If you haven’t already seen the L3D kicksterter, head on over there and check it out. As of this writing, there are still 13 days left to get one of these awesome LED cubes.
I’m excited to announce that I’m working on some games for the L3D. As of last night, I’ve got a project with 4 game controllers working with the L3D “simulator”. You can see one controller working with my sample project here:
I’ll be posting the code in the next week or so, after I get my cube in the mail and test on some actual hardware. The L3D library (including primitive simulator shown in the video above) is all written as a plugin for Processing, (which, incidentally, I’ve wanted to work in for AGES), so it was a relatively simple matter to get the L3D plugin working with the Game Control Plus plugin.
Now that I’ve got them working together, I’m planning on working on the following projects:
L3D Snake — a 3d version of this classic game, for 1-4 players — this one is practically done in my example code, just needs some auto-movemet, and an array of previous spaces for each player, and end-game conditions.
text library — I’ll be helping write a general library for scrolling “marquee style” text. This should help with displaying who won once the game is over, along with maybe showing the score, or even game selection, if I get around to wrapping up several games into a package of some kind.
some games of my own design — I’ve already got a simple color-selection territory game ready to go. This should look really pretty, as well as (hopefully) being fun to play. For 2-4 players. There are some other ideas I’m floating around also.
L3D Tetris — This just needs to happen. I’ve written a lot of tetris variants, but never a 3D one (though I’ve always loved 3D tetris), so I think it’s finally time.
L3D Invaders — A 3D space invaders could also be really fun.
I’m also really interested in the possibility of designing some turn-based “board games” using the L3D. I haven’t written anything down yet, but there are some ideas percolating in the back of my head.
Yesterday, my friend Lloyd linked me to Chessrunner (reddit thread), a web-based, chess-inspired endless runner in which you start with only a king, which you have to move forward on an endless chessboard. As you move, you can capture enemy pieces and make them your own. It’s an inspired idea, and one that apparently only took developer/creator Juha Kiili a weekend to implement (in Unity). There has been plenty of positive commentary on Reddit, and hopefully he’ll flush out the idea and (ideally, IMO), bring it to iOS.
Chessrunner’s “timer” mechanic (making it an action puzzle game) is pretty cool in that the gameboard is both expanded (from the top) and shrunk (at the bottom) one square at a time. The opposing colored pieces take one move after every one of your moves. They will ALWAYS capture your king if you give them opportunity, but they are not smart enough to trap you (yet), so surviving is really all about seeing all the attack lines. And that’s why this game really does a good job (IMO) of feeling like something you do while playing chess.
Have I been remiss?
I’ve writtenbefore about various chess-inspired puzzle games. (And of course I hope anybody reading this already knows about ActionChess, which was my first app in the app store.) But I realized when I started writing about Chessrunner that there was no way to find those game mentions! (Now there is a Puzzle Chess Games category.) And furthermore, there are several other chess puzzle type games that I’ve played over the last few years that have not (yet) been mentioned here. So I wrote up some mini-reviews:
Pawn’d takes the concept in a lot of different directions at once, and looks great while doing it. There are three main game modes, each designed around how the game ends, and each with two more difficult variations called “Blitz” and “Master”. Additionally, there are two introductory modes that have neither variation, one called “Practice’d” (play to a certain # of matches), and another called “Clock’d” (play to a time limit). Each of the modes has its own leaderboards, making something like 22 leaderboards in the whole app. There are also a ton of achievements. Basically, if you like this concept, you can keep playing it for a LONG time without running out of things to do.
This game, possibly more than any of the other ones listed here, is decidedly worth playing, and I’ll cop to getting sucked back into it while writing this.
Chess Tower Defense I’m fond of telling the story about how, when asked what he thought of ActionChess, my (then 8-year old) nephew Jake replied with “Could you make it a tower defense game?” I LOL’d. Well I think it was less than a year later that you could play Chess Tower Defense over on Kongregate.
It’s graphic design is quite spartan, but the concept is interesting nonetheless. You must survive waves of attacking “things”. (They are not pieces really.) The things don’t attack your pieces, but instead march methodically toward you (downward), passing right through your pawns. Your pawns (and other pieces) can attack them, in the standard directions, and if they don’t, each thing will remove one of your hearts when it gets past your back row. Between waves, you can reposition your pieces, and buy new ones. It’s an interesting concept, and one also worth spending some time playing, if only just to wrap your head around it, I think.
Knight Defense Knight Defense (for iPhone or iPad) appeared in the app store about another year or so later. As good as Knight Defense looks, it’s definitely less on the chess strategy end of the spectrum, and closer to the tower defense end. It’s all real-time, so there is no turn based aspect, and you can move your pieces all over the board at will during the game. In each of the squares your pieces could attack in a real game of chess, those pieces may damage enemy pieces. Like other tower defense games, Knight Defense is played in waves, during which enemies will appear at the top of the screen and move toward your king piece, wherever he might be on the gameboard. Though they are shaped like chess pieces, the enemies don’t move or attack like chess pieces, there just run into whichever of your pieces are in front of them, and “damage” them, eventually destroying them. Your pieces can be upgraded to do more damage at once, and to heal them once they’ve themselves been damaged. This is worth playing for chess fans, (especially so for those of you who already enjoy Tower Defense), but it’s not necessarily at the top of my list.
Cheesy Chess Cheesy Chess (free with ads for iOS) is not turn-based or action-puzzle at all. It’s more of a static puzzle game where the goal of each level is to get your king to the other side of a small chess board filled with pieces but for one square. In as much of the game as I’ve seen, there were no captures, only moving pieces around in a very cramped and crowded grid. This felt to me like a chess-themed version of Rush Hour (a sliding block game). Admittedly, I’ve played the least of this game. The mouse chess theme is super cute though, and it’s very well-made.
I’ve been meaning to write a post for a while now with pull quotes from the two big Catchup reviews. (It’s kind of a shame I haven’t even mentioned them yet on here.)
But before I get to those, Catchup is free in the App Store today. I’m hoping for a big influx of new players who might then tell their friends about how great it is, and maybe some of those folks will purchase the app tomorrow, when it’s back to $2.99. So if you haven’t already, go download it now! (But if you’re reading this, my guess is you’ve already got it, so thanks for that.)
Anyway, Catchup’s first big review came from Pocket Tactics on the 14th of August, exactly a week after its release. It’s an absolutely stellar review, giving the game 5 out of 5 stars, and I’ll just let some of the quotes speak for themselves:
“Catchup is as elegant as a game can reasonably be, presented in a marvelously user-friendly way.”
“…it’s packed with all kinds of options, some of which are unprecedented in my experience.”
In another quote that I found quite amusing, the author, Kelsey Rinella, also manages to call Nick (the game’s designer) a yahoo, while still complimenting him:
“I am not amused that some yahoo can waltz in and make what I do look easy and sound like a caring, brilliant guy at the same time.”
Catchup’s second big review was from the iOS Game review behemoth Touch Arcade. It absolutely floored me to get a full review on the front page of Touch Arcade, and they gave it 4.5 out of 5 stars to boot. Here are a couple of quotes from author Shaun Musgrave’s review:
“If you’re even a little bit into strategy games, you need to get some Catchup all over your mobile device.”
“There are also a number of achievements set up through Game Center, some of them very cleverly devised to force you to play outside of your comfort zone. That’s my favorite type of achievement.”
The Touch Arcade review didn’t appear until August 22nd, slightly more than a week after the Pocket Tactics review. Another week after that, Catchup was back on Pocket Tactics (on the 29th) for their “Games of the month” for August. Here is another great quote from that:
“The greater the ratio of fidelity to a complex system to rules overhead, the better I tend to like a design. Catchup doesn’t even attempt to satisfy my strongest gaming craving, and yet I feel excitement every time I see the badge saying it’s my turn in a game. It’s like rediscovering excellent vanilla ice cream after years of trying all sorts of tarted-up frozen confections. It’s such pure gaming goodness, without dissonance or unpleasantness of any kind.”
Obviously, I’ve added some of the above to the app’s app store description. (Let me know if you have any opinions about the ones I chose!)
I will probably write another post at some point about stats, including download numbers, and what kind of impact these reviews had on those. But anecdotally, the Pocket Tactics review got us slightly more downloads on the day of the review, (I’m guessing because their readers are closer to our core demographic), but the TA review had a longer impact, for more days. Possibly we fell off the front page of PT faster.
This week has been all about learning, and specifically about watching videos to learn. Mostly because this week is Apple’s big WWDC conference. The list of developer-specific stuff they’ve announced this week is perhaps slightly larger than usual (including a new programming language called Swift — more on that later), and I have been watching a ton of talks pouring out of San Francisco in video form. (Special thanks to Apple for releasing them so expediently!)
Normally I am fairly un-enthusiastic about watching videos to learn. I’m much more of a do-er than a view-er. I’ve got to be working with the code in order to absorb a new programming language, so the Swift videos in particular have been somewhat frustrating. I did spend most of Tuesday with the OSX 10.10 and Xcode 6 betas, and Swift specifically, but after spending a lot of unnecessary time tripping over syntax, grammar, (and copious crashes) decided to go back to videos (and getting some actual work done).
My impressions of Swift are pretty mixed. On one hand, I love that they’re trying to make a language that is simultaneously more accessible and also less prone to bugs. That is as fantastic and commendable as it is self-serving. On the other hand, I’m not yet convinced it’s going to be an instant switch for me. I had lots of little niggling problems with the syntax. For example, I’m not sure the benefit of declaring strongly typed variables using generic keywords (var and let). In the c-based syntax languages I know and love, you declare the variable with the type. So in swift:
var view = UIView()
UIView *view = [UIView new];
Now, the first example isn’t ambiguous or anything, but how about this one:
var views = UIView()
This is how you declare an array of UIView objects. I do like that it will always (and can ONLY) be an array filled with UIView objects, but I do think it’d be incredibly easy to miss the brackets. Overall though, most of the problems I had weren’t with the language itself, but with the tools, which I think are just not ready yet. I mostly agree with Austin Zheng when he says (from the comments of his 2048 port to Swift): “Xcode is as unstable as always. The background compiler/code analyzer kept on crashing and restarting itself. Xcode was functional enough to allow the project to be brought to some state of completion. The debugger is horribly broken though.”
All my video learning this week actually started on Monday (while waiting for the WWDC keynote to start) with watching Facebook’s video on building the paper app. This is also the one in which they announced their open-source animation framework pop. (And was recommended to me to learn about why it might be useful.) At an hour and a half, it’s a long video, but worth watching not just for the pop stuff (which is absolutely interesting, particularly if you already use Core Animation in your code), but for a multitude of other insights into how Facebook writes it’s apps. (There is some seriously interesting iOS engineering going on over there, something I did not expect given their history and track record, particularly in the quality department.)
Finally, yesterday (after fully maxing out on more WWDC videos), I randomly stumbled onto a talk about SpriteKit and grid-based games. The first half of the talk, by Scott Kim goes into great detail about several different kinds of grid-based puzzle games (on iOS specifically). He more or less breaks the talk into categories organized by gesture, which I think is an arbitrary distinction. (I’ve talked before about how I think the best games provide both tap and drag control schemes that are not incompatible.) Otherwise I think he does a really great job with the topic, and while it’s nowhere near comprehensive, it’s a very nice introduction / survey of the topic. This is very close to a talk that I’ve been thinking seriously about writing. (I first mentioned this idea in a previous blog post.) But since I haven’t (yet) written my taxonomy of grid-based games, Kim’s talk is, at the moment, much better than mine.
I really just wanted to comment longer-form on this one quote from the article:
41% of Android developers said they finish apps in one month or less, while only 36% of iOS and 34% of Windows Phone devs said they could achieve as quickly a turnaround
Now, if it took more effort to make exactly the same application for iOS than I would see that as a problem. But in my experience (and I do have knowledge of several parallel projects for both platforms) the effort is pretty similar. (Some things on either platform take longer on one or the other, but I think it generally averages out.) Now, as any software developer knows, you can either make something good, or you can make something fast… So given that data point, one interpretation of the quote above, at the risk of maybe pissing off some folks, would be that this generally speaks to the quality of the average Android application. Essentially (and again, this is just one possible interpretation), iOS applications might take longer as a trend because more effort is put into making them. Or alternatively, possibly they are just worth more to whoever is funding their development.
The first two MFi game controllers have been released.
The Moga Ace Power, as well as the Logitech Powershell. The two controllers are similar but the Logitech offering does not include analog sticks. From the pictures that are available, the Logitech product may actually be higher quality, but I ordered the Moga one anyway, simply because I like the look of it a bit better, and because I want the analog sticks.
It’s worth noting that I do a lot more gaming on my iPad than on my phone, so I’m not sure how much I’ll use this other than for testing. I’m definitely very excited for a bluetooth connected version when that appears.
I mentioned on twitter that I think this is a big deal. If I’m right, we’ll all know it in a year or two, but I think Apple will continue to eat the big guys’ lunch in the gaming industry, and the relatively quiet announcement that apple was introducing a controller API in iOS 7 was essential for them to more directly compete with Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. Obviously, these controllers, priced at $99 each are not (yet) cheap enough to be mass market, but of course that’s also pretty typical of Apple products in general, so that may not matter. My prediction is that we’ll just see more and more of these hit the market, and the only indication that Apple products are continuing their domination of the gaming industry will be their slow proliferation into the market. A lot is talked about the competition between Apple’s app store and the Google Play store, but hardly anyone talks (except maybe abstractly, or in passing) about how the app store is competing with the console market. (OK, yes, some people are definitely talking about it, but it doesn’t seem like it’s in the public consciousness yet.)
Pro Tip: Do not order directly from Moga, as you’ll pay a minimum of $5 shipping, and you can order directly from Apple for the same price with free shipping. Also, at least the Moga is already showing up in some physical Apple stores, so you could just head out to one of those, or check availability online and then head out to one of those.
This is totally random, but like a week ago I was (as I often am) just looking at random games in the app store. This particular day, I was struck by how many games (several in a row, completely by coincidence) featured Unicorns in their app icon. Here’s a random sampling:
You’ll note the stylistic differences. (I far prefer the hand-drawn ones to the photorealistic ones.) Just a reminder that I was not actually looking or searching for unicorn games when I discovered these. Seriously. (Yes it’s possible I spend too much time browsing the latest game releases on app shopper.) No, that came later, after I realized this was such a rampant trend.
It was then that I discovered my friend / developer acquaintance Ken (of Mind Juice Media) had released his game Unicorn Rush. (I’ve met him now a couple of times at 360 iDev and played this one a little over two years ago. Looks like it’s been out for over half that time!)
Also that the “unicorn genre” is so saturated as to include not just one, but several zombie/unicorn crossover titles!
I also discovered that to try and be “inclusive” and show a representative sampling of unicorn app icons would not only be foolish, but probably take me days to compile. There are literally dozens if not hundreds of apps with unicorn icons. Of course, it’s possible, maybe even likely that most or all of these titles are just trying desperately to capitalize on the success of Robot Unicorn Attack, a game so successful that it not only has a freemium sequel, but also spawned “Heavy Metal” and “Christmas” editions:
The earliest unicorn app store experience I can remember was discovering that Minnesota’s own Mono had created an app that allowed you to make yourself into a unicorn, called Younicorn. That was back at the end of ’09, and I remember the link getting passed around the office, and some brief (but lively!) discussion about how easy it would have been to make, and yet, none of us thought of it!
So, I’ve been following the Zooniverse projects for a while now, ever since the retired “Galaxy Zoo” project. For those not familiar, the Zooniverse projects (you can see a list of current projects on that link to their homepage) are basically crowdsourcing science. Each one takes a relatively focused (and menial) task that would take a researcher or research team years to complete, and makes a pretty simple web interface that allows “citizen scientists” to participate. The tasks all appear to be (at least from my limited experience — I’ve only done two or three of them) mostly image recognition of one kind or another. Interestingly, in the Zooniverse Reddit AMA (ask me anything) this afternoon, I learned that one of their retired projects was used to successfully train a computer to perform the tasks that the humans were completing, and thus, the project is no longer needed. That is some pretty cool computer SCIENCE.
Until today, I hadn’t given much thought into the people behind Zooniverse. But when I did think about it, I sort of assumed it was like rocket science — in other words, impossibly hard tech-wizardry. Reading the AMA where the team answered questions about quite a lot of their projects and process was for me a humanizing experience, striking home for me that, much as scientists are real people, (not superhumans), so too are the people who make really amazing software that advances science (also not superhumans).
As an aside, I think I have sort of an inferiority complex when it comes to “real” scientists. Not that I don’t know a few here and there, I do have a healthy smattering of PHDs in my facebook friend feed, (who for some reason don’t count). I think of “real science” as this thing that you have to be WAY smarter than me to do. When, in reality — or anyway my newly rationalized version of reality — I am now trying to internalize the idea that much of scientific discovery is not “breakthroughs” and genius-level eureka moments, but rather made up of tiny incremental observations and discoveries. Maybe this putting scientists on a pedestal comes from reading too much science fiction where there is a lot of hand-waving around what happens when the big breakthroughs are made. (This is actually something I do occasionally fault science fiction for, one of my pet peeves is when some near-future science fiction novel’s plot hinges on one or more breakthroughs that completely disrupt modern society, yet we’ve never heard of them before.)
Anyway, the Zooniverse projects aren’t quite gamefied, at least not in a competitive sort of way. I’ve “helped” a bit with a couple of the latest ones, and some of them give you some nice stats about how many images you’ve helped classify, and that sort of thing, which could be used to create a leaderboard or achievements, but the messaging around all the projects is much more about how you are helping further science than about how you can score more points or get the next gold star.
Which brings me to my next example of crowdsourced science, the far more gamefied “puzzle” game, Phylo. Phylo is played by moving squares around the gameboard, matching their colors vertically, and trying to optimize (or eliminate) empty space between them horizontally. The link between science and what you are doing in Phylo is a bit harder to grasp than in the Zooniverse projects, but as near as I can tell, the colored squares represent genetic sequences of DNA or RNA. From the project’s about page: “By taking data which has already been aligned by a heuristic algorithm, we allow the user to optimize where the algorithm may have failed.” The game is interesting at least, to the puzzle gamer in me, if not actually fun (it would probably be considered fun to some people, I can’t quite decide why I don’t think it’s fun, even though it’s got that “just one more game” draw for me), and they have packaged up the game with a leaderboard and “levels” (that all represent sequences that need matching). There is even an end-game condition, whereby you have to meet the “par” set by the computer algorithms before you can complete each game.
So back to my observation that scientists, or at least the computer programmers who help scientists are not superhuman, and my final link-observation that much of the Zooniverse code is up on github. This means that, if I had the time to spare and inclination (and an image cataloging project I wanted to crowd-source) I could probably get a pretty decent head start by checking out what they’ve already put together. That observation led to my thinking about whether the power of lots of humans playing could be harnessed to create the ultimate video game. A kind of crowd-sourced game design. I imagine a sort of branching-path puzzle game where at the root node, the game is in its simplest form, (and probably least creative). Then, you give the player a choice of whether they want x feature, or y feature. You measure how many people chose x vs y, and you make games x and y also, so you can measure how long players “stick with” both. (One assumption here is that a “sticky” game is good game design.) You could build this incrementally, so maybe in the beginning only a few branches are “built out”, just to have some content, and then you keep building branches, ideally in direct response to additional user feedback or surveying. Wouldn’t that be fun? The problem is that of course you need to generate the “branch ideas” from somewhere. Maybe you also let the players contribute ideas that also get voted on. (A sort of “other” survey answer.) Dunno, it was just a thought. Might be fun tho.
I just got my reminder email that the Kickstarter for the Emotiv Insight is ending in 3 days (38 hours now). Just like the Ouya, Oculus, and Google Glass, I’m deciding to pass. Not because I don’t believe in the products, but because I think it is too soon. These first-run products are too limited. They are all, in my opinion, important evolutionary steps in their particular niche of the human tech tree, but none meet or exceed what I imagine to be the potential inherent in their design.
Kickstarter has been amazing for getting these revolutionary products (sans Google Glass) into the hands of consumers without needing the infinite pocketbooks of, say, google. I do think human trials are an important fist step in the process, but only google really has the capability to do an 8,000 person beta test. So the other products, even though nobody knows really what they’re for, or how they will be used, have to be dressed up as a finished product. (I guess the Ouya is the outlier here, it’s a perfectly viable product already, just needs more games, IMO. It’s also not doing anything particularly revolutionary.)
I spent some time this morning writing up some feedback for a relatively new game in the app store that seemed at first like it would definitely be right up my alley. It’s called Puzzle Up, and is essentially an async version of a game where you fit a given set of tetrominos into an empty bunch of squares on the gameboard. I’ve played a few different versions of this type of game over the years, I think Zentomino was the first one I played (it hit the app store in August 2010, and was by the makers of a very popular Tangrams app at the time, TanZen), followed shortly thereafter by Doodle Fit. (Which must have done well, because they eventually made a Doodle Fit 2.)
Anyway, here’s what I wrote in a TouchArcade forum post about Puzzle Up:
I don’t feel like I have a good enough sense of what is transpiring on the other end of the game. I would like some kind of replay of their fumbling through the puzzle I sent them. (Ideally sped up, so I don’t have to sit through a seven minute animation if they took the whole time.) I know this would be difficult, but it would really help, IMO. At the very least, I think there should be an intersticial view before I start the puzzle they sent me that tells me how they did in the puzzle I sent them. There may be this screen already, but it doesn’t include the puzzle I sent, (I don’t think), and only includes their time.
Another thing is that, after a game ends, it seems like we just start another game right away, which is super confusing, and leaves me with the impression that this thing just goes on forever, and why would I continue to play it? At the very least, the app should definitely ask you if you want a rematch with the other player, maybe giving you some stats on that screen about your plays against that player. (Check out the game over screen in Lost Cities for an incredibly well done example of this.)
I’m always a big fan of stats in games, so I’d love to see more of them in general. The gamecenter leaderboard for number of victories is a good start.
In general, I think this could be a really fun game with a bit more polish. It’s like an async version of Zentomino or Doodle Fit.
I hope that wasn’t too harsh. The developer was looking for feedback. I do think showing your opponent’s turn is an important part of any asynchronous game experience, and you even see it ignored in some pass and play game modes (if there’s no hidden information, this may be excusable, because everyone could be looking on while you take your turns, but I’ve seen this problem in games with hidden information too).
As I said, Puzzle Up does have potential, but it feels like slapping asynchronous single player onto a game that pretty much already exists. Incidentally, this is pretty much what Zinga did with their recent release Gems With Friends. (Essentially, it’s an async version of TripleTown.) Puzzle Up even has some similarities to Gems With Friends in that the game is split into 3 “turns”, with each turn resulting in a score. You sum total of all three turns is your score for the game, and whoever has the highest score at the end wins.
There’s one other game that deserves a repeat mention here, and that’s Dawn of Play’s fabulous Dream of Pixels. Dream of Pixels also has a game mode similar to this style of gameplay, (it’s called puzzle mode), but the difference is that you’re still constrained by Dream of Pixel’s primary game mechanics, (which are out of scope for this rant, so I’ll let it suffice to say that you should check it out if you haven’t already). This is so much more satisfying to me, because it doesn’t feel like a game I’ve played before.
I’m neck-deep in Apple’s GameKit code to support turn-based asyncronous play in my next game, so all of this thinking is definitely relevant to what I’m doing these days.