12 March 2013
Responses, a quick way to write personal responses to common messages, using snippets & tags.
Responses, like all my apps, was built to scratch my own itch. I receive a lot of support e-mail, and I wanted an easy way to reply to the more common ones on my iPhone. But I’m not a fan of templates. They’re inflexible and devoid of personality. I didn’t want an app to do all the work for me. My thinking was that the app should get the boring stuff out of the way so I could spend my time engaging on a more personal level with the recipient.
Responses is designed to let you compose personal messages efficiently. Instead of building monolithic templates, you start by creating* short, reusable snippets. Composing a message with snippets gives each one a uniquely crafted twist. Tags, placeholders you can tap on to fill out, let you personalize the message further.
(* Most apps of this kind come with generic data pre-loaded to save you trouble. I specifically avoided that. I make you type out your own set of snippets so that your messages sound like your voice, not mine.)
I look forward to having you all try it out, and please, do e-mail in with your thoughts!
12 June 2012
Timeli 1.4 is now available on the App Store. It adds retina display graphics for the new iPad.
I’ve received a few e-mails and tweets regarding future updates. I spent the year following Timeli’s release updating the app, mostly based on user feedback, while carefully maintaining the simple & intuitive interface.
But now the time has come when Timeli is no longer under active development. This means I will not add new features, but I will continue to support the latest versions of iOS, and fix bugs.
13 January 2012
Nothing new here, but the quality is much better than the shaky cam, noisy show floor footage from E3. I didn’t write much about the Wii U then, so I guess now is a good time.
Nintendo really have their finger on the pulse. The DS, Wii, 3DS, and now the Wii U all seem to have either started, or happened in close proximity with, major gaming trends.
The tablet controller looks great. Ergonomically, it looks comfortable to hold and lightweight. I’m a fan of the circle pads too.
I suspect the one tablet per console limitation will get bumped up to two. However, I fear the resistive touchscreen is here to stay. It has some benefits, but a capacitive multi-touch screen is so much more versatile.
Using the Wiimotes is a great idea, but it means we’re stuck with relatively primitive motion controls for longer still. I worry that developers will continue to largely ignore MotionPlus.
It’s always exciting to see what wonderfully creative games Nintendo showcases their crazy new input devices with. The games look so fun and playful. They look especially vibrant in HD. Some of these demos will end up being system sellers at launch, as with the DS (Yoshi Touch & Go), and the Wii (Wii Sports).
It’s a shame that indies won’t get their share on the Wii U. Nintendo’s consoles (more so than Xbox and PlayStation) could benefit from AppStore-like games because there’s so much more potential for novel, smaller scoped ideas. It’s more complicated than that obviously, Nintendo can’t afford to devalue software like Apple can. But there are ways around that, and I fear that Nintendo isn’t even trying.
E3 2012 can’t come soon enough.
11 January 2012
2011 has been an incredible year for videogames, so I’ll get right to it! This list isn’t ranked, except for the Game of the Year, which is. I’d take forever agonizing over how to rank the rest of them, so I won’t bother.
Let’s start with all the great games I didn’t play. Shogun 2, Bulletstorm, and Saints Row 3 sit idly in my Steam library, waiting for me to click “Play”. On my desk is a stack of unopened games, including El Shaddai and Catherine. Then there are the games I haven’t even bought yet. I’m looking forward to the typical first quarter lull to get cracking on them.
Game of the Year
Although if the coming first quarter is anything like the last, that may not happen at all. 2011 eschewed any feeling of anticipation by delivering my Game of the Year early. Predictable as it may be, that game is Portal 2.
Portal 2 added more everything to the mix and explored it deeply, but it never felt tedious or drawn out. The new mechanics fit in so naturally, adding complexity to the puzzles without sacrificing the elegant controls. The story too was more elaborate, but the storytelling remained brisk while still finding new ways to make us laugh and surprise us.
And therein lies the beauty of Portal 2: it’s full of surprises all the way through. From the hilarious opening sequence, to an ending that was more epic than it had any right to be, to all the gags, new mechanics, and brain-twisting levels in between, Portal 2 had me guessing, and grinning, all the way through.
Almost a revolution
Similarly, Deus Ex: Human Revolution had me gripped from start to end. While it wasn’t perfect (insert mandatory boss fight complaint here), it delivered on it’s promise of freedom and choice within a surprisingly compelling narrative. The game had me constantly re-evaluating my tactical position during missions, and better still, my moral position on the issues.
Human Revolution’s greatest achievement is that it refined the Deus Ex formula without sacrificing depth. But it also never reached for anything beyond remaking a decade-old game. I would have loved to see a world that felt more alive, NPCs that felt like more than quest dispensers, and so on.
Even so, it’s clear that the team at Eidos Montreal delivered on an incredibly ambitious project. Thief 4 is in good hands.
Bending the rules now…
Let’s talk about two games that weren’t released in 2011. I recently bought a PlayStation 3, and at the top of my “PS3 exclusives to play” list was the Uncharted series.
I played through Uncharted 1 & 2 back to back, and loved every minute of it. The series has a bit of an identity crisis, unsure of whether Nathan Drake is more Indiana Jones or Marcus Fenix. It’s the former parts, the adventuring, leaps of faith, brawling, and nail-biting chases around a breathtaking setting that make the Uncharted series special. The shooting sequences, while not bad by any means, were just not what I wanted out of the games. I turned the difficulty down to easy, and genuinely had more fun. The sequel leans more toward the adventuring, and is a much better game because of it.
I don’t usually have patience for the gameplay/cutscene method of storytelling, but Uncharted proves that it’s possible to get it right. It helps that the story and dialogue are great, and the characters are likeable, but the key is in the pacing. Cutscenes are to the point; they develop the characters with punchy dialogue and occasional exposition, and push the story forward by way of your next objective.
What they don’t do is steal all the best parts. You’re never watching the exciting set pieces, you’re playing through them. And the set pieces are incredible. Uncharted feels like it’s having an arms race with itself, constantly trying to out-do the last crazy situation it threw you into, while escalating the size of things being blowing up. I’m not even sure how Uncharted 3 is going to top this.
The best thing I can say about Uncharted is that when the credits were rolling after my back to back play through, I seriously had to restrain myself from unwrapping Uncharted 3.
POW!, ZAP!, etc.
I rounded out the year with Batman: Arkham City. I haven’t played it for too long, but so far it’s everything I hoped: a bigger, better Arkham Asylum. The open world makes traversing the environment even more satisfying than before, and the melee combat is still the best out there.
Videogames for public transit
In the handheld world, my DSi had one more good game in it left before being relegated to my pile of retired tech. That game was Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, a wonderfully told story played through an innovative blend of adventure/arcade game puzzle solving. I’d expect nothing less from the brains behind Phoenix Wright. Also features splendid character animation, the likes of which reminded me of the original Prince of Persia.
Super Mario 3D Land gets Handheld Game of the Year though. Traversing the world is as fun as ever, especially without having to deal with a camera. Although the level design is not quite as inspired as the best of Mario Galaxy, the game has you hopping through worlds, ideas and one-off mechanics at an alarming pace unheard of outside of Nintendo games.
Jamestown did the impossible: it made shmups accessible without compromising the level design or mechanics. Instead, Jamestown uses a difficulty system that hooks you in on easy, but then forces you up the difficulty levels as you learn how to use the mechanics effectively, and (eventually) do a bit of level memorization too.
It was also responsible for my most heart-breaking game experience of the year: getting to the final sequence of the final boss with no lives left, and getting hit by the bosses very last bullet. I was too devastated to retry a million+1th time, but I got my revenge the next day.
Joe Danger SE is Excite Bike with a thick layer of “CUTE!” and more medals, stars, points and best lap times than any mere mortal could ever hope to receive. And yet I try over and over again.
Games like Trials HD left me cold, but Joe Danger’s cute aesthetic ensures that your initial grin is never quite wiped off your face, even if it is competing with gnashing of the teeth and general sweary-ness.
It’s the plethora of ways to finish the level that keeps me going. I’ve yet to win a “best lap time” medal, but what about collecting all the stars? Hitting all the targets? Pulling stunts for the whole level? Now how about all of the above in a single run? You end up failing over and over again, but Joe Danger never fails to be an enjoyable experience.
27 December 2011
Uncharted 2 indicates when the game was last saved before selecting Restart Checkpoint. This saves yourself the trouble of wondering, “how far back do I have to replay?”, and helps quell the age old paranoid-save-before-quitting habit.
As a bonus, there’s also no need to display immersion-breaking “Checkpoint reached” messages in the game.
5 September 2011
When working on the graphic design for Orbit1 I decided to take a minimalist approach, with simple geometry and flat shaded colours, but with just enough glowy bits to make the whole thing come alive. I wanted the design to communicate the rules of the game for beginners, and be easily readable as it’s played.
The player ships follow the classic Asteroids design. It’s a classic for good reasons: I tried doing more with the geometry (at some point I had unique ships designed for each player), but the detail ended up being detrimental to the readability. The colours are CMYK. (The “K” in CMYK is technically black, but white just worked better.) They contrast nicely with each other, as well as the background and other game elements.
For the orbs and enemies, I wanted to communicate good and bad in a simple, effective manner. The colour choice is obvious: green for good, and red for bad. The less obvious part is that the orbs have curved, smooth geometry, and the enemies have sharp edges.
(The blackhole is an exception, where it’s an enemy and it’s red, but it’s a perfectly smooth circle. Again, the circle just worked better.)
The other elements of the game (the background and board) use a neutral design scheme. I went with medium blues and circular geometry (to reinforce the orbit theme).
I didn’t get everything right the first time around: In an earlier build of the game, the board was orange (quite similar to the red enemies). A common question during testing was, “will touching end edge of the board kill me?” Clearly, this was a huge oversight on my part, and was promptly fixed. It makes visual design a somewhat thankless task: get it right and nobody will notice, but if you get even one part wrong it’s a glaring issue.
But it’s worth it because it’s another small step toward making a game that easier to learn, read and play, minimizing the use of those pesky text instructions.
12 August 2011
Due to circumstances beyond my control, Timeli is now free to download from the App Store.
I understand that the early adopters must feel pretty burned right now, and for that I apologize. But I’d also like to thank you guys for your support. Your kind words and constructive criticism helped me through Timeli’s “growing pains”, and never failed to renew my enthusiasm when the work got overwhelming. In short, Timeli would not be this great without you guys.
I’m really excited about Timeli having the opportunity to reach many more people. While the money was nice, my primary goal has always been to just write great software, and hopefully make a difference in peoples lives. I’d much rather give Timeli away than, say, drop it entirely.
Visit the Timeli website to learn more, and download a copy today.
5 August 2011
Last week, Nintendo admitted that sales of the 3DS weren’t living up to their expectations, and outlined the steps they are taking to revitalize the platform. They plan to start with a price-cut later this month, and follow through with a strong lineup of games into the holiday season.
In a post-App Store world, some argue that selling $40 games on cartridges is an antiquated strategy. Instead, Nintendo must follow recent trends and sell sub-$5 games via download. Some even argue that Nintendo should develop games for the iPhone as well. I believe these are knee-jerk reactions to a more complicated problem.
On Being Second Potato
The first and most important reality that Nintendo (and Sony) have to face is that their devices now play second potato to the smartphone. People used to carry around a mobile phone and a DS because they served different purposes. Now that a smartphone does everything, the handheld console is left behind at home, or worse still, to languish on store shelves.
With no chance of usurping the smartphone, Nintendo’s only hope is to make a device so effortless to use and carry around that people will carry it along with their smartphone.
This means the device must be small and light. The battery life needs to last days or weeks. Games should boot up in seconds, and players shouldn’t have to sit through 5-10 seconds of company logos. Swapping between every game shouldn’t require a power cycle and fumbling around with cartridges.
Speaking of cartridges…
Yes, they are frustrating to carry around and swap out, but I’m not convinced that $40 cartridge-based games need to go in order for Nintendo to succeed. Customers are willing to pay for a quality product. The issue is that every 3DS game is just not worth $40. Games with a smaller scope should be sold at a cheaper price via download. I’ve said this before:
Looking at my DS collection I see epic games, the likes of which could never exist on an iDevice. But I also have smaller games like Picross, Meteos, Electroplankton, etc, that would benefit from a lower price, and with the option to play “whenever”. The latter is especially frustrating, as keeping a collection of cartridges in my knapsack seems archaic, akin to lugging around an entire collection of audio CDs.
(In hindsight, “could never exist on an iDevice” is perhaps an exaggeration, but at current App Store prices it certainly wouldn’t be a financially viable strategy)
Software is Nintendo’s most valuable asset. Mario, Link, Samus and company are largely responsible for Nintendo’s explosive sales and profits. Undervaluing that would be catastrophic to their business. However, the presence of cheaper downloadable games with a smaller scope does not stop customers from purchasing the more “epic” cartridge-based games at higher prices. Look no further than Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network for proof.
An additional benefit would be that players would have access to all their “snack sized” games downloaded on the system, and a deeper, longer-term game in the cartridge slot. More games, less fumbling around.
The eShop for the 3DS is only an incremental improvement over Nintendo’s previous offerings, which still falls well below the standard set by the iTunes App Store. Not only does Nintendo need to step up their service here considerably, but they also need to produce quality games for the eShop, and put serious marketing money behind it. This will in turn encourage third-party publishers and developers to make quality downloadable titles for the 3DS.
Nintendo’s current plan (price cut, and a quality games lineup) will help sustain the 3DS through the holiday season, albeit without the spectacular numbers they are used to seeing.
Nintendo’s next move will give us insight into what they are thinking. When they announce new hardware, I expect to see a much sleeker 3DS. That’s almost a given. But a bolder move would be to drop the 3D screen altogether. Nintendo have already been shying away from it, referring to the 3D screen an optional effect. Why not get rid of it entirely and reap the benefits? Namely, dramatically better battery life, a smaller form-factor and cheaper hardware.
New hardware, along with an aggressive digital download strategy will put Nintendo back in a commanding position. From there, it’s all software. The 3DS would only be another Brain Age or Nintendogs away from being a smash success.
1 August 2011
Toru Iwatani, creator of Pac-Man, on focused design:
[…] one needs to consider what the player is looking for at all times. You can get the theme for a game by reflecting on that, and once you have a theme, you can start making a concept based on one or two keywords. You keep these two or so concept words in mind at all times as you design this or that part of the game.
If you run into a design aspect that’s giving you trouble, you put it up to the main concept keywords you’ve come up with, and you keep it if it works and discard it if it doesn’t. That’s how you think about it. Developers need to ask themselves “How do I want the player to think about this game?” They need to be able to say “I want them to respond like this.” Answer that question with a simple word or sentence. That’s important.
(via Game Career Guide)
Great advice. Iwatani suggests keeping these keywords “in mind”, but I’d encourage writing them down. It’s easy to lose sight of the initial vision when you’re in the thick of things.
It’s also great how he highlights the importance of the one sentence description/pitch, not from a business perspective, but as a tool for focused design.
25 July 2011
L.A. Noire was one of those games I was excited enough about to just outright buy on release day, sans review, and without even reading much into the previews. An adventure game with Rockstar Games quality setting, mechanics & polish? Sign me up!
Turns out that Team Bondi aren’t really up to the Rockstar level of quality I expected. It’s also evident that not a single designer at Team Bondi ever actually played a point-and-click adventure. L.A. Noire is a terribly broken game, not because it tried to be new and different, but because it failed to learn from a generation of adventure games.
L.A. Noire alternates between two sequences: investigations and interrogations. Both are broken in their own unique way.
The investigation sequences task the player with looking around for clues at a crime scene, analogous to the good ol’ pixel hunt of a previous era. But the world is 3D, the camera is dynamic, and the crime scenes are large, open spaces. Adventure games are designed with a fixed camera to focus the player’s attention on the important objects in the scene. Here, there are literally an infinite number of perspectives in a scene. The pixel hunt has just turned into a voxel hunt.
Interacting with objects is handled in a similarly ham-fisted manner. When you get close to an object of interest, the controller vibrates and a musical note plays. Which works, I guess. Except, I have no idea what or where this object of interest is! I sometimes found myself literally turning around in circles stabbing the A button until something happened. More frustrating still, is that I would end up examining the same few objects over and over because I wasn’t sure what the game thought I was looking at.
After finding a number of clues, the sequence mercifully comes to an end, and the player must interrogate a witness to learn more about the case, or to crack it entirely. These sequences sound exciting, but are more broken still.
The player presents a question in the form of a clue selected from the in-game notebook. After the witness replies, the player chooses Truth, Doubt or Lie. The difference between Doubt and Lie, is that the latter requires the player to present a piece of supporting evidence, where the former is more of a hunch.
The problem is two-fold. First, the player has no clue what response each option will lead to. Truth is pretty obvious. But Doubt is pretty hit-and-miss. Sometimes Cole, our “hard boiled” protagonist, will gently lead the suspect on, and other tim- YOU DID IT AND YOU’RE LYING! DO YOU WANT TO GO TO PRISON? DO YOU?! Cole’s schizophrenic responses are about as jarring and frustrating as that last sentence.
The bigger problem is the player gets exactly one shot at an ambiguous answer to what is often an ambiguous question. The interrogation sequences remind me of multiple-choice exams. Do you remember raising you hand, and asking the proctor, “Both these answers seem right to me, which should I choose?” only to be told, “choose the most correct one.” It’s that, in videogame form. But it’s worse, because whereas an exam question has an objectively correct answer, the questions in L.A. Noire genuinely have multiple answers that are correct.
A quick (almost spoiler-free) example is the girl who insists, “nothing unusual happened last night”. Do I bring up the car accident, or the rape incident that followed? In my detective-o-mind, bringing up the latter would be insensitive and a bit too aggressive, so my approach was to start slow and gently lead her there. Not so, decrees L.A. Noire.
(As an aside, I did like that L.A. Noire was not afraid to use mature themes, and actually deal with them in a mature manner)
L.A. Noire was an opportunity to reinvent the adventure game genre with dizzying production values for a modern audience. Instead, the game is more broken and backwards than the adventure games of the 90s. While some of the issues could have been solved by simply reverting to what was done in the past (like fixing the camera perspective), I’m convinced a great design team could have solved these problems in a more modern way. Clearly, Team Bondi is not that team.