Friday, May 30, 2014

Feature Friday #12 - Guide The Light

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. 


Mobile gaming has changed immeasurably since Apple opened its App Store almost six years ago. It seems that with each new year we’ve seen several different paradigms that take the platform in a direction, only to be shifted again by the next trend. It’s been the features that don’t dictate gameplay, but provide value across genres that have prevailed while other gimmicks faded away. These are things like Game Center achievements, friendly and encouraging character animations (even if they don’t have anything to do with actual game itself), and an emphasis away from actual story, opting instead for a common theme to hold the game together (think Temple Run - they never even explain why you’re running from those Demon Monkeys...). All of these aim to provide depth to a game, while simplifying the actual gameplay into the ever popular bite-sized pieces mobile gamers seem to crave. Sometimes, though, it backfires. Guide The Light is a pretty good puzzle game that gets in its own way with features like the ones listed above. 

At its essence, Guide The Light has you use mirrors to connect different colored beams from one point to another. Of course there are intricacies and special abilities to make this more complex and challenging, plus a few that nearly ruin the whole experience (more on this later), but that’s the premise. It’d be perfectly fine if they kept it like that, but the developers decided to add in the aforementioned “staples” of mobile games. The Game Center achievements basically amount to “You solved this puzzle” and most of the animations serve only to slow down the game. I suppose I appreciate that there’s some kind of theme to it all - you’re trying to recover jewels from the pyramid, and various traps are set to put an untimely end to your expedition, or something like that - but my attention to detail (or lack thereof) shows the overall relevance to the game itself. I don’t feel a need to belabor this point, so I’ll leave it as this: if you’ve made a good game, don’t feel that you need to put gimmicky features in it just because everyone else does. 
I've achieved so much!
For my next point, let’s handle the good game aspect. Guide The Light is a good game, but not a great game. In addition to the mobile features it shoehorned in, later levels have some really annoying aspects that detract more from the game than they add. Guide The Light has depth - 50 levels total - and most of the advanced items succeed in making the game challenging, in the right way. Boxes that produce multiple colors, double-sided mirrors, and motion-activated walls all force you to get creative when solving later puzzles. On the other hand, booby-trapped barrels and walls, plus creeping spikes and crawling spiders lead to constantly restarting the level, and slow the game down to a crawl. It’s true that I wouldn’t have reached these misguided challenges if I hadn’t enjoyed the ones I played first, but that doesn’t change the fact that these end up making incredibly more frustrating. 

Another feature to help me through the tough times was the Vision Crystal, the once-per-fifteen-minute get out of jail free card. Yes, set on a 15 minute timer (which you can pay to remove), you’re allowed to watch a video depicting exactly how to beat the level you’re currently stuck on. I’m torn because although it’s easy to detest the pay-to-win strategy, I appreciate the relief in skipping some of the levels that drove me equally crazy. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like the developer is acknowledging the game’s faults and weighing them against the users’ inherent distaste for cheap monetization tactics. True, the solutions are probably online somewhere, but this leaves a weird taste in my mouth at the very least. Despite my compaining, I’d imagine anyone looking to get something out of the game will use this feature sparingly, making it more of an irritant than a real concern. 
Dun, dun, dun!
It might be hard to believe, but through all this I mostly enjoyed playing Guide The Light. As I said earlier, the criticisms all come from getting too far into the game and being subsequently disappointed that the later stages didn’t live up to initial (high) standards. For a puzzle game, it’s solid, if not spectacular. As a story-based adventure, on the other hand, it falls completely flat. If there’s a lesson to be pulled from Guide The Light, it’s do one thing well, not several things okay. 


Guide The Light was developed by Phasic Labs and published by AppyNation. The game is only available on iOS, and goes for $0.99. It's a pretty good purchase for a while, and if you're into colorful and tricky puzzles, is definitely worth a buck. There's also a free version, so you can check the game out before you buy.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Feature Friday #11 - X Invasion 2

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. 


Everyone talks about the good ol’ days. The air was fresher, the grass was greener, games were more fun and they didn't ask you for money (you know, except for that big ol’ price tag on the front). There are a lot of good older games, granted. There were also a lot of really bad games and just kind of okay games that gamers in 2014 would never put up with. I won’t name names, but I’ll say that I’ve played some “classic” NES and SNES-era games in the last year or so that made me question a lot about my childhood… Presumably in an effort to recoup the past, developers have added increasingly more “old school cool” devices to their modern games, some good, some not so good. This week I played a game that found a way to do both, simultaneously impressing and infuriating me. That game is the flying, jet-fighting, bomb-dropping, alien defending simulator X Invasion 2

Everyone Jonesing for their 90’s or early-2000’s fix can find solace in X Invasion 2’s old school graphics and sound effects. The game screams retro - pew pew pew! (yes, those are actually the sounds of ships firing) - and hits the mark pretty well. It’s level-based and does a great job stretching the tutorial over the first half-dozen or so levels, showing all the aspects of gameplay without dumbing it down too much. The developers at Viderea, Inc. did some really great, untraditional things with the level design and that did a lot to keep the game fresh. I’ve played plenty of jet-fighting games, and most consist of the same few elements: flying, shooting, upgrading your plane, then flying and shooting some more. X Invasion 2 has most of these, but notably leaves out the whole upgrade-and-buy-new-planes aspect. The lack of this RPG element is bittersweet for me - I like that they’re trying something new rather than relying on traditionally successful models, but I think they chose the wrong feature to leave out. 
Come on, this was great!

I love that there’s an order to the levels, and consequently, that the game dictates which plane you’ll be using. I like that they simplified things and took the choice out of the users’ hands. I don’t even mind that they ommitted one of my favorite features - upgrading your ships and weapons - which also happens to add depth to the game. Where I think they missed the mark is in not allowing for any kind of progression or improvement. I didn’t notice this for a while, I was just going through the campaign, struggling a bit, but generally passing levels after no more than a few tries. Then came level 15…  

I don’t have a problem with difficult games or seemingly impossible levels as long as there’s a way to improve your chances of success. As may have realized by now, X Invasion 2 left this out, intentionally or not, and as a result I still haven’t beaten level 15. Ah the good ol’ days, when you’d get stuck on a level and be left with three options: 

  1. Pressing on, sometimes indefinitely. This offered a sense of satisfaction in eventually overcoming the challenge, but at the risk of going insane and diminishing your overall enjoyment in the game. Whether the game allowed grinding until you could improve your character enough to pass the challenge, or simply playing for so many hours that you’d exhausted every possible way to fail, this rarely felt wholly good at the end of it all. 
  2. Cutting and running, or “Do you value your sanity and your time more than your pride?”
  3. Buying your way to the finish (what we now call pay-to-win). Back before the internet and free-to-play, the shame of admitting defeat lasted much longer than the satisfaction of advancing in the game (when applicable).
I had no idea they still made strategy guides...

Now it could just be me (though I really doubt it isn’t), but I’d like a few more choices. I think that one thing modern gaming has done really well is fend off this stagnation and give users a chance to keep playing without going insane. Sure, plenty of games exploit this too, relying on the aforementioned pay-to-win, or finding other ways to soullessly eat money and/or patience from their players, but there are plenty of ways to do this the right way too. X Invasion 2 has an Arcade Mode, and that’s a good start, but I’d really like a way to get past level 15 at this point without diluting the game with an easier setting or the ability to buy progress directly. This lack of observable improvement is disheartening, and if I hadn’t been trying to make a point with this article, I probably would’ve stopped playing long ago. 

This used to fly a lot better in past decades, but there are at least two legitimate reasons for that. First, games were much less prevalent than they are now, so your choices were pretty much grind your way through this game, or don’t play video games. How long did you spend trying to beat Street Fighter II for the first time on SNES? There were no (acceptable) cheat codes or powerups that would help you win - success relied on improving your reflexes, anticipation, and strategy. It’s largely the same argument for X Invasion 2, but that’s exactly my point. If you couldn’t beat Street Fighter and decided to give up, you could play Mortal Kombat or… well that was about it for consoles. Sick of X Invasion 2? Here are dozens of other games just like it that you might have better odds with. 

The other argument for sticking with a game goes much deeper into the psyche. Sunk cost fallacy and loss aversion are two extremely human conditions that thoroughly describe why people have done things they don’t like for a long, long time. It can basically be summed up as:
People don’t like feeling that they’ve wasted something, particularly money, so they’re more willing to suffer through that something they’ve invested in (i.e. a bad game) than something else they’ve gotten for free
Since so many mobile games today (including X Invasion 2) are free to download, and therefore represent virtually no loss, users are significantly more fickle, and developers must work harder to keep them. Enter modern monetization tactics and pick-up-and-play game styles popular in mobile gaming today, and the rest is history. 

All this doesn’t negate the good, innovative things that X Invasion 2 does. Its accelerometer works as well as any I’ve seen, and the devs came up with a cool control-firing system that uses two hands in a non-awkward way, while actually improving gameplay. Firing is on the left, speed is controlled by sliding up or down on the right, altitude depends on the angle of your device. It’s that simple, and it works really well. Another small thing that I really liked, X Invasion 2 is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, not some anonymous terrain-less fictional world. While most of the map looks like Google Maps from about 2001 (hey I said the graphics were old school...), they built up notable landmarks around SF - Coit Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, I think even Town Hall - and you can even take pictures of them while flying around in Tour Mode. 

All that said, X Invasion 2 is a pretty fun game, for a while. I had a lot of fun exploring different level types, and I thought the night vision, cloaked, and bombing levels were really impressive. Eventually though the game burnt itself out by not providing a way to improve or advance, and left me little regret when I stopped playing for good. The developers had a great start, and if they continue to update it, this could be a lot more than a niche flying game with some fun levels. Let’s hope they do.


If you’re looking for an old-school flying game that’s going to beat you up a few times, X Invasion 2 is awesome. The devs did a lot of fun things, and I really enjoyed playing this game for a while. Multiple game modes provide some longevity, but ultimately not as much as I would’ve liked. Still, if you want a good way to spend a few days this is definitely worth checking out. It’s available on iOS for free and does contain banner ads, but no IAP. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Stories from GDC

The Game Developers Conference (GDC) is a great place to hear about what is happening in the gaming industry. As a writer, I was most interested in the narrative track, and I sat in on 7 different talks about Narrative in Games. I’ve listed my favorite highlights from three of them below. 

Video Game Rx: Narrative as Therapy 
Kim Shashoua (Researcher, Therapist (MsWi)) 

I came into this talk not sure what to expect, but Ms. Shashoua was a great speaker, and had some very interesting things to say about therapy in games. Ms. Shashoua discussed games as both active and passive therapy to players. I really enjoyed her discussion on how game companies can be more active by understanding how their games affect those who might have a mental illness. She broke it down into Virtual Narrative Therapy (education on dealing with emotional and mental problems), Passive Narrative Effects (see description below), and Active Skill Acquisition (purposely giving the player tasks that can be used in life). 

One of the topics I found the most interesting was: 

“Passive Narrative Effects: 
Repetition leads to learning. The more you see something the more you expect it in everyday life. 
Minorities are not the only ones who benefits from seeing different types of characters in games. Games can cause problems when expectations don’t match reality.”

When someone only sees a subgroup of people in a stereotyped fashion, when they interact in life they will fall back on the stereotype when dealing with people. If they see people in various different roles and attitudes, they are more likely to be opened minded about the new type of person that they meet. One example the speaker gave was a young man who only sees a specific type of helpless female in games, will become ingrained with the idea that all women are helpless. 

Mobile Game Storytelling Lessons 
Erik Marcisak, Sr. (Narrative Design - Eidos Montreal)

This talk went over lessons learned in mobile game play that could also be used for all video games. Mr. Marcisak discussed that in mobile it was imperative to keep everything concise, and how that now makes him a better writer for all games. There were three things to keep in mind when writing dialogue. 

“When writing dialogue for Mobile it’s good to keep in mind three things: 
1. Clicks: How often a player needs to click to get through the dialogue (Lower is better). 
2. Meat: The important stuff that the player must know. 
3. Fat: Words around the important information.”

Knowing how to strip the fat to fit dialogue to a tiny screen can really improve a writer’s ability to find the important parts of every conversation. 

Love/Hate Relationships: New Approaches to Romantic Relationships
Chris Dahlen

Mr. Dahlen discussed how to change up the way we deal with relationships in video games. Right now, in many games there is a single scale that will go up and down, but doesn’t allow for different types of interaction. 

He wanted to use Romantic Comedies as the basis for a multiscale chart for dealing with relationships in games. The player is allowed to mess up the relationship, but they can still end up with the other person as long as they are trying. The characters can be flawed, and the relationship will still work.  

The Other Talks:
User Responses to Narrative-Driven Games
Fasih Sayin, PhD (Producer/Game Systems Designer, Crytek) 

It's Not in the Writer's Manual: A Q&A Session for New Writers
Chris Avellone (Creative Director, Obsidian Entertainment), Vander Caballero (Creative Director, Minority Media), Toiya Kristen Finley (Narrative Designer/Game Writer and Consultant, Schnoodle Media, LLC), Elizabeth LaPensee (Game Designer and Researcher, Independent), Jill Murray (Director of Narrative Design, Ubisoft), Jonathon Myers (CEO & Creative Director, Reactive Studios)

Making Storytelling a Fundamental part of the Gameplay Experience 
Thomas Grip - Creative Director, Fictional Games

Fewer Tifas and More Sephiroths? Male Sexualization in Games
Michelle Clough

- Trisha Huang
Game Writer, Kiwi, Inc.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Feature Friday #10 - Elements War

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. 


At first glance, Elements War looks like your typical mobile game - it’s got great graphics and utilizes the smartphone’s touchscreen. Sure, there’s a bit of the Bubble Bobble feeling, given that the game runs on colored orbs, but other than that, nothing nostalgic about it. Not long into the game, actually the first time you fail a level, the game hits you with the Old School: “Continue?” Okay, Elements War doesn’t use this exact word, but it charges soft currency, the game's only currency, to keep playing. Now before you grab your torch and pitchfork, take a second to think how this differs from decades of arcade games and pinball machines (I’ll give you a hint, it doesn’t)…  

I get the counterargument: this game costs $0.99 up front, how dare the developers charge for more? Aside from the fact that it’s pretty hard to make a living selling things at a dollar apiece, this is a blanket statement that doesn’t pay any attention to the game itself. In a week of playing Elements War I haven’t once been even tempted to buy more Gold. The game’s economy is very well-balanced, and there are several things to do while you earn more spending power. The game is broken into Story Mode and Chaos Mode, as I often do, I began with the Story. This is a bit of a misnomer, there’s no actual story, but this phase of the game progresses in stages and levels. Story Mode features 80 total levels, broken into 8 worlds, each representing a checkpoint. Fail at Level 1-1? Start over. Move on, but fail at 1-2? Here’s the fun part. You’re given the choice of starting over from 1-1, paying 50 Gold to start the level over, or paying 100 Gold to get one more shot from where you failed.

Pretty cool, right? Instead of making the decision to autosave after all the levels or none, the game puts the choice in your hands. How much are you willing to spend to keep your progress? Elements War forces you to put your next quarter on the machine or step away. Except that it doesn’t… 

Not only can you choose to start the world over if you’re out of Gold or simply elect to hold onto it, you can also head right over to Chaos Mode. This is the arcade-style, never-ending gameplay that serves as a great way to wrack up Gold while getting used to all the titular elements, even if you haven’t unlocked them in Story Mode. That may be a little confusing, let me explain the game a bit because it’s actually pretty great. 

You control elements (duh) - fire, ice, electricity, etc. - and your job is to pop these little colored bubbles. Sounds simple, is relatively simple, but also surprisingly satisfying and at times extremely challenging. Each world introduces a new element, and each element has its own feel and abilities. Their common feature is that the element continues a chain reaction after making contact or popping a bubble (this varies by element), making it possible to destroy dozens of bubbles, even bosses, with no more than 3 tries. Oh yeah, there are bosses. This is cool, at the end of each world there’s a new boss, and the last world is nothing but big guys. These are as varied as the elements, and take different strategies to wipe out - some reincarnate, others split into clones, some just take a ton of damage to pop - all are really tough. 

The game does a lot of other little things really well, and a few things not so well, or at least a little confusingly. The sound effects are really fun - popping the bubbles sounds a little like jingle bells exploding, this is weirdly pleasant - and Elements War lets your music override the game’s sound. Also, as well as the game’s economy is balanced, they still confirm every single time you buy a continue. I can’t tell you how many games I’ve played that don’t do this, instead snatching my patience along with bits of IAP. 

Where the game has let me down a bit is the UI and timing of things. Every time you beat a level you have to wait while it tallies your points and score to date. The timing and responsiveness of the Restart button could also use some serious work. These seem like minor complaints, and they are, but when you end up playing the first level of a world a couple dozen times, the seconds add up. More importantly, it just feels sloppy in an otherwise highly-polished game. I’ll also say that Elements War seems too reliant on luck or chance. The gameplay focuses on chain reactions, but in my experience, physics and strategy only get you part of the way there. Lastly, Game Center integration would seem to be an obvious feature of a game like this, but Elements War lacks any sort of leaderboard at all. This is a curious omission that would seem fairly easy to resolve in future updates, I’ll keep an eye on it… 

Despite a couple really minor flaws and equally negligible complaints, Elements War is a really solid game. It uses an old school mechanic in a really non-slimy way and absolutely crushes the arcade feel. This kind of decision won’t work for every game, but these developers went forward by looking back, and made something totally rad, bro. 


Oh yeah, those developers… Elements War was developed by WYN Soft and is available on both iOS and Android for $0.99. The dollar price point might turn some people off, but I can’t overstate the fact that that’s all you’ll ever need to spend, and the game is really pretty fun. The devs have also promised to add more levels, if and when you beat Story Mode, so there should be more value for your purchase if you stick around. Even as it is currently, Chaos Mode provides a lot of replayability and really makes this game a keeper. 

Josh Dombro Community Manager

Friday, May 9, 2014

Feature Friday #9 - Undead Slayer

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. ~~~ Let’s talk about extremes. This week I’ve been playing Undead Slayer, an RPG brawler that was thrown my way by a colleague (shout out to Sachin!), and it’s truly one of the deepest free-to-play games I’ve played in a long time. Through a few days of playing I appear to be only a fraction of the way through the story, and I’m still unlocking new features. The graphics are awesome; gameplay is fun, innovative, and challenging; even the aforementioned story balances humor and intrigue really well. So this game is extremely good, right? Yes, but there’s a but… It crashes. A lot. That’s extremely bad. This game marks virtually every box on the proverbial checklist, except the most important one: playability. I’m going to largely dwell on the good because that’s the overall impression I have of this game. Undead Slayer seems like an early-to-mid 2000’s console RPG, and I mean that very much as a compliment. The story is more than just present, it’s funny and even a little engaging, lightheartedly poking fun at popular tropes and mechanics within the genre. The graphics are reminiscent of that era of games, and look surprisingly good on a four-inch screen. Its one-touch movement and auto-attacking also work incredibly well, and makes Undead Slayer essentially a one-handed game, despite its landscape layout. The RPG elements - upgrades, skills, allies - are well-weighted, complex, and varied enough to keep you playing for quite a while; the map system not only looks neat, but also provides depth to the game by creating distinct regions; and best of all, Undead Slayer features two equally engaging, interacting game modes. I’ll unpack this a bit and offer my one critique of the gameplay itself.

Quick, which is Undead Slayer, and which is Dark Cloud?!? Just kidding...
Undead Slayer opens with the option to create an account or play as a guest (a huge plus in my book!), then leaves you to choose Story Mode or Extreme Mode. The first time playing through I was only feeling mild, so I opted for the former. Story Mode is everything I’ve already described, unravelling features like character training, bonus levels, and adding allies sporadically through the early levels. The last of these is my favorite, as gaining more powerful allies is only possible by playing Extreme Mode. This phase of the game is largely similar to Story Mode in the way it plays - waves of enemies, ending with a boss - but leaves out the story element. It also lets you access all powerups, in contrast to only the ones you’ve unlocked, as in story mode (it does seem that the rarer, more powerful attacks are less common, but that could just by my perception or small sample size). Extreme Mode is a ton of fun, and I honestly could’ve written a whole column about this aspect of the game, but it also features an unpopular F2P mechanic. Unlike Story Mode, where players can progress at whatever rate their skill allows, Extreme Mode requires a Key for each go. Keys replenish over time, or can be bought with IAP; this game features an energy wall. I really don’t mind IAP most of the time (how dare developers try to make money off of their work!?!), and all things considered, this isn’t a big deal; players who can’t get enough can simply go back to Story Mode and grind or advance to their heart’s content. Regardless, this irks me a bit. As thoughtful as Undead Slayer is throughout, I’m disappointed they resorted to such an unimaginative and overplayed mechanic. Little takes away from the fun I had playing Undead Slayer, and that's what matters. Ultimately, the game is extremely good. I'll mention that it takes some liberties showing both gore and scantily-clad cartoon babes - maybe not the most kid-friendly game around - but as with most aspects so far, they fit right into the overall feel of the title. ~~~ Undead Slayer is a fantastic game, and you can get it for free on Android and iOS. According to e27, “Undead Slayer was actually developed by Hidea, a one-man development startup run by Dong-kyu Kim from South Korea. Publisher Hangame is a subsidiary of NHN”, and one-man startups are cool, so there’s that. If you’re into hack-and-slash, RPGs, gratuitous animated violence and cleavage, or just really good mobile games, check this out. Josh Dombro Community Manager

Monday, May 5, 2014

User stories: How to maintain structure with creativity

As a product manager making a game, you are tasked with balancing many opposing goals. Time, cost, quality, fun, lifetime value, appeal, and retention are the obvious ones that come to mind, but there’s a lot more that go into the final process. Finding the right balance between all these variables is crucial, and becomes the focus of nearly every decision you make. This is a difficult task for you and your team, and is made even more difficult by the fact that the balance you’re looking for is often situational, varying from game to game and company to company. I have a number of “tools” to help find this middle ground, but above all, I've found user stories to be the most valuable in achieving balance.

“User stories are short, simple description of a feature told from the perspective of the person who desires the new capability, usually a user or customer of the system. They typically follow a simple template:

As a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>.”


“A true user story is a metaphor for the work being done.  It is not a highly documented requirement but rather a reminder to collaborate about the topic of the user story”

I suppose we should replace “system” with “gameplay” to make this more applicable to our needs. 

User stories are often associated with agile development methodologies like Scrum, but no matter what methodology you use, describing your goals in terms of how they affect your target user is a great way to achieve direction for both your team and your game.  

The prime alternative to user stories is breaking your game development into tasks. While tasks can be derived from user stories, they rigidly confine and constrict your goals. This may be useful for engineering a defined structure like a bridge, but can actually be detrimental to a project as nebulous as a game.

Let’s take a look at some ways that user stories can improve the design and development process for a game: Alignment The first benefit is better alignment for your team, even as things change. Most, if not all, features of your game will be the result of collaboration between many people. These individuals will often be of different experience levels and different disciplines, so user stories can more easily describe your goal in a way that's agnostic to any particular member of the team. This is in contrast to tasks, which tend to be more useful to your team members’ focus, but not the overall result you’re trying to achieve. The vagueness of a user story is also an advantage because it prompts discussion early on in the process. If you encourage the completion of one user story before moving on to the next, you will also derive two benefits: dark matter management and follow through. Dark Matter With traditional tasking, you’ll often find that the integration of individual work happens very late in the process. This leads to padding schedules to make room for all of the things you didn't spot when you laid out your tasks to begin with: aka dark matter tasks. Measuring and optimizing your pace as a metric of your team’s output (i.e. how many user stories can they complete in a given period), rather than individual pace, gives you a more accurate measure of your overall schedule. Follow through Very much connected with dark matter, follow through is the commitment to finish what you started, strongly. In professional cycling, riders learn to pedal their hardest for a point that is slightly over the crest of a hill. Those few yards before the crest is the point where most riders ease up, but that extra push to finish what you started will pay dividends on the next downhill. Tasks make it very easy to say you are done when you aren't, segmented and specialized as they are. Encapsulating the entire process, it’s much harder to fool yourself into thinking you’ve finished a user story when you haven’t. Empowerment I know, management speak, but we employ many talented, passionate game makers who do their best work when they are engaged and committed to what they are doing. This engagement comes from making big things happen with creative problem solving, not following directions. Tasking leaves a team with directions to follow, and management with the responsibility of dictating those steps. User stories keep the whole team focused on the result you want, and allow everyone to determine the best way to achieve it. Agility Even if you use a traditional waterfall approach, your goals will (understandably) change as more information becomes available. Tasks can be easily disrupted by unforeseen circumstances from above, within or outside of your team. Therefore, finishing something before moving on allows you to lump changes in small batches without fear of abandoning an unfinished project. Of course you may still throw work away, but you will be throwing it away based on a finished solution and a complete view of it's value. What not to do The last benefit depends on how you create your user stories. My preferred method is start with a single story that describes the game as a whole, then break that into 3 or 4 pillars. These pillars can be broken down into a number of epics and the epics can be broken again into meaty, but still bite-sized, user stories.
Each layer of this pyramid can align with the layers of your organization: from senior managers, through leads, to individuals. At each layer, the more senior person takes on the what and can delegate the how to the person or persons below him. This structure gets everyone thinking about and solving problems in the same way. In turn, this also allows each team member to consider the big picture and their own upward mobility, as well as the scalability of the organization as a whole. You’ll also (hopefully) find that your team is generating great ideas throughout the entirety of the project, and user stories allow you to incorporate these ideas much more easily into your work. In contrast to task-based schedules, unflinchingly rigid as they are, user stories leave the team plenty of agency with regards to their objectives. The trick with user stories then becomes choosing which ones to follow, and which to leave behind. This decision is made easier if you have your user story hierarchy, because you can rule out anything that can’t be easily integrated into the structure. This management style of course has drawbacks, mainly the risk of losing precise control. I’ve worked on my fair share of games tried very hard to make task-based management work, but more often than not, games end up as the sum of their parts. Focusing on the end result grants your team much more freedom, and can be hugely beneficial as long as your approach is thorough and each step is solvable. In my opinion, user stories accomplish this better than following a rigorous series of tasks. The way I see it, describing games as tasks is a little like describing a painting by the color of the paint, it just doesn’t quite cut it. - Jason Woodward Executive Producer, Kiwi, Inc.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Feature Friday #8 - Robots Love Ice Cream

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. ~~~ Innovation is a tricky thing. People crave new, but when given the choice to try something truly unique or stick to what’s been successful, so many developers choose the latter. Dragon Army made a really funky, arcade-style action-defense-shooter thing, where maybe the weirdest thing about it is the name: Robots Love Ice Cream. Yes, the title is equal parts insane and original, the gameplay is genuinely fun, even if not groundbreaking, and... that’s about it. The game takes one step towards awesome, and one back to plain vanilla. Don’t get me wrong, I like vanilla. It’s safe, generally appealing, and will almost always get the job done. While this game started to whet my appetite, it definitely could’ve used another helping of boldness to finish the job.
That’s a lot of ice cream…
I’ll start with the bad, or better put, the bland. Despite gameplay that’s actually kind of different, the levels and objective layout in Robots Love Ice Cream just feel like Angry Birds and Jetpack Joyride got smashed together in a very cookie-cutter, formulaic way. Three-star levels feel really old at this point, especially when the criteria for each star isn’t obviously apparent. While plenty of games use rotating objectives to keep things fresh (a great addition for a lot of endless-style games), with defined levels this feature seems forced. These objectives rarely diverge from the genre’s staples: time trials, combos, and perfect runs are common requirements. Each completed goal rewards the player with Sprinkletonium (the game’s currency), but ultimately feel pretty hollow and repetitive. Despite this criticism, some of the challenges are fairly well-tailored to the specifics of each level - times and combo requirements are reflective of the level’s difficulty, and all seem feasible with moderate spending. This is of course excluding the objectives which intentionally require additional upgrades, a feature I kind of like, as Sprinkletonium is gained fairly quickly, and this lengthens the game without energy walls or another equally cliche mechanic. I’m aware that I might sound pretty flip-floppy, and I should, because that’s really how I feel about the game. At times it’s really fun and engaging, even captivating, other times it seems poorly-paced, repetitive, and more than a little tedious. There have been stretches in the game where I’ve been so caught up in the goals that I lose track of the actual point of the game: staying alive and protecting all the ice cream. I think this is a good sign - showcasing the attention-grabbing ability of the challenges - rather than a critique on the overall gameplay, because as the levels progress, just staying alive turns out to be pretty difficult. This isn’t exactly a common problem, but when you lose for the first time in a while it’s surprising (and kind of refreshing). Robots Love Ice Cream does a lot of other things well too. The graphics are great, and all aspects of the sound fit the game (though I would’ve also welcomed real ice cream truck music if not copyright protected).
Futurama meets Space Invaders, all held together by centripetal force

Overall, gameplay hits a really good difficulty, and though the game is clearly in its early stages, if offers a decent amount of playing time (even if a bit repetitive). I think the game could definitely use more things to spend Sprinkletonium on - weapons, upgrades, maybe even a new ice cream truck? - because I think these features could stretch out gameplay and hide some of the monotony of the goals. The most troubling problem I’ve come across, and likely one that will be fixed immediately, is somewhat regular crashing and freezing that occurs. I’ve had this happen more than a few times in the first days I’ve played it, and to be completely honest would’ve likely given up the game had it not been for this feature. That said, when I’ve been able to play, I’ve been mostly satisfied. Robots Love Ice Cream is clearly a bit rough, but there’s definitely a lot to work with. If later updates improve the level/scoring/star system this could be a really special game that captures the eccentricity of its title. ~~~ As of this writing, Robots Love Ice Cream is free on both Android and iOS. The game apparently retails for $2.99 normally (at least on iOS), so check it out pro bono while you can! There’s already a bunch there, and the game’s both Kickstarter-backed and featured by Apple recently so I’d expect updates and improvements going forward. Sidenote: I found this list interesting for improving creativity; check it out and use these tips to do something new :) Josh Dombro Community Manager