Caves n' Chasms Reviews

We've gotten a few good reviews so far for Caves n' Chasms (and none bad, thankfully!). Here they are:

"The visuals are fantastic, the music and sound effects are delightful, and the gameplay is unique and challenging — this is not your typical digging game." - AppAdvice.com

"A dig 'em up with depth that deftly marries a bit of arcade action with cunning puzzling." - PocketGamer.co.uk

"Will you just cry and wait for inevitable death, or will you be brave enough to go deeper and explore what's beneath the earth?" - Android Community

We also got a pretty good response on our Touch Arcade forum thread. Worth a read if you're having a really slow day ;)

Caves n' Chasms is Coming Soon!

We're putting the finishing touches Caves n' Chasms, on our new game for iOS and Android. Here are a few screenshots of live gameplay:

We're still adding in a few pieces of art and animation, but for the most part the look and feel of the game is done!

Here's a gif giving a closer look at one of the above screenshots - the character is using a chain explosion to drop a bunch of falling tiles onto mummies in the darkness, neatly squishing them :)



Mobile App Analytics Big List

Here's a list of every mobile analytics company I could find. This list is current as of January, 2014.

Pretty much every platform offers basic event tracking, cohorts and (generally) funnels. Since each provider’s basic offerings are almost indistinguishable, I’ve also noted their specialty in parentheses. I’ve also separated free / paid analytics (although some listed as free may turn out not to be).

Free

Paid (most offer low-volume data for free)

Creating Lasting Single-Player Games

Why do single-player games have trouble offering significant replay value? I’ve been thinking about this question quite a bit lately, being in the process of building primarily single-player games.

I just came across an old Jason Rohrer article that attempts to answer the question:

Can you make an AI-free, randomness-free, physical-challenge-free, single-player game with gameplay depth akin to that of Go?

Is there any hope for the single player art game that seeks to provide that kind of depth at the gameplay level?

I now firmly believe that the answer is “no.” The proof comes from considering how one might go about winning, or doing well at, such a game. If there is a single, optimal path to victory, then systematically finding that path is the main task in the game. Once the path has been discovered and documented for future use, the game’s depth is exhausted. If there are multiple possible paths to victory, finding the rest after you’ve found one is an optional act of completionism, an exploration of mechanical depth.

Rohrer went on to make Sleep is Death, which requires the scenario creator to be live and in-game. He simply isn’t confident in the authentic depth of single-player games.

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Rohrer gave his argument a lot of restrictions, though: AI-free and randomness free? No physical challenges? Multiplayer is his only solution: each player is matched with other humans. But even multiplayer has (at least) two big problems:

  1. It relies on the availability of another person with a similar expertise level. If I were to play a game of Starcraft against an expert, it’s likely they’d consider me less enjoyable and interesting than an advanced AI opponent.
  2. It presupposes that the player will enjoy either the idea or actuality of having a human opponent.

Rohrer’s examples of Chess and Go as the perfect multiplayer games, ones that can keep us playing forever, reinforces these points in my mind. For 1), I’ve rarely met anyone who provides an enjoyable challenge in such games — the gulf between beginners and advanced practitioners mean they are either easily defeated or wipe the floor with me. Even matchmaking systems are generally flawed. For 2), quite a few people (including me) just don’t always enjoy multiplayer. Humans, in many ways, are just as imperfect as game mechanics.

One more assertion Rohrer makes is that AI has mostly disappeared from modern games. I suppose that’s true in a sense, but I’m also interested in the possibility that we’ve just gotten better at using simple mechanics to produce interest.

This comment below Rohrer’s article caught my eye:

“ I remember years ago playing Quake with bots. The bots were exceptionally simple AIs: they were able to navigate the terrain collecting health, and they had perfect aim. The only thing that made them semi-enjoyable opponents, was their persistence on using the shotgun and ONLY the shotgun. They were hard to fight. At close range they were lethal, and even at long range they were punishing. By an “intelligent” standard they were far from perfect players, but that is what made them “enjoyable”. Their imperfect understanding of the mechanics allowed for a win condition.”

I remember those Quake bots too, and agree that they were enjoyable — as much so as a “smart” AI that knows how to flank me but has imperfect aim.

True, their appeal runs out quickly. But why not update the old Quake formula? Indie game design is currently preoccupied with random generation of static content (rooms, enemy placement, etc) but it's conceivable that AI could be coded in the same way.

For example, drawing from some aspects of Spore:

  • Create an alien rig that allows for variations in size and movement speed
  • Create a set of weapons with variations in damage, area, range and speed
  • Create sets of simple AI behaviors: guard, flank, attack, retreat, etc

Mix and match all three categories in each new “encounter”; preferably, the aliens will be stupid and somewhat crippled, but appear in overwhelming force until the player figures out the right exploit. For bonus points, keep statistics on player matches and save enemy types that are in the right “challenge” range.

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Would it work? I’m not sure, but it sounds fun as an idea.

The idea of keeping players unbalanced and uncertain of what’s coming next reminds me of an old question about who would win between a samurai swordsman and fencer. The answer was that both would die, given that they started unaware of each others’ style. The reason: both types of swordfighting are reliant on a small set of moves that are too fast and deadly to counter, without the ability to predict your enemy.

Swordfighting, although a “multiplayer” game, is just as much about the rules and properties as the intelligence of the opponent, and until you’ve seen many similar scenarios, a simple set of trained behaviors would be just as good as a human opponent.

Low-Res Communication, High-Res Emotions

Journey's is seemingly built on its restrictions: if you want to communicate, all you can do is make mewling or chiming noises at various levels of intensity, and run around meaningfully.

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As a system, it seems fairly unique. Today’s Gordon Walton interview, about the Sims 2, reminds me that others have also tread this ground:

“One of the biggest fears in doing Sims 2 was when you make it more expressive, you’re going to lose a lot of the player connection where they’re making up what it means. Ten players might think it means three different things or more, and it was all OK. But if you actually see the character make an expression, then you go ‘Oh, that’s not what I was expecting’ and there’s more disconnect at some level. I think the numbers prove that out; even though all the products were successful nothing was a s big as Sims 1 because you could put more of you in it rather than it putting it on you.”

This is part of what Minecraft has going for it, according to Walton. “It’s so iconic that you’re filling in more of the blank areas,” he noted. “You have to engage your imagination to make that blocky guy look like what he really is. When you look at some of the early phone games you’re back to a more iconic thing and just raw fun, rather than it has to be perfect animation and perfect exposition of the character.”

Minecraft, Journey and The Sims are all among the best video games in the world, all with highly restricted communication. (Maybe that's also why Lassie was more successful than Mr. Ed?).

Walton seems to suggest that the advance of better graphics reduced sales of The Sims. But now that the craze for high-fidelity graphics has subsided, more games are finding non-verbal ways to communicate. For instance, the also-very-successful Superbrothers have a preference for visual communication over verbal:

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Here’s what they had to say about perception, and the image above:

When you look at a picture of this dude, you’re seeing the shape, and your eye is hitting it on all sides, looking at details, seeing the whole thing, nonverbally reflecting on it. You’re kind of half-remembering images like this and the vaguely emotional associations and echoes that go with them.

This picture isn’t speaking to your intellect, it’s engaging the older mind, the one that is always looking for patterns and associations.

For those of us who want imaginative entertainment, the low-res nature of older games, or newer titles like Minecraft, tap into that “older mind” in a beautiful way. Journey’s great innovation is finding ways to be beautiful and high-res in parts, while still retaining the mystery, and letting the players’ mind fill in the full range of emotion.

Nimble Quest vs the D-pads

Nimble Quest is pretty cool. It’s a new mobile game from NimbleBit, the same folks that made Tiny Tower:

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It’s Snake with RPG characters that exchange ranged attacks with enemies, and perish on contact.

Nimble Quest isn't revolutionary, but it does stand out in one way: it's a twitch game without a D-pad. The legacy of D-pads, inherited from nearly every platform but the Wii, has proven devilishly hard to end in the mobile era, despite their generally terrible marriage with touch screens.

Nimble Quest uses directional swipes instead of a D-pad. What’s really interesting, though, is that its 4-directionality is an illusion. The game actually has a 2-directional control scheme:

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At any given moment, you’re already traveling one direction, and due to the game’s mechanics (dying if you touch your own party) you can’t reverse direction. That leaves two 90-degree turns available. (Example: if you’re moving left, you can only switch direction to up / down.)

Super Hexagon is similar, with only 2 directions of movement, in either direction around a circular pivot. The simplicity lets you focus on gameplay instead of controls.

superhexagon.png

Simple controls make these games sing. Either Nimble Quest or Super Hexagon would fail with a more complex control scheme.

I’m hoping other developers making twitch-based games will sit up and take notice of these recent successes, but the change seems to be coming pretty slowly. We’re over 5 years into touchscreens, and we still have beautiful, finely crafted games like The Other Brothers coming out with D-pads.

That makes me sad, because these D-pad games are literally unplayable by anyone other than a core group of players willing to put up with the control scheme. There have been a handful of top D-pad games, but it’s tap and swipe games like Jetpack JoyrideTiny Wings and yes, Nimble Quest that really break through.

Give Me Permadeath, Or Give Me …

OK, I’m not sure how to finish repurposing the quote in my title. How about “Give Me Perma-Death, Or Don’t Get Played?” Basic idea: I love the idea of letting characters in games die permanently.

I had first hand experience with permadeath in my teens, playing a MUD called Armageddon (which is, amazingly, still active today). As the name implies, Armageddon is tough on new characters. But one of mine survived for almost 2 years, representing over 50 days of gameplay. That’s over 1,200 hours on one character – who died in under 10 seconds as the result of a single bad decision.

Why would I think that was a good experience? At the moment of death, I sure as hell didn’t. (Also, advice to my past self: nerdy gaming teenagers are too weak to punch through walls, but they can hurt their hands pretty badly.) But in retrospect, I don’t regret playing a game that so heartlessly wiped out my hard work. One, I will never, ever forget that death – unlike the thousands of others in different games. Second, and more important, the knowledge that I could die permanently made all the near-misses amid day-to-day play that much sweeter.

Games are generally still considered a casual medium. People don’t want to care enough to die. That’s something of an insult to games, since death is used powerfully in all sorts of non-interactive media, especially movies and books. It’s one of the major reasons The Wire gets called the greatest TV shows of all time so often. Unlike most TV, its writers were willing to use death the way movies do.

There’s a new trend forming in serious gaming, though. Most RPG players remember Aerith’s demise in FFVII, but that was a rare standout at the time. Just lately, I’ve encountered character death in Heavy Rain, the Mass Effect series, Fallout 3, Metal Gear Solid 4 and several others.

When the character that can die is your own, death can also become a useful mechanic. In Realm of the Mad God, you can unlock new character classes during play, but you might have to kill off your avatar to start the new one. Armageddon had this too, with a mechanic called Karma, which could invisibly build up as you played, unlocking new races and classes. Something like Karma is present in the new breed of roguelikes like The Binding of Isaac and Dungeons of Dredmor.

The test is whether the idea survives the shift from consoles and PC to more casual mediums. But I think it might, since smartphone games like Jetpack Joyride andDoodle Jump have already introduced new players to the idea of a one-way ticket. Like death itself, the idea might just sneak up on everybody.

(I originally wrote this for Somofos.)