Category Archives: design

Neat Features: Chuzzle

I am a pretty big and unabashed Popcap Games fan.  Not all of their stuff, mind you, but I’ve spent more money and wasted more time on their games than I’m willing to admit.   I’m playing Chuzzle again lately, since it’s been released for iPhone (and with all honestly, when I got my iPhone it was the first game I searched for on the app store).  One thing I’ve always loved about Chuzzle was Zen mode.

Zen mode allows you to simply play the game, forever, without any chance of losing.  You accrue points.  You can achieve trophies.  But with no risk of failure.  Conventional game design wisdom would argue that a game without an end condition like that wouldn’t be of any lasting value, but I’m quite sure I’ve spent more time playing Zen Chuzzle than I have any other mode.  Part of this is the sheer joy of playing the game.  It looks and sounds great, and it is simply entertaining just to pop chuzzles.

I think what we can take away from this is that with enough polish, you can shrug off a lot of the conventional weight of game design.

Notable Design: Darksiders

Darksiders is a fairly by-the-numbers 3rd person action game in the style of God of War / Devil May Cry.  However, as I play it, I’m seeing some nice subtle design tweaks that make it stand out against the games from which it obviously drew inspiration.

Particularly, the way the instant kills work.  To pull off an instant kill, you simply need to press B when in range of a stunned or vulnerable enemy.  Somewhat like God of War or Assassin’s Creed 2, but unlike God of War, there’s no quick time events involved. Where it differentiates itself is that you can interrupt a combo in progress to start an instant kill, and you can chain instant kills together as part of the combo system.  This leads to some great moments, like when you get mobbed by winged enemies who are easily killed.  You can actually jump once, and just keep aiming and hitting B to kill one after the other without ever touching the ground.

However, the cleverness doesn’t end there.  Your instant kill animations can actually damage or hurt nearby enemies if they get close to a swinging fist or weapon.  So instead of being locked in to an animation that only affects a particular enemy (as is the case in Assassin’s Creed 2), you can strategically choose particular enemies to kill so that you do damage to other nearby enemies as well.

But it gets better!  The game doesn’t control your motion for the entire length of the kill.  If your instant kill ends in the air, you can immediately chain it in to any downward or in-air attack that you have available to you.  A lot of other games of this type controls your motion from start to finish, limiting your ability to provide input before your character returns to the idle state.

These sets of rules all work together to great an instant kill system which is seamless with the rest of combat, useful for more than simply killing individual enemies, and allows for far more skill than some of the other games allow.

Left 4 (Almost) Dead

So, Left 4 Dead is pretty cool.  It is, for sure, the best zombie survivor game I’ve ever played.  And I certainly enjoy it in co-op.  But I can’t help but feel a little let down, because honestly, there are so many little things they’ve done which either ruin the experience, or at the least, pull you out of the game.  

First though, things I like.  The pacing of the game is, for the most part, fantastic.  It doesn’t suffer turtlers, and it doesn’t mind killing people who rush headlong in to the fray.  Except… death doesn’t really mean death really in L4D.  Which is a good thing.  The system is ridiculously forgiving and allows for many frantic situations where you are trying to save someone when everything is going to shit around you.  I don’t know how many times we’ve only just made it in to the next safe house.  (It’s worth noting that so far I’ve only played on Advanced mode, based on input from friends.  And frankly, on advanced sometimes it feels a little too easy.)

The knockdown mechanic, instead of death, is a fantastic method of keeping the player in the game.  And there’s nothing more awesome than being knocked down and being able to continue blowing zombie heads in to paste.  I’ve had moments where I was knocked down, but I still managed to save people nearby from special zombies.

They also do a lot of things to help create tension.  You can’t just use a healthpack.  You have to apply a health pack, and it takes time.  And it can be interrupted.  You almost never have enough ammo to reach the next ammo pile.  There are always more zombies.  Using a flashlight draws so much attention that it’s often better to skip it if you aren’t in pitch black.  

The game is good at mixing things up.  Things rarely happen exactly the same, and you can’t really prepare too much for what will happen, or expect things to go the same way twice.  Which is really great when you are playing on a high difficulty, as it keeps the game fresh. 

Which is sorely needed, because it is a very limited and very repetitive game.  Not to say it’s not still fun… but after you’ve played for a half hour, you’ve seen everything.  There’s the odd new event, and the scenery changes, but really, after a half hour, you can safely say you’ve experienced the game.  I’ve put five hours in it, and seen two of the campaigns through to the end, and I feel like if I stopped playing today, I wouldn’t miss much more. 

The things I don’t like about the game, however, are things that I hope are either tweaked through modding, if possible, or added in later patches.  For one, there needs to be a game mode which turns off music for all players.  Maybe not all the music, but certainly the event music, which lets you know really early what’s about to happen, so that the game never really catches you off guard.  Sure, it happens once in a while… but that becomes really rare once you recognize what each piece of music means.  

Second, there needs to be a mode which turns off monster outlines.  And you know, maybe even player outlines if they are within your line of sight.  Sometimes it just feels so gamey with these bright outlines letting you know exactly what’s going on.  The game supports voice, so why not use it?  I want to play with friends and I want to have to communicate with them, and understand what’s going on.  But the outlines are just a method of handholding which is all too common in games nowadays.

Third, there needs to be a co-op versus mode, where if you pick survivor, you are always a survivor, and it works the same as normal co-op, completely transparent.  It doesn’t let you know if the other zombies are controlled by players or not.  And then random people can jump in, control infected, and surprise you.  But it’s hard to be surprised when you know there’s a player controlling the enemy.

Oh, and one thing, which I think is a bug fix as much as anything else.  I want to be able to see the outlines from everyone else’s flashlight.  That would be ridiculously more immersive and nothing would be more awesome than jumping at your own shadow in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. 

I enjoy the game, and I hope it gets some tweaks, because it has potential to be way better than it actually is.  However, it will suffice as a pretty damn fun version of a zombie apocalypse, even if not a very real one.

Braid, Do I Love You or Hate You?

On one hand, you are a great game.  Amazing game mechanics, puzzles, and a mature and meaningful story and presentation that is as unique as the mechanics themselves.  Art, music, sound, writing, all are top notch.  A notch above, I might add, any game I’ve played made by any kind of business driven development house.

Sure, I could talk about how your difficulty curve is imperfect.  How I spent much time frustrated at a few puzzles for knowing what I needed to do, but not how to do it.  How I was forced, at one point, to hit up youtube for a solution (which, in the end, told me that I was doing exactly the right thing, just off by a tiny amount).  Of spending nearly an hour on one puzzle completely frustrated because I hadn’t yet discovered a mechanic that could’ve been introduced to me transparently through gameplay.

But that would be missing the point.

The point is you are so good, it makes me feel like an amateur.  Not the professional with nearly a decade of experience that I am.  You make me feel like everything I’ve done, everything I want to do, is in vain, because I will never make something as beautiful, or as full of depth and meaning.  I realize now that every idea I’ve ever had, every mechanic I’ve ever dreamed of including in a game, is nothing but evolutionary fluff compared to a true masterpiece.

Do I hate you?  Do I hate you for making me want to give up on all my dreams and ambitions?  To crawl under a rock and pretend that I never even tried, so as to minimize the trauma?

Do I love you?  Will you be the inspiration that leads me to create my own masterpiece?  Or at least, something I can be truly proud of and call my own?

I hope that it’s love, I fear that it’s hate.

The Pass Effect

So, I’ve been playing Mass Effect lately. Or more to the point, I’ve been hating Mass Effect lately. Don’t get me wrong, I want to like it. The dialogue is fantastic, and gives a level of maturity to Bioware games that’s been solely lacking.

Now, if only they could manage to make a good game. The more I play Mass Effect, the more angry I get at it. Why play if you are angry, you ask? Because hidden in there, beyond the horrible interface, poorly implemented action, and generic filler quests, is a good game. I think.

The soundtrack is amazing. The visuals (after ten seconds of loading, anyway) are top notch. Despite obvious frame rate issues. But the interface… Let’s just say, I can’t believe no one at Bioware sat down and said “You know, this inventory system sucks. A lot. Maybe we should fix it?” It’s painful to use. It’s slow to use. There’s no sorting options. Managing your equipment is a pain. And it doesn’t conform to any commonly used interface conventions. For instance, when I’m looking through upgrades for a weapon/armor, why can’t I hit the B button to cancel? Instead, I have to scroll all the way back to the top of the list (in an extremely slow fashion, as there is an arbitrary scrolling speed imposed by their mini-animation), and then reselect the upgrade I started with.

And that’s only one of the many oversights. For example, there’s a handy store on your ship. But you can’t compare any of the items in that store to any of your party members, because when you are on your ship, you are alone. So if you want to upgrade your sidekicks in between missions, you either write down all their stats on a sheet of paper (how retro!), or you spend all your time memorizing a set of stats, and checking it against the store.

Inventory management quickly becomes a chore that you have to stay on top of, or face the consequences. When you kill enemies, items magically end up in your inventory. So when you hit your equipment screen, you are helpfully confronted with a giant useless dialog showing you all the cool neat stuff you’ve recieved, with such helpful information as “Polonium” and “Phoenix” with an option to turn it in to omni-goo, which is a magical substance that hacks for you, and heals you, et cetera. Now, the catch is that if you don’t keep your inventory clean, you’ll hit a magical arbitrary limit where the game forces you to nuke everything you get at that screen, before you can figure out what any of it does.

And then there’s the action. It’s functional, but barely. The cover system is a weak and buggy copy of Gears of War, coupled with an attempt at strategy partially in line with Rainbow Six Vegas. The combat has little or no feedback with your normal weapons. Enemies can often one shot you (even on Easy mode, there’s still times where I’ll get owned by a shot from a powerful enemy, in one hit). Your party is effectively useless, spending most of their time standing out in the open and dying, or alternately, firing blindly in to a wall or crate. That’s when they are actually following you, and not bugged out, standing still, and only teleporting to you when you get out of range.

And then there’s the vehicle combat and controls, which are barely tolerable, and feel like the bare minimum. I’ve done Unreal Engine development before, and the vehicle combat in this game feels a hell of a lot like the default test vehicle that comes with the engine. It feels as if there was no extra work put in to the controls, or the camera, or the shooting.

Ultimately, the whole game just screams “Unfinished.” It’s like an Alpha that doesn’t crash. They didn’t bother taking any time to fix the little issues (Like getting stuck in walls, or your sidekicks not following you, or game balance), and instead just shipped it as it was.

I’m hard pressed to think of any RPG this buggy since the original Gothic. And that’s saying a lot, because at least Gothic tried to do new and interesting things.  Mass Effect is the same old Bioware formula, packaged in a visually appealing (once it loads) setting. The one claim to innovation was supposed to be its dialogue system, which ultimately turned out to be a glorified “Press any key to Continue” prompt, as multiple replays of conversation very distinctly shows you that often, no matter what option you pick, your character will deliver the exact same line in the exact same way. Innovation is convincing someone you are moving forward, when actually, you are moving backward. Apparently.

Those are just the major issues I have with the game. The minor issues are too numerous to count, starting from all planets/moons having the same gravity (including our moon), to sidekick quests being nothing more than looting a box on a specific planet. Especially disappointing given the story and detail of previous Bioware entries.

And yet, despite all of this, I power on. Because I want to like it. But it’s taking a lot of effort not to just take a pass on the game, and throw it on the pile with all the other “almost good” games that I’ll never finish.

That being said, I honestly can’t understand all the glowing reviews. It’s like I got a burn of an early alpha, while everyone else is playing the final game. Then again, maybe there’s some magical turning point in the game where it becomes amazing. Maybe that’s why I keep playing.

Wii’s Weakness

Before I get in to this post, let me say that despite my skepticism about the Wii, I did hope that when I finally got to play, controller(s) in hand(s), it would feel perfectly natural, and everything Nintendo claimed it would be.

Well, after spending about a half hour with Monkey Ball, I must say I am somewhat crestfallen. Played the single player standard game for a bit, and it felt okay. Not spectacular, but I could (mostly) control it. Then I played some minigames. I’m hoping that the minigames are just bad games, with poor use of the controller. With almost no exception, the minigames were hard to control, and there seemed to be no direct relation between the motions you were doing and what was happening on screen.

This is when I realized the Wii’s weakness: People expect more from the games than in most cases they can actually do. And it’s not unreasonable, it’s a natural extension of the built in reflexes that Nintendo is trying to capitalize on. When I play, and moving the controller is how you play, the reflexes to do certain things are there by default. When they don’t work, when the game doesn’t support them… it makes the controls feel broken.

This is absolutely a player problem, but I have a feeling I will not be alone. You get in to a groove of moving the controller, and then you want something to happen on-screen, and you move the controller in an intuitive fashion… and nothing happens. Or the wrong thing happens.

Ultimately, for developers to really get the most out of this console, everything that a player will attempt to do probably needs to be supported. And I know that’s a tall order… but I don’t know what else will work.

I hope that ultimately other games will make a better impression. I’m still hoping to try out Zelda at some point. I’m hoping it doesn’t feel as broken as Monkey Ball.

Sigh.

Co-operative play is the future.

I’ve been playing Gears of War sporadically over the past week.  Ultimately, I was left ambivalent about the game.  Looks good, sounds good, great voice acting.  But the main gameplay mechanic is ‘learn through failure’, the difficulty levels need an extra step, and there’s a whole hell of a lot of instant death, despite the forgiving health mechanic.  So I was playing it, but not really enjoying it that much.

Enter Xbox Live.  Got an invite to play last night from a friend.  We did a bit of 1v1 deathmatch.  Which had a couple fun moments, but ultimately, was a game not built for 1v1 play.  But then I suggested he join me via co-op and give me a hand with a boss.

What followed was two hours of some of the greatest gaming I’ve had since Halo.  Why?  Because co-op simply makes everything better.  It can take a mediocre game (eg. Gears of War, Halo) and turn it in to a fantastic experience.  Because you are no longer just playing a mediocre game.  You are playing a mediocre game with a friend.

But above and beyond that, Gears of War’s implementation is absolutely fantastic, and as much as I avoid heaping praise on Epic, purveyors of everything sci-fi and deathmatch generic, they deserve some kudos for this one.  First of all, with the exception of choosing how you start the game, the implementation is totally transparent.  You can have a friend hop in to your in-progress campaign.  Progress made in co-op saves to your single player campaign as well.  Hell, I’m probably going to get in the habit of starting a game as a private co-op host, simply so that if I feel like it I can invtie a friend in.

Online co-op is the future.  Developers take note.  You skimp on multiplayer co-op, it’s a black mark against you. In the coming years, a common line in a review will be “But it would have been so much better if there’d been co-operative online play.”