« April 2007 | Main | August 2007 »

July 22, 2007

Puzzle Quest

I've been playing a lot of Puzzle Quest recently, and I have been very impressed with how a fairly simple RPG layer can turn Bejeweled - which has always been, for me, a fairly forgettable casual game - into a very addictive experience. Adding a layer of level grinding... er, advancing... to the basic match-3 gameplay transforms two things which are uninspiring in isolation into a very compelling package. Further, the puzzle game itself becomes significantly more interesting when there is a level of competition - knowing that matching these reds gems prevents my opponent from matching those attack skulls transforms the gameplay from mindless pattern matching into a very interesting tactical contest. The interesting thing is that Bejeweled always had look-ahead gameplay to encourage combos and whatnot, but it always felt lifeless to me when I was only competing for some abstract concept like score.

There is one further design choice of note in Puzzle Quest which deserves mention - there is no save system. Of course, the game maintains your information over multiple sessions (this is an RPG, after all), but you never actually have to tell your DS to "Save the Game." The whole save process occurs automatically in the background every time something important happens (like fighting a battle or discovering a spell or buying an item). I was kind of weirded out the first time I wanted to turn off my DS while playing PQ, but I didn't see a save option, so I just hoped for the best and shut down. The reason they can get away with this is that nothing bad can ever happen to you! You can never lose an item or fail a mission or miss an opportunity. At no time would you ever wish to go back to an "old save." Because the game gives you experience and gold even when you lose battles - and you always have a chance to try again - you will eventually get the loot or level that you want.

This is not a simple innovation as there are important trade-offs to consider - for one, player-controlled save systems encourage experimentation. Players enjoy being able to try something wacky ("What happens if I declare war on Gandhi?") because they can simply go back to an earlier version of the game. The designers might have learned from MMOs like WoW which, of course, have no player-controlled save systems either. Being single-player, they had the freedom to remove the death penalty altogether, which puts the player experimentation back into the game. For Puzzle Quest, the designers must have made it a point at the beginning of the project to take all design options which could permanently hurt the player off the table - even extending to such RPG standards as single-use equipment!

The lack of a save system is a big win for Puzzle Quest because it increases the game's accessibility. A large part of the game's potential audience - the Bejeweled crowd - has never played an RPG in their lives, which means they have never saved a game either. It's just one more hoop that new players have to learn - unless, of course, you can figure out a way to remove the hoop altogether...

Posted by Soren at 1:03 PM | Comments (639)

July 21, 2007

Advanced Protection

This afternoon, I gave a talk to some Korean game developers and academics on developing the AI for Civilization. One of them asked about a strategy game that I developed back in another lifetime which used genetic AI. I promised that I would add a link on my blog to this project, which was titled Advanced Protection. It's a little MFC app that demonstrates how genetic algorithms can be used to encourage more adaptive AI behavior (although I should mention that the game mechanics were designed largely to favor an environment in which a GA could be used...)

As an aside, there was actually a Genetic AI project for Civ4 that was ongoing for a number of months. Too bad it is currently defunct...

Posted by Soren at 3:09 AM | Comments (363)

July 19, 2007

Everything Old is New Again

So, E3 2007 - or some close approximation thereof - is come and gone, and the coolest thing I saw from the comfort of my own desk is this game. It's called Echochrome, and my minimalist heart loves the sparse black-and-white style and elegant score. The Escher-inspired puzzle gameplay looks pretty tasty as well. At first, I was afraid that the controls might be unwieldy, but on a second viewing, it became clear that the player doesn't actually control the character. Instead, the character simply always walks forward (and, smartly by the designers, doesn't die if it reaches a dead-end... that would be a little too hard-core). The player's job is just to rotate the image so the character can navigate the maze by moving ahead automatically. Brilliant.

Funnily enough, this is not the first platformer (or whatever you want to call it) to be inspired by Esher. In fact, it was not the only innovative game garnering much attention that is actually just an update of an old idea or two. Not that there's anything wrong with that! The early years of gaming were full of great ideas that were often years (or decades!) before their time. I'm glad I grew up during that very messy period; indeed, I have my own mind set on someday updating one specific classic game from the early '80s that would be just as fresh today as it was back then.

Posted by Soren at 11:16 PM | Comments (325)