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

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.