Recently in Game Category

I'm warning you, behind the cut is a bit of an epic post.  I've been playing a game called Glitch lately, and I'm really enjoying it ... despite the fact that so many of its core game mechanics felt invasive, insidious, and irritating when I played them in FarmVille and CityVille.  I was ready for Glitch to be terrible but with high production values.  I named my character after an Italian slang phrase for "that's disgusting/that sucks", gender-bent my character as far as I could, and waded in.  What I found was a fairly charming game that takes all the mechanics that Zynga uses to manipulate its players and their friends and turns the mechanics inward, back into the game rather than out into the real world, and in so doing redeems the mechanics themselves. In simpler terms, from a game designer's perspective, Glitch is doing the good (or even Good) version of the new mechanics that we learned from FarmVille.

At first glance, Super Meat Boy is pretty simple: run, jump, and don't hit anything that isn't a wall or floor, because it'll kill you.  And, honestly, that's all quite relevant.  But after you've played a few of the very short levels, a lot of nuance begins to emerge within those simple mechanics.  Peel the onion back:
Super 7 HD for iPad is a pretty simple path-drawing game with some nice twists. Rounded polygons come on the screen, each with a number and a corresponding color, and bounce around the screen. If they collide, they form a new polygon with the sum of the numbers on it. The player's job is to draw lines between polygons to form sevens. If two shapes collide that add up to more than seven, the game is over.

The game's difficulty scales well and smoothly. At first, pairs come on that match with each other. Later, the pairs that match are staggered across waves. Then there aren't waves, the shapes just enter in rapid sequence. Then they're back to coming in sets, but with negative numbers, and the cycle repeats with the additional complexity. In the parts I've reached, I've seen multipliers, dividers, and sign changers. A final element of the challenge is there throughout the game: the more shapes go into a sum, the larger the sum shape is, which makes it easier to collide with, and more likely to end the game.

A big part of the game's challenge and its replayability comes from it's scoring structure. Pairs that add up to seven score only one point. You score an extra point for every shape that contributes to a sum beyond two -- so if you make a seven out of seven 1s, you score 6 points. A 3 and a 4 together score only 1. The game doesn't explain that well in its tutorial, so it took me a while to figure out why I scored better in some games. Once i got that, though, the game became much deeper. That's a strong incentive to try to keep additional shapes on the board, hoping to make sums of as many shapes as possible; but shapes that linger with lots of contributors get very large. Meanwhile, the game gets more difficult either over time or over basic score, so you really want to score well quickly, before it gets harder to do so.

I really like mechanics like that, which are a simple press-your-luck system, but where almost all of the risk is self-incurred and the luck you're pressing is largely determined by your skill as a player. Many difficulty systems are entirely determined by luck, or the computer, or the computer's luck. Systems which let the player determine the difficulty are elegant; systems which then in cent the player to continually struggle against their own boundaries are even more elegant.

Being a system like that, Super 7 is a game in which achievements work well. I'm not keen on achievement systems that merely lie alongside gameplay, irrelevant or even distracting to the main gameplay. But since the difficulty mechanics of Super 7 are about the challenges that you assign yourself, achievements are a natural fit and can lead you to explore the strategic space in a way that contributes to your gameplay. They are exercises you can assign yourself to get better at what the game is about. In fact, I think that I figured out the scoring system in order to pursue an achievement!

Super 7 HD makes for a good Mechanic's Report because it's central systems are so elegant, and the rest of the game so simple. The main game and interaction is fun; on top of that, there are complex systems that work against each other and are well-balanced. It's a good design!
I spent a bunch of this week at the Games 4 Change 2010 Festival and thinking about the potential for games, mostly digital, to effect change in the world.  Luminaries at the conference (uncited in case I've botched their eloquence) have called games the "art form of social discourse" and "unique as a medium that enacts formal discourse and cultural interpretation with the audience."  Certainly, games are a medium of interaction and engagement, and often model rules that we believe the world to work by.  Playing games can be a powerful way to consider alternative ways of looking at the world within the safe space "of just a game."

As I was preparing for the conference, a friend forwarded me this letter or comment from the Atlantic Monthly's site, and it couldn't have been more timely.  An excerpt (beyond the cut), though it's short and you really should take three minutes to read the whole thing:

I don't have a whole lot to say on Red Dead Redemption, as I myself am not playing it.  Though I'm a bit embarrassed to admit, I haven't yet played many "sandbox" games, or enough Rockstar to offer a well-informed opinion.  Things I have enjoyed watching Red Dead Redemption, though:

I was drawn to 30 Second Hero because of its potential to be targeting me: someone with a taste for casual gameplay and limited time; someone who liked RPGs and their conventions; someone who could appreciate a design  built around a sarcastic nostalgia for old-school games.  Though the execution has some real problems, 30 Second Hero  largely delivers on that promise.

Read on...
Last weekend I attended I-CON 28, a pan-geek convention on Long Island.  Sci-fi, fantasy, anime, furries, you name it and they're there.  It's often odd not merely by design but because it's both large and small-- large enough to have been running for 28 years and to often get some decent Guests of Honor, but small enough to have an "e-gaming" track of six people and to include me among them.

This year I was on a panel called "The Best Games You've Never Heard Of."  I've got some thoughts on the panel below the jump, but what's really worth relating is the list of games that the panelists made.  I *tried* to get every one mentioned, but I'm sure I missed a few.  Add your own!

Beyond the jump: the list, and thoughts on it.
Wikipedia describes the Marathon Trilogy of games as a series of "science fiction first-person shooter computer games from Bungie Software...." which in 1994 "introduced many concepts now common in mainstream video games," including "dual-wielded weapons, friendly non-player characters, and most notably an intricate plot."

It's that last bit that intrigues me from a hypertext standpoint. The gameplay was novel at the time, and all the more remarkable for being released first on the Macintosh, but it was the plot and narrative which held fans' attention and led to "The Marathon Story Page" where fans were explicating the plot and finding new details and connections more than seven years after the series concluded.

Bungie Studios eventually released the tools used to create the game as well as the game source code itself. Fan communities continue to create new scenarios, stories, and levels for the engine today.

Beyond the cut: Marathon and game narratives as hypertext

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