Friday, June 27, 2014

Feature Friday #16 - Score! World Goals

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. 

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The World Cup’s here and everyone seems to be talking soccer (or football, or fĂștbol, depending on where you’re from). So I felt it was only right to check out a soccer game this week in hopes of getting even more people interested in the world’s most popular game. I’ve played many of the popular soccer simulators like Fifa, but wanted something different. I was excited to have found it in Score! World Goals, but my initial enthusiasm waned as I got further into the game. 

Score! doesn’t have you play out a whole soccer game, but instead puts in you climatic situations and has you control the key passes and shots leading to major goals. This is fun, different, and often very well done. A lot of the levels are really intuitive and play out smoothly, making you feel like a soccer star, even with little or no prior knowledge required. I like the bitesized pieces and the attention to detail with regards to players, teams, and historical events - cleverly working around the lack of league or FIFA rights - making the game unmistakably about soccer while simultaneously focusing on precision as much as the sport itself. The problem is that the control (which is the key to gameplay) is really hit or miss, at times feeling just right, but often leaving me scratching my head. 


Sneaky...

Taking full advantage of the touch interface, you drag the ball to its target - whether pass or shot. The game follows your motion pretty well and there’s no time limit, but the biggest problem I’ve had is that Score! often shows you a path that’s inconsistent with the action required to actually beat a level. Before each level you’re shown a diagram detailing the ideal path of the ball (you’re also able to refer back to this map whenever you want during play), and the game stops each time action is required. While you can see where the ball needs to end up, how it gets there becomes the challenge, though I’ve found it’s not always a good one. The game uses a three-star scoring system, as each pass and shot is rated “Ok”, “Good”, or “Excellent”, though this is extremely inconsistent in its own right. So far Score! has mostly alternated between mindlessly easy and impossibly difficult, rarely reaching that hallowed middleground. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, because each Excellent pass is satisfying in itself, and many levels can be repeated at rapid fire, but it also bogs down more than I’d like. In between passes the computer runs the rest of the play itself, kind of neat if you like soccer, but more often building frustration, especially on levels that require a lot of tries. I’ve found these instances to crush replayability and hamper my overall impression of the game. 

I only briefly mentioned the issues with the scoring, and I won’t go too much deeper, but it does deserve a little more explanation. In a level with only one or two actions required (such as a free kick), there can only be so much variation in your movements. I feel the game does a poorer job in these instances, giving too much leniency on some bad plays, but making others frustratingly vague. Plenty of passes also seem to get near enough to your players, only to have them run right past the ball or stop short because it didn’t quite reach the game’s hit box. These cases could certainly qualify as Ok, allowing for more differentiation between Good and Excellent passes, a much bigger problem I’ve seen overall. Way too often I’ve seemed to make an identical motion, only to have it scored drastically different between tries, this is frustrating and devalues the experience by making performance seem much more random than it should.


The ball is literally behind you

The worst part is that a lot of these things could’ve been avoided, and Score! could be a really great game. A simple way to skip dead time would make me much more willing to replay levels, subsequently earning more in-game currency, "credits", and eventually playing longer. Other small tweaks to the actual scoring and players’ ability would’ve made a big difference too. It would also be really cool if the quality of your passes affected your subsequent passes and shots - for instance, an Excellent first pass makes it easier to have a high scoring second pass, while an Ok first pass makes it that much more difficult based on the players’ positions. Something like this happens in a couple of levels, but it seems like a fairly minor change that would’ve made the game much more dynamic. The gameplay is pretty cool, and if it were polished a little more, could be something truly great. 

Another interesting thing I’ve noticed playing Score! is the game’s advertisements. It’s a free title and I certainly don’t mind them showing ads, especially because they’ve done a really great job in a couple of areas. First, ads seem to be shown at a pace proportional to your in-game progress. That is, when you’re rolling through levels in just a try or two each you don’t see many ads at all, but when you get stuck for a few minutes on a level you’re sure to see one when you finally do advance. Secondly, a good percentage of the interruptions aren’t actually the ads themselves, they’re a prompt asking if you’d like to view a video ad in exchange for credits. Not unique, and I can’t fully assess how this affects their advertising revenue, but certainly more user friendly than they need to be. 

Score! is also an extremely deep game, with close to 50 level packs, each containing 30 original levels, played out three times each at different difficulties. That’s a lot of soccer, coupled with a unique daily goal as well. I’d argue that the game could use some serious work in its UI - the main menu is more than a little cluttered, and the level selection screen isn’t as fluid as I’d like - but cosmetic preferences always come second to functionality. With the depth offered I hoped Score! would be a little more generous with their credits, though I’ve found the pace is basically one level pack at a time, after which you’ve earned enough to unlock another. 


Too. Many. Options.

All things considered, Score! is unique and certainly has its fun moments, but lacks a lot too. I’ve been constantly frustrated with the controls and even left levels unbeaten on more than one occasion - truly a rarity for me. The game’s daily goals keep it going, and my desire to try new level packs have kept me interested (especially during the World Cup), but I often feel that my interest is not being fully rewarded, which isn’t exactly ideal. If you’re looking for something a little different to satisfy your soccer cravings, check out Score!, just make sure you bring plenty of patience too. 

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Score! World Goals is free on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. While it may not be perfect, Score! is pretty fun and definitely something different, so if you’re going a little soccer crazy right now it’s worth checking out if you have any of those platforms. 

Josh Dombro Community Manager

Friday, June 20, 2014

Feature Friday #15 - Yukon Warrior



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. 

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It’s really hard to make a great game, even harder to make one that’s perfect. That’s all I could think about while playing Yukon Warrior this week. Here’s a really fun game that does a lot to make itself stand out in a sea of clones and uninspired spinoffs, but it doesn’t go all the way. The gameplay is shockingly fun, but ultimately gets a little too stale a little too fast and really leaves me wanting more. 

Yukon Warrior is effectively an endless (or at least auto-) runner, but it’s also a lot more than that. Instead of dashing to avoid a giant beast, or just trying to stay on level footing, you’re running into swarms of demonic woodland creatures, massacring everything in sight. Sounds a little crazy, is a little crazy, but also extremely fun. The game rocks the gore pretty well, but you don’t feel so bad for the animals as they try their best to trample, slash, and generally ravage you, eyes glowing red the whole time.

The resemblance is uncanny...

Even if you’re not a fan of demonic animal slaughter, Yukon Warrior is a blast to play. You have multiple attacks, each of which does something a little different to give you a chance against the waves of fauna stampeding towards you. Although the tap/drag/hold mechanics aren’t perfect, given the frenetic pace of the game, they do a pretty good job. They scale difficulty pretty well throughout the levels - adding powerups and upgrades as you reach bigger and badder animals - but ultimately stop too soon. After only 10 levels you reach the Last Stand, an endless showdown to see how long you survive against the undying undead. It’s in this process that the game shows its biggest weaknesses.

You can’t really say that Yukon Warrior doesn’t have depth, in fact there are dozens of upgrades available and each one gives your character a significant advantage over your foes. The problem is, it takes a disproportionately long time to accrue a worthwhile amount of “spirit”, the game’s currency. Coupled with the scant number of levels, this becomes a problem. If everything was spread out over 15 or 20 levels, rather than 10 , the grinding might not feel so… grindy, but even as fun as it is to beat down scores of savage animals, it does eventually get old. After several hours I got to one of the major upgrades - double tomahawks - and was able to effectively beat the game, but it still felt like too little too late. Admittedly, I’ve kept playing even past this point because as I said before, the gameplay itself is really satisfying, I just wish I had a little more to play for. I will say that having a leaderboard through Game Center is huge in letting me track my progress and strive for something (I’m #68 in the world as of this writing!), but it’s still not quite enough.


The developers also made Yukon Warrior as minimalistic as possible, and I’m still not sure if I like this or not. Reducing clutter is always preferable, so on the one hand this is nice. In the same vein though, a barely visible, but still robust menu can help a game quite a bit. The play screen is completely void of anything not related to gameplay, minus a small pause sign in one corner. That’s great, but when you activate the menu, your only options are Resume, Restart, and Wave Select. From Wave Select you can choose the levels, make purchases, and check the leaderboards, but that’s it. No sound options, no way to recall a tutorial or change the controls, no credits, nothing. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, it just feels unnecessarily blank. 

Let me reiterate that my biggest complaint about Yukon Warrior is that there isn’t enough, and that’s a pretty good problem to have. RareSloth Games did a really nice job making this game, especially given that it’s their first project, I just would’ve loved to see a little more. It seems that between the UI and level length, the developers went with the less-is-more approach, and while that’s probably better than bogging everything down with fluff, it’s disappointing given how great this game could be with a little more meat to it. 

~~~

All in all, Yukon Warrior is a pretty great game, and is more than worth the free price tag it holds on iOS. RareSloth’s website also has a Beta signup for their next game, and they offer some great tips for working with Mobile. 

Josh Dombro Community Manager

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Finding Success in Failure

A good friend of mine died recently.  Fabio had cancer for the last 5 years but never quite drove it into remission.  The constant drugs and surgeries eventually took his life.

Fabio’s life couldn’t be more different from mine.  My professional life takes place in a chair at a screen, his took place outside in the open air.  I ride mountain bikes for fun to relax from the stress of work.  He was a truly world-class professional cyclist.  In his youth he was Italian national trials champion moving on to work full time in the bike industry as a product tester and product manager, finally starting his own business in SF.

Fabio seemed to have no limits on a bike.  Going for a bike ride with him was usually fodder for a story that started with “This one time, Fabio …”.

For example, there was this one time Fabio rode along a fallen tree that was about 15 foot above some abusively sharp rocks, clearly representing impending doom.  Once at the end, he hopped over a giant mound of upturned roots and back onto the trail in front of me.  I watched this from below as I cautiously walked my bike over the same rocks.  The magnitude of this can be expressed easily in words, you kind of had to be there.

Or this one time, Fabio rolled up to a 20 foot drop that most people would think twice about standing on top of, let alone consider it something to ride down. Unbelievably, I watched as Fabio rolled into the most casual vertical dive before pulling several Gs at the bottom, without even checking out the drop. His first words were “Did you get a good shot of that?” all the while with a smile on his face.

This is made all the more incredible when you consider he would do these things while treating cancer with plastic tubes digging at his insides, scars through his stomach and all sorts of chemicals pumping through his veins.

When he died I considered which one of these feats of daring had the most influence on me.  It turns out it was actually something very mundane and small.

This one time Fabio fell off his bike going around an easy corner.  I saw it happen.  It was because his front wheel fell out from under him because he was pushing his speed so hard.  This is a corner that most mortals like myself would ride virtually upright around, since the chance of falling on its wet roots was high.  I couldn’t believe he hit the corner at such a high velocity.  The fall obviously hurt, but Fabio brushed himself off and just kept going.  I asked if he was okay and he told me he’d been falling like that since he was a kid, so no worries.  In fact, he went on, if he didn’t take a fall like that at least once during a ride he wasn’t trying.

Without those little failures he wouldn’t have pushed his skills far enough to be able to do take on those bigger challenges.

There was an acceptance that failing was part of the process to ultimately succeed.

He didn’t dwell on the consequence of the fall.  He let his muscles absorb the knowledge of the limits of traction, but he didn’t allow his mind to linger, instead he was looking for the trail ahead and the next massively impressive stunt to conquer.

Now what does that have to do with making games?  We all spend so much time at work that it’s hard to not see that our general attitude to life bleeds into everything we do.  So now, I give myself permission to go beyond my own limits everyday, knowing that I’m probably going to fail once in a while.  But more importantly I try to encourage and empower others to push beyond their own limits too.  Like teaching my kids to ride their bikes, I have to fight the fatherly instinct to protect (aka micro manage) and learn to let go and see them take their own small spills as they fight for achievements far greater than anything I could have hoped for.

Fabio's influence then, I hope, is being felt by not only me, but also my family at home and at work.  Thanks Fabio.

- Jason Woodward
Executive Producer, Kiwi, Inc.

Feature Friday #14 - Gravity Lab!

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. 

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First impressions are tough. So are second impressions. Sometimes you can immediately get a sense of what you’re walking into, other times not so much. That first line is an example of the latter, so is Gravity Lab, the game I’ve been playing this week. At its core this is just a three-star physics puzzler, but it’s also much more than that, and also a little less… Sorry, very confusing, I’ll explain. 

Visually, Gravity Lab is stunning. It’s really high quality 3D animation, and uses the Unity Engine as well as any game I’ve seen. Seriously, the opening cutscene instantly made me like this game (great first impression!). Then I started playing, and immediately wanted to go back and watch the cutscene a few more times. The first dozen or so levels of this game are absolutely… unimpressive. In fact almost the entire first Lab did nothing to differentiate itself from Angry Birds or the scores of other physics puzzlers out there, besides having really nice graphics (that would be a bad second impression…). Whether it was the graphics, my curiosity, or just the fact that I’d sat down to play this game and wanted to give it more than a couple minutes, I kept playing. It's a good thing too, because when I did, I found something pretty great. 
Oooohhh pretty...
I still wouldn’t say that Gravity Lab revolutionizes gaming or even the physics puzzler, but it certainly has enough going for it to keep me occupied, the problem is that it took quite a while getting there. The game has you drag and shoot a little robot named Steve around a zero-G space, hitting blocks and collecting stars. Steve can’t touch the stars or he zooms away, but the blocks nab the pointy little things and are your keys to success. The levels get interesting when the blocks start changing their gravitational pulls and outside forces like portals and trampolines are thrown into the mix. 

I blew through the entire first Lab in one train ride, needing more than one try on just a handful of the first 30 levels, and feeling largely unsatisfied. In fact, it took until the very end of the opening Lab to find any challenging puzzles at all. As I said earlier, this changed over time and I’ve since found myself stuck on levels for frustratingly long, but I believe the lag in getting to this step could be a major turnoff to less patient players. It seems the developers weighted the quantity of levels over the quality, but may have miscalculated. 

The decision to back-load the better (and more challenging) levels is a curious one, but it’s almost certainly an impact of the developers’ larger plan for the game. As a free-to-play title, Gravity Lab utilizes one of my favorite monetization methods: selling additional content. You can play the entire game for free if you go start to finish, or you can pay $3.99 to unlock later Labs, extra levels, and a whole bonus game. This is certainly an explanation for the boring levels being first - the developers are tempting you into paying if you like the overall gameplay, but are craving more of a challenge. It also allows both paying and non-paying users to have the experience they want with the game, and even stays away from that gross pay-to-win label. Buying all the levels will also allow you to play Gravity Lab offline, a uniquely shrewd feature unavailable to non-paying customers.
I will say that after getting to the bonus levels I was a little underwhelmed, but that’s not as negative as it may seem. The chase to unlock the bonus stages was such a challenge in itself that unless the prizes were phenomenal it wouldn’t really compare. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case, but that does say how much I enjoyed nearly perfecting the game in the process. There are both bonus levels and a completely separate bonus game. The levels feature both green stars - which only Steve, not the blocks, can capture - and red stars - which can't be touched at all - and several different kinds of challenges. The bonus game, meanwhile, is essentially an endless runner mode (okay, it’s not technically endless, but I don’t think I’ve made it more than a quarter way through, so it might as well be) that’s been the hardest thing so far. You can buy extra lives and continues for the bonus game, serving as the only IAP other than the level unlock and plenty of hats.

Overall, this is a really good game that makes a great first impression visually, and a really so-so first play through. If you can make it past the first twenty or so levels you’ll really like Gravity Lab, and if you can’t, well there’s still the tutorial to watch over and over. Even ignoring the first chunk of levels which you should fly through, the game provides a lot of depth and a fair amount of replayability, and it’s definitely worth a look. 

~~~

Gravity Lab is available for free on both iOS and Android. You can also get it on BlackBerry World for $0.99, making it two weeks in a row that I’ve played a game that’s actually available on a platform other than iOS and Android, so that’s cool. 

Josh Dombro Community Manager

Friday, June 6, 2014

Feature Friday # 13 - Worm 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. 

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I feel like my last two posts have been fairly negative, so with June starting I’m turning over a new leaf. Great timing too, because the game I’m playing this week is awesome. That game is called Worm Run, and it’s an endless running/jumping/flying platformer that flat out crushes everything it sets out to. I’ve discussed endless runners before (and probably will again), but I don’t know that any of them have been as complete as Worm Run

The comparisons to Jetpack Joyride can’t be missed, nor should they. Halfbrick created one of the best endless-whatevers, and I don’t think I’m assuming too much in saying the game had some influence on Worm Run (you’re flying a jetpack after all…). That doesn’t take anything away from Worm Run, though, and in fact makes it even more impressive, since it improves on pretty much every aspect of an already great game. Instead of autorunning and only maintaining the character’s elevation in a control scheme that hasn’t changed since the early days of Flash, Worm Run puts you in total directional control of your doomed little flyer, apparently named Zeke. You can run forward and backwards as well as control your flying with directional swipes. I think the coolest part of all is that you have to constantly swipe to keep your speed up, turning games into a flurry of thumb-flying action. 

Worm Run is fast and really fun, and would be a pretty sweet platformer game on it’s own, where it takes an extra huge step, but also stumbles a little, is the chase. On an ever-changing map littered with Grubies (from the developer’s name - Golden Ruby), navigating the spikes, lava pits, and other sources of imminent demise would be something of a challenge, but there’s of course the titular worm to deal with first. Everything about your enemy is perfect - its looks amazing, completely contrasted by both color and size against the background and runner, and moves in a way that optimizes both difficulty and fairness, while remaining visually interesting and physiologically accurate. The worm is able to chew through the platforms which stall Zeke, but is also forced to wind its way around the edges instead of cutting corners - this makes certain areas mad dashes but buys you time other places. 



It’s true that these controls are better than almost anything I’ve seen, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. The omni-directional movement is a little loose, and I swear there have been times that I’ve hit a gap only to be bounced off because my swipe wasn’t interpreted as I intended. This happens in plenty of games, but it's particularly frustrating when you’re trying to constantly avoid imminent destruction and have just a split second to outrun a giant evil worm. But I digress, if my sole complaint is that occasionally this game feels a little too hard, there isn’t really much to complain about. 

Worm Run is great, and has been for a while, seeing as it was successfully funded on Kickstarter back in December 2012. This is noteworthy, as only 35% of Kickstarter games are successfully funded, lower even than the 44% success rate for all projects (full data here). This doesn’t mean that all games are hopeless or that Worm Run is one of a kind, but there are certain things developers looking for crowdfunding can do, and Golden Ruby did enough of them right.



In fact, the developers did just about everything right, and made a really incredible game. I thought I’d seen it all from endless runners, but this isn’t just an endless runner. Simply put, Worm Run is a very well made game that looks great and plays even better. It very much allows for pick-up-and-play gaming, but has enough depth to keep you playing for quite a while. Stop reading, start playing it now.

~~~

Worm Run is available on Android and iOS for $0.99, and Windows phone for an even more ghastly $1.49! While free-to-play is nearly universal in the endless-whatever genre, the quality here really warrants the price tag if you’re at all a fan of these games. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Art Direction in Video Games - A roadmap for finishing your projects


These notes were inspired by the idea that it's difficult (near impossible?) to complete art for a game. The challenge is keeping the team inspired while working against deadlines, disagreements & lulls of creativity. 
  • Commit to a vision: If you have the luxury of time on your hands, create a style guide before other artists join the project. This forces you to actually think about what it is that you are doing and trying to accomplish, visually. Strive for consistency and clarity in style, shape, size, line, color, perspective and anatomy. Sell the team and yourself on the gestalt and the fiction of the game. Sounds daunting? Here’s a trick to take the pressure off; If you’re still trying to figure things out, schedule it in to your daily routine. Dedicate an hour at the end of each day for a week to reflect, curate, itemize and resolve your work. You will be left with the beginnings of an elegantly compiled style guide. 
  • Alignment in vision: Aim for each artist to have a clear understanding of what the game should look like. Distribute the style guide and have an open forum to discuss the visual direction that has been chosen and why. Hold art "town hall" meetings to get realtime feedback from the team about the overall look and feel of the project. Great ideas tend to be presented by team members when asked for feedback on artistic decisions that have already been made. Remember that alignment in vision is a living process. It involves many opinions and may never be fully realized. Aspire to give artists a visual and mental starting point rather than having them start with an intimidating blank canvas.
  • Play to strengths: Amidst a hectic production schedule, where artists may feel less inspired, enabling them to do what they do best can significantly increase engagement. If an artist excels at sketching, then allow them to focus on that skill. If they show an interest in other artistic areas, such as painting, work out a tactical plan to exercise that skill. For example, dedicate 90% of their time towards what they do best, and allow 10% for skill development. Keep your team strong and flexible.
  • Chunks, not bites: Rather than having artists complete daily isolated tasks, think of their contribution to the team in terms of chunks of work. Aim for significant outcomes from each artist. Let them know how their work fits in to the big picture and benefit's the project. Taking ownership of a large portion of work is empowering and acts as motivation through the daily grind.
  • Keep things moving: More is lost through indecision than wrong decision. Aim for rapid iteration. Avoid getting caught up in the beauty of just one image. When it feels right, move on to what needs more attention.
  • Celebrate the milestones: Show that deadlines matter. Successful delivery is something to celebrate. This could take the form of a presentation of all the work done by the team in a meeting or on a visual board. Let them take a step back, see how it all came together and appreciate it.  A round of applause goes a long way.
  • Work is for the game: Remind yourself and others that the work you are doing is for the game. It is dangerous to fall in love with an isolated idea only to have it be misaligned with the overall direction of the project. Check-in with the Design and Product teams frequently to make sure you’re staying on track.
  • Play the game! Each artist should be playing the game that they are building. If it is too early on and a build is unavailable, the Art Lead/Director should understand enough about the game to describe it in detail to the team. The artists should know the context for which they are creating art. Inspire them with a written synopsis and reference images that capture the spirit of the project. Daily interactions with the Game Design & Product team also provides a healthy dose of inspiration. Immerse your team in the theme of the project. Artwork should not be done in a vacuum.
Obviously not every single point will apply to all teams and all artists, nor is this list entirely comprehensive. The important thing is to create a roadmap like this one for yourself, with what's best for you and your team. If you're planning ahead and doing what you set out to, you'll be just fine.

- Ricky Baba
Art Director, Kiwi, Inc.