Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Kicking things off, this Lazy Review session is really more of a look back at the past couple of months of XBLIG releases, with a trifecta of recommendations from me. If you missed these games because you were bogged down over the holidays (or let's face it, flat broke because of the holidays) or playing one of the seven hundred AAA releases that all come out around November, then go back and have a look at these.
Goblyn Stomp (80 MP)
Another solid example of an 80MP-priced game that will provide you with a fresh burst of fun, Goblyn Stomp takes a simple premise, adds some powerups, and coats the whole package in a unique tophat-and-cane antiquey style/color palette.
All you have to do is stomp goblyns, which we're all pretty used to doing in one manner or another. Poorly executed stomping will result with the goblyns nibbling at your ankles until you die, which honestly feels a bit pathetic once you see these things. (see screenshot) They are sort of like fat clumsy chickens.
The key to the fun lock here is repetition and addiction. Squashing endless amounts of goblyns is a simple premise but one that focuses on a rather enjoyable aspect of your average platformer. There's nothing to learn except stomping technique - and as you stomp more goblyns you gain several upgrades (e.g. power stomp, cane spin, land mines) which allow for more stompage. Stomp as many as you can and watch your body count pile up towards the highest score. Something tells me that most readers reading this will have a mounting urge to go stomp some goblyns. Don't let me stop you.
Chris Unarmed (240 MP)
For all you platformer-lovers out there, this is a newcomer that will offer a lengthy and challenging experience. Once you get rolling the graphics grow on you and you will quickly realize that there are going to be some tough platforming challenges.
Most of the basics are intact here - avoid enemies, don't fall or hit traps, get from point A to point B, collect coins, etc. It's a time-tested formula that works well and there are some other tweaks as well. Wall jumping is available from the get-go and physics play a role in terms of air currents that manipulate movement. In general, these features work well, although sometimes there are some quirky movements that seem to be physics related - I occasionally died at the hands of some inexplicable lateral movement.
Some of level design is downright evil so I'd sharpen your platforming skills and prepare your patience. There's a nice light story built in and I found some charm in the fact that the developer designed the game around himself as an "unarmed" character - worth a go.
Johnny Platform Saves Xmas (240 MP)
It's a nice feeling when a successful game is followed up with a sequel. Many of you are probably familiar with the first Johnny Platform ("Biscuit Romp") game which was well-received and widely played. It's important to note that "Save Xmas" is not a re-skin or add-on, but a totally new adventure with all new levels and features.
For those of you who missed Biscuit Romp (now 80MP), I highly recommend both the original and this latest holiday release. They are both notable for their charming coffee-drinking main character, tight controls, and levels full of "ah-ha!" moments. At 240MP, this is honestly a steal.
Saves Christmas feels much like it's predecessor (nothing wrong with that), but I'd say that the graphics are more polished and the challenges are more intricate. Hopefully this means we'll keep seeing more from this developer (Ishisoft).
Friday, December 11, 2009
If you've never read Lost Garden I recommend it as a deep thoughtful dive into the world of gaming. I happened to to be reading a couple recent articles about multiplayer gaming prior to playing several hours of Duel, which is a game that is best played with a friend.
Duel is a sideview combat game that has you in the role of a well-armed snake like (?) character. You're tossed into an arena with other snakey beings that are equally well armed with anything from ninja stars, to battle hammers, to rocket launchers. There's lots of weapons, no question. Duel: The Art of Combat isn't so much "art" as it's mayhem, and it's probably more of a run-and-gun than it is "duel." But I honestly have no issue with that - none at all really it's just an observation on the title.
There's a good deal to like about Duel so as usual I am going to run through some likes and then some dislikes and then try to make a recommendation on who will enjoy it.
Graphics often play heavy into the first impression, and I believe Duel sort of falls into the "good enough" category considering the price (240MP) and the platform. They aren't artistically high-end but the designer was smart to keep environments and characters simple and uncluttered. There is good depth from the 3D elements and the simple shapes offer easy to navigate arenas for fighting.
Speaking of navigation, it's important to point out a rather interesting mode of travel. The snakes not only have a beefy arsenal of weapons, but also have a grappling rope that can be used to whip around the levels. Honestly, it takes some getting used to and is a little counter intuitive when compared to the much slower 'walking' and jumping alternative, but once you learn to rely on it, it works quite well and greatly increases the pace and fury of the combat.
Other cool features include perks (like faster grappling, higher jumping, etc), power ups (basics like shield, health, extra damage), and unlocking ton of weapons to choose from. As you progress though the single player, I found this to be a nice light progression vehicle to keep me interested and content. There was always something a little new to chew on.
Duel really relies on two main components. Lots of weapons, and multiplayer action. If you like other sideview multiplayer combat games, this one will probably be up your alley too. The single player is fun, but probably won't extend beyond the 45 minutes or so it'll take you to plow through to the single boss. What you really need is a buddy to square off against, test different character builds, and have a face to rub your victories in.
One feature I found lacking was a way to monitor damage and weapon power. While I enjoyed testing out the many weapons, and trying different strategies from remote mines to sniper rifles, I really had no way to know how effective they were. It would have been nice to have either viewable enemy life bars, or weapons stats (or both) so that the many weapons seemed less arbitrary. When it came right down to it, while the minigun and the uzi were both fun, I had no real way to compare them accurately.
A couple other small hacks - the music was pretty bland and the story felt like a last minute add on. Seeing as these are not crucial to these genre's fun factor, those drawbacks didn't phase me as much as it could have. As mentioned, I believe anyone who likes this small-character-area-combat genre will find enjoyment from Duel: The Art of Combat. If you have a friend to play with, I'd recommend it - if your only option is single player, I'd see if the demo hits a positive chord with you first.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
It's time to alert you to another sparkly gem on XBLIG. Amongst the many options and holiday AAA game release blitz, it's often easy to miss a smaller outstanding title. Platypus is a 'port' that you may have seen elsewhere - but it's release on XBLIG was my first experience, so there's a good chance that it will be for many of you too.
Without a doubt, the first thing that will strike you is the visuals. With gorgeous and stylish graphics made of clay (that's the best way I can word it), this side-scrolling ship shooter immediately has a unique, polished, and dare I say 'tasty' look and feel (I want to eat it). The ships feel robust and dynamic and the landscapes are rich. But as we all know, that's never enough alone.
Another standout feature for me is the powerups and goodies. A shooter rests its loins on the powerup system and Platypus sits confidently on a nice variety of boosts. There are five main gun powerups, each with different advantages. Adding to the strategy is the ability to shoot the powerups to change their color/ability - so if you're skillful, you can snag the gun that's best for your situation or playstyle. My personal favorite are the hard hitting red missiles that just feel beefy as they swarm around the screen.
But the items don't end there. You can also blow up certain structures to find little crates that's can provide even more firepower, points, extra lives, etc. But again, you have to skillfully shoot the crate, not the balloon carrying them, or else the powerup will plummet to the ground. And lastly, most of the bigger enemies and structures will explode with fruit (yes fruit, I told you it was tasty) that are worth points towards extra lives. You can juggle and split the fruit with you gun to help grab it before it hits the ground - nice touches right?
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Freqµency follows a tried-and-true set up for a platformer that I tend to enjoy. That is, create a "home base' with important NPCs, and then send the player out on missions which upon completion loops back to the home base for progression of the story. Using this method, Freqµency creates a nice sense of accomplishment while also allowing for pacing and narrative. Similarly, as the player completes missions the robot character gains upgrades.
I do like the idea of sapping the world of it's colors to gain back power (there's something satisfying about peeling all of the color off a sedan, for example). But what didn't satisfy is that all of the colors act essentially the same - allowing the player to switch to the color and fire a blast of equal effect/power. Had each colored blast behaved differently and had pros/cons, it would help distinguish the colors as more than just an extension of the lifebar.
Something we all love - boss fights - are a welcome addition to Freqµency. They offer a good challenge while learning their patters and have some unique attacks that keep you on your toes. I won't spoil anything here, but the boss encounters also help drive the story. Speaking of which, the story won't win any awards, but as I always say - at least they gave us one to follow. I always feel like it's better to offer the players who enjoy some dialogue/story the option of immersing themselves in it. It doesn't have to be deep, complex, or entirely unique - it just has to give the player something to follow. I enjoyed some of the dialogue and could tell that the designers had fun with that element.
At 240 points, Freqµency is solid platforming experience with a hook worth checking out. Have a go at it.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Very Hungry Pumpkin (80MP)
I am very hungry for some pumpkin pie, but I'll just have to wait it out a couple more weeks, won't I. Very Hungry Pumpkin is a very nice-looking 3D rendered Halloween themed game. Honestly, it's usually pretty rare to see a holiday themed game with this much graphical polish and I have to say that I was quite pleasantly surprised.
The pleasing graphics are nicely accompanied by smooth animations, great overall art direction, and well-suited spooky (yet catchy!) music. The gameplay is pretty straightforward - the goal being to collect a 'full tank' of candy while avoiding the trick-or-treaters and before they snag they candy! Crazy kids! The trick-or-treaters move horizontally at variable speeds, and you can collect a time-stopper clock to catch your breath when things get hectic.
Despite the one level (that simply amps up the difficulty per round), the experience is tight enough to warrant a good amount of playthroughs. My only real complaint is that sometimes the on-screen items (candy counter, remaining live, clock) actually block some of the important play zone. But all-and-all this is an attractive game for the season, and at less than the cost of a jumbo candy bar. If you're having a Halloween party, you should put this up on the TV for entertainment.
The art direction is charming and diverse, and the levels are generally well-designed. It has most of the 'same ol' platformer mechanics (avoid enemies, jump on their heads, etc) but delivers them in a fresh package. There also seems to be a light story involved about saving the friendly healthy foods from the bad unhealthy foods. This was fun because I was able to rescue an ally before the demo ended.
It also serves as a child-friendly platformer with a positive message and fun theme. I'd recommend that any platformer fans give this a try and consider the investment - especially if you have kids and they can get some fun out of it too.
Powa Valley (400MP)
The cast of playable characters is colorful, with each character having a special ability to use out on the court (jump higher, power hit, confuse opponent, etc). In my humble opinion, some of these abilities seem slightly unbalanced - like the little fella who can create a windstorm got a point on me every time.
The graphics are quite nice, with bright backgrounds and simplified shapes/effects. The controls are precise once you get used to the characters. I also have to give props for the intelligent AI with three levels of difficulty - they are not pushovers! The only real drawback here is that it's a pretty standard "bop-the-ball-over-the-net" mechanic - and while done really well, it might not be for everyone at the 400MP price point. Defintely worth grabbing the demo (and maybe a friend too) for a try though.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Here's a surprising little platformer that you might have missed. Some might incorrectly assume from afar that the graphics are really basic or amateur. But when you look closer and then actually play the game, it obvious that Jump! uses the pixelated look on purpose, but with an impressive amount of visual polish and care. I'd actually go out on a limb here and say this has some of the best art direction I've seen on XBLIG, and a good dose of effects that really add to the experience.
The gameplay is fairly straightforward and involves diffusing (or really just touching) bombs before the timer runs down then getting to the exit. The controls are tight/responsive and there are some additional gameplay elements that let you toss knives at enemies and so forth. And then it's the standard affair of avoid hazards and enemies.
There's not much to dislike here - it's just a good example of a game you can't judge to quickly because once you jump in you sort of realize that while it visually pays respect to the old arcade look, it's got a ton of extra power under the hood (I hate car analogies, but I was stumped). The only real issue I have is that the game is on the short side for the 240MP price and you don't really know how far the through the game you're getting. With no continues, it can be tough to budget your lives - and starting over from the beginning can be a little 'arrrrrggggg.' Have a go though.
A-maze!-ING (80 MP)
The overall gameplay has potential, but it lacks visual polish and needs some additional features to create some greater depth and satisfaction. You'll be able to judge this one quickly by trying the demo.
This is a basic game that sort of feels like a frantic open-level-style Frogger. You have to travel north quickly while navigating barriers (maze?) and avoid insta-kill from enemies that are traveling quickly left-to-right. That's about it - it's a little bare bones and the graphics aren't much to speak of honestly. You're also racing a clock which adds another level of intensity, but I couldn't decide if it was the good kind or bad kind of anxiety I was feeling.
Rad River Run (240 MP)
The first thing that struck me about this one one was the nice 3D graphics (see screenshot). The textures and models are rich and colorful and while the water performs a bit oddly (seems to flow in weird directions), it still looks impressive. It's nice to see a developer employ 3D on this platform, as it's quite rare.The goal of the game is to navigate 'down' the river collecting beach balls that are worth varying amounts of points. You also need to avoid obstacles and the walls, which tend to ricochet you around in an unpleasing "boi-inggg" manner.
The concept is simple enough to be fun, and I can imagine it can get pretty competitive if you have someone to face off with - but where the game let me down was the controls. Because the game is based heavily on navigation, the awkward controls were hard to overcome. While I can understand it's probably quite difficult to mimic the natural movement of a craft in water, I have a feeling that testing would have revealed that players would struggle with the controls. They don't have to be realistic, just more responsive and manageable. Because there is a point penalty for bouncing off walls/obstacles, it can be a bit frustrating too - a little more polish on navigating the craft would make a world of difference.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Dark is an interesting case for a reviewer. It's so successful in delivering on it's description ("a very dark, atmospheric puzzle-platformer"), that it becomes somewhat pointless to highlight, or be distracted by, little technical flaws. The reason why I believe players will enjoy Dark is because is offers a less-common, shadowy and atmospheric platforming experience for $1 (80MP). It's another great example of a wise and low investment for anyone looking to kill 30 minutes doing something very different from the mainstream gamer. So let's get digging.
My point is... you won't be playing Dark for the typical skill-based platforming action. In fact, you can't die - and there are no enemies. There are puzzle elements, but with no sense of urgency - and there is a "collect the sparkles" element, but with no real implications. Dark is a game that just wants you to play it so that you can be a part of it, not so that you can overcome it, master it, dominate it, or hone your skills on it. The first time I saw another moving creature, I wrongly assumed that it could hurt me. I had to laugh at how pre-programmed we are in the platformer genre - I was jumping on the other creature wondering if he need 3 hits to be killed or something. Nope. :)
So obviously, that "non-skill" or "non-action" approach doesn't really work if the game is cut from the same artistic mold as other platformers. But Dark will draw you in with atmosphere. Simplistic shapes, lots of lighting/shadows, a rather heavy dose of physics, and mellow ambient music create the sense that you're really just here to soak things in and take part in the experience. The only true goal is to progress and maybe to explore if you so choose. At the end of a hectic day (and a whole week without internet - oh the horror!) I actually found this simplistic approach to be calming and relaxing.
Dark is not a long game - clocking in around 30-40 minutes max. Again, it's like jumping in to another world for a quick relaxing adventure - which, now that I write it, realize that's pretty much what video games are all about. I actually thought that Dark got better as it went along - the first couple levels are pretty standard, and I actually hit a couple technical snags (got stuck in some physics, blocked from moving) in the earlier levels. But the last couple levels are more interesting, colorful and dynamic. All of the way through the last 10 minutes is a good time, including the credits.
A couple small gripes - first, the jumping was not as clean/natural as it should be. You can't jump from certain surfaces, which was frustrating at times. As first mentioned though, you're not really in any danger so the lack of polish on the movement/controls doesn't have the downside of frustrating and unfair deaths. Second, for a stylistic venture, I feel like the main character could have been better designed to have more personality. While the heavy lighting and shadow effects help mask that somewhat, the basic diamond shape with googly-eyes just didn't do much for me. A main character with a bit more depth (and maybe a handful of simple expressions) could have taken the immersion and character/player-connection up a notch.
Overall, I recommend this as a good value, not so much as a platformer - but just as an experience. A video can be seen on the dev's website here.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Friday, October 2, 2009
6. A Unique Hook
This is a big one for me. The wonderful thing about indie games is that there's additional freedom to think outside of the norms - taking a chance (high risk, high reward) is okay, and it's often the undercurrent of indie genius that draws out new mainstream innovation. If I see a game that is bringing something new or eye-opening to the table, it catches my attention. BIG TIME. Even if it's not a total success, having some sort of hook may peak curiosity enough for me to grab for my wallet.
Another way to think about it is to consider a press release. If you write a press release for the game (and hopefully you are), are you telling the public something that will catch their attention? Or are you struggling to come up with anything? Hooks can come in all sorts of forms, but most games seem to falter or forget to really develop one that garners interest and buzz.
Light's End is a good example of a gameplay innovation hook. When I read about a little RPG that lets the player play as ANY character in the game...woh. What? I was hooked on learning more and knew I had to at least try it out. I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1 had such a ridiculously awesome and catchy theme song, that people bought the game just to hear it. Hooks, my friends, hooks. Reel me in.
These are some of the more in-your-face examples, but even a less-obvious hook like "pirate-themed mix between an RTS and tower defense game" or "dual trigger racer" - well okay, you didn't knock me over, but you've got my interest. It sounds obvious, but do something noticeable, and you have a better chance of getting noticed. Often times the bigger the better.
7. Polish Baby, Polish
I remember when I first loaded up an XBLIG called Chalked, the title menu screen was so cool, stylish, and tight that I was stuck playing with the menu for a good minute. While the rest of the game didn't exactly follow suit, the level of style and polish on the title screen had me amped.
Polish is a broad concept and can apply to most aspects of the game (controls, art, interface, effects, bugs, etc). It's usually the well-polished game that was created with care/patience that stands apart from the competition. If I demo two Arkanoid style games but one carefully perfected the paddle movement to feel natural/responsive, heightened the visual/sound effects to feel explosive, along with a well-conceived theme/story - while the other just feels like "plink....plink....plink" guess which one will get my money?
Even the most forgiving and open-minded gamers are going to gravitate towards games that appear professional and polished. This doesn't mean games can't look or feel retro or campy - that's a matter of taste not polish. There are wonderful examples of successful games that use simple/old skool graphics combined with extremely refined gameplay (N+ comes to mind). If the style is consistent and attractive, like Fishing Girl, we gamers still nod approvingly.
Looking at the literal definition of "polish," you can jump from A to Z quite quickly. Is your game smooth? Is it shiny?
8. The Right Price
Talkin' bout money, yall. Keep in mind that as a consumer/gamer, I am not interested in the politics behind the MS pricing schemes and developer's sales strategies. I just want a game that feels like it's worth the asking price. I may not even know that a pricing structure exists, so it's not on my mind. The nice thing about Indie Games is that nothing costs more than $5, so for most consumers, that's a reasonable price point for a full-fledged game (key word, full-fledged).
At 80MP ($1), I am expecting a quick return on my investment - a burst of entertainment! The game might not have long lasting appeal, tons of features, or hours upon hours of gaming in store, but it needs to satisfy a thirst. It needs to do at least ONE thing, very right. That's why people classify this as an impulse buy price point, because it's doing something to snare a quick purchase. 80MP games can really benefit from a hook. Because Flash games of the same production level are often free, and because most screensaver/massage/slideshow apps are also $1, it's worth trying to do something to differentiate. A game that successfully delivers a game that offers immediate satisfaction will be a no-brainer at $1. You really only need to win me over on first impression.
At 240MP ($3), the game should no longer feel like a whimsical investment. As a gamer I am expecting at least a couple hours of gameplay and the feeling that the game was not made in a couple days - along with some features like leaderboards, multiple game-modes, difficulty modes, etc. This is a good price point for shooters and platformers and puzzlers that can deliver the feel of a full "start-to-finish" game even if it's on the smaller side.
400MP ($5) is still a low price to pay for a game, but because it's an Indie Game I am expecting something fairly impressive contextually. With many of the high-level (and excellent) Xbox Live Arcade games being priced at 800-1200MP, this is a price point where I'd expect to see the cream of the crop within XBLIGs. I am looking for a game that does something on the more professional level - potentially a larger graphical investment, a robust and long-lasting experience, voice-overs, slick animations, etc. If I can see that the time and money went in, I am more willing to shell it out.
There are lots of "ands, ifs, and buts" when it comes to the above, but those are some loose guidelines based on the thoughts that go through my head when I am deciding to purchase. If the game feels it's worth every penny of the price, and I'll get my investment back in "fun coins," you've got a sale.
9. The Right Timing
This can be a little bit tricky, but after dissecting some recent information, I realized that the timing of an XBLIG release is pretty key. If I am knee deep in the latest Call of Duty, and trying to squeeze it in before the new Bioshock comes out, chances are I am not testing out an experimental FPS on XBLIG.
In other words, try not to release your game when the gamer population (or Xbox'ers) are distracted. If you release the same week as another big AAA/XBLA game (and especially if it's in the same genre), you might be overshadowed. This is obviously tough because of the admission process for XBLIG, but if you can do some research on the competition, it might be worth planning to avoid months/weeks where you see them popping up. I'd actually consider Nov/Dec (the holiday release blitz) pretty dangerous territory, but I don't have numbers to back that up. I personally find myself hunting for games most around June/July/August...feels like there is a summer lull across TV and gaming.
On the positive side, I've read about success with timing a themed release around holidays/events. If you have a Halloween game (or even a spooky/zombie/ghost) game, why not try to release right before Fall? The TV and movie industry take full advantage of people "getting in the spirit" - why not gaming? Also consider worldly/current events - political games are a small niche that often release around election times. Olympic games during the...Olympic Games?
Timeliness can affect the buyer's mindset and availability, so give it a little thought.
10. The Demo Pulls Me In
Obviously the demo is a major element is what games I decide to buy. And considering how seriously the indie developer community takes "conversion rate" (demos downloaded divided by actual sales), it's worthwhile to think about the gamer's experience when they demo your game - what are they thinking and feeling?
Well, I usually get 8 minutes of play - sometimes it's restricted to certain portions of the game, or there is a cap on how far I can progress/play. I believe that's entirely fair, but let's look at some of the pitfalls.
- Most of the game is playable without the need to purchase. The game is either so short or so simple (or progress is actually saved) - so that I never need to hand over my hard-earned dough. Eeep!
- It takes so long to gear-up and play/understand the game that by the end of the demo I am more frustrated than thirsty for more. Sometimes I don't even grasp the controls or have time to look around for a tutorial - then the demo ends and I feel too confused to bother with more.
- I never get to see some of the best features. If the game's progression curve is so slow that the demo only consists of the most basic uninteresting material, I'll miss out on some great reasons to buy. (this is also an "immersion" issue, but that's for a different post)
- It's rare, but I've played demos where almost the entire game is locked which means I never even really get to see/play the game. I believe this might be because the game is so simple that 8 minutes would be too much in the developer's mind (see first bullet). Don't do this, regardless. It's a negative play experience and mostly frustrating.
So conversely, I'll follow through and purchase a game if a demo is engaging, tempting, and satisfying - while leaving me wanting a bigger taste. I've also seen demos make good use of splash pages and text that tell the player what else will be in store if they buy the full game. When done tastefully, this is very smart. It's a good way to combat the fact that the player might not see some of the best stuff. But if overdone, I start to find it abrasive and offputting.
The demo is a gamer's speed date with the your game, so make an impression. Think about the best features of the game, and make sure the player either experiences them, or knows about them before he/she is timed out.
I hope this was fun reading - let me know if you want to see more features like this in the poll above.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
I spend much time perusing, downloading, and reviewing these games. So I thought that my perspective as a gamer (with a taste for indie games!) might be useful. Two other reasons I might have a useful perspective - one, I am currently developing on XNA so I understand the process and model well. And two, I spend obnoxious amounts of time lurking on forums and blogs that discuss sales data on XBLIG, so I know the numbers.
Now of course, before the guy in the back raises his hand to point out the obvious, making a great game is the main reason anyone will buy a game. Make an amazing game, and word of mouth can work magic for you, but there's other controllable factors that can help too. And if no one ever tries your game in the first place, you're DOA.
Disclaimer: the tone is meant to come across as helpful and realistic, not judgemental or know-it-allish.
If your a gamer who reads this blog for reviews, maybe you can add some ideas or give feedback as well. If your a developer, share what you think worked or did not work for you.
1. I've Heard of It
If I have never heard a peep about your game, I'm already half way to a "pass." When it comes to the Xbox Live interface, it's easy for window shoppers to assume that if no one is talking about it or writing about it, then it's probably not that good. Even if that's not accurate and the game is decently rated, it's undoubtedly easier to shuffle past a game that's not ringing any bells. On the flipside if you've created a little name recognition, you've taken a big step towards getting that extra "let's see what this is."
Yes, this is also known as "do some marketing." I'd estimate that at least 70% of the XBLIGs put forth essentially zero marketing efforts. Dedicating some time here is key and if you don't, chances are you want have any "inbound" players coming to look for your game either. That's not smart, as you're relying on the random eyeballs passing through the XBLIG library. Why not go beyond that audience? Guide some traffic in your direction. I won't get into details, but there are many routes to explore and many great articles on how to do it right. At the very least, look at what other successful XBLIG devs are doing.
Semi-tangent: Sometimes the active developers who market their game can actually do everyone else a favor. Well-marketed games like the Halfbrick titles, Clover, Duality (still not even out yet), Weapon of Choice, Zombies, and Angry Barry (among others of course) are actually bringing more eyeballs to the XBLIG platform. If every developer made a similar effort and found new inroads to gamer communities , everyone would win.
2. The Box Art is Sexy
If I am sorting though the latest titles, or any collection of titles, I naturally gravitate towards attractive box art. It's the first (and often the only) thing that I see when perusing. I'd recommend putting some serious effort and thought into box art design. We all judge books by their covers, just admit it.
Things that turn me off are poor/amateur art, impossible to read text, abrasive colors, low rez images, cluttered space, or anything that indicates that effort was minimal. Why? Because it's only natural to assume that the rest of the game follows suit.
Box art should be clean, appealing, and tell viewers something about the game. Think about setting the tone, showing us the main character, giving an indication of the genre - these are all good moves. You want to capture the appropriate audience right? If you made a cool platformer, but platformer fans can't tell that there's a whole bunch of super sweet platforming to be chomped on, they will probably skim on by until they see something that looks like what they want.
I am making an RPG action game with an attractive female lead character - We're trying to give some indication of that with my box art. Feel free to let me know how we're doing. :) (plug one!) (Bonus points for anyone who can name the rap group with a rapper who went by "Plug One.")
3. The Title is Relevant
I like games that have intriguing and/or informative names - sounds obvious, but how many actually deliver? You can balance this against your box art of course, but the combined message you're sending out is absolutely crucial. If your game is named something ambiguous and I am left clueless about the type of game, you've lost me and your chances of snaring a trial download are that much less. If your title is utterly boring and generic, same deal - and even worse, chances are I'll never remember it even if I want to come back and check it out.
Use the title to convey a message and create interest. Sometimes this is easier than others - for example, the developer of a game like Avatar Drop (which has been well-received and popular) had the fairly easy job of telling gamers what the game was all about. "I get to drop my avatar? Sweeeet." Other games will have tougher go, but think about the genre you're in again, and consider words that suggest that genre. Weapon of Choice is clearly a shooting game with a focus on weaponry. Wordzy is most likely a word/puzzle game, etc etc. But be careful to go too far and hit the generic spike-trap - something like Ship Blaster or Block Jumper leaves gamers like me shaking our collective heads.
I investigate (and often buy) games that are named things that intrigue me and make me want to learn more and/or allude to a type of game that I know I usually enjoy. Keep that in mind when you are brainstorming about a game name.
4. The Screenshots Excite Me
So assuming the you've captured my interest in some way or I am feeling extra patient, I am now able to see four (only four!) screenshots of your game to learn a bit more. This is the next hurdle before I make the final leap and put the game/demo on my active download list.
First of all, use all four slots! Not doing so makes me suspicious, and just seems lazy. Pick dynamic shots. Show me some of the effects you've implemented, some of the flashier enemies, a unique feature - whatever you think stands out about your game. I don't want to see menus or title screens unless they are seriously amazing and convey professionalism/polish. What does make sense is showing dialogue systems at work, a slick looking inventory system, a skill tree, etc. Those count as features in my book. But I don't recommend using more than one shot like that.
Attractive gameplay shots are going to be king - show at least three of them, if not all four. I want to see what the gameplay looks like, it's that simple. Play to the game's strengths and appeal to your target audience.
5. I See Positive Press/Reviews
If I've read another gamer's opinion and it's generally positive or even just mildly interesting, I might very well play the role of sheep and follow in those footsteps. As a gamer, I spend time reading reviews, forums, and plenty of notable gaming webpages. If I see something that makes me go "hmmm" (more bonus points for naming the artist of "Things That Make You Go Hmmm."), I may find my way on to Xbox Live and locate your game.
It can be a comment on a YouTube video, a random post on a forum, a tweet, or a formal review. But if someone else liked it, I immediately begin to think that I might like it as well. And I won't know for sure unless I try it.
So this obviously relates heavily back to #1 - get the word out so that others can too. But the secondary point is that positive press can spread and influence others in a viral like manner. Sometimes this can lead to a lucky break in the form of a more high-profile review/coverage. You just never know who might pick up on some positive tidbit that someone wrote about your game. If you know a couple people who like your game, see if they will blurb it in their inter-stomping grounds. In the professional world, this is known and accepted as a "reference."
Come back for reasons 6 through 10 tomorrow.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
On a Roll is a 2D platformer where you control a ball/circle character and proceed through linear levels. There's a good deal of platforming (in the more standard running/jumping sense), despite the presence of rolling. You spend time bopping on top of bad guys (other circles) and avoiding the standard set of hazards (i.e. pits, spikes, etc). You also have the task of collecting stars that are scattered strategically around the level. Collecting over one hundred stars allows you to be "hit" once at which point you lose 100 stars. So it's ideal to collect as many stars as possible because for every one hundred you have, you can take a lick and keep on ticking, errrr rolling.
Graphically, On a Roll looks good - crisp and colorful. It can feel a bit flat sometimes, which might be more noticeable because we usually think of rolling objects as spheres/balls and these guys don't really look spherical. The levels themselves sort of follow suit - they are well designed and paced well but can be a little repetitive because of the fairly simple image sets.
Cutting right to the chase, the rolling element is fun and well-executed. You can shoot up walls and around loops at any speed. You also can stick to ceilings which allows for some pretty flashy high-speed rolling. At one point, I thought speed and momentum might be needed to stay "on track" but On a Roll allows you to stick to essentially any curved wall no matter how fast you're moving. I actually like that twist because it allows for more careful rolling when it's called for, but it does come with a drawback.
That is, the controls seem to be affected by the ability to stick to any curved surface. So while rolling performs nicely, the jumping/platforming element can feel frustrating. It's almost like the character is magnetized to the walls - it's very hard to perform jumps because it never feels tight or accurate. It's difficult to explain but if you try it out, you'll notice what I mean. And you can't leap from any curved surface, which means there's really only one thing to do in those sections....roll. After about an hour of play, I felt as though level progression consisted of roll roll roll (easy), and then jump jump jump (frustrating deaths) - rinse and repeat. The awkward jumping irked me.
On the upside again, practicing helps and I did get better at dealing with the odd jumping pull/push. There are some little touches like choosing from a selection of color schemes for your character and boss battles (although they aren't anything breathtaking, they do mix up the action). It's also quite challenging to make it through full levels (levels consist of sub levels) with the 3 lives you're given, so after about 2 hours of play I still seem to have a ways to go. You have to be very careful at the beginning of the tougher levels because you essentially can't make any mistakes or it's a quick death. If you patiently collect stars, you afford yourself some breathing room.
I'd recommend that any platformer fan give this demo a try - especially if you get a kick out of the rolling element. At 240MP, that feels like the right price.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
The game's name does a good job of summing this up. It's essentially the cardgame of war with some controller mechanics (button mashing) built in. Basically you and an opponent (computer or human) have decks of cards - the twist is that as your cards face off, you have to perform the assigned button mashing. First one to 'complete' the mashing required on their card, wins. Win about 20 or so face offs, and the match is yours.
As simplistic as it is, I actually really liked the idea of taking a simple (popular) card game and putting a new mechanic on top. And as the screenshot shows, the card art and overall design is quite nice. It's easy to imagine the exact same game without the care put into the artwork - thankfully the developer went the extra mile and gave us something pretty to look at.
In the end, War: The Cardgame Advanced isn't anything groundbreaking but at 80MP, it's well priced for anyone who enjoys the classic cardgame and can appreciate the additional furious button mashing. The bonus of having appealing artwork provides a nice glossy feel that can be appreciated by anyone who sinks $1 into it.
Yep, not kidding. This an application that displays some flames on your screen. Not only has this been done already in multiple forms, but it's amazingly still not awesome. Even better, the developer behind this gem also released two other similar applications (aka screensavers for your TV) this same week. It's essentially just clutter, and feels like a desperate attempt to turn a quick buck off an "impulse buy" audience that I am unsure exists. No bang for your buck, literally. A little sizzle, but certainly no bang.
Pixel ManHere's a little platformer that might be beyond retro - guess that depends on your age. It has that simplistic charm, both graphically gameplay-wise. You run and jump through short levels, getting to the exit (yellow square). I can't say it did much for me, as it didn't bring anything special to the table - it's a self-proclaimed experiment in minimalism, so I guess I can't knock it for achieving that goal.
The demos ends abruptly after several levels that took me about two minutes, so I can't be sure how much more to expect. With only 30 levels total, I can't imagine it being more than 30-40 minutes from start to finish. It might be worth a flier for 80MP if you can appreciate the focus on delivering simplicity.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
So what are we talking about here in terms of gameplay? Well, it's time to go fishing - that's right. You're little bear-like creature has access to rods, some lures, and a lake stock full of small, medium, and large fish (along with some superhuge sharks). In general, it's as simple as casting your line and reeling in some fish - you only will use one button (well two, but barely), and you won't be sweating over it. In fact, this game has the opposite effect - it's actually really relaxing and I believe that to be the intent.
There are some intuitive gameplay elements that add to the feeling of progression and reward. Certain lures are better than others, and only work on the appropriate fish. Larger fish will strip you of smaller lures, and weaker fishing rods won't allow you to cast very far or deep into the lake. You eventually need to catch enough fish so that you can earn money to buy upgrades and progress towards the endgame (which I will leave unsaid).
There are varying rarities of fish too, so as you become better at casting, you can attempt to catch the rarest fish and earn more money. This concept taps in to the addictive "collector" mentality, and it's hard to temper the desire grab those fish that are most elusive and hard to come by.
The main issue some players will have with Fishing Girl is that the challenge level is really low, and the overall experience is quite short. Because other Flash versions of the game exist (although most are quite different than this version), I can't imagine this being priced at anything other than 80MP. But at that price, it's a perfect fit and a very worthwhile impulse buy. While nearly polar opposite to I MAED A GAM3 W1TH ZOMBIES 1N IT!!!1 (grrr), it's another great example of simple but well-designed game that will appeal to many at that price. It's a nice trend we're seeing. If you're open to a more casual experience and enjoy a little fishing, I recommend this one.
(you can also see a trailer on Eric W's blog here)
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
I saw that Filler was rated pretty well so I snagged the demo. I've seen games with similar concepts before but never tried them (I can be a bit of a graphics snob sometimes, and shapes don't excite me). Well, it's a pretty slick mechanic packed full of addictive qualities. You have to create enough spheres to fill the screen 2/3rds full. If a little red ball hits your sphere when you're trying to grow it, it pops. Also, your spheres slowly shrink after you create them, which adds a sense of urgency to create spheres quickly.
It's easy to grasp and it's hard to stop. Well for 20 minutes or so I was hooked. Then I kind of grew tired of the difficulty progression which just seems to add one more red ball each level. Eh. So my fun level sort of plateaued. The funny part is that even if you just let the game idle, it makes for a better screensaver than many of the screensaver apps. Wait that might be true of all games. I better stop this tangent here.
Overall, I do like the mechanic and while the graphics are pretty basic and unexciting they are crisp and sensible. I can imagine a similar mechanic could be greatly expanded upon and made much more interesting and long lasting. Have a try at the demo (at least) to see what you think of the overall concept.
At first glance I thought this sidescrolling ship shooter had tons of appeal. I saw what looked to be a customizable ship, 3D graphics, explosions, and lots of guns. Yes it does seem to have all of those things, which is cool. I like the idea of a spaceport where you can upgrade your ship and the 3D graphics do allow for some neat little cut scenes and overall depth to the action.
Upon playing though, there are some missteps. There's a good amount of text thrown at you and I had sit and stare at the controls for a good minute before I felt comfortable with getting started.
So I jumped in and was confronted with a very messy bullet hell. All sorts of stuff is immediately thrown in your face. There are many bullets, some very hard to see, all different shapes, sizes, angles, and speeds. There are lots of enemies advancing in different ways. The HUD was hard to read, very complex looking, and I had no chance of reading anything while trying to avoid the craziness. I couldn't tell what I was firing but it seemed to be finite because my guns kept getting weaker. And the SFX were mashed up, messy, and grating on the ears. It's not for anyone expecting a pleasent learning curve or a laid-back shooter - I'll say that much.
I never lasted more than about 1 minute, gave it 6 good tries and then threw in the towel. I'd love to know if anyone with some top-notch shmup skillzzz can get through the first level.
Ahhhh, casual goodness - playful violence - a combo made in XBLIG heaven. We're seeing more avatar use in XBLIGs and this one is a simple but fun approach. You basically control your avatar as you fall downward, bouncing off balls and trying to score points by getting through rings.
The controls are simple and the ragdoll physics add a good deal of hilarity as your avatar wildly flops about. A nice inclusion is the use of a sort of "cartwheel" maneuver that allows you to spin heavily in either direction. This can launch you laterally and sometimes upwards which helps you to snag more points.
It's pretty enjoyable by yourself for a decent amount of time, but it's obviously way better with friends - watching each other fall violently while trying to get through rings first. I believe we will see more games like this where we get to beat the heck out of our avatars. And I am looking forward to that.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
I have an idea. With the heavy popularity of dual stick shooters, I believe that the gaming community should invent a drink, preferably a shot, that we call the dual stick shooter. As in, "Hey bartender, give me 2 dual stick shooters for me and my friend o'er here!" (boooo hissss) Now what should we put in it?
I've said it before - but if you're going to enter this genre, you better bring something fresh to the table. It's a genre that's been capitalized on already and competition is heavy. It also has relatively low barrier to entry because graphics don't need to be flashy to be effective (generally true, but more so here than in other genres in my opinion). Thankfully it's also packed full of fans, and Duologue does bring a slight twist.
The "Duo" in Dualogue likely also represents that your tank has two guns. Depending on the particular wave/round you are in, those two guns are essentially just two different colors. The trick here is that you need to alternate between those guns to take down the current wave of enemies. Only the opposing colored gun can harm the enemies - using the same color has zero effect. Have a look at the screenshot below and you'll see what I mean.
This game mechanic works pretty well, because alternating between guns adds an extra level of intensity and concentration. And of course later levels task the player with large groups of enemies that switch colors and/or use opposite colors of minions to guard them. Another cool little touch is that your tank also has a light on the front that will repel some enemies as well, which allows you to repel some enemies while taking down the other color with your gun. I like this concept, but honestly since the light points wherever you're driving, evasion usually takes precedence over shining the light in a constructive manner. I found myself needing to dodge much more than repel, in other words.
Along with dual-color gun approach, I liked some of the enemy design and thought the mini-boss and boss enemies were a fun time - and when multiple bosses were paired in later levels, those fights felt pretty epic. The controls are clean and the overall design allows for skill to triumph over luck or cheap deaths. I loved the option for 4 player co-op as well, but as I've told readers before, I have no friends because I play too many video games. There's also a likable attempt to include achievements, although none of them were too interesting that I really felt like going out of my way to snag them.
And now for the paragraph that makes developers hate me. In exchange for some of the great stuff mentioned above, Dualogue seems to have sacrificed some obvious elements that shmup players tend to expect. No gun power ups? No power ups at all? Whatchu crazy? The only thing to collect here are points. And after several waves, I grew a bit tired of the same background screen, being confined in a small 1-screen space, and being swarmed by enemies who usually are circular (or roundish) and generally either 'pursue' or move around randomly (it seems). So the issue overall here becomes a lack of diversity on several levels. No gun diversity, no level diversity, and high volumes of similar enemies with no break in the grind. The bosses (which are nicelt designed) help mix up some of the slow trotting, but I have to admit that experience some fatigue by the 10th wave or so.
Friday, September 4, 2009
What, another Halfbrick game?! You know it. I have to admit - I get a little extra excited when I hear about a new Halfbrick title now. You know that you can expect a polished game from a studio that has several nice titles under its belt already. There's a certain consistency among their games - even though they span several genres now, you can feel the similarities in the design.
In Rocket Racing, Halfbrick introduces another simple-to-understand, but tough-to-master game mechanic. The rockets on your racer (two of them) are controlled by the right and left triggers - so propelling your racer is all about carefully balancing those two rockets to move the direction that you want. Even cooler, using your rockets near a wall will quickly add speed as you push off - and the closer you are to the wall, the more speed you pick up. But don't get too close, because hitting the walls is jarring and will have the opposite effect. Riding along walls, and blasting off them can be extremely exciting when you start pulling it off. Speaking of which...
Let me get something out of the way. I had a really hard time with the controls - the dual trigger blasting was so brutally hard for me, that I had to step away to make sure my index fingers weren't actually breakfast sausages. I eventually started learning to move in the intended direction, but there was simply no way I was going perform well enough to progress. Thankfully, Halfbrick included alternate controls! "Stick" controls allowed me to use the left analog to steer and the trigger to blast - perfect. Now I was getting somewhere. I felt a little lame doing so, but it had to be done.
So now I jumped back into the single player mode, which is essentially a battle against yourself. And a clock I guess. The general idea is to beat each track in the best time possible, earning medals along the way. There are tracks based on getting from A to B, completing a number of laps, or hitting a number of checkpoints - but it's all a race against the tic toc of the clock. I soon learned that to get gold medals (or the elusive "brick" medal), I had to put up some seriously nice times. And if I didn't get golds, I probably wouldn't have enough medals to unlock the later tracks. This really tapped into my competitive nature. Stop me shall you?!
I can honestly say that this one of the most addicting racers I've ever played. Even without human or AI competition, I found myself hooked on trying to shave split-seconds off my times. Certain tracks are a bit unexciting, but others are a blast to whip around trying to ride a centimeter off the walls. Halfbrick must have known just how unforgiving each track can be, and smartly installed a self-destruct button that allows you to quickly blow up and restart a track quickly. You will use this feature many many times. You will curse. You may throw your controller. But you'll also be fist-pumping in your living room when you nail the track you've been attempting for an hour.
I am still working unlocking the later tracks because as mentioned it seems like you need golds on most of the tracks to keep progressing. I have one "brick" medal which was 90% luck but I still cherish it like a functional NES. I will be back to try again.
So the controls may frustrate at first, but I'd recommend sticking with it, or switching the control scheme like I did. There's actually much to appreciate in just how much fine tuning went in to the wall-blasting/sliding mechanic. The main reason I didn't score the game higher is because it really relies on mutliplayer for any real "racing" aspect. As a lover of games like Off Road and RC Pro Am, the lack of AI racers to challenge in a standard race setting leaves you wanting more. While racing the clock (and your sanity) is still a ton of fun, not being able to race others will leave lonely gamers with half of a game.
Give this one a go - see you on the leaderboards!!