Category: Commentary

Setting the record straight

Okay, it seems a number of people are either inadvertently misinterpreting or willfully misrepresenting my stance here, so for the record:
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So, first of all: I am slightly flattered, and more than a little miffed. The current top-selling game for iPhone is pretty clearly heavily inspired by my game Wavespark, published a year and a day prior. I’ve got lots of mixed feelings about this. I’ll readily accept that Tiny Wings has much higher production values than Wavespark; if nothing else, it looks exactly like one expects an iPhone game to look these days. I also recognize that you can’t copyright gameplay – objectively a good thing, as there’s be no room for incremental innovation or variations on a genre, things necessary for the health of games as a whole. All the same, a nod of acknowledgment at the very least would have been appreciated.

Oh, and to all those who were clamoring for an iPhone port of Wavespark: you told me so.

Miscellaneous Rants

I’ve been playing a variety of games lately, and feel like sharing my opinions with the world, because what’s a blog for, right? Recently making a foray into MMOs, not a genre I generally enjoy, but I figured that since there’s a number of free-to-play offerings out there I might as well give some of them a shot.

Final Fantasy XIV (free “re-beta”):
- It looks like two-thirds of the development budget went into making the menus for this game egregiously shiny. I can appreciate some menu bling on occasion, but…
- This game looks like it can’t decide whether it’s Final Fantasy or an MMO, and kinda fails at both:
– Voice acting in the opening scene! And then never again.
– What appears to be the “main quest” in the area I started in consists of running back and forth across the needlessly-large city map talking to various NPCs. Oh, this next section of the plot is at the archer’s guild, simply because we haven’t made you visit there yet!
– The map system is horrendously inadequate even by the standards of a singleplayer RPG, let alone one whose plot consists of “go here” quests. It appears impossible to set markers for destinations (the aforementioned go-here quests don’t even put a marker on your map); there’s a compass indicator for monsters on the monster-hunting quests, but never at any other time; and the map doesn’t even zoom to make navigation feasible.
- Dear level designers: doodling a cave system, removing the roof, and painting everything green is not how you create a forest.
- No jumping. I get it, it’s Final Fantasy and thus A World Without Knees, but still. This game suffers from the cardinal design sin of not being about what it’s about: Specifically, over two-thirds of my gameplay time is spent running from place to place, rather than fighting monsters or gaining new abilities or exploring the storyline. And yet there is absolutely nothing fun about this majority activity. The scenery was dazzling for all of 5 minutes, and then I realized that the entire forest is just cut-and-paste green caves. I struggle to cross a river because of the ankle-high riverbanks impeding my progress. And due to the aforementioned map issues, I can’t even tell if I’m headed the right way half the time. I’m somewhat inspired to write an essay on travel in games soon, using FFXIV, Champions Online, and Zelda: Wind Waker as referents.
- I created a Pugilist character, and there are several attacks for that class that are only usable if you’ve just evaded an enemy attack – but other than the enemy’s damage saying “Evade” rather than a number, there is absolutely no cue indicating when these attacks are available. The toolbar buttons for those attacks don’t even visibly change state. I want the big green triangle from Kingdom Hearts.
- Lots of gratuitous mystery in the abilities. There’s no way to gauge the relative strength of attacks from the interface, for example. I mean, sure, you can hit an enemy and see what numbers pop up, but all the skill-slotting interface gives you is a sentence that says “does physical damage and increases evasion” or the like.

Champions Online (f2p):
- Character costume design is hugely flexible, for the most part, though half of the options are obscured by bizarre interface design. It takes some work to deviate from the “superheroic” body-type, though.
- Travel powers, available as soon as you finish the tutorial zone. If I can hook up a gamepad and have a good 30 minutes of fun just Acrobatics-ing around the city, you’re doing something very right.
- Speaking of gamepads, versatility in game interface. By changing input, camera, and targeting settings, you can play Champions Online as a standard MMORPG, something almost like an FPS, or something almost like an action game. I say “almost” because there are many occasions where the veneer cracks and the “MMO-ness” shows through: a sword-swipe that always hits at most a single enemy is not visually distinct from one that hits enemies in a cone-sweep (but only a maximum of five at once) – and cone attacks always need to be centered on a primary target. It’s simply impossible to swing your sword if there’s nobody around to hit. Likewise, charge-up attacks get invalidated if an enemy is out of range during any point of the charging, even if they’re in range when it would go off. There are also aspects of the interface, such as the “usable device” slots, that don’t appear to be accessible at all via the gamepad.
- Utterly bizarre procedurally generated item/crafting system, that is at times both frustrating and endearing. An enemy can randomly drop Colossal Ears or a Reinforced Kick that improve your strength when equipped. It’s probably just as well that equipment doesn’t affect your appearance in this game…
- Plenty of quests. There’s enough missions that if you take everything that shows up and try to go through them in order of recommended level, you’ll level up faster than you finish them. And there are multiple primary zones each with its own family of missions, so if you get bored of the city you can head out to the Canadian Wilderness and keep on going without ever having to stop and grind.
- Too many options are behind the pay-barrier. Free accounts are limited to a small selection of preset “archetypes” when it comes to powers; this would be less of a problem if the game allowed more than two characters per account without buying extra slots. (Although I suppose that since accounts are free, there’s nothing stopping me from registering an additional account to try out more of the archetypes, except possibly the ToS.) As it is, I feel like I don’t get enough of a taste of what the game offers mechanically to justify sinking money into finding out.

More card ideas

So as I come up with more card ideas, I’m discovering some actual thematic elements for a block design. Pretty sure this won’t ever be a full set, but it’s a fun design space to explore.
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Magical Thinking

So I’ve recently gotten back into playing Magic: the Gathering again. Me being who I am, this means that I’ve got a zillion ideas for new card designs rattling around in my head. Here’s a preview of one of the bits of nifty I’m working on…

So, I just got back from my day at PAX. There was all sorts of delightful stuff on display, fun things to do, and some very impressive demos in the expo hall. The one game that I was utterly blown away by, however, was not LittleBigPlanet 2 or Duke Nukem Forever or Final Fantasy XIV, but a student game in the PAX 10 called Solace. Something that’s been on my mind lately is the fact that while games, as a medium, have certainly been explored as a vessel for expressive artistic statement, gameplay has not often been a part of that. If you take Braid and remove the text, you end up with a puzzle game involving time manipulation that is barely about anything other than puzzles involving time manipulation. On the other hand, if you took Solace, removed the text, and replaced all the beautiful graphics and superb sound design with rectangles and beeps, it would still be about the five stages of grief as represented through the gameplay of its levels – the message would not be conveyed nearly so brilliantly, but nor would it be lost.

Certainly, there have been games in the past that conveyed an artistic statement through their gameplay. Passage springs immediately to mind, for example. But the thing about Passage is that while it may or may not be effective as art, it isn’t really effective as a game. It merits exploration, and provokes thoughts, certainly, but doesn’t really engage the player on a visceral level. In contrast, Solace is fun, challenging, and engaging. The visuals, audio, and level design are all deliberately tuned to evoke within the player echoes of the emotion that they represent. Not just through sympathetic sensory associations, the way a painting or poem or piece of music would – though Solace uses these idioms as well – but through the nuances of the gameplay. The structure of the game expects, and at times effectively requires, the player to demonstrate an understanding of the level’s relevant emotion in order to successfully proceed through the game – and indeed enables the player to do so, with nothing more nuanced than a directional control and a fire button.

Solace, in addition to being a marvelous work of art in its own right, is a lesson to all game designers of what games have the potential to be. In my own game designs, I have often run into a tension between making my game artistically meaningful and having good, solid, fun gameplay. Solace, by being excellent in both regards, has taught me that this is a false dichotomy. If Portal is worthy of a place on a course syllabus, I believe Solace can be similarly instructive, to students and designers alike.

Personal anecdotes regarding the game follow in the comment section; as these may spoil some of the delight of discovery that the game can offer, I strongly recommend downloading and playing through the game before reading on.

On Feedback

So, Dragondot’s Sky was recently featured on Jay is Games. I was initially quite excited by this, as it’s certainly the game I’ve put the most work, dedication, and passion into to date. The critical reception there, however, has been… less than inspiring, shall we say.

Dragondot’s sky was a huge failure in my eyes. The controls were crummy, and the soundtrack was a piece of sh!t. well at least on my laptop, because for some reason, the soundtrack kept skipping and sounding all cr@ppy.

Dragondot’s Sky was beyond screwed up. With that control scheme, I would have had a hard time even going through a maze – much less trying to chase and shoot moving enemies. You’re controlling a circle – and it’s not as simple as “Holding the right arrow key makes you rotate clockwise?” And how could a game with such sparse graphics, terrible AI, terrible music, and terrible EVERYTHING take that long to load?

Ouch. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’ve made some mediocre games, but I’m frankly stunned that this game has inspired such a degree of vitriol. My weekly games are something I do for myself, but when times are tough the encouragement of others is what helps keep me going. This, though, is not terribly encouraging – nor does it provide me anything I can work with to improve in the future. The music sounds “cr@ppy” on your laptop? Thanks for letting me know, but when making my games I have a) one week, b) one computer, c) one person (myself) to test and debug. I can’t fix an issue that I can’t reproduce myself, and a week is not exactly enough time to run betas and focus groups. I’m immensely grateful for the rest of you here that give me feedback that I can learn from and act on (such as the changes made to enemy advancement rates in Dragondot’s Sky). Please continue to do so – the more I can learn, the more I can improve, and that means better games for all of you. =)

And to those whose puppy my game has apparently kicked: My sincerest apologies. Hold the right arrow key to rotate clockwise.

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