Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Microsoft patents online user generated help

So, according to my sources, Microsoft is placing an online help system, with content from both developers and gamers themselves. I (obviously) think this is a great idea. Hints in games are of interest to me, and I just wrote about how great it was to see Batman Arcane Asylum using hints when players fell at set pieces.

I don't want to be told what to do, let me work it out in my own slow slow way... (I hate Cluedo)

They've got a tough balance to find between hints giving away too much and too little. I'm sure they've thought it through more then me but I presume levels of obvious-ness will need to be introduced (level 1 could be a cryptic clue, and level 5 could be being told exactly what to do), supported by user ratings (something that was noticeable for its absence in Spore).

My only concern is that the patent is too strong and hamstrings Sony/Nintendo/anyone else really getting to grips with help/hints and tips in games as well. With the major developers pushing each other to develop the best/most useful and user friendly hints systems for people, great systems will develop. I'm sure they won't be put off though.

The article mentions in-game hints for Super Mario Wii... I've just got that and it's waiting for me to find enough energy to fight it's shrink wrap off. Expect some feedback on the hint system (and the rest of the game) soon.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Batman Arcane Asylum game usability review - the good

I've been playing this for an age, and it doesn't look like I'm going to be putting it down until I finish it. So because I've invested so much time into it, I thought I'd split the assessment into 2 posts:

- Part 1 - the good
- Part 2 - the bad

Lets make 1 thing clear, I'm a big fan of this game. This part - the best aspects of the game's user experience, it's high quality game usability, will be EASY.

Good graphics

The game itself looks great (bar the character's comically huge muscles). The environments are detailed and busy. There's fairly few cutscenes, and those that are there look really good.

Engaging combat

As the director said they have put a lot of effort into the combat system - and you can tell. It's flexible and fun. It also looks great, dynamically adapting according to the situation.

In earlier brawler systems, the player controls the direction the fighter is facing, and is given buttons that do specific actions, such as puch/kick/throw/etc. This often led to the frustrating situation of a players character swinging just to the side of a bad guy whilst making no contact (usually whilst they watched, bemused).
A swing and a miss...

In this game players are given 4 controls (jump/avoid, counter, attack and stun), the player controls where these are directed with the control stick. The buttons don't do a specific action, but the intention of the button. So 'attack' may punch sometimes, and kick on others, or 'avoid' may jump over an attacker, or slide between their legs. All this is dependant upon the situation, meaning the games combat feel much more engaging and free flowing than others I've seen.

Players also recieve clear feedback on any combatants about to attack, a visual signal displays, giving the player time to counter or avoid the blow.

The system is pleasingly easy to pick up and understand, but I certainly feel I've yet to master it.

Good, well paced story line

The story line, while not groundbreaking, is pretty good. It keeps you moving through the areas with little feeling of being shepherded. It's also well paced, with a good variety of puzzle solving and fight scenes. Even the fight scenes are kept fresh with a nice variety of situations.

Help when you die at set pieces

One of the best parts of the game, the part I was most pleased about was the hints the game gives when players die at set pieces. For instance, when I was struggling with a boss fight - Bane - after being knocked down the game gave me a short message hinting to use my 'batarang' more.

It could consider giving more and more clues if players continue to struggle, or even offer to reduce the difficulty for that specific part of the game.

Quick save unobtrusive

A great feature I always love to see it autosave, it's great not having to worry about saved games. I know loads of games do this nowadays, but it's so well integrated I thought it deserved a special mention. Whoever put this into games in the first place was a genius...

Easy controls, gradual introduction of additional tech

The game has really well thought out controls (anyone who's read my blog all the way to this point will know this is a particular obsession of mine). It's very easy to run, jump, zip around, surprise thugs, etc. There's really very few points where you really feel you're fighting the controls to make the game do what you wanted (more on that in part 2).

The game also takes care not to introduce everything at once. Controls are slowly added with the gradual introduction of Batman's technology, meaning players are given time to get accustomed to controls before further complexity is added. This gradual introduction of complexity is a sure sign of a game developer taking care not to over-burden new players when they take their first steps into the game's world.

Even something simple like skipping cutscenes is well designed. Some games skip cutscenes after 1 button press - this means you place the controller to one side holding it like some delecate Ming china in case you hit a button by mistake. Batman needs 2 presses. The first press brings up the on-screen message allowing skipping, the second is the confirmation.

To be continued...

And there I'm just scratching the surface! For each one of these points I could go into more detail very easily, but that would mean I've got to spend more time writing and less time playing.

Generally, a great user experience.

Coming up - part 2 - the bad! (Dramatic music)

Friday, 6 November 2009

Dead Space Extraction game usability review

Dead Space Extraction (DSE) - the latest on-rails shooter. Certainly a departure from it's predecessor (Dead Space, a space based survival horror), but is it any good?

I'm going to be uncontroversial and say it's... fine, as all the reviews have said. There are a few game usability problems that really don't sit well with an otherwise pretty good game.

Ignoring the story

1 of the big attempts DSE makes is to introduce a feasible story into an on-rails shooter. The story of survival against all the odds was a key part of Dead Space and there is an attempt to reproduce this here.

The problem is a feature built into the game that rewards players who don't pay attention to the cut scenes - you can do better in the game by ignoring the story.

Throughout play you are encouraged to key an eye out for items (such as ammo and weapon upgrades) you can 'grab' using a kinetic blog thing. These items can appear at anytime, during quiet periods, firefights and during cut scenes. The result is whenever you're not shooting, the best approach is to spam the 'grab' button at anything that isn't a blank wall. The net effect is that you spend very little attention on the story unfolding around you... or you risk missing out on loot.

"Sorry - I don't care what you've got to say, get your head out the way of that cupboard..."

There's a couple of possible solutions DSE could consider:
  • Don't offer items during cut scenes, the player can then fully focus or skip the cut scene as they wish
  • Alternatively, offer items in cuts scenes, but only after the first play through (perhaps at the higher difficulty levels), when players will pay less attention anyway
Audio blogs

1 of the hidden bonuses you can find are audio blogs, with short recorded messages from the (now deceased) crew. The problem being these are lost in the poor Wii Remote speakers. I had no idea what they were saying...

DSE should consider offering the option of playing the audio messages through the TV speakers.

Turning away too soon

Another problem that should have been spotted is the occasional point where the game turns away from a creature too soon, leaving you open to attack from behind. You're facing the wrong way and the creature is repeatedly wacking you over the head... and there's nothing you can do about it.

It just pulls you back to reality. An unwelcome reminder you're playing a game, and the game really shouldn't do that if it can possibly avoid it.

DSE shouldn't turn away from creatures whilst they're still alive - you wouldn't turn away from them in real life anyway.

Recognising your gun

The game offers you a variety of weapons to choose from. A problem is that it's often quite hard to work out what weapon you're using... Several look very similar. It's not a big issue most of the time. It doesn't matter what you shoot a creature with, as long as you don't accidentally equip your Super Soaker...

The problem is at a couple of points you need to use a specific gun - the rivet gun. It's not clear you need to equip a different weapon if you have the wrong gun equipped. It took two tries at one set piece to understand what I was required to do.

DSE could consider changing the aiming rectagle to clarify the difference between the guns, or include some clearer text when a gun is equipped. When the rivet gun is needed, and not equipped, ensure the player is made aware. The characters around the player could say something, or a message could appear on the screen.


Having said all this, it's still a great game. It looks great, especially for a Wii game, the sound is good and voice acting more than sufficient (first time I've played a game featuring a Dutch accent).

The story (if you attend to it) is good, it has a great shooting mechanics and some exciting set pieces.

DSE is Aliens to Dead Space's Alien - a great fun shooting-fest... just don't expect to get too scared whilst enjoying the ride.

How about you? What're your thoughts on the game?