Archive for December, 2010

Cogs

Gears driven by steamCogs is essentially a series of sliding-block puzzles of the sort that have bored puzzle-gamers for over a hundred years (ever since the “fifteen puzzle” craze of 1880 died down), except that instead of putting together a picture, you’re putting together a machine. There are tiles with gears on them, capable of transmitting motion, and tiles with segments of piping, capable of transmitting steam. Some levels have the one, some have the other, and a few have both.

Gears are basically simpler than pipes, because you don’t have to worry about orientation or leakage (some pipes branch), but there are levels that complicate things by putting gears at different heights on a single shaft. In fact, some of the tiles (both gear and pipe) are two-sided, so you have to flip the board around to coordinate the needs of two different sub-systems. This takes advantage of something that sliding-block puzzles based on pictures or ordering numbers generally don’t have: the interchangeability of identical parts. The game doesn’t ask you to put particular pieces in particular places. It just asks you to put together something that works, and if a piece has more than one purpose, it’s possible for it to work for one purpose and not the other.

Actually, sometimes a specific piece does need to be in a specific place. For example, if you have exactly one pipe bend, and have to connect an inlet and an outlet that are perpendicular to each other, you have to put that bend at the place where straight lines from the inlet and outlet intersect. But in such cases, the exact placement of the tile isn’t one of the puzzle’s constraints, but rather, something derived from those constraints. The first step in any puzzle here is figuring out what the derived constraints are — not “How do I get the tiles where I need them?”, but “Where do I need the tiles?” The act of getting them there is a relatively trivial matter for the experienced puzzler, and exists mainly to take up time and build up anticipation, like all the walking around in a typical adventure or RPG.

Being able to enact your designs quickly and efficiently is rewarded, however. Each puzzle you solve rates you on time and number of moves taken, and gives you a number of “stars” on that basis. Stars contribute towards unlocking more puzzles, or, once all 50 puzzles are unlocked, go towards certain Achievements. Also, there are two “challenge” modes that put hard constraints on the time spent or moves taken. To me, move challenges are an interesting extension of the puzzle, and I may well spend some time on them, but time challenges don’t interest me at all. Since there’s no randomization in this game, the obvious way to pass a time challenge is to simply memorize a solution, and that’s not how I want to play a puzzle game. Even going through the puzzles in non-challenge mode, I usually maxed out the stars for moves but not for time.

The pipes go through multiple faces, but each face is solved independently.I haven’t mentioned the game’s most obvious feature from screenshots and videos: the three-dimensionality, the fact that some puzzles are on multiple sides of objects that you can rotate freely. That’s because it’s not all that important. The 3D puzzles are pretty, but the tiles are still bound to specific faces; there are linkages that transmit rotary motion from face to face, but you can’t move them. So all the 3D does is chop the puzzle up into smaller and easier sub-puzzles. There’s one puzzle that looks at first like it’s a single tile-grid spread over the surface of a cylinder, but in fact there’s a vertical seam, so it’s really just a rectangle that you can’t see all at once. I suppose the UI isn’t set up to support actual loops — you can push multiple tiles in a line at once, so if a puzzle were truly cylindrical, there would be ambiguity when you clicked on a tile about which direction you wanted to push it.

It’s possible that I’m not the target audience here. There are two puzzles that really are just traditional picture-assembly (with the excuse that you’re piecing together large gears composed of more than one tile), and the first and easier of the two warns you that it will involve extra planning ahead, as if you’re not familiar with this sort of thing. Likewise, there’s the length: solving all 50 puzzles took me less than four hours, and I expect it’ll be similar for most experienced puzzlers, provided they don’t give up.

Still, this is a game worth looking at for what it does: it takes a tired puzzle-type and comes up with ways to make it interesting again. I wonder if anyone’s tried something similar with the Towers of Hanoi? I suppose that’s kind of what The Bryant Collection does, but only in a sort of proof-of-concept way.

Super Meat Boy

Maybe my perspective on things is skewed — I don’t pay much attention to the mainstream gaming press, and the blogs I read tend to focus on indie stuff. But then, indie stuff is big enough these days to get official recognition on consoles. Regardless, it really seems to me that this year, the year that gave us the long-awaited Starcraft sequel and the most significant World of Warcraft expansion yet, the title that’s generated biggest buzz has been Super Meat Boy. (Or possibly Minecraft, but that’ll have to wait for another post.) It’s being called the apotheosis of the 2D platformer, the ultimate expression of the form. And it encourages this sort of thinking by being kind of a living summary of what’s been done before, full of references to other games.

The most obvious references are the unlockable characters, mostly from other indie platformers — Braid, VVVVVV, and Mighty Jill Off, to name just a few — most of which I’m familiar with, some of which I’m not. Like the Smash Bros. and Kingdom Hearts series, it suggests that all these games are part of the same family, a sort of indie platformer club. Also, the characters carry with them an approximation of the mechanics from their source games, which effectively makes them demos for any of the games that you haven’t played. I have to wonder how much SMB has affected sales of these other games, and how much this was a factor in the decision of their creators to allow their inclusion. (It doesn’t have to be a factor at all — game developers are quite capable of making agreements like this just on the basis that they think it would be cool.) But viewed from the other side, it’s effectively making a statement that SMB is a generalization of the platformer, broad enough to include all these other games within it.

Some of the unlockable characters are accessed by collecting bandages (collectibles in hard-to-reach places), others are located in special “warp zones” that make you play through a few levels in the style of their games of origin. There are also “retro” warp zones that use the normal Meat Boy mechanics, but in the graphical style of, say, a NES or a Gameboy (or even a glitched-out version of same) — another kind of reference to things that have come before, this time appealing directly to the nostalgia factor. Note that any reference to a modern platformer can also be an indirect nostalgia appeal, because the nostalgia factor is pretty big in 2D platformers to begin with. The three examples I gave above of games that provide SMB with guest stars are heavily based on specific older games — Braid on Super Mario Brothers, VVVVVV on Jet Set Willy 1Actually, Terry Cavanaugh says he never played Jet Set Willy and that VVVVVV was really inspired by the games that imitated it, making this even more indirect, Mighty Jill Off on Mighty Bomb Jack. I didn’t pick those three games with this in mind. It’s just that the 2D platformer genre has become so intra-referential in modern times that it’s hard to avoid. SMB embraces this tendency a little more thoroughly and inclusively than most, to the point that it becomes recursive: its referencing of other games is itself a reference to those games referencing other games.

Then there are subtler shout-outs. I’ve been through one level that’s a blatant imitation of Canabalt, but it’s only blatant if you’re familiar with Canabalt. This makes me wonder what else there is that I’ve been missing. I’ve found an article explaining how all of the world intro cutscenes are all shot-by-shot imitations of intros from various classic games, but it’s the sort of thing where there could easily be references that no one has even noticed yet.

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1. Actually, Terry Cavanaugh says he never played Jet Set Willy and that VVVVVV was really inspired by the games that imitated it, making this even more indirect

Brainpipe

Plunge!While I’m talking about AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, I might as well pull out its cousin, Digital Eel’s Brainpipe: A Plunge to Unhumanity (which, for some reason, my brain insists on resubtitling Brainpipe: Polybius machine.

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!: 3 AM

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!: A Reckless Disregard for Gravity is a game I’m coming to associate with 3:00 at night. I once used the phrase “a real 5 AM game” to describe a game that makes you lose track of time, the sort where you look up at the clock and discover to your amazement that the sun is going to rise soon and getting any sleep that night is a lost cause. That’s not what I mean here. I mean that AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! evokes the sensation of being awake at an unreasonable hour and knowing it.

It’s got the punchy sense of humor that I associate with sleep deprivation, with level titles like “We’re Not Bad People But We Hate Good People” and “What The Bloody Hell’s Tungsten Carbide Drills”. The whole premise of the game is an example of that kind of joke, and an example of the sort of thing people think is a good idea at 3 AM: “Let’s go jump off buildings in wingsuits. It’ll be awesome.” Going back to the level selection screen sometimes provokes an absurd and irrelevant radio announcement from “Nebin“, who sounds bored, or stoned, or possibly just sleep-deprived — either way, he’s definitely the sort of programming that gets put on the air late at night (even though his repeated “More news at midnight” line suggests that is isn’t actually 3 AM yet).

If you’re awake at 3 AM, it’s a pretty good sign that you’re not planning on being fully awake and alert for the duration of the day. It’s a kind of reckless disregard, just like in the title — the devil-take-tomorrow attitude of someone who’d engage in the kind of pointlessly dangerous activity depicted in the game. Note that Dejobaan’s previous title was The Wonderful End of the World. There’s a running theme here, a sense of apocalyptic desperation underlying the humor, like the desperation of an all-nighter. You’re cramming for an exam, wired on caffeine, listening to Nebin on the college radio station, unwilling to allow yourself to think about anything beyond your immediate concern. Your world ends with that exam, and it’s rushing towards you like the ground. At some point, you’re just completely unable to concentrate, but falling asleep would be disastrous, so you take a break with a videogame, to keep your nerves active while your mind takes a rest. When I was in college, I frequently used Wing Commander and its sequels for this purpose — the scramble/take-off music played on a Soundblaster was better than an alarm clock. But AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! in general seems even better-suited for the purpose. It even has an Achievement called “I Avoid Sleep Wherever Possible, So I Played AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! a Whole Lot”.

Puzzle Dimension: Flawless Victory

I are awesome!To my surprise, I managed to clear all of Puzzle Dimension‘s Achievements on finishing the game. You may recall my doubts that I’d reach a total score of 50000 points, as one of the Achievements requires. Going into the final level, I was more than 2000 points short of that, about four times as much as I expect to get in a typical level. But the final level wasn’t typical. It was one of those puzzle-game final levels that recapitulates everything you’ve learned, and that means it was large, and that means it wasn’t hard to get my bonus multiplier up to the maxiumum of 32x just by roaming around before I started trying to solve it.

I have to say, finishing this game produces the sense of epic accomplishment a lot better than anything else I’ve been playing lately. At least it does for me. I’m not sure what it is. There’s a mental phenomenon that I think most hardcore gamers are familiar with: the sense of waking up from a game. (Probably the best descriptions I’ve seen of this are those in the novel The Player of Games by Iain Banks.) After an absorbing multi-hour session, your mind is in an altered state; if you’ve just beat the end boss, that state is probably at its most intense. And that’s exactly the moment when you stop playing, so the contrast, as you stand up and become aware of reality again, is quite noticeable. I feel like I’ve talked about otherworlds in games a lot lately, things that take the place of the spirit world of the shamans. But viewed from outside, games themselves are otherworlds, and single-minded focus on playing is a kind of trance.

Anyway, emerging from the end of Puzzle Dimension produces something of that effect, which is a little strange, considering that I haven’t been playing it in intensive multi-hour sessions. Possibly it’s just the unfamiliarity of the form. I can play a text adventure or FPS and experience it as just another text adventure or FPS. But Puzzle Dimension asks us to flex mental muscles that don’t get a lot of use — specifically, keeping three-dimensional objects straight in your head without a consistent sense of gravity to orient yourself by.

Bob Came in Pieces

My spaceship fell apart and it's RAINING.Bob Came in Pieces is a charming indie physics puzzler, 2D but with 3D decorations, short enough to play to its conclusion in a single lazy Saturday. The basic idea is that you control a crash-landed alien spacecraft with Lunar Lander-like controls, and you have to find and reattach the bits that fell off in the crash so you can use them to solve various mechanical puzzles. When I first heard about this, my first thought was that it must work something like Knytt, each piece you recover representing a power-up that gives you a different special ability. But in fact it’s simpler and more complex than that. The majority of the pieces you collect are purely structural, like legos or tinkertoys: various shapes of socketed strut that let you reattach your rocket engines in different ways. Or sometimes not even that: sometimes all you really need is a poking-stick to give a tap to something past a narrow gap.

And once the tap is delivered, you go back to the building-place and reshape your ship into something sensible, because off-balance structures make you list or even spin in midair. This is where the physics comes in. You can have rockets pointed in any of the eight cardinal directions, and control them independently or in any combination you please — the game lets you assign keys to specific rockets arbitrarily — but how much of their force propels you and how much makes you spin depends on how you place them. Aside from rockets, there are two other sorts of similarly-controlled device: a puller and a pusher, both of which produce beams of directional force. The puller attracts moveable objects to your ship, but also, in accordance with Newton’s Third Law, attracts your ship to them, which can be hard to control until you’ve found enough rockets to counterbalance it. The pusher does the same in reverse, creating a repulsion between objects and your ship. But wait — isn’t that exactly how rockets work? What distinguishes the pusher from a rocket? Well, the pusher only pushes objects that are flagged as moveable. (You can tell them by their green shine.) If you’re not near one, it produces no effect. Rockets always affect the motion of your ship and nothing else. (At least, nothing else directly. Your ship can push stuff.) So this isn’t quite real-world physics we’re dealing with here, but we still have force and weight and momentum both linear and angular.

Bob the BuilderYou spend a substantial fraction of the game in the ship-building interface, a rather well-put-together UI. It provides the option to save configurations to disk to reload them later, but I was up to level 11 (out of 14) before I took advantage of that. Before that point, most of my redesigns were single-use, designed around a specific puzzle — and besides, I kept getting more useful pieces. But towards the end, additional stuff seemed superfluous, and I spent most of my time with two basic designs. There was the Tiny, a minimal ship for small spaces, and there was the Lifter, which had a wide row of symmetrically-arranged pullers and rockets on its underside. It’s actually a bit of a letdown when you’ve collected so many pieces that you can easily make whatever configuration you want. In the earlier stages, you have to come up with ingenious linkages to use the parts you have, and then hope that the result is balanced enough.

The puzzles are all about getting access to places. The levels are all essentially systems of tunnels, even if they don’t look like it — in some places there are rows of trees, with their canopies acting as a ceiling. Some of the later levels provide some genuine wide-open spaces, and by that point, you have some high-powered rockets and can go zooming and swooping around like the UFO you are, with a satisfying sense of heart-plunge when you shut off the rockets and go into freefall. (Not that there’s any real danger; there’s no death in this game. Even in the one level that throws fireballs at you, all they do is smack into you and send you backward.) But the puzzles are on the periphery of such large spaces, in tunnels, so that’s where I spent most of my time. The build-it-yourself approach gives the player a great deal of leeway in the details of how the puzzles are solved, but unlike, say, World of Goo, the overall solutions are generally designed rather than emergent. You might, for example, have a platform suspended from a chain with a counterweight, and the counterweight is blocking a passage, so you have to put something heavy onto the platform before you can get past. Occasionally there are alternate routes, sometimes involving hidden passages, which may be the key to passing the time trials (something I have no intention of even attempting). And occasionally it’s even possible to bypass the intended solutions by doing something fiddly and inefficient, but that’s hardly satisfying.

I do like this game overall, but I can’t help but wonder what a different design sensibility could have done with the concept — maybe something that would make me create more than two reusable ship designs. I suppose this means it’s a good candidate for mission packs, fan levels, and/or sequels.

Puzzle Dimension: Nearly There

I’m definitely in the home stretch on Puzzle Dimension. One more session should be enough to cover the remaining three puzzles, if my progress through the rest of the cluster is any indication. It really seems like the puzzles have been getting easier toward the end, but this could be illusion — perhaps I’ve simply cracked this game’s code, learned the right way to think. Or maybe the level designers are just running out of tricks, as happened in The Humans. If so, it’s a good thing it’s ending before it gets too repetitive.

Since I’m paying so much attention to Achievements lately, let’s look look at what I have left here. There are four I’ve yet to get. There’s one for completing the last cluster, and one for solving every puzzle in the game. Obviously I’m going to get both of these together, but that’s not necessarily the case for everyone — you can complete the last cluster while there are still puzzles remaining in earlier clusters. There’s one for unpixelating every tile in the game, which I’ll probably also get at the same time, but only because I’ve been diligent: many puzzles don’t require you to go everywhere. None of them make it particularly hard, though; if you can hit all the flowers, you can get within one tile of everything else. You just have to remember to do so. The level-selection UI displays levels you’ve completely unpexelated in a different color, so it was easy to go back and fix things up when I noticed that this achievement existed.

That leaves just one Achievement: the one for getting a total score of 50000. As I write this, I stand at 45912. That’s far enough away that I almost certainly won’t make it within the next three puzzles, but close enough that I could plausibly pull it off by replaying a few of the earlier ones. When you come down to it, all it asks is that you get an average score of 500 per puzzle, and 500 points is usually a reasonable goal, provided you can get your multiplier up to x8. But then, on some levels, particularly the early ones, it’s just plain impossible. I don’t doubt that I could reach 50k with a bit of effort, but why go to that effort? The pleasure of a puzzle game is in solving the puzzles; once I do that, this game is meaningfully exhausted. I suppose it all comes down to how much it pains me for just one checkbox to remain unchecked. I’ll go some distance for true completion, but I have my limits.

Shatter

Shatter is a descendant of Breakout. A quick comparative description: it’s a little bit Arkanoid and a little bit Break Quest, with a dash of Gyruss and Clean Asia. Now to explain what I mean by that.

Arkanoid and Break Quest are both Breakout imitations as well. Arkanoid, an arcade machine from back in the day, is the more direct imitation, adding a few innovations like varying level layouts, bricks that had to be hit multiple times, and power-ups that drop from broken bricks, but keeping the basic notion of bricks in a fixed grid. Break Quest, an indie effort, showed what a big limitation that is by giving us a tremendous variety of level designs: levels with very large bricks or very small ones, bricks that are round or polygonal or shaped like heads, bricks made of overlapping outlines, bricks connected by springy ropes so that an impact on one sets the others jiggling, levels where the bricks dangled from pendulums or bounced around like billiard balls or whirled about in a set pattern. Shatter takes a middle ground here. Most of the bricks are rectangular (except for some special types), and most levels have them ordered in grid patterns. But there are bricks that fall when unsupported, and there are rows of bricks that hang from a pivot like a pendulum. (Sometimes they start off tacked on both ends and only start swinging when you break one of the tacks.) Falling bricks briefly stun the paddle if they collide with it, unless you activate your shields (about which more later). On some levels, you can wind up carpet-bombed with falling bricks, but that usually works out okay, because if the ball is above the bricks, it’ll just bounce off them instead of slipping past your stunned paddle.

One other thing Break Quest brought to the table: the ability to steer the ball a little by increasing gravity. Shatter takes this a step further, using the left mouse button to “suck” and the right mouse button to “blow”. (Certain bricks also constantly blow the ball away, making them harder to hit.) Sucking can make it easier to hit the ball by guiding it right to the paddle; blowing can make it unnecessary to hit the ball by sending it curving back upward. I personally find that this makes things just complicated enough to be confusing sometimes. Sucking when the ball is outbound or blowing when it’s inbound tends to make the ball’s trajectory more oblique, and it seems that obliqueness is how my brain wants to think of things: I’ll be aiming for the last brick on the screen (something the game facilitates by always showing a little glowy pip at the next point of impact), and rather than “It’s aiming too high” or “It’s aiming too low”, I’ll think “Its moving at too steep an angle”. But since there’s no unconditional “more oblique” button, half the time I’ll press the wrong one at first. It’s easier when I’m not aiming at anything specific, when it’s more a matter of “I need to get the ball to stay way up in back where all the bricks are”.

I say “up” and “down”, but some levels are oriented vertically and some horizontally. Some are even circular — this is the Gyruss influence I spoke of. Circular boards greatly interfere with expectations of how the ball is going to bounce and how it’s going to be influeced by sucking and blowing. It’s not always clear whether the ball is inbound or outbound on these levels. Also, power-ups and bonus items, which fall straight downward on a vertical level, or straight leftward on a horizontal one, unaffected by sucking and blowing, sometimes bounce off the walls on the circular levels, clearly as confused as I am by which direction is which.

Clean Asia, now. Clean Asia is an experimental indie shooter by Cactus, author of many experimental indie shooters. One of its more experimental ship types doesn’t have a gun per se at all: it operates by sucking in floating debris and then releasing it all at once, hurling barrages of junk at the enemy. Shatter does something similar, and it’s probably its single biggest distinguishing feature within the Breakout-clone genre. Every brick you break shatters into shards, which you can collect by sucking. These fill up a progress meter. (The meter also seems to slowly fill up just as a result of hitting the ball successfully, but shards fill it faster.) This is the energy that powers your shield, but using it that way depletes it quickly and is usually best avoided, because you want the meter to become completely full. When it’s full, you can activate it to temporarily slow down time and release a shard barrage — a powerful rapid-fire machine gun capable of eliminating most of the bricks on a level if you use it right. I’ve even managed to come into a level fully-charged and wipe it out completely with a barrage before even releasing the ball, although this isn’t the best approach, because finishing off the level doesn’t give you any opportunity to collect the shards so released and replenish your charge.

Shard barrages are particularly useful in the game’s ten boss fights. That’s another concept from Arkanoid — or was it just in the sequel, Revenge of Doh? I don’t remember. I do remember that the boss fight there seemed kind of lame. The ones here are more interesting, in large part because the ability to suck and blow extends the palette that the designers have to work with. There’s one boss whose vulnerable spot has to be exposed by sucking its shielding away from it. Even without tricks like that, the control you have over the ball allows them to demand precision shots at sequences of targets.

Overall, it’s shiny, fast-paced, and has a Robotron-like generosity with extra lives. (In fact, it seems like the mere act of dying queues a 1UP pickup to be released shortly afterward.) I’ve managed to zoom through the campaign mode in a day. I very much doubt I’ll reach the target score in Bonus Mode for the Steam Treasure Hunt, though. (Bonus Mode consists entirely of the bonus game you get after each boss fight: there are no bricks, and your goal is to keep three balls in play for as long as possible, scoring 100000 points for each hit. The target score for the Treasure Hunt is 11200000, or 112 hits.) It’s the first challenge in the promotion I’ve seen that’s actually difficult. The forums are full of agonized frustration on this point, with the histrionic silliness that seems to be the Steam forumites’ usual mode of expression. If what I read there is accurate, the developer actually apologized for setting the bar so high, and encouraged people to pass the challenge through hackery — only to recant when it was pointed out that he was advocating violating the purity of the Steam leaderboards. Note that the leaderboards aren’t particularly pure to begin with: the top three scores on the leaderboard for Bonus Mode are in fact impossible, as they’re not multiples of 100000. The more I pay attention to leaderboards, the more I’m glad that I don’t usually pay attention to leaderboards.

Droplitz

As I said in the previous post, Steam’s “Treasure Hunt” promotion for yesterday featured two games that I already had. The second, which I got in one of the recent Thanksgiving sale bundles, is Droplitz, which, like Obulis, is a port of an iPhone game. There’s a lot to be said about the rise of phones as gaming platforms and the imminent death of dedicated handheld gaming consoles, but other people are saying it adequately, and I’ve already done one long post today. This will be a short one.

Funny, I never noticed the disco dancer in the lower right before. I wonder if she's always there?Droplitz is essentially a relative of the hacking mini-game in Bioshock, except the tiles are hexagonal, you rotate them instead of placing them, and tiles that form complete paths from inlet to outlet are, after a while (enough time for a purple-highlighted droplet to make its way all the way through the path), deleted from play and replaced with new random tiles from the top a la Bejeweled. Also, perhaps most importantly, you don’t lose just because the fluid has reached the end of a pipe. Droplets are constantly coming in, and each one that gets lost costs you (in effect) a hit point, while each one that winds up where it’s supposed to go restores one. It’s essentially a game of splitting your attention under time pressure, trying to make paths as quickly as you can.

It’s rather Tetris-like in feel, the way that you can sometimes come close to death and then get things to mesh in a way that brings you back, but still inevitably lose. At least, that’s the way it is in “Classic” mode, which is the only mode I’ve tried so far. There are several others, and several different boards, with different numbers of inflow and outflow pipes, which you unlock via play. Unlocking all the boards in all the modes gives you an Achievement called “Completionist”, which is so apropos that I suppose it has to be my goal for removing this game from the Stack.

I probably won’t do much with it at the moment, though. I’m a bit annoyed at it, and a bit fearful of playing it, due to my problems installing and running it for the first time. My first attempt at installing it crashed shortly after the DirectX update, and my first attempt at running it produced no more than a black screen until I power-cycled the machine. Forums suggested running it in windowed mode (via a command-line incantation in the Steam settings), but then it just crashed to the desktop immediately, and, furthermore, left things in such a messed-up state that Duels of the Planeswalkers started crashing too until I rebooted. Ultimately, I had to wipe it and reinstall before it started behaving. I’d still prefer to run it full-screen, but it looks like that’s not going to happen. I assume that the iPhone version doesn’t have these problems. I wonder how many people bought it for the Steam promotion and then gave up before they got it working?

Duels of the Planeswalkers

So, I’m continuing to let that “Treasure Hunt” promotion on Steam dictate what I do with my spare time. The latest round featured two games that I already had. First up is Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers, the newest and slickest adaptation of the card game. I purchased this a while back when it was on sale for about the price of a booster pack. And now that I’ve spent a little quality time with it, I’ve already completed its single-player campaign, as well as all of its “challenges”. I rather like the challenges. They’re essentially Magic: The Gathering problems, in the same sense as chess problems. You’re shown a situation from late in a game, and have one turn to win, which you can only do by exploiting some unintuitive combo. In other words, it’s the best part of the original game, isolated.

Yeah I'm not winning this one.DotPW is a pretty straightforward adaptation: it’s presented as a card game, and makes no pretense at being anything else, apart from some sound and graphical effects on casting spells or resolving combat. But it’s a card game played on an attractive table, with a nicely responsive UI. There are some interesting things going on with tooltips that expand to give more information if you hover over a card longer. Your hand is displayed as a row of overlapping cards, with mouse rollover bringing specific cards to the front and enlarging them slightly; move the mouse away, and the card reduces to its original size, but stays in front. Spells you can currently cast are highlighted with a sort of glowing aura around their edges. You can zoom into and out of a full-screen-height view of a card with a flick of the mouse scrollwheel, which feels a lot better than it sounds. Still, I have complaints. There are a couple of buttons at the bottom of the screen that overlap with your hand, and when you roll over them, you get the card rollover effect as well, which falsely implies that clicking there will activate the card. The menu at the top of the screen, which you use for things like changing options or quitting the game, always confuses me. The button labeled “menu” toggles it between showing the menu and showing a display of the current phase, with the phase display appearing as a beveled layer on top of the menu, which is painted directly on the surface of the window border. In other games and apps where you have to explicitly summon a menu bar, it appears as an overlay on top of the window, not as the thing remaining when an overlay goes away. So every time I summon the main menu, I’m briefly confused into thinking I’ve accidentally banished it instead, and sometimes click the button again to bring it back, which sends it away for real.

As someone who used to play M:tG but doesn’t follow it any more, it’s always interesting to see how the cards have developed since the last time I paid attention (which is to say, the last time a M:tG computer game game out). I’m noticing that some things that used to be special properties of specific cards are now attributes covered in the general rules, and represented by icons in the UI here. For example, giant spiders have always had the ability to block flying creatures despite not being flying creatures themselves, but nowadays, it seems, it’s because they have the “Reach” attribute, which I assume is shared by some other cards. At the same time, of course, a new set of exceptions move in to take their place. I noticed that there are multiple Flying creatures here that, unlike most fliers (but like all flying creatures in Magic: The Gathering – Battlegrounds), can’t block non-flying creatures. I suppose this means that this could become an Attribute in future editions — call it “terraphobic” or something. Or perhaps not: the main advantage of Attributes over Exceptions seems to be that they can be granted as effects from enchantments and the like, and binding an effect like that to any arbitrary creature might not make good gameplay.

The one really curious choice here is that the game doesn’t let you make your own deck. Instead, you unlock various pre-made decks, then unlock additional cards for use in those decks. This cuts out about three-quarters of the M:tG experience. Furthermore, I’m told by someone who’s a lot more into M:tG than I’ve ever been that the decks available here are substandard. Which, I suppose, is why they don’t let you mix them up: there’s a good chance you’d come up with something better. Me, I’m far enough out of the loop to be satisfied with what I’ve been given, to take the more Etherlords-like constraints as part of this game, as opposed to real M:tG. But that raises the interesting question of just who this game is for.

There are games that you play once and they’re over: adventure games and puzzle games are the firmest examples. Like books and movies, they can enter the cultural vocabularies of the people who have played them, but they’re things that their fans have played, not things that they play. When they’re not freeware, the business model behind games like this is to keep selling you new games. Then there are lifestyle games: things like World of Warcraft and Team Fortress 2, things where the fan community consists of people who play them routinely. One of the hallmarks of this sort of game is focus on multiplayer play, which keeps people invested with minimal effort on the developers’ part. The business model here varies — WoW has monthly fees, TF2 seems to have been basically a loss leader for Steam until they discovered the lucrative hat market, and then there are ad-supported and DLC-supported games. DotP clearly wants to be a lifestyle game supported by DLC. It pushes players toward multiplayer play with its very short single-player campaign, and it has multiple expansions containing new decks (not to mention frippery like the “foil unlocks”, which let you pay a dollar just to make your cards shinier.) But you’d think that the people who’d want to keep paying for extra content would be the die-hard M:tG enthusiasts, whereas this game is set up, at a foundational level, to cater to the newbies. The fixed decks put a limit on the extent to which knowledge and experience of the game can affect the outcome: no one can build a deck significantly better than yours, and luck of the draw plays an even larger role than in normal M:tG. It solves the basic problem with face-to-face M:tG, the problem of how the newcomer can hope to compete with the guy who spends hundreds of dollars getting just the cards he wants in his deck. On the other hand, it seems like this wouldn’t be considered a problem by the guy who spent the hundreds of dollars, or by the vendor he paid them to.

But who am I to talk? Apparently DotP has sold really well. Maybe Wizards of the Coast has the right idea here: the number of dedicated M:tG fans has surely dwindled over time, whereas people like me, who have a slight interest in the game but not enough to actually buy cards or find other players, are surely legion. DotP is a game designed for us, the tourists in the Magic world. It takes us by the hand and shows us the sights, and lets us indulge in a fantasy of playing a game, with all the complicated and unpleasant parts removed. We may not be all that dedicated to the game, but judging by the Steam Global Achievement list, a little over a third of us went as far as to buy the first expansion.

I probably won’t go that far myself. I think I’ve learned what I wanted to learn from this game. But I can imagine it happening after a while, particularly if I can get the online component working. M:tG is moreish: you always want to keep playing until that one ultra-powerful card or combo comes up, and once it does, the match is over before you can really savor it. So I might keep bringing this game out, and if I do, I can imagine getting bored with the decks it provides and wanting a fresh batch. If it happens, I’ll report it here.

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