Archive for March, 2011

Chains: Easy Mode

I was starting to think I had underestimated this game. It looked like a match-3 with a gimmick, but it was actually turning out to be a puzzle game in the truest sense of the word: something where you have to figure out solutions. The randomization means that the solutions aren’t move-by-move precise like in a chess problem, of course. They’re tactical solutions, approaches that yield better results. But they’re still things that you have to figure out. For example, in the “Coathanger” level that I mentioned last post, the key things I figured out were: (a) it’s important to alternate sides so that the coathanger doesn’t start swinging too wildly and throwing things off, (b) it’s better to make chains on the inside, where there’s pressure keeping the bubbles from rolling away while you’re trying to link them, and (c) contrary to what you might think, it’s better to delete stuff on the side that’s currently on the upswing, because that way the loose bubbles roll away from the edge.

But then, the moment I decide that this game is richer than it appears, it starts repeating itself, and worse, starts giving me tactically simple levels, with stable architecture, where the only possible approach is just finding chains as quickly as possible. This isn’t the sort of challenge I want, so I finally give in and drop down to “Beginner” difficulty level to get by them.

It’s actually pretty hard to notice exactly what the difficulty level changes. Turning the difficulty down definitely makes things easier, but it doesn’t do it in the more obvious ways, like making the bubbles fall slower or reducing the number of bubble colors. I’m pretty sure it affects the maximum link-length — that is, the easier the setting, the farther apart the bubbles in a chain can be. This alone makes a tremendous difference: far too many times have I wasted precious moments trying to make a chain whose third link turns out to be just out of reach.

I’m not completely sure of this, because my attention while playing is mainly on pursuit of goals, but it seems to me that easy mode also makes the bubbles exert a slight magnetic attraction on one another, so that they cluster together more easily in nice tight packs. This is hard to judge because gravity tends to do the same to them, given enough time to work. But it’s definitely the sort of thing that would help, keeping bubbles in easily chainable formations instead of drifting apart. But it’s definitely a subtle effect. It makes me wonder a little about Medium difficulty. Am I receiving help there that I’m unaware of? If I switched to Hard now, would I start noticing it?

Chains: The view from across the stream

Another day spent in Chains. After spending a good long time on the Stream, and almost but not quite convincing myself to drop the difficulty down to Easy just so I could get past it, I finally had a breakthrough. My winning technique was a bottom-to-top approach: I start at the bottommost clog on the board and delete the largest, most space-filling chain I can see, then work my way upward, doing the same, creating pockets of emptiness that bubbles can fall through to create new chains for my next sweep. I still don’t know exactly how the game measures “flow”, but this approach at least gets things moving all over.

Having done that, I zoomed through the next six levels in short order. They continue in the same pattern of alternating levels with time pressure with levels without. I’m finding the levels without to be trivially easy — you’d think that the extra thinking time would allow for tricky puzzles, but I’m finding that it requires more thought to discover efficient tactics for the time-pressure levels. Perhaps this game was calibrated for a different sort of player than myself, but it seems unbalanced to me. Again I think of the choice to present it as a linear series of levels, rather than having them all unlocked from the beginning: the disparity of difficulty probably wouldn’t bother me so much if they were presented as mini-games selected from a list, or a Wario Ware-style grid.

About to lose a fewSo far, I’ve spent more time on that Stream level than on the rest of the game put together, but that could change: level 11, titled “Coathanger”, looks like another toughie. It pours bubbles constantly onto a two-sided platform that swings left and right, and asks you to prevent more than 30 bubbles from falling off. Previous challenges to keep stuff from falling off were more absolute about it: if anything left the screen, it was an immediate loss. On the Coathanger, the level designer knows that this is an unreasonable demand. A certain amount of slop is inevitable. And by allowing it, they gain the freedom to make the level that much harder.

Chains

Level 1Too weary to launch into a major game on getting home from work, I instead look for something simple and casual that I can play on a laptop on the bus. I think I got Chains as part of the same Steam indie pack as Obulis, and, like Obulis, it seems designed for playing on phones — although I think I vaguely remember playing a PC demo for it some time back, or at least for something very similar, involving colored bubbles of varying size.

The basic mechanic is that bubbles fall from the top of the screen, and the player can delete them by tracing a chain — a path that joins together three or more like-colored bubbles. The chain can zigzag arbitrarily, but each link mush be sufficiently close to the last. I suppose it’s in the general family of “match-3″ games like Bejeweled, but it differs from most in that it’s continuous rather than grid-based. I suppose Zuma fits that description as well, but there’s a little more physics going on here. Bubbles have weight and momentum, and bounce off each other somewhat.

Given the above mechanic, what does the game do with it? One can imagine various different goals and rules that work with deleting chains, and rather than choose one such, the developers here apparently chose to implement everything they could think of. There are 20 levels, and rather than just varying the board layout, each level is effectively a different game. When you complete a level and unlock the next by asking you if you want to go on or stay on the same level. This would be a strange thing to ask in most level-based games, but here? Here it’s more like asking “Do you want to keep on playing Bejeweled or would you like to switch to Tetris instead?” I feel a little like structuring the game as a sequence of levels is unnecessary, that it would be better to just have them all unlocked from the beginning so that you can just choose whatever game you feel like from the main menu.

Incedentally, I choose the particulars of that simile — Bejeweled and Tetris — because those are more or less the paradigms for the first two levels. In the first, the bubbles are all the same size and contained in vertical columns, forcing a grid-like formation, and additional bubbles fall in only to replace the ones you delete. There’s no time pressure here, and no real risk of failure: you just keep making chains until you’ve deleted 100 bubbles, at which point you win. (At one point, I thought I had run out of possible moves, but that was because I hadn’t yet realized that you could connect chains across the solid-looking column walls.) Level 2 isn’t nearly as Tetris-like as level 1 is Bejeweled-like, but it shares the fundamentals: things piling up inexorably over time, with the player frantically trying to delete stuff before it piles up too far. The model here is that bubbles are constantly falling into a bin with a hinged bottom, held shut by a pulley and counterweight. If the weight of the bubbles exceeds that of the counterweight, the bubbles start to leak out the bottom and you lose. Which seems like a rather fancy way to say “don’t let things pile up too much in the bin”, but if you’ve already got the physics, why not?

Oh no!Level 3 is a quick one: it gives you several columns of bubbles in different sizes and point values (the value being determined by the size), and asks you to make a chain with a specific value. You might need to delete some stuff to make this possible, in which case, as in level 1, more bubbles will fall from the top to replace the ones deleted, but it’s basically a simple exercise in addition, similar to making change. The level after that is another time-pressure one, and difficult enough that I haven’t got past it yet. In a way, it’s the opposite of level 2: instead of keeping the bubbles on the screen, you’re told to “keep the stream flowing for five minutes”. The “stream” in question is a gently-curving frame with a couple of small barriers suspended in the middle to create blockages, which obviously you have to clear. The big difficulty with this is the ambiguity about what it means by “flowing”. Does it judge it by the rate at which things are entering from the top? The rate at which they’re leaving the bottom? The average downward velocity among all the bubbles? These are different goals, that require different approaches. There’s a (subtle and easy-to-miss) meter on the screen giving your current rate of flow, and you lose when it reports a flow rate of 0, but it seems to lag behind events a little; sometimes I lose at a moment when I’ve just cleared a major blockage and things are moving freely past both barriers again.

So far, both of the time-pressure levels are much more difficult than either of the others. What’s more, I don’t think the time-pressure levels are as well-suited for my purposes. Part of the appeal of casual games is the idea that you can pick them up and put them down whenever you feel like it, with no significant loss of state. The Stream level here requires you to play it continuously for five minutes. Sure, that’s not a large time commitment, but if I’m playing while I’m waiting for the bus, and the bus arrives four minutes into the level, I feel a little put out. Sure, you can pause the game, but that interferes with flow.

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