Archive for August, 2009

TF2: King of the Hill

It’s been over a month since my last workplace Team Fortress 2 session, but we finally managed another one. We ran a private server with only six players, three on each team. Over the weeks since the last session, there’s been some consideration among this group of what game mode to use for small-team play. In the last update, Valve gave us the answer: King of the Hill.

TF2 has several modes based on capturing “control points”, which you do by standing near them for a period of time. (As I understand it, each player within range exerts influence on the control point, pushing it towards ownership by one team or the other. Once it’s pushed all the way to being owned by one team, it remains owned until the opposing team pushes it all the way back.) King of the Hill mode is such a mode, but with only one control point in the center — a variant simple enough that it’s surprising that it took them this long to add it. It’s good for small groups because it concentrates everyone’s attention on a small part of the map. Not necessarily their physical presence, mind you — a Sniper can still stand a long distance away and affect the battle, as one player proved.

I started this session playing a Soldier, the class armed with a rocket launcher, on the basis that the blasts, even when nonfatal, could push people off the hill, as it were. This turned out to not work: the control point’s range is large enough for people to dodge rockets without leaving it. The Soldier was still pretty effective, mind you — I’m told that picking it is never a mistake, regardless of the map. Still, I switched to the flamethrower-armed Pyro after a while, deeming its hard-to-avoid spread of flame a good way to clear the hill of interlopers. It seems to me that a team composed entirely of Pyros and Snipers could do pretty well on these maps. But what to I know? I’m still a beginner at this game.

Crayon Physics Deluxe

Continuing into the Steam indie pack, I first made some failed attempts at getting The Path to work on my machine — I’ll have to return to that one later, perhaps after my next system upgrade. Giving that up, I proceeded to Crayon Physics Deluxe, a physics-puzzler based on the novel idea of letting the player add arbitrary objects to the scene by drawing them with the mouse pointer, and deducing their physical attributes from how and where they were drawn. (I described Blueberry Garden as having a hand-drawn look, but allowing the player to draw things really takes that idea to a new level.) I remember trying the prototype of this, Crayon Physics sans-deluxe, when it was new. It wasn’t clear to me then how the simple mechanics could be extended to interesting puzzles. It seems to mainly manage it by adding more types of things you can draw. For example, at one pivotal point, your repertoire expands to include pivot points — drawing a small circle inside another closed object provides a nub that forms the basis for pendulums or levers.

As is fairly common in level-based puzzle games, CPD doesn’t require the player to complete every level to advance. Levels come in batches (depicted as islands on a map), and each batch is unlocked by obtaining a certain number of stars. Each level can yield two stars. The first is granted for simply beating the level — the level’s goal is marked with a star to make this clear. 1Actually, I’ve seen a few levels that have two stars in them, marking two goals. Beating such a level requires hitting both stars. It seems like you still get only one star for beating it, though. The second star requires the player to meet three challenges: an Elegant solution (meaning you only draw one thing), an Old-School solution (no pivot points — that is, a solution that would work in the original Crayon Physics), and an Awesome solution. The Awesome solution is of particular interest, because it’s done on the honor system: players are expected to decide for themselves whether or not a particular solution is awesome.

The Awesome criterion is a peculiar, and somewhat controversial, choice for a puzzle game. Generally speaking, puzzle-solving involves a mode of mind in which all you’re trying to do is satisfy the puzzle’s constraints. Critical evaluation of your own work on the basis of its aesthetic merits isn’t part of the puzzle-solving mindset; it’s more part of the Artist or Designer mindset. So the author of CPD is essentially trying to break us out of puzzle-solving mode and put us in a more creative frame of mind. Some people don’t see the point of this, or perhaps see the point but resent it, preferring to stay in puzzle-solving mode, do the minimum, and just arbitrarily check the Awesome checkbox whenever they need to. But such people miss the point of the game. I say that with some confidence: the author has made statements about the game’s point, and why he added the Awesome criterion in the first place. It’s basically because he saw people doing the bare minimum to complete the puzzles and wanted a way to encourage them to do otherwise.

Personally, I’ve never met an honor system I didn’t want to honor. And that applies even moreso in games, where cheating just means cheating yourself out of the satisfaction of winning honestly. Completing this game requires more stars than there are levels, so if I want to get it off the Stack, I’ll have to perpetrate some Awesomeness. I haven’t marked anything as Awesome yet, but even so, I’m finding that my approach to solutions is colored by the mere anticipation of it. Cheap answers just don’t satisfy.

1 Actually, I’ve seen a few levels that have two stars in them, marking two goals. Beating such a level requires hitting both stars. It seems like you still get only one star for beating it, though.

Zuma: No Progress

So, no sooner do I make a move away from Zuma than PopCap unexpectedly announces a sequel. I take this as a sign from the gods of gaming and synchronicity that they don’t want me to abandon it just yet, and who am I to argue with gods?

If there’s one thing that really separates this game from PopCap’s more recent titles, it’s that its Adventure Mode is actually hard. Of the other PopCap games that I’ve purchased since starting this blog — Peggle, Bookworm Adventures, PvZ — I completed two of their campaigns in a single day, and the other in three. I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to finish Zuma. I’ve been stuck at the same point for several posts now.

And yet, the point where I’m stuck is so very close to the end! This is the point where one wants to just charge through and finish the thing, but that’s exactly the wrong approach to take to a game like this. It asks the player to be patient, to keep practicing without any measure of progress — no virtual cash or experience points building up from session to session. I wonder if the sequel will add such things? It could be a significant way to extend the game’s appeal to magpies like me, but at the cost of changing the game’s character in ways that fans of the original might not like.

Blueberry Garden

So, last weekend Steam had a sale on a big package of indie games. Some of them I had already played, but enough of them were of interest to me that I had to snatch it up. And since it looks like I’m not finishing my last game any time soon, I might as well dig into them now.

First on the docket: Erik Svedang’s Blueberry Garden, a short 1Steam tells me that it took me “0.9 hrs” to play it to completion. 2D platformer in a charming hand-drawn style. I’m not the first to make this comparison, but: its closest relative is probably Knytt, in that it’s a quiet game, a platformer based on exploration rather than combat, where a large part of its appeal is simply observing the art of the highly open landscape and the weird creatures that inhabit it. But more than that, Blueberry Garden is about figuring out how a world works, without aid of instruction or exposition. Although the world model and controls are platformer material, it’s got the heart of an adventure game. One of the weirder ones, like Myst or For a Change.

Or, for that matter, like Windosill, which it also resembles in its initial price point. It’s listed on Steam for under $5 US, and not because it’s old. Again like Windosill, it’s short and arty, which puts it in the same niche as a hundred free browser-based Flash games. It’s priced accordingly, but some consider even that pittance too much.

And now that the vague generalities are out of the way, it’s time for spoilers.

Given the game’s tranquil, exploratory atmosphere, it comes as a bit of a surprise that there’s a time limit. The main goal throughout most of the game, it turns out, is to save the garden from flooding by turning off a large faucet. Not that I understood this at first — on my first go, I squandered precious time just noodling around. The thing is, the faucet is the first thing that the game shows you, but without context, it’s hard to know what to make of it, and consequently easy to forget about it. On my first sally, I eventually noticed that the water level had risen to the point where I was wading whenever I revisited my starting point, and I wondered why. My best guess was that it was something I had done, perhaps the combined weight of the large items I had stacked up putting pressure on the wrong spot. (The stack of large objects is essential for reaching otherwise-inaccessible locations.) Only on my second try, after failing the first, did I see that faucet with enough information to grasp its importance.

The game’s victory screen contains a URL where you can leave comments. There, I discovered that my experience of the game was actually pretty common. Is it what the author intended? Probably not; I imagine that the introductory scene of the faucet was intended to convey information on first viewing. Not necessarily to make the player immediately say “Aha, that faucet must be a flood threat”, but to make the player say, on discovering the flooding later, “Aha, this must be because of the faucet”. If I’m wrong about this, and my experience was the intended one, I have to say it’s a masterful touch. It all but guarantees that the player will see both the good and bad endings — and, giving the generosity of the time limit, the player will likely see the bad ending only once. It also breaks the game into two pieces, one before you come to understand the threat and one after. These acts are very different in tone, despite the fact that the game doesn’t actually change at all between them.

1 Steam tells me that it took me “0.9 hrs” to play it to completion.

Zuma: Levels

I’d like to expand on something I said earlier: that the level layout affects how Zuma plays. I already pointed out how the geometry of the path makes some parts more difficult to aim at than others, but that’s a relatively small matter — I do occasionally fail to put a ball where I want it, but, as I’ve said before, aiming is not the game’s primary difficulty.

zuma-longrangeMore relevant is how the path allows or blocks shots. For example, consider the level called “Long Range”: the path is open on the right side, allowing the player to easily dispose of any balls that aren’t immediately useful. zuma-rorschachOther boards, such as “Rorschach”, make this convenience contingent on how you play: the path ultimately closes around you, but it’s possible to keep the balls from advancing that far, or to maintain a gap if they do.

zuma-quetzalcoatlAlso significant is the ability of the path to cross itself. We see this used to great effect in “Shrine of Quetzalcoatl”, where the part that the player can reach is quickly divided into three non-adjacent pieces. In the levels that simply spiral or zigzag without crossing, you pretty much always have access to the same balls, which is to say, the ones that have been there longest. The player comes to remember which colors are needed where, and this knowledge helps the player to act with appropriate quickness. But when the path weaves in and out like this, the run of two yellows that you remember seeing a moment ago may not be available at the moment.

zuma-sunstoneIt should also be noted that these crossings rely on the path going through tunnels. Balls in these tunnels are inaccessible even when there’s nothing blocking the way. “Sunstone” is notable for putting a tunnel near the very end of the track, exactly where it prevents you from doing anything effective at the game’s most desperate moments, when your marbles are about to disappear into the sunskull’s maw.

zuma-exodusBut the level designers don’t really need tunnels to do that. I just encountered for the first time the board “Zumaic Exodus”, possibly the last new level in the game. Its concept is so simple, I should have been anticipating it: it starts in the middle and spirals outward. Thus, it makes you deal with the newest additions to the board, while the oldest disappear out of reach. There’s a sense of helplessness there, as runs of color that you hoped to smash slip away, even though the player’s power to affect things really hasn’t changed all that much.

Zuma: Formulas

So, I was all set to write a post on how Zuma fits into, and how it fails to fit into, the common patterns found throughout PopCap’s early games, such as the screen layout with a square play area on the right and a sidebar with stats and controls on the left, or the great quantities of thematic titles awarded to the player as their score advances, or the way that combo sequences are signaled by a rising pitch in the sound effects, or the sequence of colors — in games where you match colors, an easy way to make things harder is to add more colors as the game progresses. Early PopCap games shared a lot of code and a lot of conventions, and I’ve long felt that Zuma was a sort of transitional game between this formulaic style and the more freeform stuff that they’d do later, keeping some parts of the formula and throwing out others.

The thing is, in researching this, I’ve gone back and tasted some of the earlier PopCap demos, and the formula isn’t nearly as strong as memory suggests. Some of the early games award titles, some don’t. (Zuma doesn’t, except for a vestigial remnant in one-infinite-level mode.) Zuma seems to use the same color sequence as Alchemy and Dynomite, but Bejeweled uses a completely different sequence, making white one of the basic colors available from the beginning where the other games introduce it only after magenta. And I was surprised to see how few of the early games do the rising pitch thing, even when they have mechanics well-suited to it. This is one of the things I think of as identifying the PopCap style, and one of the pieces of the formula to survive intact to later games (such as Peggle, where it’s produced in pretty much every shot), but maybe it’s a more recent innovation than I thought.

The only thing that really seems consistent throughout early PopCap is the sidebar, which Zuma rejects in favor of a full-screen playfield. I suppose that if you’re constantly evolving your style, every game is transitional. It’s just that I remember them all seeming pretty darned formulaic back when they were new. Perhaps it’s just that the sidebar was a strong enough and constant enough presence to make them seem so. In which case, its absence from Zuma would plausibly be enough to make it seem like more of a break from the past than it really is.

Still, there’s one way that Zuma definitely acts as a transition from old to new PopCap: as far as I can tell, it was the first of their games to include jokes. They’re not a big part of the game, but they’re there, heralding things to come.

Zuma: Zone

I’ve just been making unexpectedly fast progress in Zuma‘s Adventure mode, reaching the game’s ninth and possibly final 1I don’t really believe this. For one thing, it’s identified as “The Last Stage (?)”, complete with question mark, and for another, why would you stop at a symmetric nine level (three groups of three) when you can round it off with a nice climactic boss fight? plateau. (Adventure mode is organized around a series of nine chambers, each holding a progressively longer series of levels. You can start a game at any chamber you’ve gained access to, but you always start at that chamber’s first level.)

I find that progress in this game comes in bursts and lulls: either you’re in the “zone” or you’re not, and if you’re not, you’re probably not going to make it out of the first level you attempt. The zone is of course the fabled state of utter concentration on the task at hand, possibly akin to what Buddhists call “single-pointedness”. In this particular game, aiming being a relatively trivial matter due to the mouse controls, the zone manifests mainly as an ability to quickly and easily spot the most promising spots to place a ball of a given color. (The potential for cascades is usually the most important consideration: not only does a cascade delete more stuff, it also makes balls move backward to close the gap, granting the player some respite from imminent doom.)

At any rate, it’s an extraordinarily zone-based game. It seems to me that even the superficial design assists here, the garish colors and relentless music producing a sensory overload that’s conducive to altered states of consciousness.

1 I don’t really believe this. For one thing, it’s identified as “The Last Stage (?)”, complete with question mark, and for another, why would you stop at a symmetric nine level (three groups of three) when you can round it off with a nice climactic boss fight?

Zuma: Theme and Substance

Pursuant to the previous post, I can’t say I’m entirely surprised that Zuma, like most of PopCap’s earlier works, took its core mechanic from prior art. Also, despite the fact that I bought it because it seemed original, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Progress often works through incremental improvement, and even just looking at those screenshots of Puzz Loop, it’s easy to see that Zuma improved on the basic idea in at least one respect: breaking the spiral.

The core idea of the game is that a row of colored balls advance slowly along a groove. If they reach the end of the groove, you lose. You can fire additional balls from a rotating hub at the row, where they’ll stick; if you form a sequence of three or more of the same color, they’re deleted, possibly triggering cascades if the edges of the gap you’ve just created are the same color. In Puzz Loop, and in Zuma‘s first level, the groove is a spiral with the player’s ball-shooter at its center, making it necessary to get through the oldest balls before you can get at the newest additions. (The oldest parts being, much of the time, a bunch of isolated singletons, because you’ve already deleted all the pairs.) Making the groove go in different patterns may seem superficial, and probably wouldn’t have been a substantial enough alteration to win over the jurors in the K. C. Munchkin case, but it really does change how you approach the task. For example, where the angle of the groove is steeper relative to your shooter, it’s difficult to put the ball exactly where you need it to go. More strikingly, some boards feature more than one groove, so that you have to divide your attention.

Now, just on the basis of precedent, I suspect that Zuma provides more innovations on the model than that, but I can’t say for sure without more knowledge of the original. I am, however, puzzled by their decision to not alter it more in theme. Puzz Loop looks to have a general ancient-civilizations theme: those screenshots show backdrops of Egyptian art and the Nazca lines. Zuma has a vaguely Aztec theme. This might be considered reasonably far from Puzz Loop‘s theming if something about the game constrained it to rely on lost tombs and ancient artifacts, but that’s not the case. The gameplay is almost completely abstract. You could theme it around anything from space opera to gourmet cooking, and it would make exactly as much sense and have exactly as much relevance to the player.

And yet, when I look at MobyGames’ list of Puzz Loop variants, I see that lost ruins are the dominant paradigm, whether of Atlantis or Tír na nÓg or what I can only assume to be some kind of dinosaur civilization. Even when it’s used as a minigame in a larger work, it’s invariably a work about an archeological expedition. What gives? Are they all just imitating each other and not messing with the proven formula, or is there something about the scenario that I’m missing? Perhaps it’s just that grooves suggest stone carvings?


And while we’re on this end of the alphabet, I might as well look in on Zuma. Or, to give it its full title, Zuma Deluxe — this was made back when PopCap released most of their titles in two versions, a free web-based one and a downloadable Windows-native shareware version with additional features. I think Zuma was the first “deluxe” PopCap game that I actually registered, rather than just playing the demo for the hour allowed and then deleting it. 1Or possibly that was Dynomite. Heck, maybe I did them both at once.

This is because it was their first game that really seemed original, rather than a slight variation on things I had seen before. I mean, look at their catalog up to 2003. Dynomite is essentially the same game as Puzzle Bobble/Bust-A-Move, albeit with an interesting puzzle mode added on. Big Money is the same game as, er, Samegame. Alchemy is a variant of Ishido. Bookworm was admitted to be a cross between Scrabble and Bejeweled (although it always seemed to me that Boggle and Bejeweled is an apter description). Even Bejeweled itself, their flagship title, seemed to me at the time to be a mere variant of Columns. (I was quite surprised when it became a cultural touchstone, much like I was when the same thing happened with The Matrix.)

Whereas with Zuma, the most I could identify is where it stole various specific elements from. Its closest precedent is probably Dynomite, with its match-3 and explosions and gradually advancing doom, and, most particularly, with its swivelling ball-gun that fires in the direction of the mouse cursor. This mouse-based aiming, which would go on to be used in Peggle, is very important to the feel, and is the reason why I identify it as a descendant of Dynomite rather than of Puzzle Bobble.

There was a time when I thought I could see distinctive elements from other PopCap games in Zuma, but frankly, looking at it again now, all that stands out is the “match 3” aspect. Maybe I’ll remember what I was thinking of by the time I write my next post.

[UPDATE: Turns out that Zuma is no more original than the rest of PopCap’s early titles — see the comments for details. My statement that it’s not “a slight variant on something I had seen before” stands, but only because I hadn’t seen the game it was based on.]

1 Or possibly that was Dynomite. Heck, maybe I did them both at once.

Zanzarah: Victory

Well, I found the Fire Card. Due to the twistiness and irregularity of the maps, there were a couple of largish regions I hadn’t noticed before (or possibly had noticed, then abandoned because it was too early in the game for them, then forgotten about.) You can always tell when a region is unexplored, because it’s still littered with loose coins and other treasures like so many Pac-Man dots. Ironically, the reason I found it is that I gave up on looking for it. I took the plunge and started seriously exploring the Shadow Realm instead — the Shadow Realm that Rafi had advised me not to delve into until I had finished exploring the overworld — and it turns out that the Fire Card isn’t optional. You need it in order to obtain the key to a certain locked door. Once this is your primary immediate objective, the location of the Fire Card gets marked on your map. (Mind you, even knowing where it was, I had some difficulty finding the path to it.)

The rest followed smoothly, due in part to all the time I had spent leveling up fairies while unable to progress. Carrots were also a significant factor. That’s the game’s quick-leveling consumable: where Nethack has Potions of Gain Level, where Pokémon has Rare Candy, Zanzarah has Golden Carrots. It’s actually kind of unusual how they work. Instead of granting an experience level, the carrot makes its recipient one experience point short of leveling. You can then earn this point by picking a fight, even with the most inferior foe. This puts a brake on how fast you can abuse it. You can’t just dump fifty carrots on a fairy to turn it from a wimp to a superman. You’d have to fight fifty fights as well. Perhaps because of this, the designers made the carrots a lot more easily available than their equivalents in other games, letting you simply buy as many as you can afford from certain magic shops. They’re expensive, mind you, but by the end, I had a big stack of cash and not much else to spend it on. (Again, this is partly due to the time spent stuck, but that just amplified the effect.)

In the end, there are a couple of fights with the White Druid, including the one I anticipated where he uses light fairies against you. After that, there’s just the Guard. What I didn’t anticipate, but should have, is that the Guard, being a thing of magitech, is defended by a team made entirely of robotic Metal-type fairies. Fortunately, I had three elements in my team that were strong against Metal: Air, Ice, and Energy (which seemed like a good choice for the fifth slot). And so I beat it first try.

And that’s that. The world of Zanzarah is restored to balance, as tends to happen in fantasy worlds when the right thing dies. Without the Guard, all the portals to the human world are open again, presumably meaning that fairies will start attacking people in the street soon. Mind you, by the end, I was far more often the aggressor than they were. There’s a special item for use in power-leveling, a magic horn that you can use to wake up any nearby sleeping wild fairies. (Encounters tend to occur the first time you step on their unmarked trigger spots, but there’s some sort of delay before you can trigger them again. The horn bypasses the delay.) Pity the poor defeated fairies who have given up on violence and decided to sleep out the rest of the crisis, only to have Amy, the alleged hero, deliberately goad them into attacking her just so she can beat them up again. No wonder the humans got kicked out, if this is how their prophesied heroes behave.

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