Archive for August, 2009

Everyday Shooter: Controls

Like I said before, I really knew very little about this game going in. One thing that I only just recently learned is that its original platform was the Playstation 3. Which means that it was designed for a PS3 controller, with its dual analog sticks. Which isn’t really all that surprising, given the gameplay…

Suddenly it struck me. I’ve been using the wrong controls. I had been using the keyboard, which limits me to eight directions of movement and fire, when I should have used my PS2 controller and USB adapter to get the intended 360-degree rotation.

I suppose I failed to think of this sooner because of the obvious Robotron influence. After all, Robotron used a pair of 8-direction digital joysticks. And for many years, in the days before dual-stick gamepads became standard, the best way to play Robotron adaptations or imitations at home was with a keyboard. 1This didn’t stop people from coming up with single-joystick solutions, but the results never had the feel of the original. The few existing console ports of Crazy Climber have the same problem. But Robotron is far from the only game to influence Everyday Shooter, or be referenced by it. Level 4, for example, draws heavily from Time Pilot, a game whose feel is more or less defined by the smooth rotation of an analog stick.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get my PS2 controller working under it. I don’t know why. The game makes provision for a gamepad under Windows, as evidenced by its options menu, but it just doesn’t recognize mine, no matter what I do. And this gamepad works without problems in other apps, so it’s not a hardware problem. Perhaps the game’s PS3 origins mean that it won’t accept anything so antiquated as a PS2 controller, even though it seems equivalent for this game’s purposes. At any rate, it looks like I’m stuck with keyboard for the time being, which makes certain parts harder than they should be. Fortunately, extra starting lives will compensate.

1 This didn’t stop people from coming up with single-joystick solutions, but the results never had the feel of the original. The few existing console ports of Crazy Climber have the same problem.

Everyday Zuma

The title “Everyday Shooter” can be taken two ways. It can mean a shooter that’s ordinary, the sort of dime-a-dozen thing that you see every day, or it can mean something that you play on a daily basis. And that’s got me thinking: both Everyday Shooter and Zuma are built for everyday play in the second sense. They both seem to want players to engage them casually but over an extended period of time. But they encourage this in different ways.

There are common elements, sure. Both games are skill-based, which rewards frequent play as the way to keep your skills intact. And both games discourage extended play within a single session by providing limited lives, and making the player start over when they’re gone. Once I’ve reached or even extended the apex of my achievement, I don’t really want to get kicked back to the very beginning — at least, not until I’ve taken a break and cleared my head. Where they differ is in their treatment of permanent progress. In Zuma, progress plateaus. It lets you skip over chambers you’ve cleared, but progress within a chamber is transient. If, like me, you play the ninth chamber repeatedly without reaching its end, those sessions are effectively wasted, except insofar as they provide practice that increases your skill. Everyday Shooter, on the other hand, does not let you skip levels, but at the same time, no session is wasted. As long as you get at least one point per game, those points build up over time and eventually let you buy additional starting lives.

Consequently, Everyday Shooter has an implicit promise that you will eventually beat the game if you keep playing it for long enough, even if you have to buy hundreds of lives to do so. (I said before that the cost of life increased exponentially, but in fact it seems to be capped at 20000. I’m currently earning about 3000 per session, which means I’d get a life per week if I play the game once daily.) Zuma makes no such implicit promise, but has a high enough luck factor to offer players hope anyway — sometimes you catch a break and the game delivers just the right sequence of colors to let you rack up a massive Chain Bonus and beat the level easily. The difference is a bit like saving up your spare change versus playing the lottery. Or, to put it another way, continuous versus variable reinforcement. So, even though Everyday Shooter in some sense gives the player more motivation to keep playing every day, the motivation in Zuma is of a much more insidious and addictive sort. (And I don’t mean “addictive” in the positive sense used in game advertising.)

TF2: Chatter

Team Fortress 2, like any multiplayer game, has a social element. Just what this means depends on the people playing it. Last night, I got onto an open server where several of the players either knew each other, or perhaps were just very friendly. At any rate, they were talking over the game’s built-in voice channel, and not about the game. And I found it unpleasant.

It’s not that the content of the conversation was unpleasant. I know that online games have a reputation for producing antisocial behavior, and have seen for myself the depths of immaturity that people get up to on online forums and comment threads, where, as it’s been said, no one can punch you in the mouth no matter what you say. No, these guys were mostly just making smalltalk and expressing their opinions of various brands of beer. An innocuous (if uninteresting) conversation in any other context, but it was coming to me through the same headphones that I was using to play the game, and that made all the difference. Imagine you’re on the telephone, and some strangers are having an unrelated conversation near you: you can effectively tune it out, right? Your attention is on the sounds coming over the phone. Now imagine the sounds coming over the phone include the unrelated conversation. It would be harder.

I can’t really begrudge them their chatter. It’s probably their server, and I’m a guest. They’re using the game as a social context, a way to relax with friends — it’s been said that “World of Warcraft is the new Golf”, and there’s no reason why TF2 shouldn’t be the same. It just means that people like me, who want to be immersed in the game and undistracted from the experience it provides, should seek other servers. And I did. I also turned off voice chat on my machine, which is a bit of a shame, because it seems like it would be useful tactically, as a way to plan and coordinate maneuvers. But I’ve never actually seen it used that way. To the extent that people coordinate at all in this game, it’s wordlessly, supporting each others’ actions without being asked.

Everyday Shooter: Music

I’ve asserted that music is central to Everyday Shooter, but I haven’t gone into much detail. This is because I basically lack the vocabulary. I am not learned in the ways of guitar. Nonetheless, let me give it a try.

The first song, “Robot”, is fairly relaxed, with the background music mainly consisting of simple chords repeated to a rock beat. This is the one level where nothing actively tries to kill you; things made of rectangular boxes just appear at the edges of the screen and drift across, like in Asteroids. For the most part, they take one hit to kill, and produce a simple guitar twang when you do so. There is one type of thing that fires bullets, but it doesn’t actively aim at you. It’s also important to the music, because destroying it plays a six-note motif, the only real melody that this level has. The fact that this motif can come in at any moment probably explains a lot about the background music.

Song #2, “Root of the Heart”, is based around stationary, electrically-vivid blotches that shoot various things at you (fans of bullets, ships that home in on you, slow-moving clouds, etc.) The blotches are easy to hit, but require quite a lot of shooting, the precise amount varying with their size. As a result, the player spends a lot of time just dousing them with bullets. This produces notes in very rapid descending sequence, reminiscent of Indian sitar music — which the guitar has been adjusted to imitate.

The third song, “Lush Look Killer”, is the first one that has any real structure. It alternates between two phrases, one very melodic, a sort of country thumping, the other consisting of strummed chords. There’s a large and lumpy eye in the center of the screen. During the thumping sections, truck-like boxes bring stuff to the eye that makes it grow larger if you don’t stop them. (It’s a little reminiscent of Sinistar.) During the strummed sections, the boxes disappear and tiny eyes drift around the entire screen. For the duration of this level, at least, melody corresponds to purposeful action. Strangely, I don’t recall how the player’s shots affect the music here. The effect of the two phrases seems much more significant.

“Porco in the Sky” has, as you might expect, a sky-like look, with two suns drifting about, emitting flocks of dots with triangular wings that chase you. There’s a lot of echo on the music, which starts with a longish and twangy melody, repeated twice. If you focus on destroying the suns, it takes about the length of that melody to finish off each of them. Regardless of whether you do so or not, they disappear for the next section, another bit of lazily-paced strumming, during which you’re periodically attacked by a red biplane, similar to the one in Atari 2600 Combat. (Or three such planes, if you managed to kill both of the suns.) The plane is apparently the “Porco”, presumably a reference to Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso. After its time is up, there’s a reprise of the sun melody, accompanied by another sun. Pretty much the only sound the player generates during this entire process is that of destroying the clusters of winged dots, which emit a little two-note wail like a bird’s cry.

“Build 88” is next, based around an insistent “Kathoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-thoonka-WAH-wah” motif. The music is fast, but ironically, the enemies (various sorts of tanks and tank generators) are not. Instead, they are numerous and unstoppable, which I suppose also fits the “driving beat” idea.

I’ve managed to get to the level beyond this, “Bits of Fury”, but only once. Consequently, I don’t remember the music. I remember the gameplay, though — mainly, you have to shoot red circles to make them blow up and destroy the massive quantities of stuff that’s flying through all the time and which would otherwise kill you. I suppose this shows that I was paying more attention to the action than to the music. You really need to play through a level a few times for both to register in a way that you can remember.

TF2: Items

More office Team Fortress 2 yesterday — this is becoming a regular thing. I’m skipping it today — I’m facing a deadline — but made up for it with a lengthy session after work last night, in a big chaotic battle on a public server. Fortunately, it seems that whatever it was that caused my machine to shut off is limited to the Developer Commentary mode. I experienced no problems in the game proper.

By now, I’ve played enough to get three special special class-specific items. There are two ways you get items in TF2. First, you apparently just get items handed to you for playing a lot — I’m not sure if this is bound to specific milestones of total time played or score or if it’s just completely random. One thing that’s definitely random is which item you get — it can be for any class, and not necessarily one you’ve been playing, or have ever played. The other way is to achieve a certain number of class-specific Achievements, which always gives you an item appropriate to the achieving class. Two of my items are of the first type, and the third was for reaching the first Achievement milestone as a Sniper. Which is strange, because I had been playing mostly as a Pyro lately, and actually had more Pyro Achievements than Sniper Achievements. But the Sniper class has fewer Achievements in total than the Pyro, so its milestones come quicker.

The reason I was playing the Pyro so much is that my first Item was a Pyro one: the Backburner, a special flamethrower that always does critical hits when you attack someone from behind. It’s a nice bonus, and more importantly, it alters your tactics by giving you an incentive to be sneaky. Its drawback is that, unlike the standard flamethrower, it can’t do a “compression blast”. I had never used that anyway, so it’s not much of a loss. On the other hand, I kind of want to try it out, now that I can’t do it. So I’ll probably swap the Backburner out the next time I play.

For the Sniper, I got the Huntsman, a bow that replaces the sniper rifle. The guy who started the office session specializes in Sniper himself, and really likes this bow, because it gives the sniper a better chance in close quarters. This may be the right choice for small-team King of the Hill mode, where all the players converge into the same room, but in a larger game, I found I missed the rifle’s scope. Without the ability to zoom in and pick people off precisely from halfway across the world, the Sniper loses its main appeal. So I don’t care for the Hunstman.

The third item is a watch that lets the Spy feign death. I haven’t even used it yet, because playing the Spy is difficult enough to get a grasp on without extra features. I hadn’t played Spy before getting this item, and even now only played it briefly and completely wrong. The difficulty here is that the Spy’s powers mostly revolve around changing his appearance or turning invisible, but there’s no obvious feedback about this: as in most first-person games, you can’t actually see yourself. Most classes play pretty much like any FPS, but to play the spy, you need special instructions.

And I don’t know where to find those. There’s no obvious in-game tutorial or documentation for the classes — there’s some intro videos for the different map modes, but that’s all I’ve seen. The official TF2 website just has a blog and a link to Steam, and the “View the manual” link on Steam just shows a bit of promotional literature about the sentry guns that the Engineer class can build. Everything I’ve learned about gameplay, I’ve learned by word of mouth. I suppose it’s possible that this is how everyone learned the game — starting with trade shows and interviews with the developers, spreading through web forums. If that’s so, and there really is a complete lack of official documentation, that would mean that the game is even more dependent on its community than I had imagined.

Anyway, that’s three items, and it looks like I’m not using any of them at for the time being. Maybe the next one will be better.

Everyday Shooter: Points

Everyday Shooter makes one really big departure from standard practice in shooters: in most cases, you don’t get any points for shooting stuff. In fact, you never get points just for shooting stuff. At most, shooting stuff releases square chips that you can then collect for points, possibly wasting valuable time or putting yourself at risk in the process — and these chips are the only source of points in the game. But most things don’t even release chips, unless they’re destroyed as part of some kind of chain or combo.

You might wonder why I care. I’m seldom concerned with score, unless it affects game mechanics somehow. Which it does. Certain milestones yield extra lives, of course, and while they don’t come as fast as in Robotron, I always seem to manage to get a few. (The first extra life is at 200 points. I’m not sure how it goes after that. I typically seem to wind up with something over 2000 points per game, but I don’t think I get anywhere near 10 extra lives in the process.)

More important are the unlockables. See, your points build up from game to game, going into a pool that you can spend on stuff. There seem to be three categories of things you can buy: graphical effects that make no difference to game mechanics, additional starting lives, and the ability to play specific levels in isolation without going through all the previous levels to get to it. (For that last one, you have to actually reach the level normally before you can buy it.) Obviously the first few lives are must-haves, but the marginal price seems to go up exponentially. (And I do mean exponentially. That word gets misused a lot, but not on my blog.) I can foresee a point when the single-mode levels become a more attractive expenditure: when I’m having difficulty mastering the most-recently-reached level and want to practice it without wasting time on levels I’ve already mastered.

Because, in the tradition of the arcades of old, there’s no permanent progress within a game. When you run out of lives, all you can do is start over from the very beginning, which becomes tiresome. I suppose the buying of unlockables is an attempt at finding a compromise between this uncompromising design and the more modern approach, where progress is regarded as your right just for playing a lot. And really, it works pretty well, but I think I’d be happier if it worked a little faster.

TF2: Blowing Up

In the last 24 hours, I’ve been involved in two more office Team Fortress 2 sessions. The first was apparently on the game’s anniversary of release or something: all the characters wore little party hats (on top of any other hats they normally wear), and, when killed, exploded into balloons and confetti.

As a result, I’ve given a serious try to two more character types: the Demoman and the Sniper. The Demoman, master of the grenade launcher, actually seems pretty bad for this small-team stuff. When there’s only three to a side, you spend a lot of time alone, waiting for your teammates to respawn, and the Demoman is essentially helpless when alone: the delay before his grenades go off means that he can’t really kill any but the most oblivious of victims. His value, it seems to me, is more in the threat of damage than in the damage itself — to limit the opponents’ options by placing obvious threats in front of them. I’m told that the use of grenades in real-life combat is similar — that the point of them isn’t so much to kill the enemy as to make them take cover or flee. Anyway, I found the Sniper much more satisfying, even though I’m rubbish at it. Although classified as Support rather than Offense, killing is all the Sniper does.

The first session left me wanting more, so after I got home, I tried running it on my home PC for the first time. Trying out the Developer Commentary tracks, I was alarmed to find that my machine spontaneously switched off, multiple times. This is an unprecedented problem. I’ve seen games exit to the desktop, freeze up Windows, and BSOD, but never just make the machine power off without so much as a beep of warning. Maybe the graphics card is drawing too much power or something?

Everyday Shooter

Everyday Shooter is a title I’d heard before, but didn’t know much about: I knew it was abstract, and it had received some attention around the same time as Portal, but that’s about all I could tell you. Somehow I had got the idea that it had a great many levels, each with its own rules. That’s half-right — there are only eight levels, each more elaborate than I had been led to believe. And yes, each level does work a different way. The controls stay consistently Robotron-like, but they vary in enemy mechanics, and in particular in how you create the chain reactions that clear the most enemies and potentially net the most points.

I also wasn’t expecting it to turn out to be a member of that severely underpopulated genre, the Music Shooter. Instead of zaps and explosions, your shots produce notes, or even entire riffs, played on an electric guitar. These sounds become part of the music playing though the level, always an unaccompanied guitar piece, as abstract as the shooter itself. The underlying songs are linked to the levels’ structure, and in a way that suggests that the song, rather than the level, is the dominant element. Each level lasts exactly as long as it takes to play the song, and changes in what’s going on in the game are governed by shifts in the music more than by anything the player can do. The game’s creator even refers to it on his website as an “album”. I’d almost say that it turns shooter mechanics into a kind of dance, but really, that’s something that’s always been inherent in the genre — particularly in scrolling shmups, which share Everyday Shooter‘s unstoppably flowing nature. All too often, however, those games interrupt the flow by stopping the music and the action when the player gets hit. Everyday Shooter understands what it’s doing too well to make that mistake.

It’s definitely what I’d call an art game, which is a little ironic, given its origin. According to the author’s notes, it was created to get away from the mistakes of a previous project that he describes as “a ridiculous concoction of self-indulgent, games-are-art-theory-innovation wankery” by getting back to basics. But of course the basics are art. Like those Grecian urns that Keats liked so much, it’s an art born of human requirements. Theory is all very well, but its importance can be overstated.

Crayon Physics: Minimally Complete

Well, I’ve managed a least-effort pass through every level in Crayon Physics Deluxe. Overall, I find the balance a bit strange: towards the end, most levels were solvable using the same few techniques. For example, I got a lot of mileage out of creating a large weight attached to a stationary structure (that is, one attached to permanent scenery by two pins), then draping a loop of rope, with both ends attached to the weight, over an obstacle and around the ball, then erasing the stationary structure and letting the weight pull the ball upward and to its goal. My first few attempts at doing things similar to this were more complicated and involved more elements, so if nothing else, repetition helped me refine the technique. Still, the number of places where this was applicable makes me wonder if I was expected to come up with easier but less general solutions first.

In my first session, I had used my usual gaming trackball for input, but the second time around, I came to my senses and hooked up the Wacom tablet. It took a bit to get used to the feel of it — I don’t use it very often — but it’s definitely worth the switch (assuming you already have a tablet, of course). Not only does it make it far easier to draw straight diagonal lines, it’s also more mimetic in this context: a stylus, obviously, handles a lot more like a crayon than a mouse or trackball does. I can imagine a world in which tablets of this sort are included with Crayon Physics as a Rock Band-esque custom controller.

Anyway, I’m putting this aside for the moment, because I’m eager to try other new things, but I intend to get back to it before long. There’s still that final spot on the map to be unlocked before I can really feel like I’m done, but that looks like it’ll be a fairly long haul: unlocking it requires Elegant, Old-School, and Awesome solutions for fully half of the game’s levels, and on a lot of the levels that doesn’t even look theoretically possible. My next post on this game will probably describe the physical mechanisms in detail.

Zuma: Sequelable?

The recent announcement of Zuma‘s sequel has also got me thinking about what a peculiar notion that is. To my generation’s grandparents, talking about a sequel to a game makes no more sense than talking about a sequel to a cheese or a hatstand. But this is because the word “game” has shifted in meaning. Modern videogames, unlike traditional games, are a narrative medium. A game can have a plot, and that’s all a sequel needs.

But does this really apply to Zuma? It has a plot of sorts, but it’s paper-thin, and about as important to the experience of the game as the inter-level animations in Pac-Man (you know, the ones where the ghosts chase Pac-Man across the screen and then he chases them back). There isn’t a trace of a story until you get past the third chamber, at which point you get some nonsense about an ancient prophecy and some sort of spirit guardian. (For some reason, prophecies seem to figure into videogame plots a lot, much like abducted princesses. Perhaps because inescapable fate is an easy excuse for constraining the player’s actions.) My point is, no one can seriously be expecting that anyone will buy Zuma’s Revenge to find out what happens next.

Rather, people will buy it for whatever new gameplay and graphics it provides. But even those can’t be too new. It looks like they’re keeping the fundamentals intact, which means whatever innovations the new one provides will be the sort that, under a different business model, would be provided as an upgrade to the original. The fact that PopCap is releasing them as something they call a sequel, rather than as an expansion pack, or even just an incremented version number (as a freeware game like Nethack would), is clearly a business decision, not an artistic one. PopCap knows how to sell new titles, not updates to old ones.

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