Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Slydris – an enthusiastic endorsement

Monday, August 27th, 2012

After all the posting I’ve done about Action Puzzle games lately, I would feel remiss if I didn’t write this post. Essentially, I finally picked up Slydris after it went Universal (it was iPad only at launch, then shortly thereafter became available for iPhone too) a week or so ago, and it’s easily been my most-played game recently.

The beauty of Slydris is in its similarity to Tetris without copying (or even using) the geometry mechanics. Essentially, there are horizontal bars of varying length, and you slide them left and right to try and make complete rows (the mechanic it DOES borrow from Tetris). That’s it.

Oh, I guess there is a bar that fills up and lets you delete 3 rows at once, and there are various in-game powerup type blocks. But overall it’s all about sliding those pieces left and right, and getting them to fall into place how you want ’em.

It’s one of the best examples I’ve seen lately of simple gameplay leading to complexity.

I’ve just followed the game’s creator, Luke Schneider, aka radiangames, on twitter (@radiangames). He’s released 12 games in the last two years, which is no small feat. I hope in 2 years I will have come even close to that. (That’s one every two months, which I am sadly nowhere near at this point, 3-months into my indie stint.)

The Slydris Soundtrack is also free right now, which is quite good (listening to it now).

TouchArcade and new Action Puzzle Games

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Hot on the heels of my Action Puzzle slide deck, I saw a post yesterday on TouchArcade about Fluxe, a new app that bills itself as Action Puzzle, so I checked it out, and I’ve got to say that it’s well worth playing. I won’t get too into the gameplay, since TA already did that, and honestly, reading about it didn’t do much for my understanding anyway. It’s definitely in the “like tetris” category, but it uses the line-clear mechanic rather than the pentominos. It’s only a 4-wide well/column that you’re filling, so none of the pieces are not more than 3 blocks either wide or tall.

As you can see from the screenshot, there are lines across 3 of the sides of the app. Those are timers. I know what the ones on the left and right do, but I’m not actually sure what the one at the bottom does offhand. I’ve been struggling with whether to implement timers in Oppo-Citrus, so that is a topic of interest to me.

Anyway, TouchArcade has been giving a lot of love to action puzzle games lately, with their recent review (which couldn’t have been more positive) and subsequent creator interview for the slide-a-row RPG 10000000. 10000000 looks to do for slide-a-row what Dungeon Raid did for the drag-over-like-colors-to-remove mechanic, which is to say, it just slaps D&D/RPG elements all over it. (Someone mentioned Dungeon Raid at our MN Game Devs group, and I had to admit I had just totally forgotten about it.)

I could probably have given “Action Puzzle Games with RPG Elements” its own page in the slide-deck. The first one I remember playing was Puzzle Quest, and it and its sequel have a presence in the app store, (although they’re not great ports, was my impression). TouchArcade also recently reviewed Puzzle Dungeons (which is free), and unfortunately after checking it out for a bit I’ve concluded it doesn’t add terribly much to the subgenre. (But it is a solid game if you can’t get enough match-3.)

TA also previewed what looks to be an original action puzzle game I can’t wait to try (looks like it just came out today) for the iPad called Slydris.

Pit Chess / Recent Addictions

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

On Friday, my game designer friend Patrick alerted me to a post over at Play This Thing about Pit Chess. You can play Pit Chess on Kongregate, and it’s essentially a cross between chess and Drop 7. In case you’re not familiar, Drop 7 is a game where pieces with numbers drop from the top of the screen. You have to match up the numbers with positions on the gameboard to remove them from the board and score points. Pit Chess takes the pieces-drop-from-the-top mechanic and adds chess pieces and movement to the whole thing. Pieces drop whenever you make a move that doesn’t capture a pawn. As long as you continue to capture pawns, the screen empties, and you play cleanup for a while. When you inevitably run out of pawns to capture, you go back to capturing other pieces. The game emphasizes alternating between these two modes of gameplay by giving you a point multiplier that goes up as long as you capture pieces that aren’t pawns. There are Kongregate high score tables for highest multiplier, as well as highest scores in the two gameplay modes. I really dig this game, and sort of wish I’d thought of it. (It would have made a great Action Chess game mode!) Then again, I’ve got a lot of stuff I’ve worked on for ActionChess that hasn’t (yet!) seen the light of day.

I’m going to go back to playing fez now. I tweeted about this already, but there are Tetris shaped constellations in the night sky in Fez! I’m not even a fan of platform games usually, (although I played a fair bit of Mario III, and certainly Mario 64 back in the day), but Fez is just appealing to me on so many levels. I was pretty hyped up about it after seeing Renaud Bédard talk about the tech behind Fez at GDC earlier this year, and it’s definitely lived up to my high expectations so far. As an aside, we all have our indie developer crushes. One of mine is definitely Renaud. Check out this list of games he’s worked on!

Word Puzzle Mashups

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

My friend Jason clued me in to this match-3 like word game that was featured by apple this week: W.E.L.D.E.R.

Then a scant day later I stumbled onto an interview with Zach Gage, who recently launched SpellTower, a tetris-attack style word game. The interview is pretty cool, and he says a lot of stuff I feel about missing the innovation present in the early days of the app store. I’m a bit disappointed that SpellTower is iPad only, but I may still pick it up to check it out.

I thought it funny that (in the same week) there were two new word game hybrids to add to my list of interesting word games. (Bookworm, Imangi, WordSolitaire, Word Jong, WordFu, AlphaBattle, and Wooords are all the previous ones I’ve played with any regularity, I think.)

UPDATE (1/28/2012): I would be remiss if I didn’t add a link to my latest puzzle obsession, PuzzleJuice, which is an absolutely fantastic tetris-word-game-mashup. Pieces fall with varying color parts, and when three or more parts of the same color touch at the bottom of the gameboard, you can touch them to switch them to letters. (When a whole “row” is made, ala tetris, those also change to letters.) Then you drag/draw a word from the letters to remove them from the board. Draw a large enough word, and other pieces around them will also be removed. Good stuff!

Three quick Chess-related links

Monday, September 19th, 2011

Hipsta Chez
Is there room for more than one chess-based puzzle game in the app store? Of course there is! I just discovered the TouchArcade post about Hipsta Chez (front-page, no less… it was posted over a week ago, I could easily have missed this!) Hipsta Chez is game in the same family tree as Fuzzle, LinkLines, Gems 3D, etc.. only the twist is that the pieces are chess pieces, and move accordingly. I have only played the first game mode, and only one game so far, but it took over an hour, and I am now 18th on the Game Center leaderboard for that game mode. You can check out a promo video, but I think it’s definitely worth picking up. Hats off to Vasiliy Popov, who appears to be the app’s creator/developer.

Chess@Home
I am not 100% sure how I came across this blog post by one of the developers of Chess@Home, but if it’s to be believed, a few weekends ago, (at Node Knockout, a node.js 48 hour programming competition), a team of four guys created a distributed chess AI using javascript. They’re calling it Chess@Home. The blog post is pretty fascinating.

The forthcoming Octagon Theory app
I read about The Octagon Theory over at my reliable iphone board game blog on BGG. I’m not 100% sure this is chess-related, because I haven’t played the game yet, but it’s an abstract strategy game for the iphone anyway. One of the more interesting things is that they’re soliciting developers to create AI for the thing. I’m tempted to sign up, as that sort of thing is always fun (and I’ve been meaning to learn some lua) for AGES), but there are so many of my own games to work on… we’ll see.

iCade Review / Thoughts

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

I got my iCade last weekend, and am extremely pleased with its design and functionality so far.

Happiness:

  • Aesthetics: Let’s face it, I wanted this in large part so that I could have a super-sweet looking iPad stand. This delivered in spades. I had a game party on Monday, and everyone commented on it. People couldn’t keep their hands off my joystick!
  • Ease-of-use: After one minor assembly SNAFU (I tightened a screw too hard, and cracked the plastic in a place that — so far — hasn’t had any repercussions), the iCade was super easy to set up and get running. There are really nice instructions for turning on bluetooth and pairing the iCade on the bottom of the “lid” that doubles as the top of the box. So you can’t really loose ’em!
  • Design: Do I acknowledge that it is dumb to play any games on the iCade in landscape mode? Yes. Am I glad they designed a slot/tray so it would be easy to do? HELL YES. Would I have preferred to plug the iCade in and have it charge my iPad while I’m using it? Yes. Was it “good enough” that they included a sweet little hole so you can run a cable up through the back and charge with your existing hardware? Yeah. (Would I have paid more for built-in charging? Probably not.)

Sadness:

  • Bluetooth: Perhaps the most annoying thing about the iCade is that it pretends to be a bluetooth keyboard. This means that, when you’ve got it paired, if you bring up a text dialog in ANY application, the iPad thinks you have a connected keyboard, and doesn’t give you a software keyboard. It’s possible there is a setting or something to disable this helpful lack of functionality, but I haven’t found it yet if there is. This is extremely annoying, as a LOT of apps require text-input at some point, and of course web-browsing is neigh-impossible. Most notably, searching the app store and finding additional apps that support the iCade, while the iCade is paired, is an impossibility.
  • The Atari App UI: While not a beef with the hardware per-say, the Atari app could really use some help when it comes to user-interface. For whatever reason, there is really no on-screen help when you are using the iCade in the Atari app. It mostly “just works”, but you do need to refer to the included sheet of controls for specific games. (There are 99 of them, after all, you can hardly be expected to remember which ones use which buttons!)
  • The Atari App Screen Real Estate: The Atari games I’ve played so far generally take up a little over half of the iPad’s screen real estate. The other half of the screen was used for the on-screen controls, (which handily disappear when you start using the iCade). Unfortunately, when that happens, the game-portion of the screen doesn’t expand to take up the rest of the iPad! So you end up playing the games on about half of the iPad. This is a terrible waste of space, and just feels wrong. I have some hope for this, as I’ll mention below…

So, given that I only just got my iCade, of course it is revealed today that Atari is working on an arcade joystick of its own. (I read this first at TouchArcade, although it was also widely reported elsewhere.)

One of the most interesting things about this announcement to me is the included image (lifted from the announcement link at the time of this writing). Notably, the image differs from the one that Touch Arcade (presumably) lifted from the site earlier today in the following ways:

  • The “Available soon!” text is now followed by logos for Target, ToysRus, and Walmart. This could mean a lot of things, but to me it means: a) these will be highly visible to the public, and widely available and b) there have been lots of deals already made behind the scenes, which could mean that “soon” really does mean soon.
  • The “Made for iPad” logo sends some serious credibility to this image, it’s lifted straight from Apple’s marketing materials, so unless there is funny-business going on here, this is officially licensed Apple Hardware. Is Apple finally beginning to sanction gaming peripherals? I sure hope so, and would absolutely love to see more like this in the marketplace.
  • To the right of the “Made for iPad” logo is some text that reads: “The first Atari controller for the iPad using the 30-pin connector, as it was meant to be.” This has a couple of possible negative implications: a) that (unless there is something clever going on that we can’t see in the hardware) this joystick will only function in portrait mode, and b) that it’s possible Atari could opt to phase-out support for the iCade in favor of their own hardware. I really hope the latter isn’t true, but who knows. I don’t know the extent of their partnership with ThinkGeek.

One observation based on the image that was also possible earlier today: In the screenshot, the game (which appears to be Centipede, although it’s lacking some visual elements, so is obviously doctored) takes up the full real-estate of the screen. This gives me hope that the Atari app could possibly learn to re-size when a joystick is present. I hope that’s true, as it would be sweet.

Almost a year ago, I wrote about iPhone control pads. It’s interesting to me that of those I covered, only one (AFAIK) has really seen a commercial release, and it’s definitely not licensed Apple hardware. The iPad has not been around all that long, yet we have at least two commercial products vying for attention, one of which claims to be official. iOS gaming has come a long way, baby.

iOS Eurogame Podcast and Links

Friday, May 13th, 2011

So, a new post on my favorite iOS boardgaming blog was published today, and it included a link to the second Boardgame Babylon podcast about iOS boardgames. I listened to the episode tonight, and while there were some good descriptions of the gameplay for various iPhone/iPad eurogame implementations, I didn’t feel like it actually said anything new or particularly exciting to me. I had played all of the games mentioned with the exception of Michael Schacht’s Gold, which I knew about, but had passed on for various reasons.

Coincidentally, Gold was on sale yesterday, for $.99, (also mentioned in the iOS Board Games blog post), and if it had still been on sale while I was listening to the podcast, I would have picked it up, but alas, by the time I checked, the price had gone back up to $3. Normally, I would purchase a game I’m interested in for $3, no sweat, but the reasons I passed on Gold the first time I heard about it still remain, and I guess I just feel like there are a lot of games competing for my time… For $.99, I’ll buy almost any app just to try it out and see if I like it. For $3, I feel I have to actually want to play the game before I’ll purchase. It’s not that I don’t want to play Gold, but I just can’t see myself playing it for any real length of time.

But really, here are the reasons I passed on Gold the first time around: 1) Lack of online multiplayer. Would pick it up in a heartbeat if it had asynchronous. For $3 or even $5, for sure. 2) The rules seem really simple to me. Like maybe too simple. 3) The game was made by the same person/folks who did a few other iOS games I already own, namely High Society, and Money. This game looks to be pretty nearly identical (visually) to those games. Sure, it’s a different game, it’s got different rules, but if it doesn’t FEEL like a different game to me, I will still feel somewhere inside (no matter how irrationally) that maybe it’s too similar. This is one reason I’m not a big player of card games played with a standard 52 card deck, to be honest — those games just don’t feel different enough from one another to be interesting to me in anything other than an abstract game-theory type way. (Which is not to say that I don’t find them interesting, or won’t play them, only that once I’ve played them enough to feel like I “get” what’s happening, I lose interest very quickly.)

So after being slightly disappointed that I’d missed the Gold rush (as it were), I somehow ended up on a site that features articles by the game’s developer, Shannon Appelcline. I think I’d read some of these posts by him before, possibly What Makes a Great Mobile EuroGame?, or Making Computers Think Like Auction Players, or Turning Reiner Knizia’s Money into an iPhone Game, all of which were apparently written after a specific game release. His most recent post about iPhone board game dev (written just after releasing Gold) was Sweating the Details for iPhone Card Games: Visuals, AIs, and Player Numbers. These articles are definitely worth reading, but ultimately feel a bit too much like thinly veiled marketing to me. They aren’t technical enough to qualify as howto articles, and yet that’s what it feels to me like they’re pretending to be.

As a nice bonus, I found out today that someone I’m ostensibly working with (but have yet to meet), wrote a nice roundup of Go implementations for OSX and iOS. He mentions Smart Go Kifu as the winner for him on the iPad, and that’s been on my appshopper wishlist for some time now. I have yet to pick it up, mostly because it is $20, but it looks to be well worth it, with a database of 33,000 games, 30 of which are even annotated in english. The developer, Smart Go, inc, also has a universal app with a bunch of Go books as in-app purchases. If I had all the time in the world, I would read a book about go on my iPad right now. Instead, it’s about time I go to bed.

iOS Book Reviews: Professional iPhone and iPad Database Application Programming

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Disclaimer: I do not generally read programming books from start to finish! Instead, I read them much as I would read a blog that I’ve discovered for the first time, skimming the archives (table of contents), and then taking-in the first few sentences of parts that look interesting to me, and bookmarking posts that I want to read in greater depth (dog-earing pages that deserve a second glance). I almost never go back for those second glances, so basically I have a bunch of programming books laying about that look like they’ve been heavily read, when in fact they’ve hardly been cracked. My excuse is that programming books are so seldom relevant past their publish date that keeping them for reference seems silly. If I’m paging through a book’s contents in search of some solution, it usually means I just don’t know the right search terms. When I find some pages that seem relevant, I then turn to the web with my newfound knowledge, and feel vindicated when I find some piece of web-content that appears (at least at first glance) to be superior and more timely.

I do still tend to keep those books around, however, mostly so I can look through their code examples. I find books that consist of mostly code are almost always more interesting than those that try and teach you some general topic. You can usually find nice code examples on the web, of course, but they are seldom explained in as much detail as you would find in one of these “by example” books. In this case, I have in front of me two books that both attempt to teach some topic, but do so with heavy use of examples. They are hybrids, if you will, of books that teach a general topic, and books that consist of mostly code examples. Maybe all programming books exist on a spectrum with pure thought and abstract theory at one end, and pure code (and more easily out-of-date examples) on the other.

Professional iPhone and iPad Database Application ProgrammingThe first of these is Professional iPhone and iPad Database Application Programming, by Patrick Alessi, published by Wiley (Wrox) in 2011. With chapter titles like “Introducing Data-Driven Applications”, “The iPhone and iPad Database: SQLite”, “Displaying Your Data: The UITableView”, and “iPad Interface Elements”, you would definitely not know at first glance that this is an example-driven book. In fact, each of those sections (and all the other sections of the book) run you through the creation of a sample project, each building on knowledge gleaned in the previous chapters. The first chapter includes a very nice introduction to Xcode and shows you how to create a simple UITableView based application.

The following chapter, “The iPhone and iPad Database: SQLite”, goes a bit farther down the UITableView rabbit hole with its sample project, and introduces SQLite besides. This chapter definitely endeared me to the author when it said: “While Core Data is the recommended framework for creating data on the iPhone, you may want to forego Core Data and use the SQLite API directly for several reasons.” The author then lists several compelling reasons! This may be a heretical position to take, but avoiding Core Data has always been my preference, although I do occasionally wonder if there are ever good reasons to use Core Data of which I am simply ignorant.

The author does later dedicate five chapters (about a third of the book) to using Core Data, so he can’t think it’s entirely useless. He does not, IMHO, (at least in the cursory skimming I gave that portion of the book), provide any compelling reasons to use Core Data. The closest he comes is when he says (repeatedly) that using the graphical data modeling tool will dramatically speed up the development time of your data driven app. I fail to see how this is the case! If creating your db schema is taking up a lot of your development time, I think you’re probably doing something wrong, or possibly you just aren’t familiar with SQL in general.

(A decent db abstraction layer to handle your SELECT, INSERT, UPDATE etc. calls is also a must, and I am disappointed to report that Alessi’s book does not cover this topic. There is at least one decent open source wrapper available (called FMDB), although there are things I would change about it — namely the API for retrieving your result sets.)

Unfortunately, the portions of the book dedicated to the Core Data modeling tool fall into the “already obsolete” category of coding examples, because they do not appear to cover the Xcode 4 interface. I created a sample project using Core Data to look at the modeling tool, and like Interface Builder, it has been consumed by the “one window” paradigm prevalent in all things Xcode 4. Reading the first couple of chapters on Core Data will probably give you the base knowledge needed to use it anyway, but as I said earlier, google can probably do a better job.

The last third of the book consists of a couple of chapters about integration with web services. This topic makes a lot of sense to include in a book about data-driven applications, but it’s definitely given less attention than the previous two sections. I really think the book should have been expanded quite a bit, both to go into more detail about the stuff it does cover, and also to cover additional stuff that was notably absent. Off the top of my head, here are headings I would have liked to see: best practices for storing data retrieved from web services, how to deal with syncing issues, common tools for consuming web services, and at least one code example for parsing and consuming JSON. Unfortunately, JSON is given only a cursory mention, and its superiority to XML for the task at hand is not, as I feel it it should have been, firmly established.

In the beginning of chapter 10, “Working with XML on the iPhone”, there is a section called Synchronous Data Retrieval, in which some lip service is given to NSString‘s stringWithContentsOfURL: selector blocking your UI, but then it is not made clear that the subsequent code examples (using NSURL and NSURLRequest) are asynchronous in nature! Also, on the topic of “common tools”, the book pretty much writes everything from scratch in this section. I can understand the impulse that the author may have had to explain all the gory details of xml parsing and NSURLRequests without complicating matters by introducing open source libraries that simplify these processes, but they save far more time than I’m liable to believe you can save by using Core Data. If you are consuming web services from your app, you would be stupid not to use (or at least look at) ASIHTTPRequest. That little project has probably saved me dozens of hours in the last three months. On the subject of XML parsing, the question is not whether you should use an external parser, but rather which XML parser is right for your needs!

Overall, I didn’t expect to read as much of Professional iPhone and iPad Database Application Programming in detail as I ended up reading for this review. I don’t know how much of that was due to wanting to give it a fair read in spite of my bias against using Core Data, and how much was due to the author’s really well written prose. Database applications is about as dry a subject as they come, and yet I never felt lulled to sleep in the way that many programming books have a tendency to do to me. If you are not familiar with SQLite, or programming for UITableView, I would definitely highly recommend the first four chapters of the book. As for whether they are worth the asking price, (currently $30 on amazon), I’ll leave that up to you.

Unfortunately, I think I’m going to have to leave any in-depth review of my second learn-by-example iOS book for another day: Learning iOS Game Programming: A Hands-On Guide to Building your First iPhone Game, by Michael Daley, published by Addison Wesley in 2011. This book takes you through the author’s process of building an iOS game from start to finish. The game you build, Sir Lamorak’s Quest, is available as a free download from the app store, so you could potentially download it and see if it’s got stuff in it you’d like to know about. I haven’t actually looked at the game for more than a minute or two, but I know from personal experience that parsing through the source code of a game, even one I have no interest in ever making, is always fascinating to me, so I’m quite excited to dig into this book.

Sifteo: A new kind of board game

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

In the future, the ostensible purpose of this blog (the intersection of board games and computer games) will be a moot point. All board games will have some kind of computer component, and those that don’t will not have one as an aesthetic choice, rather than because it’s prohibitively expensive, or because the interface doesn’t exist, or for the myriad of other reasons today’s board games do not have a computer component. In the mean time, there will be more and more devices that bridge the gap, becoming essentially computers on which you can play board games (the iPad, for example), or board games on which you play video games. I would argue that Sifteo is the first in the latter category of devices.

A brief introduction

If you haven’t heard of sifteo yet, it’s a small company formed by a couple of guys who met at the MIT Media Lab. The term Sifteo refers to both the company and their product, small-ish square tiles (a little over 1.5 inches on a side), which may also be referred to as Sifteo cubes. The cubes (though not technically cubes they are not as tall as they are wide), have a low resolution screen on the top, and contain a bevy of sensors that can detect motion, orientation, and most importantly, their close proximity to the other cubes. Essentially, the important game mechanic here is that you can touch the sides of two cubes together, and the game will “know” that they are touching, and on which sides they are touching. (I believe magnets are used for this.)

I should say up front that Sifteo cubes haven’t even been released to the general public yet. Those of us who have them are essentially part of Sifteo’s beta program. They’re calling it “Early Access”. Essentially, they sold some cubes (probably 1,000 sets of 3) to folks during CES, which was a sort of preview launch. They sold them online, which is how I got a set, even though I didn’t go to CES this year.

My impressions: the short version

Overall, my impression that there is A LOT of potential in these little cubes. Sifteo has a great product on their hands, but unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be a hit product without some notable modifications. I hope (and it seems probable) that Sifteo will have the chance (and wherewithal) to fix some of these issues in subsequent versions of their product. If they do, this could easily be very big, and Sifteo has the potential to compete with other hand-held gaming systems like the DS or PSP. The cubes themselves are pretty great, but have some notable limitations (see my detailed beefs below). The overall product, unfortunately, requires a computer to be running custom software (called Siftrunner) while you play, and a wifi dongle to communicate with the cubes. The software then pushes out whatever game you’ve chosen to play to the cubes. The game choices are pretty limited right now, and unfortunately, mostly fairly mediocre. I’ll go into more of the software in detail below, but the one game they chose to include in your purchase price is called Chroma Shuffle, and is actually really great. It manages to show off many of the device capabilities really well, and had me sucked-in for hours the night I finally got my cubes up and running.

Summary of my summary: not great, but enormous potential.

My complaints

This is a new technology, so I tend to naturally get more excited about it as a result. That having been said, I found a lot to complain about with these cubes.

Viewing angle. First thing first, the viewing angle on the cube screens is not great. In fact, by not great, I mean downright bad. As with cheap cell phones and other screens of this low resolution, when the angle is off, the colors are off, and in a game like Chroma Shuffle, where you are matching colors, it can get really frustrating. This is “enhanced” by the fact that you’re constantly moving the cubes around, and while you move them around, you might end up moving one farther away than the others (thus changing your viewing angle).

Color consistency. Very closely related to my previous complaint, the color on all my cubes even under the best viewing circumstances is actually not exactly the same. One cube is slightly “dimmer” than the others, and while it wouldn’t normally matter all that much, this type of quality difference is frustrating while playing a game where you’re intensely matching colors.

You have to have Siftrunner running. This was probably a calculated risk on the part of the Sifteo. I have read someone elsewhere say that it takes Sifteo out of the realm of a mass consumer product (suitable for Target and Walmart) and into the realm of a “geek” product (suitable for Think Geek, or maybe Game Stop). It’s definitely something you probably wouldn’t buy unless you are already comfortable with gaming on your computer. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still a giant market, but Sifteo cubes are really aimed (in their marketing so far anyway, but also in the games they’ve produced) at the casual gamer market. I think Siftrunner was designed pretty well, and it’s dead-easy to install, but you still have to have it running to play. Ideally, we would see an iOS version of Siftrunner (and fine, yes, Android also), and we would get rid of the required USB dongle. The iOS version is likely (if I had to guess, which I do), but to get rid of the USB dongle, they’d have to release a second version of the hardware, I think. So that seems a lot less likely, at least in the near future. (It’s also possible the dongle is seen as a “security feature”, as we don’t get a chance to packet sniff their traffic to the cubes when it’s going through their custom USB thingamabob.)

Graphics are old school… really old school. The graphics for all the games I’ve played so far consist of VERY simple animations. I don’t know what we’re going to see in the future, but for now at least, I have to assume that the hardware is simply not capable of very much in the way of animation. It would have been really nice to see some 3D graphics (maybe a bouncing a 3d-looking ball around the cubes or something), just to prove that it can be done. Without a tech demo of that kind, I sort of have to assume we’re limited to simple 2D animations, and that really just seems like a missed opportunity.

The current game selection. This will no doubt change in the very near future (Sifteo has said on their Early Access forums that they intend to release a new game at least one every two weeks.), but the game selection right now seems aimed about 70% at children under 12. Even Chroma Shuffle, the game I most enjoy, is pretty simplistic. (I’ll let this segue into more about all the games below.)

The games

The games are purchasable from right inside Siftrunner. They range in price from free (what they call “lab” games,) to $8 (800 points) for what are presumably the best experiences Sifteo has to offer. You don’t spend money directly on games, you first buy points, and right now you can buy points in $5 increments. There are really only three games in the store at the $8 price range, Chroma Shuffle (although, again, this came with the purchase price for us Early Access folks), Booker the Penguin, and Mount Braniac. I haven’t purchased Mount Brainiac, but the description is as follows:

Mount Brainiac is a suite of games that will help children practice their spelling and math skills. With six different exercises for kids aged 5-8, Mount Brainiac gets more challenging as children get older. Exercise your mental muscles and climb the mountain!

I’ll probably purchase this game sooner or later just to check it out, but it doesn’t exactly sound like something I would play over and over again. I’m not the target audience. (And it’ll be another 5 years before my daughter is the recommended 6 years of age.)

I have already spoken briefly a bit about Chroma Shuffle, but I’ll go into a bit more detail now. Essentially, it’s a matching tile puzzle game similar to a match-3, but more in the vein of the Collapse! series of games. Each tile holds a 4×4 grid of circles. There might be several different colors of circle on each tile. You then have to match tile edges together in order to match colors along the edge of the tiles. When two colors match, those circles are removed, and then subsequently any additional circles matching that color adjacent to the original matching circles. The more circles in the group that is matched, the more points you get for removing them. You can match circles on more than two tiles at once by pushing them together at the same time. It seems like there is some “slop” in this matching, so it’s fairly easy to match a group on all three tiles.

The core game mechanic of looking for matching edges of the tiles is pretty fun, and the logical/thinking aspect of the game is enhanced by allowing you to tilt the tiles and shift all the circles toward the downward facing edge. When you get to the higher levels, there are circles outlined in a square that cannot be shifted in this way, and that’s when things really get interesting.

Chroma Shuffle has two basic game modes, Puzzle and Arcade. You start off only playing puzzle, and it introduces you to the game concepts by spoon feeding you them in a few tutorial puzzles. You never really feel spoon fed, however, and the game’s pace increases until the puzzles do actually get pretty decently difficult. Unfortunately, that’s probably not until around puzzle number 20, and there are only 26 puzzles in total. There is also a random puzzle mode, and that actually generates random puzzles.

Arcade mode consists of either Timer or Flips mode. In Arcade, you essentially match all the circles in a tile, and then flip it over to refill it with more colors. The longer you play, the more colors appear and the harder it is to not get “stuck” with a square piece in the middle of the tile (away from the edges where you could match it easily). Timed ends when you haven’t made a match after a certain length of time, and Flips ends when you’ve flipped each of the tiles three times (without clearing them first). I’ve only played Flips once, and my game took probably an hour to finish. I didn’t want to stop playing because I didn’t know if my game would be saved when I did. I should experiment with that to find out what happens when you “stop” Siftrunner when you have a game in progress.

The third game at the $8 price range is called Booker the Penguin. This is a very simple action game where you’re in control of a penguin character that is essentially running through a 2D maze made of roads. Each of the tiles that doesn’t have the penguin on it shows the shape of a road. When one of those tiles is placed next to the tile with Booker on it, Booker will run toward that tile, and it becomes the new tile to put your other tiles up against. There is an Adventure mode here that gets progressively harder, where in the first few levels you are just running around collecting eggs, and then eventually they introduce an owlbear that is trying to eat you. The hardest part about the owlbear is not so much that you have a shorter time in which to make decisions about which tile to play, but actually that you are limited in the direction in which you can move. If you accidentally go back, the owlbear is there waiting to eat you. It really limits your options, which is good, because the game definitely feels “too easy” in the beginning. I probably haven’t played it enough yet, because I haven’t played through the purported 11 levels of Adventure Mode. There is also an Endless mode, which I have yet to try, and a mode where you play as the owlbear, trying to eat all the little penguins.

As I said, I still need to give a bit more time to Booker before I make a final judgement, but my initial impressions were just that it was too simple to be that much fun. Later levels add some complexity, but I’m not feeling it yet.

The next pricing tier of games consists of a single kid’s story game for $4 called Oogor’s day. I haven’t picked it up yet, but here’s the (intriguing) description:

Oogor’s Day is a storytelling game that lets you do more than just choose the course of the adventure – it lets you control it directly. Use your Sifteo cubes to bring characters to life and have them interact with each other. Your actions will influence the flow of the story. How will Oogor’s day go? It’s all up to you.

After Oogor’s day, there are a few games/apps for a dollar. A tile shuffling game called No Evil Monkeys, (think of the picture puzzles where you have to re-arrange a puzzle by sliding tiles into the empty spot on the board), a simon-says style speed/reaction game called Do the Sift, and a word game called Word Play. No Evil Monkeys is made more difficult because you can easily get frustratingly lost with all three tiles involved. Orientation is also a factor, and some of the quadrants of the images are actually ambiguous as to which orientation is the right one.

Do the Sift runs you through ten repetitions/turns where it tells you what you need to do to advance to the next turn. It might be flipping the tile over, or just tilting it a bit, shaking it, making sure all the tiles are touching, or any number of other things. I think this is another fun game that shows off the device capabilities pretty well. I’m fairly certain it was designed to do just that. My main complaint is that it (again) doesn’t really get difficult fast enough. The first 10 levels are fairly slow, and each subsequent 10 levels speeds the game up slightly, although it doesn’t appear to get more difficult in terms of what actions you’re asked to perform or anything like that.

Finally, I haven’t purchased Word Play, so I can’t really speak to it, but the description doesn’t really inspire me:

Word Play is the definitive word game for Sifteo cubes. Arrange your cubes to spell as many words as possible in the time given. Play Explore mode to practice, or Score mode to go after the high score. Challenge your friends and expand your vocabulary!

I play a lot of word games, and yet another one where you’re just seeing what words you can make with a combination of letters doesn’t seem all that innovative or appealing. Just because it’s a new platform doesn’t mean you should re-write a game that’s been done to death already.

Conclusion

The jury is still out! I absolutely love the concept, and really want Sifteo cubes to be successful, but as you have just read, I think the current implementation has a lot of problems. None of these are overwhelming problems, but when summed together, the product doesn’t feel ready yet. A few more games of Chroma Shuffle’s caliber, and it might feel “good enough” to launch, but I’m glad this is an “Early Access”, and not the final product.

When I first heard about Sifteo, just before the CES pre-order, I read on some forum somewhere about another company with a very similar product in Europe. After trying various google searches for the last hour, I haven’t been able to find reference to that other company in the avalanche of Sifteo press. This is both a good thing (yay Sifteo!) but also a bad thing, because I’d like to see some competition in this space to liven things up. I do believe this is one of those “this is the future” moments. If Sifteo plays their cards right, they could be the next big tabletop gaming phenomena.

Game Center Match-3 Mania!

Monday, September 27th, 2010

Game Center games are starting to pour in, and today I stumbled onto the (true**) first Match-3 game I’d seen, (although I don’t think it was the first one on there), called GeoBlocks. I’m going to talk about that, and then I’ll also talk about the second match-3 game I played with Game Center integration, Squaree, and I will actually go so far as to say that Squaree is my new favorite Match-3 game! As of this writing, both GeoBlocks and Squaree are FREE in the app store, so get ’em while they’re hot.

I played GeoBlocks for quite a while, trying to get the next achievement. It’s a pretty standard match-3, with level progression based on the number of matches you’ve gotten in all the colors. In fact, that’s one of the only really interesting aspects of the game… to score really big, you actually want to try NOT to progress, so you can rack up points before the timer (white line at the bottom of the screen) gets going so fast that you don’t have time to think before you match.

I made a note to myself to add GeoBlocks to my spreadsheet listing Match-3 games for the iPhone, and I actually went one step further than that, and added a column indicating whether the game has Game Center integration. I suppose now that I’ve done that, I should really add another column for OpenFeint. Maybe I’ll do that some other time and actually go through all the games listed to see which have which features.

So then I went looking to see if there were other Match-3 games with Game Center, and I found Jewel Craft in the featured list. I wasn’t about to shell out $3 for another Match-3 game though, (especially when I just played a perfectly decent one for free). That got me thinking about what other free Game Center games there might be out there, so I searched App Shopper for “game center”, and sorted by price. That was when I found Squaree.

Squaree doesn’t really look like much, and (as is common when I go app shopping) at first I didn’t even play it, just downloaded it to check out later. But I soon grew tired of scanning through all the crap in that AppShopper search, and Squaree was either the first or second app I opened up to check out.

It’s match-3, definitely, but the way you get your squares is pretty unique. There is a board with a whole bunch of grayed out pieces. Tapping a piece causes un-gray, and for it to fall all the way to the bottom of the board (or until it hits another solid piece). Get three of the same color to match, and two of them disappear, but the third turns into a “locked” piece. Match four pieces and you get a X2 piece remaining, and if you match 5, you get a piece that, when matched, removes all solid pieces of that color from the gameboard.

This is pretty much all you need to know to get started playing Squaree. It’s simple, yes, but I had a lot of fun with it, and I’ll definitely be playing more of it in the next few days. There are two game modes, but only the “Challenge” mode has a high score list. That list is extremely short right now, and I’m hoping to make it to the top with some practice in the next few days. My only disappointment was finding out that there aren’t any Achievements. I wish I could add yet to the end of that statement. :)

**Note that both Azkend and Dice Match had Game Center the day after its launch. They are both solidly in the Match-3 category, but neither has the swap-to-remove mechanic. Both are the kind where the matches already exist and you have to choose which one to remove. (Think Same Game rather than Bejeweled, but you have to touch all the pieces you want to remove.) It would be interesting to write another post comparing and contrasting those two games, but I’m pretty much done for the evening.