Friday, April 25, 2014

Feature Friday #7 - Cards and Castles

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. ~~~ One of the most interesting things that mobile has done is increase the cross-pollination of gaming genres. Some of the most popular titles on the platform have combined aspects of well-known games and turned them into something new and unique, not to mention highly profitable. Clash of Clans would be a perfectly average city-builder game if not for the multiplayer and attacking elements; Puzzles and Dragons leverages a Pokemon-style collectathon with a match-3 component replacing trainer battles; even Infinity Blade, one of mobile’s earliest mega-hits, combines an arcade-style fighting mechanic with an adventure RPG story. Mobile has avoided a single-genre takeover like we saw in Mario’s early days on Nintendo, because there have already been several different paradigm shifts, each one more massive than the last. This week I’ve been playing Cards and Castles, a collectable action card game that perfectly crosses genres, and wouldn’t be the same on any other platform. The first thing Cards and Castles does is crush the digital CCG aspect. I’ve played a number of collectable card games on various platforms, including the paper kind, and the biggest problem most of them has is valuing the cards properly. Cards and Castles gives you a generous starter deck and the ability to create seemingly unlimited additional decks from a decent sized pool of cards. You’re also provided enough Card Points (the game’s currency) to buy nearly two booster packs, and you earn points quickly enough to buy more after just a few matches. Even though you pick only one of the four factions (Crusaders, Pirates, Warlocks, and Vikings) to create your starter deck, you’re able to access and create multiple decks from each. The importance of this flexibility, and the attention to detail in Cards and Castles, can’t be overstated. This small tweak eliminates the buyer’s remorse of your initial uninformed decision, something that games too often take advantage of by either not letting you reverse your choice, or charging you handsomely to do so. Cards and Castles features a couple of my least favorite game mechanics, but another minor detail softened my view on their conformity to modern gaming trends. I can’t say I’ll stop playing a game entirely if it makes me create an account, but when it’s the first thing the game does, it rubs me the wrong way. Cards and Castles throws you into a winnable match - a tutorial with limited instructions (most of the game is pretty free form, with more info and help just a double-click away) - and only asks you to create a username, etc. when you’ve elected to start a battle against another real player. I emphasize the word “asks” because the game doesn’t require you to create an account - you’re welcome to play as a guest, even against other players.

If you choose not to create an account, your username is simply “you”, though you can’t be searched for by other users.

It’s also after electing to play a game online that Cards and Castles asks if you’d like Push Notifications to alert you when it’s your turn. This seems like a pretty minor thing, but the fact that these requests come after you’ve decided to keep playing, and not as soon as you step in the door, made a huge difference to me. I’ll take a hint from Cards and Castles and brush over the rules of gameplay, another thing it does very well. A much-criticized aspect of modern games is the depth and tedium of tutorials, especially in casual, social games. Cards and Castles is extremely accessible to anyone who’d played other CCG’s. Each card contains information for health, damage, movement, attack range, casting cost, and special abilities. The rules are really basic, but there are enough cards and the board is just big enough that a good amount of strategy prevails. Above all else, the game offers an unlimited number of Undo’s before you send play back to your opponent. This may seem like the game is making things too easy, but this proves extremely helpful given the lack of thorough instruction, not to mention my lack of dexterity on an iPhone screen. Where the game impresses me most is its ability to cross genres. It’s got all of the CCG aspects you’re looking for: booster packs, card rarity and special abilities, factions (card types); but it doesn’t stop there. The game plays more like a board game due to the non-unit buildings located or placed on the board. Each map features four identical towers which drastically shape the strategy of each match. The towers begin as neutral objects, but are captured (and recaptured) fairly easily and become short-ranged defense posts for your side. You can also place friendly buildings near your base, adding things like gold (mana), unit health, or damage to your cause. There are a lot of comparisons between Cards and Castles and one of my absolute favorite mobile games, Outwitters. No one would ever call Outwitters a CCG, but the games play virtually identically. The major difference, and point in the former’s favor, is that the CCG element adds not only a way to improve your team, or deck in this case, but also an exponentially greater pool of characters (cards) to choose from. I can’t speak to the game’s longterm depth as I’ve only been playing it this week, but through several days I’m still encountering new cards.
One Man Left’s Outwitters

Another major difference from Outwitters is that Cards and Castles has an offline AI opponent. Granted, this option doesn’t award you card points, so it’s essentially just practice and deck testing, but if that’s all you’re looking to do it eliminates the need to find and wait for an opponent. As for the competitive gameplay, you’re awarded points each time you finish your turn and send the proverbial ball back in your opponent’s court. With an unlimited (or at least very high) number of games you can play simultaneously, you’re able to rack up points fairly quickly, but the game also weights your first move at a fraction of your subsequent turns, so you can’t spam the system to rack up points - quite clever. My biggest complaint is that you can’t block specific users or turn down fights, and that should say something. This is a really minor problem, but I’ve played several matches against the same opponent and have no way to stop him or her from challenging me ad infinitum. My initial concern was the overall depth of the game, particularly over a longer period of time. Cards and Castles features 87 different cards, so it should last a while, but I’ve encountered another potential problem. Within a dozen or so games I’ve discovered a vast difference in quality of cards. I haven’t played long enough to determine if these massively powerful cards are simply luck of the draw, or only available in the paid sets. The latter would be quite disturbing, introducing an unfavorable pay-to-win element to an otherwise nearly flawless game, so I’m withholding strong judgement for now, hoping that strategy will prevail. ~~~ Cards and Castles was developed by Thousand Eye, and is available for Free on both iOS and Android. For a free-to-play CCG it’s extremely conservative about pushing IAPs (I’m hoping not so much that the game can’t sustain itself) and contains no ads whatsoever. There are IAPs for better booster packs and specialized sets, but it’s not conclusively a pay-to-win kind of deal, and I haven’t been severely outgunned in most of my matches so far, only outplayed. If either the turn-based strategy or CCG elements interest you, this game’s worth a look. If you do catch yourself playing and want a challenge (...or an easy victory), go ahead and add me: jdombro. Josh Dombro Community Manager

Monday, April 21, 2014

Leaderboards, Loopholes, and Lessons From Our First Experience with RTS

Leaderboards and Rankings: two of the main foundations for any competitive, social game. When we at Kiwi decided to take a crack at making a mobile RTS (Real Time Strategy) style game with our title Enemy Lines, we knew that leaderboards would be part of our formula for making the title work. Players who enjoy the RTS genre all know of Starcraft 2’s ladder ranking as well as other leaderboard systems in comparable games. We decided to aim for that feeling and experience in mobile form.
For Enemy Lines, we decided to base our leaderboard off of a fairly simple token system: medals. All players started with 1000 medals when they became eligible for player vs. player. Players could then win more by successfully attacking another player’s base or defending their own from an enemy’s siege. Conversely, an unsuccessful attack or failure to stop an enemy’s offense resulted in a loss of medals. At the launch of Enemy Lines, this medal system was a closed loop. If you lost an attack the medals you sacrificed went directly to the opponent for a successful defense and vice versa. This worked well for a while, until the leaderboard began to stretch itself too thin.
The simple search criteria for an opponent was +/- 30% medals. As users rose up the leaderboard, the number of opponents they could find within that medal band (+/- 30%) became smaller and smaller. This created a negative experience for the players in the top ranks of the game. They’d worked hard to gain all of those medals, yet once they got to the top, they started to get “Enemy Not Found” (ENF) messages as matchmaking began to fail. Not only was the search pool smaller at the top, a lot of high-ranked players would leave their games on indefinitely. This prevented them from being attacked and kept them out of the matchmaking pool, helping them individually but hurting the system as a whole. Frustrated top players began to “dump” medals (purposely losing in order to find easier enemies to attack). Soon, we found that very powerful, high-level players were decimating new players at low medal bands. We had to find a solution to both the ENF and Dumping problem. The dumping problem was addressed fairly easily. We added a +/- 5 “player levels” to the matchmaking search. This meant that high-level players who dumped medals still couldn’t be matched against a disproportionately new player. These players would either fight others who had dumped their medals, or they wouldn’t find opponents at all. The ENF issue for higher level players was a bit more complicated to solve. We decided on a solution where we would “clone” a player base that would be an appropriate match, upgrade all the defenses to max, and fill the base with troops. When a player would have gotten an ENF message, they were instead presented with the “cloned” base. This eliminated the ENF problem, but a HUGE new problem reared its head. Players were having a blast with the clone bases, but we underestimated the strength of some of these players. With no limit on the medals or resources looted from these clone wars, high-level players took just hours to begin abusing the new system. Two days in, a player had racked up more than a thousand medals from the clone maps and perched himself at the top of the leaderboard. We quickly released a patch capping both medals and resources that could be gained from cloned bases per day, but the damage was done. The players who had abused the early stages of the clone system had cemented themselves atop the leaderboard. The first time you branch into a new genre, things are going to happen that you can’t anticipate. Once a game is live it evolves in ways you would never expect and you have no choice but to roll with the punches. Reflecting on Enemy Lines and the RTS genre as a whole, there was one feature that would have made all of the problems easier to handle: Leaderboard/Rank Resets.
Leaderboard/Rank resets are actually common in all top RTS and competitive titles. Starcraft 2, Hearthstone, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, even Clash of Clans utilise resets in some shape or form, often calling them “Seasons”. During a Season, players climb the leaderboard and compete for top ranks. Once the Season is over, rewards are distributed and ranks are reset to a baseline. The next Season starts, and the cycle repeats. Enemy Lines needed this. While the addition of Seasons wouldn’t have solved all the game’s problems as they sprang up, it would’ve provided an opportunity to undo them soon after. Lets take a look at what happened in Enemy Lines:
  • Top ranked players unable to find matches become frustrated and want to “dump” ranks to find competition.
  • Players dump medals and ranks to find easier opponents.
  • Certain players abuse a loophole, planting themselves at the top of the leaderboard.
Each of these problems are fixed when the Season ends and all players are brought back down to the baseline.

I’ll end with the key lesson we learned from Enemy Lines, one we learned too late: Seasons are the key to any successful competitive game. Not only does it discourage users to see one player infinitely at the top of a leaderboard, having a way to wipe the slate clean if [read: when] something goes wrong is invaluable. Every leaderboard needs the NES reset button, don’t forget yours. - Nevin Vorfeld Associate Product Manager, Kiwi, Inc.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Feature Friday #6 - Rayman Fiesta Run

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. ~~~ In the spirit of promoting indie games and new ideas, I try not to write about big games from huge publishers, but this week I’ll make an exception. Rayman Fiesta Run is the followup to the popular Rayman Jungle Run, a mobile spinoff of the nearly 30-year-old Ubisoft franchise. The autorunning collectathon (gameplay is virtually identical between the two, a point I’ll get to later on) may not be revolutionary, but its not yet beaten to death either, and these games are a great example of what the genre should strive to be. The physics feel right, the graphics are spectacular, and there’s enough nostalgia without feeling like they’re banking on the brand alone - good stuff all around for these games. Despite the similarities I’m going to focus on Fiesta Run, the later release, and how it feels given the scale at which it was developed. Holding Ubisoft and the Rayman franchise to a higher standard is completely valid, as these names were factors to my downloading (and paying for) the game in the first place, not to mention the expectations coming from a AAA studio on mobile should be appropriately elevated. (To backtrack a bit, I bought Rayman Jungle Run largely due to name recognition and critical acclaim; I purchased the sequel because I’d enjoyed the first so much.) Without these factors, the game would’ve fallen in among the countless other games that receive positive reviews, but none of my money. Creating a sequel, much less a full franchise, is a tricky proposition because past experiences inherently influence expectations. Users have invested their time and money into the style of game, the story behind it, even the franchise itself - and they’re expecting that investment to pay off. Rayman benefits from this initial foot in the door, but it’s also provided its own standard for fans of the franchise. In this sense, Fiesta Run fully lives up to expectations. The graphics are among the best I’ve seen on mobile and stick to the franchise’s roots. I personally don’t love the autorunning genre, but the constant misdirection and changes of scenery do a lot to keep my interest. This is a game you truly have to see to appreciate, and there’s no way to do it justice with words. Hours of gameplay that are truly as challenging as they are fair, plus the option to advance even without 100% completion should satisfy casual players as well as perfectionists. That’s not to say, however, that Fiesta Run is perfect. Slapping “Rayman” on the title may warrant a premium price tag, but seemingly minor features detract from the game’s overall value. First and foremost, this game is virtually identical to the original, Rayman Jungle Run. If you’ve played this title already, most of what you’re paying for is a new level pack. If you couldn’t get enough disjointed autorunning from the original, this game is totally worth it, but the lack of real innovation felt a little cheap. The biggest change between the two is the transition from Angry Birds-style level selection to a saga-like map, full of challenges and goodies like the ability to unlock cosmetic upgrades.

Which do you prefer?

This is a fun change and gives the game a more open feel, but also slows things down. You’re forced to watch your path grow after each level you complete, and the map centers to what you’ve just unlocked rather than the level you finished last. Small changes, admittedly, but significant time-sinks at scale and the latter particularly irks my sense of order since I was used to playing levels in a sequence. The game offers both cosmetic improvements and in-game powerups as IAP, and really seems to give a fair amount of currency, Lums. Because the game isn’t stingy I don’t mind the presence of IAP or the bonus 500 Lums for Facebook integration, but something about this rubs me the wrong way too. This is a paid game from a huge company and they won’t leave the microtransactions alone (maybe that’s how they became a huge company…). The packs of Lums ranging up to $9.99 also sting me a bit, especially given how much the game pushes powerups at the start of each level, and the fact that some really do seem “pay to win”. (I should clarify, one powerup shows you the route necessary to get all 100 Lums in a given level, taking away the problem solving aspect of the game, and turning it solely into a coordination test. It’s worth noting, though, this effect only lasts for one round, so even with a track to follow, if you die you have to re-buy.) Again, the rate at which you earn Lums to spend them seems fair, but the IAPs still feel a little off. All things considered, Fiesta Run is a great game on its own and does plenty to honor the Rayman franchise. Despite an ever-growing toolbox of premier development tools, a divide remains between large studios and indie developers, and a game’s resources and pedigree cannot be ignored in how we evaluate its success. Neither can its accomplishments, though, and Rayman Fiesta Run certainly has plenty to be proud of. ~~~
Rayman Fiesta Run is available for $2.99 on iOS and just $0.99 on Android as of this writing! It’s predecessor, Rayman Jungle Run, is $2.99 on both platforms. Both games are a ton of fun, though their similarities may make whichever you play second a bit redundant. Josh Dombro Community Manager

Friday, April 11, 2014

Feature Friday #5 - Only One

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. ~~~ Arguably the most crucial factor in determining whether or not a mobile game will become a hit is if it’s enjoyable in short bursts. The ability to create a deep experience that can be enjoyed in bitesized pieces is paramount to a game’s broad appeal and financial gain. Only One is a level-based battle arena brawler that straddles that line between pickup and play and deep RTS experience with moderate success. The game is fun, let’s start with that. The combat is entertaining and appropriately difficult for this genre. The gameplay certainly more in-depth than “casual” games, but takes just a few seconds to understand. You’re in a ring atop a pillar in the sky, the fall from which will kill you and your opponents. If you’re able to best your enemies on solid footing you get to pick up their loot, but knocking them off tumbles their spoils along with their bodies. Nuances like this make the game a little more complicated, and the skill tree is fairly tall, so there’s a good amount of long term appeal too. Where the game struggles isn’t the difficulty per se, but how much you have to grind to progress. I don’t mind dying repeatedly in a game if the gameplay is worth it (which I’ve already established it is), but it’s when there’s a total lack of progress that I get annoyed. When I die over and over, but am gaining valuable money or in-game experience it feels worth it, because eventually these deaths will result in a level up, new item, or some other kind of upgrade. The problem is that Only One is missing the results part of the grinding. There are rewards that you can eventually earn by grinding (or paying), but most are pretty out of reach unless you’re willing to put some serious time in. The game is broken into micro levels - waves of slimes, archers, and even the occasional Flappy Bird or Pedobear - with a boss after every tenth. Defeating each boss results in a checkpoint of sorts, so at least the game cuts you some slack. In several hours I’ve only reached the fifth boss once, and was quickly destroyed by his fiery attacks. Again, I don’t mind dying a bunch before beating the next boss, but not getting any further than the time before gets frustrating after a while. Another design decision I didn’t really agree with was the art style. Plenty of people love pixel art, and I’m all for it when it feels right. There are various levels of pixelation, though, and this is pretty much the bottom of the barrel. As I mentioned last week, this could have been strategic, as the gore in the game might’ve turned off some users had it been realistic, but this wasn’t a game aimed for young fans or mass audiences. Only One is spectacularly indie, and I think higher quality art, even if a bit gory, would’ve been a dramatic improvement. It’s likely that the developer didn’t have the art resources to do anything other than what he did, but I would’ve loved to see some high-quality pixel art or 3D graphics.

Only One's graphics
Higher quality pixel art, seen in Junk Jack
Criticisms aside, Only One is pretty great. It’s got 70 levels (of which I’ve barely beaten half), plus an arcade-style endless mode that will keep you busy for hours. There are a ton of abilities that seem both fun and helpful, but as stated earlier, the latency in gaining power means I’ve only had a chance to try a few. All said and done, this game is playable in small doses, but the lack of frequent progression makes accomplishments scarce and skews the game more towards the core persuasion. ~~~ Only One was developed by Ernest Szoka and is quite impressive from a one-man team. It’s Free on both iOS and Android with pretty minimal ads, but a bit of nagging to support the game via in-app purchases. Buying some Power undoubtedly cuts down the grindiness of the game and supports the developer without destroying the difficulty curve. I’d suggest considering making a purchase if that interests you. 

Josh Dombro Community Manager

Friday, April 4, 2014

Feature Friday #4 - Oh My Heart

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. ~~~ Some games take years to design, create, and refine, most take months or weeks to polish. Very few quality products are created in a matter of days; Oh My Heart is one of those exceptions. The five-man team at Hyperbolic Magnetism built the game over a 48-hour span and took just another week to clean up and release it on the App Store. While polish and depth might not be the first words that come to mind playing this arcade-style tower defense-like, the game makes no apologies for what it is, and is successful at creating a unique, fun, and challenging experience. The pixel art was likely an easy choice as a way to save time and programming resources, but also feels consistent with the rest of the game. There’s no shortage of blood and gore in Oh My Heart, so a more realistic art style probably would have required an older age rating and limited the game’s userbase. The gore may not be entirely necessary, but as a finisher to slashing or electrocuting your enemies, at least it fits with the overall style.

Gameplay is centered around defending yourself from two types of rushing creatures. You have a tesla coil, some magical kind of slashing ability, and bombs to halt the waves of attackers trying to climb your fence and apparently cause you harm. The smaller of the two foes simply need to be electrocuted by the aforementioned coil, and they drop off the fence. Once on the ground, a well-placed bomb can knock out as many enemies as it reaches, spewing blood and bones all around. The bigger variety of baddie needs to be sliced in two, but in a Hydra-like twist, they turn into two of the little guys, causing more problems than before. As if the game wasn’t hard enough on its own, bombs cost money and happen to be the only way to actually kill enemies. This means you can’t spend all your time just stopping the onslaught, you have to catch coins as they fall from the sky or explode from the corpses of fallen enemies. The game gives you more than enough coins to make this possible, but it’s a nice added challenge so that you can’t just spam the screen with bombs. To tip the balance a bit back in the user’s favor, powerups occasionally appear in crates along with the coins. There are a ton of different powerups, and both their appearance and variety seem completely random - a nice touch so that the game never becomes too predictable. Some powerups help you defend yourself - slowmo, super tesla, etc. - others improve your ability to defend yourself - coin doubler, energy refuel. I’ve found more than once that a well-timed powerup is the only thing between life and death. The game is fairly simple, and the UI reflects that. Instead of a cluttered menu full of tutorials, the game offers only “New Game” and “Credits”. You have a few gameplay options, but they’re largely similar, so this doesn’t turn out to be a difficult decision, and the game features Gamecenter support and achievements. That’s it, nothing else to clutter the screen or the experience. Despite the simplicity, Oh My Heart doesn’t feel rushed (even though, you know, it was), and really pulls off the wacky, gory, defense experience it’s going for. ~~~ Oh My Heart is available on iOS for $0.99. It features no ads, no in-app purchases, and quite a bit of fun. You can also read the developers' own thoughts on the project. If you like it, check out other the other games by Hyperbolic Magnetism. Josh Dombro Community Manager