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.)

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.

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.

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.

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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?

Zuma

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.]

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