Archive for the ‘Game Discussion’ Category

The Brainy Gamer: Unplayable

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

The Brainy Gamer's got a great blog up right now about his experience asking younger gamers to play an old classic.  Both funny and a little bit depressing, ultimately more enlightening than anything else.

It mostly came down to issues of user-interface, navigation, combat, and a general lack of clarity about what to do and how to do it. I had supplied them with the Book of Mystic Wisdom and the History of Britannia, both in PDF form, but not a single student bothered to read them. "I thought that was just stuff they put in the box with the game," said one student. "Yes," I replied, "They put it in there because they expected you to read it." "Wow," he responded.

The Brainy Gamer: Unplayable.

Interesting Choices: Colonization’s Founding Fathers

Friday, August 6th, 2010

Interesting Choices is a recurring column that examines a decision point in a game, focusing on those that are particularly interesting.  The point of the column is to examine what particularly makes each of the choices interesting, and the impact that this has on the game as a whole.

It is fitting that the first installment of Interesting Choices is a game that has Sid Meier's name in the title.  The title of this column is itself a nod to his definition of games as a series of interesting choices.  While Colonization does indeed feature a series of these choices, the one that I particularly want to focus on is the one presented to me in the following pop up message:

Don't invite Aaron Burr too, or there might be troubleThe founding fathers are a particularly well implemented series of choices in the game, and Alexander Hamilton is a particularly appealing option for me in the current game.  Since his benefit is increased productivity (for free!) at all settlements, and I've sort of settlement spammed the new world, I'll get quite a bit of benefit from him--essentially a free carpenter that doesn't eat, at each settlement, which I have seven of.  At first glance, there seems to be little reason to say no, in fact.  Why would I even consider it?  To understand that, we've got to take a look at the system used to determine which founding fathers are available to me.

Who to recruit?You'll probably need to click on that to look at the big version to see the portions I'm referring to, but let's break this image a part a bit, and examine the important bits:

  • First, there are a lot of founding fathers available.  Here we've got John Rolfe, Jan de Witt, Peter Minuit, and Lord Baltimore.  We can further see that each founding father has a (mostly) unique effect, which may be relatively meaningless to readers who have not played the game, and which are beyond the scope of this particular document.
    • There is a scroll bar, indicating further options to the right.
    • There are tabs at the bottom, indicating even more options with other specialties.
  • Notably, we see that each of these four gentlemen are already spoken for.  I've got the two on the right in my congress, and the English colonies have John Rolfe, while the French colonies have Peter Minuit.   The important part of this:  each founding father can only serve one colony, and once they're snatched up, they are gone for good.
  • Across the center we have two progress bars, one for Political Points and one for Trade Points.  These are earned through actions in game, and represent their own series of choices.  The UI is perhaps a little bit less clear than it could be on this, but the head of each founding father lines up with the cost to recruit him.
  • In the bottom left, there is a box detailing how many of each type of point I've collected at this moment in the game.  It's worth noting that in addition to Political and Trade Points, I've also got Religion, Military, and Exploration Points.

Several things combine to ultimately make the founding fathers decision one of the most rewarding in the game.  The fact that you are racing with the competing colonies to attract the founding fathers is one factor.  As soon as they are serving one colony, the others are out of luck.  The fact that the only time they offer to join is when they first become available is another important factor.  I cannot go back an re-invite Alexander Hamilton if I turn him town now.  I'd have waived my right to Alexander Hamilton; it's now or never.  The final factor that really makes the decision intense though, is the fact that I have to pay for him.  His cost in points is deducted from my current total.   Looking ahead on the trade tab, here's what I've got coming up:

Significantly more powerful, yet costlier.I've just passed up Adam Smith (faster factory construction), and will next have a shot at John Jacob Astor (more furs) and then Eli Whitney (more cotton).  As I haven't focused much on cotton or furs, neither is particularly appealing (this game, anyway).  However, Alexander Hamilton doesn't just cost trade points, he costs political points as well.  This is true of all founding fathers in the game.  So recruiting Alexander Hamilton doesn't just diminish my chances of getting those other trade founding fathers before my competitors, it impacts my ability to recruit exploration, religious, military, and political founding fathers as well.

Every time a founding father that interests me offers to join up, I have to carefully weigh the advantages he offers compared to the other founding fathers that I might be able to recruit (from any tab) in the near future.  I also have to weigh the odds that another colony will recruit those other founding fathers first.  I also have to weigh how much impact a given founding father will have if they are recruited by an opponent.  Perhaps I want to play spoiler, and recruit Eli Whitney before the cotton-reliant French do.

Ultimately, in this case, I decide to recruit Alexander Hamilton.  His benefit is fantastic for my setup, and he's the most beneficial guy on the trade track for me (Cyrus McCormick wouldn't be bad either, though, offering increased sugar and food production).  On the other hand, these were the next 3 gentlemen available to me in the politics tab:

Patrick Henry would be a big boon to my bid fo independence

While I'm still hoping to snag at least one of them (Patrick Henry being my top choice), my chances to do so just took a serious hit.  These three, being Political founding fathers, require only Politics Points, and I just spent a boatload of those recruiting Mr. Ten-Dollar Bill.  As I continue this game, I may come to regret the decision I made with Alexander Hamilton.  It wasn't an easy decision to make, and it may have been the wrong decision.  The consequences of this single decision--good or ill--will be felt, perhaps, through the rest of this game, and that's enough to qualify it as an interesting choice from my perspective.

The Adventures of a Noob – Minecraft

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

The Adventures of a Noob is a recurring column in which I dive into a (potentially) complex game without reading the manual, FAQ, any help files, or playing a tutorial. I then catalog my first impressions and thought process as I attempt to figure out the game. This may end up being amusing, or it may end up being informative. Hopefully a little of both.

Note that in these types of articles, information in regular font represents my thought process/knowledge at time of first playing. Addendums in italics represent information I learned after the fact, inserted into the article to clarify which of my original thoughts were accurate and which were leading me astray.

Minecraft seems to be taking the Internet by storm lately, and after hearing about the basic premise, I felt as I had no choice but to invest my 10 Euros (approximately $13, and paypal seemed to do all the currency conversion for me).  If you haven't heard of the game yet, here's the summary of what I knew before I jumped in:

  • The game is made up of cubes (kind of voxels, really).  All cubes are destructible/harvestable/buildable (ok, not quite all of them, but for the most part this statement was accurate).
  • There's monsters and stuff
  • There's crafting
  • The "team" is one dude, who quit his job to make this indie game full time.  The dude in question is Markus Persson, who lives in Sweden, though other folks have contributed to the project and are credited at the game's official site.

First thing I did in the game was go to configure options, which is generally my first action in any PC game--usually to set video options appropriately.  This let me "cheat" a little bit in terms of my noob challenge, in that I saw the control configuration, at least for the keyboard.

Next I selected a save file (world) to play in, and the game generated a brand spanking new world for me.  This game features randomly generated infinite worlds.  Cool!  Here's what I was greeted with as soon as I spawned in game:

Spawning on the beach ain't a bad way to beAlright, I see water in front of me, I appear to be on sand, and there's some trees on a hill in the distance.  Looking around I don't see any monsters coming for me, so that's a bit of a relief (Monsters only spawn in the dark or at night).  Let's press that I key to see what I've got in my inventory:

Nothing.  Hardcore.  I expected to spawn with a little something-something.  My eyes are drawn pretty instantly to the crafting area, which I look forward to messing with soon.  First, I'll have to acquire ingredients, so time to wander around.  As I do so, I notice that a little border surrounds a cube when I focus my crosshair on it.  Clicking plays an animation, accompanied by a particle effect, but seems to accomplish nothing.  Hmmm.

As I wander, I encounter some sheep.  I don't know if I need to eat food in the game, but maybe I do (I don't, but food heals you if you get hurt), so I resolve to kill the sheep.  I walk up to it and click and...

Cool, it got sheared rather than butchered!  That comes as a surprise to me and provides me with my first item (a cube of wool, seen down at the bottom).  I try to craft a shirt out of the wool, but crafting requires multiple ingredients apparently.  I press the number 1 and discover that it's the control to switch to the first item on the bottom (this wasn't in the options screen).  I can't figure out the control to switch back to my arm though, none of the other number keys do it.    After what was, in retrospect, an embarrassingly long period of fumbling around, I discover that the mousewheel cycles through those boxes.

While wandering about, I pick a flower.  I try crafting together the wool and the flower (don't ask me what I was trying to make), but clicking the arrow does nothing.  I guess that's not a valid combo.

I found a pig, and tried to beat it into bacon.  My punches seem to hurt it, but after several it's still alive, and I decide to let it go.  Maybe I can't kill without a weapon?

Then I found a cow and killed him (it took a lot of punches), but he didn't drop anything.  Weak (sometimes they drop leather).

I found a cool looking block and wanted to interact with it, but it hurt me.  I think it's a cactus (yep).

Killer Cactus

Decided that if cows take a lot of hits, trees must be worse, so I whacked at it for some time.  Nothing seems to happen.  So I decide to try some digging.  Still nothing... until I hold the left mouse button down.  Eureka!  Back to the tree...  Success! " Hold the mouse button down" is a major scientific advancement for my people.  Also, this is kind of cool:

I later find out that eventually, the floating tree leftovers do indeed end up on the ground.  It just takes awhile.  Apparently though, floating Pandora-style islands are possible in the game, as well as gravity defying structures, at least, at the moment.  The developer seems to push updates out very frequently (At least one update has been released between the events covered in this post and the date of posting).

I decide that it's time to try some crafting again since I have a bunch of materials...  and I hit another major scientific breakthrough:  the result of crafting shows up automatically if you have a valid combo in the crafting area.  Apparently, wood becomes lumber (the community seems to call "lumber" "planks").

Ok, so I've got lumber, I can use this to build myself a house.  Somehow.  After some experimentation, I find out how:  right clicking.  That is the "build" command("use" command, really) and places the lumber as a part of the environment.  At this point, I start building the simplest of houses, quite frankly, even simpler than the block structures I build with my four year old nephew.  I know the game has monsters, and having shelter will be a good thing eventually.  I don't know if I need a bed to sleep and heal from the cactus (nope) or save the game (also nope, players can save any time with esc).  So my goal at this point is really just a hollow cube for me to live in temporarily while I start grabbing some more materials to build a grander structure.

It gets pretty dark at night.  I bet I could craft some sort of fire source, but I don't figure out how to do so (torches are craftable but I didn't have coal, a necessary component.  I could also make fire with flint and steel, but I had neither).  Back to building my house, I climb up top to put on my roof and I see some spiders in the distance.  Not good.  Why does it always have to be snakes spiders?  They weren't there previously.  I guess the game is Simon's Quest style, in that night is dangerous, and daytime is generally less so (yep, though underground can be deadly during the day as well).

I run out of wood to build my house, but with the spiders out there, I'm not sure I should go grab more at the moment.  I think about going to another spot of trees, but I see something else that looks unfriendly (undead?).  Maybe I'll just hang out on the roof until day time?

That's ultimately what I decide to do, really hoping I don't have to clear these guys out come morning.  I don't want to sound cowardly, but I barely killed a cow, and the cow wasn't fighting back.  I don't have any weapons or armor, so I'm pretty sure fighting something would go poorly for me.  Incidentally, my fear of the enemies was warranted, as they are pretty deadly.  Particularly the green guys known as "creepers".  They are essentially suicide bombers, which is extra awesome in this game, because they leave craters in the environment.  Fortunately, my previous hypothesis was correct, and sunlight catches the guys on fire (though I later discover that the creepers and spiders don't burn up in the day time, so if any are nearby when the sunrises, they may still prove trouble):

I do a little bit more exploring and chopping and mining.  I find some sort of dark gray stone, so far not craftable with anything I've got (it was, actually, but the crafting interface isn't just a bag, the position you place the ingredients matters).  There is another dark gray stone that just takes ages to mine and gives me nothing.  I try to avoid that (it actually is an awesome source of stone, but yields nothing if punched, only dropping resources if harvested with a pick axe).

After gathering some more wood, I end up with a respectable shack:

At this point I decide that I need to actually consult some of the documentation, as I must be missing something.  I have a bunch of ingredients, butI can't figure out how to craft anything but the planks still.  I've surmised from the inventory screen that I should be able to craft items and armor, but haven't managed it yet.  I also know I must be missing something with the mining thing.   I have reached the limit of what exploring the game on my own is going to do for me (at least within a reasonable period of time -- the described took probably an hour of play time?).  So I look stuff up.  Discoveries of great import follow:

  • Right click to split stacks of goods.  This turns out to be fairly vital, because some of the crafting recipes require the same good in multiple slots.
  • Positions of ingredients on the crafting interface matters.
  • Many items can't be crafted unless you do so at a crafting table (which can be built out of four planks arranged as a square)
  • Some items require a furnace to melt them down (cool!)
  • Torches are about the single most important item ever, and require a stick (craftable from two vertically lined up planks) and coal to make.
  • Close second might be the various harvesting implements (pick axe, axe, shovel).

For as complex as a game as Minecraft is, I was pleasantly surprised at the initial successes I had in figuring it out.  In the long run though, the documentation is definitely a necessity (the menu offers a grayed out tutorial, but the game IS in alpha, so there you go).

The Secret Lives of NPCs – Red Dead Redemption

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Much has been said of the developer's perennial quest to create an immersive world--the cliched "living, breathing world".  Of course, one item on that agenda includes the NPCs that populate said world, and presumably are doing the living and breathing.  In this series, I take time out of playing a game to follow around a single NPC, observing the actions of that character for a single in-game day.  The character is chosen randomly from those that populate the environment but do not directly tie into the quest or narrative experience.   The idea is to see how well crafted the illusion is.  Does it hold up under scrutiny?

I direct John Marston into Armadillo in the dead of night, hitching up his horse just outside the saloon.  As John approaches the saloon, a man in a bow tie, vest, and bowler cap ambles out of it.  I decide he will be the next target of my creepy stalking.

Bob the Bowtie Butcher

I want to make it clear, I have no idea what this character's name is.  He isn't one of the guys that regularly loses money at the poker table, nor is he a character that I've engaged in any of the other mini games.  However, I'm a sucker for alliteration, so he's now going to be known as Bob.

  • 1:30 AM - Observation of the subject begins as Bob first steps out of the saloon.  He walks onto the main thoroughfare and sort of watches as two swaying drinkers talk to one another.  He doesn't engage them, but he does scratch himself.  After that, he heads onto the porch of the saloon, and leans against the railing.  He remains here for some time.
  • 4 AM - Bob stops leaning on the rail, and says something about an Elly McGregor (?) to no one in particular.  I didn't catch exactly what he said.  After this outburst, he moves back into the Saloon, and leans against the wall looking out a window (at basically the same scenery he was looking at from the railing of the balcony).
  • 5ish AM - Bob heads back outside, sits on the stool on the porch for a few minutes before returning to leaning on the railing.  The stool was directly between the window and the railing, or thereabouts.
  • 630 AM - Bob leaves the area of the saloon, heading to the upstairs balcony above Armadillo's gunsmith.  He repeatedly plays an animation that I can't quite identify from my position on the ground. He could have been coughing, shouting, spitting, playing a harmonica, or shadow boxing.  After this, he wanders over to the door up there and knocks on it a few times.  He gets no response, so he casually leans against that railing, as a change of pace from leaning against the one on the saloon's porch.
  • 7 AM - Bob asks the question that's been on everyone's mind, "When we gonna stop talking, and start drinking?"  He hasn't done much talking, and doesn't seem inclined to actually start drinking either.
  • 7:15 AM - Bob crosses the street to the little "produce" stand next to the general store.  Apparently he works here.  He starts butchering chickens.  This is how he got his nick name above.   I was actually pretty surprised (pleasantly) to be given the impression that he might have some sort of schedule (reinforced over the course of the day), but his attire seems a bit odd for a butcher.  I'm not positive that this is really his job, and think that perhaps a random NPC in town takes it each day?  I'd have expected to see one of the apron wearing guys over here.

    That table looks like it hasn't been cleaned.  Ever.

  • 9:15 AM - Bob takes a break from butchering chickens to steal an Apple from work, which he eats on the spot.  He discards the remnants, which seem to actually be physically simulated and roll around the environment.
  • 9:25 AM - Bob goes back to work.  I immediately get kind of grossed out thing about his lack of sanitary butchery practices.  No handwashing between raw chickens and eating the apple?  Yikes!  Also, that table doesn't look like it's been washed, ever.  Also, he seems to have a barrel of raw unbutchered chickens, a barrel of chicken feet/heads, and a barrel of raw butchered chickens.  One of the many moments that I'm glad video games don't have smellovision technology.
  • Noonish maybe - He is still butchering, but I've decided to crunch some numbers.  I time a single chicken, and it takes approximately 5 in-game minutes.  So 24ish chickens before his apple break, and maybe 33 more or so since.  Those barrels are like Mary Poppins' bag.
  • 5 PM - Approximately 60 chickens later (total, approximately 117), Bob takes another apple break.  He goes right back to work afterwards.  I briefly consider the possibility that NPCs in Red Dead Redemption have needs to satisfy, but ultimately don't think so.
  • 6 PM - After essentially an 11 hour day of nonstop work (and approximately 127 butchered chickens), Bob heads over the saloon, to lean against the rail at his favorite spot.
  • 7:30 PM - Bob heads inside to the saloon window, wanders around inside a bit after that, then returns to leaning.  Maybe 25 in-game minutes.
  • Midnight - Bob exclaims (to me?) "You look like you got run over by a wagon!"  He heads back inside to look out the window at the spot he just left.
  • 12:40 PM - Bob sits on a stool inside the saloon, against the wall opposite the bar, facing inward.  This lasts just a few minutes.
  • 1 AM - Bob heads back outside to lean.  He remains there until the 24 hour observation period is over.

On the positive side of things from observing Bob, his working a job and his eating were both boons to realism.  When I had passed through Armadillo and other settlements previously and seen NPCs working, I had just assumed that they spawned into that position, and would remain there until I went far enough away that they despawned.  Seeing someone start and quit their job was nice.  Additionally, while Bob was a bit boring during his off period, I did see a number of other NPCs do relatively interesting things.  Some of the folks drinking at the bar got stumble-around-and-fall-down drunk (awesome animations on that, by the way).  Some other NPCs seemed to start and stop conversations with each other.  A deputy (non-story) taunted a drunk at one point in the night.

On the other hand, he never slept all day, and he worked like a robot.  And quite frankly, for a guy who spent nearly every non-working hour at the bar, he didn't really do much.  Perhaps he's haunted by his lost love, who he last saw from the porch of the saloon.  We'll go with that.

The Secret Lives of NPCs – Fable 2

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Much has been said of the developer's perennial quest to create an immersive world--the cliched "living, breathing world".  Of course, one item on that agenda includes the NPCs that populate said world, and presumably are doing the living and breathing.  In this series, I take time out of playing a game to follow around a single NPC, observing the actions of that character for a single in-game day.  The character is chosen randomly from those that populate the environment but do not directly tie into the quest or narrative experience.   The idea is to see how well crafted the illusion is.  Does it hold up under scrutiny?

I'm approaching the end game of Fable 2, doing the side quests before the final mission or two.  Taking a break for this experiment, I reached the city of Bloodstone at just about midnight, so I headed to The Leper's Arms, which is the name of the bar in the town.  Since it's near the end of the game, my character is quite famous, and since I've been playing as a good guy, he's generally quite well liked.  This means that in pretty much any city but Bloodstone, the NPCs follow him around singing his praises.  This would make it difficult to observe without interfering, and I don't want to kill any quantum kitties.  Fortunately, my character is not as well liked in Bloodstone, and right there in the bar he found a specimen that would pay little attention to him

Mandy the Thug

She's an aggressive, straight, tough, unfriendly chick who absolutely hates me.  She likes the Furniture Graveyard (apparently a building in town), she likes the Bloodstone Tombs, and she likes Pretty Necklaces.  She dislikes the Bloodlust Roar.  All this info comes directly from her profile in game.  My character takes up a position at a respectable distance, from where he will observe her actions creepily for the next 24 hours.

  • Midnight - 2 AM - Mandy paces around the interior of the bar.  She occasionally stops in positions (observation reveals them to be at least partially non-random).  She doesn't take any particular actions in those places, even when she stops directly at the bar, facing the bartender.
  • 2ish AM - Mandy walks outside, and generally continues the same sort of behavior on the patio.    At some point, she talks to Kyle the Thug, telling him something like "Every Friday night without fail you'll find me at the pub.  Unless I stay home."  He responds by taunting her: "What kind of a beast are you? Surely not a lady!"
  • 4ish AM - After pacing about randomly for awhile, Mandy stops on the edge of the waterfront staring out over the harbor.  She appears to be watching the moon set.
  • 6ish AM - I thought for a moment that Mandy was going to leave the area of the bar, as she was heading up a path to the next level of the town.  Perhaps she was going to go home after a night of not-really-drinking.  She fooled me though, and just paused a bit up the path before returning to the bar's patio.  Around this time she also exchanged inaudible taunts/insults with Leyla the Thug (I could tell it was an unfriendly exchange due to the animations that played).  She also chats with Dave the Thug, but I am too far away to hear that exchange either.
  • 8ish AM - She's back on the edge of the waterfront, this time watching the sunrise.  This is among the most convincing of her behaviors, particularly since it has been timed with great views of the moon and sun so far.  Also, it just made me realize that I'm pretty sure the moon set on the same side of the sky that the sun rose on.
  • 9ish AM - She tells Kyle the Thug that he can find her at the pub every Friday night (again).  He responds by telling Mandy to get back in the kitchen.  This isn't the first time that I wonder if the two are married in the game, but the only way I can think of to verify that involves having my character try to sleep with Mandy right in front of Kyle, which would interfere with the experiment.
  • 11ish AM - She's wandered back inside the bar.  She stands at the counter, right in front of the barman, but doesn't speak or play any animation.  Honestly, this would creep me out if I were the barman.
  • 1ish PM - Chris the Traveler enters the bar, encounters Mandy, and uses the same insult that Kyle used previously.  She doesn't dignify it with a response.
  • 3ish PM - Leyla the Thug is back.  No insults this time, instead Leyla says "The Reaver can have me as often as he likes, and he does!"  Mandy responds with "Very Mysterious..."  Personally, I didn't find much mystery in the comment.
  • 4ish PM - Cathy the Traveler is staggering around drunk and bumps into Mandy.  Mandy screams after her "What's the matter?  Scared?!"
  • 5ish PM - She exchanges inaudible taunts with Vikki the Thug.
  • 6ish PM - Mandy wanders back into the bar for just a few minutes before wandering back outside.
  • 8ish PM - She returns to her spot on the edge of the waterfront staring out over the harbor.  No celestial bodies doing anything interesting this time.
  • 10ish PM - Ted the Stone Cutter mentions to her that he should get his mother a present.  Mandy helpfully points out that there is a "shop in that sells that in town."  I think she's referring to the stall that is pretty much right next to them (closed at the moment).
  • Near to midnight - After nearly 24 hours of avoiding direct interaction with Mandy, she finally spots my character and starts Boo-ing.  I look at this as a decent time to call the 24 hours of observation over.

After watching her for a day, I actually wonder if random chance might have gotten me a very boring NPC, or if any of them would have been so dull under this intense scrutiny.  Of the various characters she interacted with, both Kyle and Leyla were also in the vicinity the entire time.  On the other hand,  Chris, Cathy, and Ted definitely came through from elsewhere and then moved on after a time.  Ted was presumably working at his stone cutting stall at some point.  While there were a few interesting interactions between Mandy and other townsfolk, I never saw her doing anything else beyond walk around and pause.  For someone who spent all day in the vicinity of the bar, she never drank or ate anything (I did see one NPC sitting at a table with a drink).    I've seen NPCs entering/leaving their houses, and I've seen or heard them in their houses sleeping or eating or talking to family members.  Mandy did none of this.

I guess that gets to the point of this series though.  As I do this with other games, I pretty much expect that none of the NPCs are interesting when watched this closely, and the moments of entertainment they provide during normal gameplay exist only because they are in the background.  On the other hand, I think there's something to be said for creating a strong enough simulation that it remains compelling when brought to the forefront.   In any case, the next game I'll cover will probably end up being Red Dead Redemption.

Thoughts on Doodle God

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Recently, I played a game called Doodle God.

It's a simple game, and playable in your browser (assuming you've got a Flash plugin installed), so click the link if you want to check it out.  I think you should, but it took me some thought to figure out why I think you should.

Doodle god is a simple game, with a simple (but not unattractive) presentation.  Pretty much the whole game looks like this:Doodle God screenshot

What's going on here?  You begin with four elements, each in its own group.  Here I've selected the air group, with the short tutorial indicating that I should click on the fire group.  Doing so would make the left side of the screen look a lot like the right side, but with fire instead of air.  I could then select individual elements within the two groups (at this point, I have little choice, fire + air).  If they combine (they do), I get a new element (energy), which I can then use in further combinations.

And that's it.

You start with the four base elements, and through combination and experimentation, you reach the end of the game with over 100.  Each time you succeed at combining elements, you're greeted with something like this:

FirewaterYou get your new element(s) and a delightful little quote related to the process, or the result.  Some slight fanfare that isn't adequately captured via screenshot occurs, but it isn't anything worth writing about in detail.

The question is then, why is this game worth writing about in detail? It does a great job of tackling a key tool in the designer's toolbox:  experimentation.  Allowing the player to experiment in a controlled way is an excellent way to allow the player to feel as if they have freedom, and then to feel clever when they figure something out.   At the same time, the experimental process is rife with setbacks.  A quote attributed to Thomas Edison that gets bandied around often is  "I have not failed.  I've just found 10000 ways that won't work".   What this means for designers is that experimentation offers a built in ego crutch:  failure is less punishing than success is rewarding, which means that if the experimentation is implemented well, the frustration of failure won't drive players away.

Doodle God gets this right; it makes the player feel clever upon finding a neat combo, and provides a hint system that nudges players in the right direction for discoveries without actually doing the discovering automatically.  It has a nice feedback loop, in that each success creates more gameplay for the player (in the form of new elements to play with).

That said, it misses out on a key opportunity to combine that experimentation with a more rewarding learning experience.  That is, a successful (or failed!) combination doesn't actually provide any new information to the player that can be useful in future interactions.  Imagine the situation of a young child playing Pokemon for the first time.  They come across a fire Pokemon, like Charmander, and are having a rough time defeating him.  So they start swapping their monsters around until they use some sort of water Pokemon (Squirtle), and get the message that the attack was super effective.   The child learns that water attacks are strong against fire (which is basically a given to experienced gamers or firefighters, assuming it isn't an electrical fire).  Her experimentation with a variety of Pokemon lead to not only a positive result, but tactical information that can be useful in future battles against fire Pokemon (and indeed, inversely, against water Pokemon).   This is what Doodle God is missing.  There isn't any player-knowledge gained from a success, only new gameplay items.  While the player learns a particular combination doesn't work in the case of a failure, this provides no additional information beyond "don't bother doing that again", and after playing awhile, it's easy to forget what combinations have been attempted.


A couple of featured Links

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

Since I was on vacation in the Bahamas over the past couple of weeks, I don't have a big Dungeon Generator update ready. Not to fear though, I've been meaning to do a slightly related update for awhile now, and this gives me a good reason to do so.

First, a small sidebar: I think the blog is an important part of this process, particularly once things get far enough along that there's actually something for you to play with. It's a great way for people interested in the project to know what I'm thinking, and eventually, me to know what they are thinking.

So as I started this project, I committed to maintaining a development blog alongside it, both to keep my thoughts organized, and to share the project with folks. I probably wouldn't have, though, had I not been inspired by a couple of similar blogs.

Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress is a truly remarkable indie project that has seen a number of releases and is about to see a new one. In the game, you manage a small expedition of dwarves in a bid to create the next fantastic fortress with a functional economy, defense, etc. It has possibly the most detailed procedural world generation I've ever seen. It also has a fantastic development blog, updated daily, with news on exactly what was accomplished that day.

Zero Gear

Zero Gear is a kart racing game currently in development by a friend of mine from back in the Troika days. He's also behind devbump. I'm not sure if he ever sleeps. He and his cohort have been working on Zero Gear for awhile, and they've kept up a blog covering their advances. One of my major goals for this blog is to get to the point where I am posting a lot more video/images/interactive updates, the way they do over there. Also, it looks like from their count down that they are attempting to enter the IGF. Good luck guys!