement, in the end I feel they detract from the game.

Pauses in the action can work as well as pauses between notes in music. There are some tunnels devoid of action that last a few seconds. Though initially annoyed at this, I now think that they add to the fun - offering a valuable respite and avoiding overloading.

I suppose a straight on a racing track is much the same, in a way.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

XBIR: 360 Mega App Pack HD

'Rumble Massage', calculator, simon game, button masher, 'Fortune teller', calculator, a clock an RNG and a game that you need to buy to try.

In 'Shiatsu' mode, the controller surprisingly good on my belly or back.
I've never understood why someone would want an alarm clock or a calculator on your 360. Considering the time it takes to start the game and other inconveniences, a calculator on a PC (failing a 'real' calculator) seems insurmountably more practical.

I suppose there's a larger question as to whether the concept of a 'rumble massage' is worth buying into. Not really as good as a human hand at massaging the points that matter like the neck, it has its own qualities - namely the frequency of vibration - that are irreproducible by humans. In any case, this isn't the sort of thing I'm personally interested in.

Some things can be surprisingly enjoyable.

Friday, 7 May 2010

XBIR: 2win Ghost

The console equivalent of a 'Mouse Game' with 2 characters. Each is constantly falling, will cause you to fail the level if it touches certain obstacles and is controlled by one of the 2 analogue sticks.

Instantly intriguing concept. I was looking forward to what this new twist would engender.
Reapers say 'OOOOOoooooooOOO yeah'. I found this funny and cute.
A massive difficulty spike in the final level of the demo - both characters must be passed through a small gap. An easily implemented form of difficulty, it's challenging but not particularly interesting. And the difficulty doesn't match the cute graphics.
In the levels available, the idea is never really taken advantage of.
The hearts (collectibles) are never explained. Are they even counted? Does collecting them actually give any advantage?

I wish this game were pushed a little further - that the designer had actually followed through with some of the possibilities. Seems half-baked and not worth playing if you only want to play good games.

When making a game with a twist, let the challenges come from the new space the twist creates - not just the same old challenges.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

XBIR: 2176 Supernova Storm

Another 'Asteroids turned into a Deathmatch' game.

Clear signals - controller rumbling a warning each time you're hit.
The skills it seems to mainly test (calculating the correct angle to rotate the ship to to land your shots) is exactly the sort of thing that I don't find massively fun and that computers will always be better at.
The powerups you can collect seem to encourage 'turtling' and are an annoying form of positive feedback.
At many points of the map, with dark bg and dark foreground objects (with only a small rimlight), crashing into rocks or failing to see your ship when it respawns are the rule rather than the exception.

This is the sort of game that I might play for far longer than I ought to - trying to work out what I'm missing. Well, after 22 minutes, I think I can say that if I haven't found the fun yet, the game shouldn't be hiding it so much.

LESSON: Don't add extra elements until the basics work.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

XBIR: 2060 Cyber Racer

A racing game with no opponents (focusing exclusively on time trial and a single ghost for each track), extreme banks, 3 tracks and 3 loops.

Distinctive, non-realistic art direction. Black objects with green writing scrolling on them give the vague impression of something from Tron or the Matrix. Though the silhouettes are sometimes visually striking - specially the wind turbines - the limited palette helps keep the background in the background and makes for minimal distractions.
The whole game is oddly relaxing. Maybe because of the generally muted sounds, lack of competition (racing against a ghost) and sensitive controls. Unlike most racing games, I found myself forced to have a certain delicacy whenever touching the analogue stick. Thanks to the poor times on the starting highscore list, it's easy to start racing against yourself.
Poor feedback and explanation. We're never told explicitly that we've just attained a record time. The flow of the game itself (racing 3 laps, then being told the rank of your best time and being sent to the track selection screen) was confusing and it took a few games until I realised what was going on. Anyway, why not let us race indefinitely?

I greatly enjoyed this, expiring the demo time 5 or 6 times. I think I'm pretty much done for just now, though.

Maybe we need more heavily-stylised graphics in games? Specially 3D games.

Monday, 3 May 2010

XBIR: 15 Puzzle

The puzzle you'd expect. Many pictures of sunny holiday scenes and sunsets. 5 options for puzzle size (the first four including numbers that tell you where a piece goes; the last taking away said numbers).

I was really impressed with the production values in the photographs, skippable shuffling animation, fireworks...

I appreciate how the numbers are something that you couldn't do with the 'traditional' puzzle - on the computer, you can simply have them fade away.

I would have liked to do a really big puzzle WITH the numbers. It'd have been little work to have a 'custom' option that let you set grid size and the numbers' presence separately.

Even then though, I doubt I would play it more than once or twice.

LESSON: Sometimes, people complain about things that aren't actually their main gripe. I think that really this game's main downfall is that the technique for solving the puzzles never really changes and it doesn't benefit very much from the computer format. Other than space, I suppose.

XBIR: 1337 Ship Deathmatch

Multiplayer asteroids (with bots if too few humans are playing). Asteroids are removed. Finite, replenishible energy for the projectiles and a shield (running off the same energy) are added.

I'd need to spend a fair bit more time to develop the skill to beat the medium-difficulty-CPU consistently but I don't know if the game would be worth the time investment.

After a while, I started to realise that the rules might actually encourage some strategies. Running into an enemy with the shield up is an easy-but-risky way to kill, offset by the fact that you bounce back when shot at even if your shield is up. When firing, you need to make all your shots count, trying to predict your enemy's future position and firing enough that they can't all be absorbed.

Bullets were hard to see (on a CRT), energy bars impossible to find.
Twice, the enemy exploded in a 1v1 and the score didn't change. Just now, I realise this may be because it killed itself. If so, having its own score reduce by 1 (even going negative) would seem fairer.

I think I'll probably play this longer at some point in the future.

XBIR: 10 Seconds or less

This is a game I want to love but can't; simple, interesting idea but poor execution.

Unique rules (find the fragment of a picture that matches the fragment shown).
Tests visual recognition. Other than Spot the Difference, I can't think of any other games that do.

There is no thought put into having consistency in difficulty between - or even within - pictures. A picture with 6 differently coloured squares would test no-one but the colourblind. A fragment could either be a clear portion of a shape or an indistinct part of an out-of-focus background.

I found the picture with green peppers an interesting challenge - having to distinguish identically hued shapes that ARE (barely) distinguishable.

Lesson: even if all your 'game design' seems to involve is making pictures, there's probably still a lot to think about.

XBIR (XBox 'Indie' Reviews) Intro.

Over the next n days (where n is the number of days that it happens to take), I shall review all the XBox Indie games.

This is largely for my own benefit. Along the way, I may discover small traits - easy to add in development - that make an average game great by their presence or vice versa. I may learn a little about the state of that market. I will almost certainly have some fun.

Though I may choose to buy some of these games, I will base these reviews on nothing more than the trials. In a sense, for the multi-level games, this could be considered a review of first impressions; the opening minutes.

These reviews will not have a score but I plan to summarise, then pick a few good traits and a few bad. I plan to then write however much I choose, going off on a tangent if I so wish. Bear in mind that I will not mention everything. These 'reviews' are not intended to be purchasing guides for anyone other than myself. However, if anyone else finds them:
a) enjoyable to read
b) useful
c) so horrible to read that they post comments or send me e-mails, which later make me laugh
then the benefits publishing them online will have surpassed my expecations .