Bacon and Games

Tag: critique

iSlash is Great… but the Star System is Flawed

iSlash IconLet me open by saying that I really like iSlash. And because I like it, I can afford to be petty :) No, that’s not what I meant. But because it’s a great game it’s worth scrutinizing and the details of a well made game are all you can really look at improving.

A Quick Overview of iSlash
First of all, if you haven’t played iSlash yet, go download it. iSlash could be described as the love-child of Fruit Ninja and Qix (or Jezzball if you never had a GameBoy). The goal of the game is to slice the level (a piece of wood) down to a small enough piece that the iSlash gods allow you to advance. On each level there are a bunch of ninja stars bounding around. The rules are simple. 1) Avoid the ninja stars while slashing and 2) wood pieces will only be removed if they demarcate a portion of the level that contains no ninja stars. As the game progresses the level shapes get more complicated, ninja stars of different types emerge and powerups are added. Here’s the trailer:

The Dilemma
Since it’s a fun game I’ve been racing through it. It’s truly got that “just one more level” addictive quality about it. As a result, I’ve now finished all 100 levels and I want more. So I went back and started trying to get 3 stars on every level, hoping it would unlock the additional levels added in the latest update. All was going well until I hit Level 27 of Set 1, the first level that put up a fight. Exciting!… challenge is good.

Up until this point I had developed a very general strategy; try to remove large chunks in a single slice, remove the metal first and try not to cordon any of the ninja stars off onto their own wooden island. Pretty basic stuff… more than adequate for clearing all 100 levels. But when I went to work on getting all 3 stars, my strategy wasn’t getting it done.

After 5 or 10 minutes of playing Level 27 I’d completed it many times, though never with a rating better than 2 stars. This was enough time for me to raise an eyebrow. I needed a new strategy.

Back to the Drawing Board: Improving Our Strategy
iSlash Level End ScreenI took to the level end screen to see if maybe I’d missed a clear explanation of what type of performance would yield 3 stars. Sometimes the developer provides a time or score goal, but no such luck. This was a bummer, but not a huge deal. It’s often possible to intuit what you need to do in order to improve your performance. As frustrating as it is that Angry Birds doesn’t reveal the exact score benchmarks for 1, 2 and 3 star ratings, if you come up short you know what you have to do… get a higher score. And you already have a strategy for doing that. More destruction. Less birds. Fucking pigs…

In iSlash we’re given 4 statistics about our performance on a level:

  1. Time
  2. Slashes
  3. Area Left (% of wood remaining)
  4. Score

Unfortunately, the user has no idea which of these 4 things factor into the 3 star rating system. This might cause problems for a user trying to develop a strategy for getting 3 stars, but let’s take a look.

We can almost certainly assume that the number of slashes is an important statistic, so let’s start there. Surely someone who gets the job done in 3 whacks deserves a higher rating than a player who whittles the level away with numerous tiny slices. There’s no clear indication of how this contributes to the rating. Rats.

Picture of 2 ratsWhat about time? The movement of the ninja stars is different each iteration, which is great because it keeps the levels dynamic. The trade-off is that the user has no control over when the perfect time to strike will occur. Patient gamers like myself will lie in wait, preparing for the perfect time to slice a big chunk of the level away with the first cut. But am I being penalized for making my first cut 30 seconds into the game? And if I am, given that the movement is random, do I deserve to be penalized for something I cannot control? I assume time is important, but again I can’t be sure. Double rats.

Area Left would seem like a nice way to separate the men from the boys, except that the percentage at which the level is complete is constant for all levels, which vary greatly in size and design. Additionally, once you hit the goal the level is over and it’s very rare that your final cut can account for more than a few percent. It’s just the nature of the game. So there’s not much room for variation on the area left. Rats. Rats. Rats.

This leaves score. The score, like Angry Birds, has potential to be a simple benchmark for where 2 stars ends and 3 begins. However, since we don’t know how each of the above contributes to the overall score, using points as a benchmark would give us something to aim for but we’d still be unsure of how to hit the target score. Now we need an exterminator.

A Possible Solution
Typically I’m in favor of peppering the user with statistics about their gameplay. Stats are easy to display because the game is already tracking all sorts of variables. It can be fun to see how many enemies you killed or how quickly you did it. But when the extra statistics detract from the experience, they become a liability. Displaying the time and the percentage remaining would make sense if iSlash had granular leaderboards, breaking each level down into categories of speed, efficiency and score. But the iSlash leaderboards only deal in scores.

So what’s the solution?

Use slashes for stars, leave time and area left to the score.

Make the number of stars earned directly related to the number of slashes used to complete a level. We know that completing a level as efficiently as possible is important. It’s clearly a great strategy and we know that cutting large pieces earn us powerups. So this should be the way you rate the performance because it’s almost certainly what the iSlash players are focusing on. To bring it home, show the required slashes to reach the next star rating adjacent to the earned rating. “3 stars at 8 slashes” If you earn 3 stars, you only see your three shiny stars and go on your merry slashin’ way.

With the star system clearly defined around the slashes, the score can become a function of time and area left, leaving people who want to compete globally to feverishly slash to their hearts’ content. The person at the top of the heap will still be the one who did it in the least slashes (i.e. the fastest, but it no longer directly contribute to the calculation of the score). Displaying the score would simply be a matter of adding the time score to the area left score, both of which are intuitively better if the numbers are lower. (not depicted above)

Users who want to achieve completeness will be able to develop a specific strategy around the number of slashes and those who are fueled by the allure of competition can continue to one-up their friends on the leaderboards.

This “problem” is by no means a show stopper. It’s still a great game, but I think it would be a more satisfying experience if the users weren’t left in the dark about the stars. I hope that there is an iSlash 2 in the works and I hope that, if there’s time, the developers will consider these thoughts. As for you, go pickup iSlash on the App Store now.

Give Up Robot 2: A Sequel That Doesn’t Suck

Not more than 3 months after the original debuted, Adult Swim and Matt Thorson have released Give Up Robot 2. If you haven’t played the original, you might want to go do so right now. It’s a great game. They both are, actually.

One of the things that these games do really well is keep you playing, dead or alive. In this series, the second you die you’re back on your feet (or wheel) to try again. And when you’re alive, you don’t want to stop. Like many games these days, they’ve left behind the often archaic idea of “lives” carried over from quarter-hungry arcade machines. These games are about rising to the challenge, not about proving you can do so in an allotted number of tries. I like that, limited lives are lame. Alliteration and unlimited lives are awesome.

For the cave-dwellers who haven’t played either game yet, the premise is pretty standard. You play as a robot with a grappling hook who has to make his way through a psychedelic arena of pits, traps and other dangers. The sequel delivers more of the same, with a few new additions such as switches, coins and new kinds of moving platforms and obstacles. And of course the charming Portal-esque computer is back to taunt you along the way. Though still 8bit-ish, the graphics are much cleaner and the robot moves a bit more adeptly; a welcomed improvement. Overall it’s not a huge departure from the original, which is a good thing because Give Up Robot was extraordinarily well received.

I feel like Matt did correctly what we all hoped Nintendo would do after Mario Kart 64… deliver the same basic engine with new levels and some new tricks. Instead Nintendo puked up Double Dash. What the fuck, Nintendo? If you haven’t played Give Up Robot or Give Up Robot 2, find some time at work to shut off and play these. You won’t regret it, unless you suck at games because these both give the concept of “Nintendo Hard” a run for its money. Good luck…

Super Mario Crossover

One of the articles I’ve got queued up to write is “The Physics of Mario”, which will be a look at the the way Mario moves, because there’s something about it that’s really unique and charming. He can perform a shallow jump, run into a long high jump and then parlay that momentum into a duck-slide to avoid an enemy. He can change direction in mid air or bounce nimbly from enemy to enemy without ever touching the ground. Mario’s variety of abilities truly makes you feel like you’re in control of a superhero. How great does it feel when you put on the air brakes and narrowly avoid that Koopa Troopa and grab the mushroom, all in one fell swoop?

<———————— this great, that’s how ————————>

Besides giving you a quality range of motion, the slightly slippery physics of Mario entice you to play the game with bravado, instead of the heavy-footed careful stepping you have to do as Simon in Castlevania. Don’t get me wrong, Castlevania is a great game but for very different reasons than Super Mario Bros.

Great, Nintendo ass-kissing…what good is this article going to do me?
Well, as I discussed in my first article The Difference Between Tetris and “tetris” and then revisited in Tips for Making a Successful Game Clone it’s very difficult to clone something as well known as Super Mario Bros., Tetris and other staples from video gaming history. You’re working with a well known property and thus expectations are high and opinions can run hot. This article is about someone who got it right.

Where most Mario clones fall short is Mario’s movement system, the physics of Mario. Mario has been copied dozens of times by the Flash gaming community (here are a few Flash Mario clones) but most of them just don’t feel right. Most of them don’t give you the ability to vary the height of Mario’s jump, because it’s easier to set a constant jump height than worry about tracking how long the user holds down the jump key. Many Mario clones will jump again if you land while still holding the jump key, which can be really annoying. This can have you hopping around like a rabbit against your will… and that’s no good. And rarer still is the Mario clone that allows you to vary your jump height based on Mario’s run speed.

Besides the physics of Mario, there are other little touches that can be easily missed:

  • The speed at which Mario rebounds off the top of an enemy or the bottom of a coin block
  • Piranha plants won’t come out of a pipe while Mario is standing next to it
  • At the right speed, Mario can run over small gaps without falling.
  • The game “pauses” when mario collects a mushroom

There are many things that have to be there in order for the clone to feel like the classic we all know and love. Sure, I ran into a few bugs…the floor was missing from one level leaving me to fall immediately to my doom, I had a few shells pass through Mario without killing him and I found it extremely odd that the run and jump buttons were reversed…but all in all Super Mario Crossover is an EXTREMELY well done clone of Mario.

The jumping, sliding and acceleration of Mario feel almost perfect. As far as I could tell the secret mushrooms and warps were all there. I even saw a mushroom jump over a small gap as they sometimes did in the original. It’s just really great to see a clone of Mario that does justice to the original. I was able to enjoy this game because I didn’t find myself yanked out of a familiar experience by something that just felt “off”. That came out snobby…I wish I was writing this with a tool that allowed me to edit my words before sending them out into the world…*sigh*.

What’s really neat about this clone, is that it’s not a clone at all. I used the term “clone” in Tips for Making a Successful Game Clone and caught a little flack for it…but in a constructive way. It was suggested to me by I-smel of Newgrounds that the term “clone” was misleading. He and others, like Luis, went into the article expecting that I was advocating unoriginality, when in fact I was exploring the challenges and benefits of having to work from an existing and familiar concept. Two of the tips I gave in that article were:

  • Play the original…ie know every detail of what you’re building
  • Have a hook…make your game different enough that users aren’t just left wishing they were playing the original

Super Mario Crossover lets you play through Super Mario Bros. in its entirety, with the option to play as Mario, Bill R. (Contra), Samus (Metroid), Mega Man (um…Mega Man), Simon (Castlevania) and Link (if you don’t know this one I’m not going to tell you…also I hate you). Each brings his (or her…sorry Samus) own control scheme, weapons and powerup hierarchy to the experience. And in most cases, each new character moves and feels much like they did in their original game, with the exception of Simon who learned how to double jump since we first saw him. This is a great addition, which falls under one of my other tips: take the opportunity to fix things from the original that frustrated you…let’s be honest, Castlevania was great but the movement was a bit irritating in that game.

It’s never been my intention for this site to be a game review site, there’s enough game review sites and users on them that there’s no shortage of opinion on the net. It’s been my intention to get people to think more deeply about creating great games and what it takes to do that. I’m not the greatest game designer nor the greatest programmer in the world, but I do feel that I’m entrenched in that world enough that I’ve got something useful to pump back into the community, be it tips, code snippets or just articles that spurn discussion and thought. I hope that some of what I put up on this site is useful to aspiring and seasoned game developers alike.

Super Mario Crossover and this article can do a bit to help people think about how difficult it really is to nail a clone of a classic game. But mostly I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate what an amazing job Jay Pavlina did with Super Mario Crossover. He had a great concept, he nailed the mechanics and as a result the glowing reviews are pouring in. Congratulations, Jay, on your success. I’m very excited to see what you do in the future.

Home Sheep Home

Home Sheep Home is a very clever and beautiful physics-based puzzle-platformer by Aardman Animations. You are tasked with getting your 3 sheep, Shaun, Shirley and Timmy, back to their barn by guiding them through 15 obstacle filled levels. Often you’ll need to find a way to bridge a gap, climb over a barrier or use one sheep to hit a switch that allows his (or her) buddies to advance. Each sheep is a different mass, weight and size which affects its ability to move objects, jump high or fit into certain spaces. In order to guide the sheep through the game, you must capitalize on each sheep’s strength. For example Shaun, the heavy one (he’s not fat he’s fluffy), is good for pushing heavy objects that little Timmy cannot, who conversely can fit into spaces his beefy brother can’t. The game is reminiscent of a classic puzzle-platformer for the SNES, The Lost Vikings, which is great company to be in.

The control scheme is simple, the art clean, cute and unique and the sound design is spot on (with the exception of the ambient bird noises that don’t loop cleanly). The level design is clever, but the 15 levels run out before the game gets too difficult. It’s a quick play but I hope they’ll learn from their success and release a new set of levels soon. They certainly don’t need to reinvent their game mechanics (*cough* Mario Kart: Double Dash) they just need to give us more levels [please]. If you haven’t already, go kill 20 minutes and play this game.

Thanks to Ajay Karat of The Devil’s Garage for the story tip.

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