All posts by Lou Rinaldi

Sakai Mobile Usability

Case Study

Qualtrics on an iPhone
Pilot application on iPhone

In January 2010, Yale’s Center for Media and Instructional Innovation conducted a survey of mobile devices used to access Classes*v2, the University’s learning management system built on the open-source Sakai platform. The results of this survey and a series of related discussions prompted further development, and in 2011 the Classes*v2 team completed an alpha version of a mobile web interface. A decision was made to open it up to a select group of pilot participants during the Spring 2012 semester. Our goal was to gather student and faculty feedback to inform ongoing development efforts. With no formal usability training, but plenty of gritty do-it-yourself determination, the team set about conducting a large-scale usability study.

The process of selecting and gathering feedback from the pilot participants was a multi-phased approach:

1. Open call for volunteers

Upon logging into Classes*v2, a message invited interested users to apply to be part of the pilot.

  • Sample language we used:
    • “Help us pilot a new mobile interface for Classes*v2!”
    • “Got a mobile device? Help us pilot a new mobile interface for Classes*v2!”
    • “The Classes*v2 team needs your help to pilot a new mobile interface!”

2. Selection of pilot participants

Pilot applications simply required the user’s identity as well as which Classes*v2 tools they used regularly. Since the alpha version of the mobile web interface only worked with some tools, the team wanted to ensure a good fit between these parameters and the usage habits of potential pilot participants.

3. The call to action

We sent accepted pilot participants an introductory email:

“Thanks for your interest in the Classes*v2 mobile pilot. As a first step in optimizing Classes*v2 for mobile devices, we invite your feedback on an alpha release, which includes views of several key tools.

To access the mobile view, please visit …

We’ll be sending you a quick survey in several weeks to learn about your experience. Your input on what works, what’s missing, and what needs to be tweaked will be incredibly helpful as we continue building the mobile view.

We appreciate your participation in the alpha pilot and look forward to your feedback.”

4. Gathering post-pilot feedback

After the month-long pilot period ended, we sent participants a survey about their experience. Out of 648 participants, 220 (34%) responded to the survey.

“Thank you for your participation in the pilot of the Classes*v2 mobile alpha. Please take a few minutes to complete a quick survey on your experience with the pilot. We’re grateful for the feedback, and confident that it will help us further develop and improve the interface.”

(The final survey was individualized for tracking responses.)

Here are the results of the survey, if you’re curious. Included are some lessons learned and signposts that we used to prioritize development efforts.

Outcomes

  • Well over 500% mobile activity increase.
  • Over 300% increase in pages per visit during mobile sessions.
  • Over 300% increase in average time on site during mobile sessions (from roughly 20 seconds to about 90)
  • 25% increase in new mobile visitors
  • 57% decrease in the mobile bounce rate (a good thing!)
  • A focus group with student interns from the Instructional Technology Group to further refine the feedback we received
  • Coverage in the Yale Daily News
  • Users of phone-sized devices are now automatically redirected to the mobile web interface when logging into Classes*v2.

Lingering Questions

  • How might we have streamlined the process?
  • Was there anything missing from our approach, bearing in mind the scale of the effort?
  • What should we do when frequently recurring suggestions are seemingly impossible to deliver?

This post was written as a contribution to Users First!, a November 2013 Unconference at Yale University

iOS Review: Fluxx

iOS Review: Fluxx


Being in the right place at the right time is a rare luxury in Fluxx.
Being in the right place at the right time is a rare luxury in Fluxx.

I grew up playing Uno as a child. It’s a fairly simple game, as card games go, and one that can be easily learned by almost any age group. If I were asked to explain Fluxx to someone whose only frame of reference was Uno, I’d ask that person to think about Uno with the training wheels off… heading straight over a cliff edge, when zero-gravity suddenly kicks in. To play Fluxx is to not only tolerate chaos but to embrace it, and I say that with the highest level of admiration. Fluxx is a game with true mass-market appeal, a next-level Uno for those who’ve grown bored of the comparative simplicity.

Rules were made to be broken, and in Fluxx, they will be broken and rewritten with nearly every turn. Instead of trying to shed all your cards to win as in Uno, you’re trying to collect a combination of two cards that happen to match the current criteria for victory. It’s trickier than it sounds, because simple possession of the winning pair is not enough; you’ve got to put them into play as well. Did I mention they’re likely to be stolen or otherwise removed from your hand? Or by the time of your next turn, the criteria for victory may have been completely altered. You and your opponents will be offered a dizzying array of options for changing virtually every element of the rulebook. Everything is temporary, victory and defeat are never assured beyond the scope of a single turn. It’s all the fun of tossing darts at a board while blindfolded and balancing on a randomly moving platform. I’d never played the physical version of the game, but at no point did I feel too lost to follow along with the action. The tutorial is quite effective at bringing the uninitiated up to speed.

The AI opponent is available in easy (green) or hard (red) variants. Easy is clearly and wisely designed to help teach the game to new players. It will occasionally miss obvious opportunities to win. When given a choice of multiple targets for a given action, it will not always pick the highest-value target. So this isn’t Puzzle Quest, where newbies will be punished mercilessly for even the slightest rookie mistake. You’re given the luxury of realizing “ah, it could’ve won right there” and making sure you don’t fall asleep at the same wheel when your time comes. The hard AI is not nearly so forgiving, once you’re ready for a tougher challenge.

The iPhone UI sometimes obscures a hand with lots of cards.
The iPhone UI sometimes obscures a hand with lots of cards.

This being my first foray into Playdek’s iOS fare, my lofty expectations were well met. The interface is top class, and nearly everything is intuitively obvious. The aesthetics are warm and pleasing in a fuzzy 1970s kind of way. When you’ve got quite a few cards in your hand on an iPhone, things can get a bit more cramped and difficult to read. At one point I was annoyed at how slowly the cards were being dealt, and of course there was an option to change that speed. Everything about this iOS implementation of the game leads me to marvel at how much more streamlined an experience it must be than playing with physical cards. Keeping track of the ever-changing rules from one moment to the next would be a big challenge in and of itself. Put it this way: I don’t think I’d be able to finish a physical game of Fluxx during my 25-minute train commute, but many of my evaluation games for the iOS version were completed during these same trips. While I did not have a chance to try the multiplayer options, the game offers local pass-and-play as well as asynchronous online.

Besides the sometimes-cramped iPhone interface, there is another flaw worth mentioning: it never really feels like you’re developing a long-term strategy from game to game. Because the rules are so frequently randomized, you can only really strategize within the scope of your current game, and even then it’s more about wily adaptability than gritty determination. So there’s a bit of a “Groundhog Day” effect when playing Fluxx. You’ll gradually build up a portfolio of go-to tactical options based on what cards you have at any given time, but I imagine that’s about the extent of any sense of progression the game might hold for most folks. Once you’ve sufficiently familiarized yourself, luck is undoubtedly the biggest determinant of success or failure.

If you’re in the mood for lighter, more accessible card-gaming fare, you could do far worse than Fluxx. Need a game suitable to play with older or younger opponents, or just those friends of yours who may not geek out quite as extensively? You’ve found it. Just don’t be surprised if you wind up getting hooked despite yourself. Embrace the chaos, and enjoy the ride.

SCORE

4 out of 5

Links

A Conversation with Patrick Casey of Peculiar Games

Indie game dev Patrick Casey
Indie game dev Patrick Casey

Name: Patrick Casey

Company: Peculiar Games

Flagship: Voyage to Farland (Android)

 

Patrick Casey is a former electrical engineer who quit the corporate world a decade ago and set off to teach English in Japan (where he accidentally became a Mystery Dungeon fanatic). He’s now back in the States, trying his hand at making video games and other quirky apps for Android, PCs, HTML5 and hopefully other platforms in the near future.

 

Mystery Dungeon is a series of roguelike video games, most of which were developed by a Japanese company called Chunsoft. The series was born when Dragon Quest co–creator Koichi Nakamura became inspired by a fellow developer’s experience with Rogue. Just as Dragon Quest took elements from the western computer RPGs Wizardry and Ultima and reconstructed them into a more approachable and easier to understand console game, with Mystery Dungeon Nakamura attempted to unpack the density of Rogue and transpose it into a more palatable form for the masses.

 

Patrick’s claim to roguelike fame is known as Voyage to Farland, which is inspired by the second game in the Mystery Dungeon series (and the first to feature all original characters as opposed to familiar faces from other, more well-known games): Shiren the Wanderer. Noting that “there’s no point in remaking a classic,” Patrick is fine with people calling Voyage a Shiren-clone. But he’s also quick to point out his experimentation with introducing new elements into the formula, such as vial mechanics, trap mechanics and monster abilities. “You’ll have to play the game to find out,” says Patrick.

 

I caught up with Patrick recently and talked about Voyage, his other games and interests, and some of the challenges he faces as an indie developer.

 

Q: What do you do when you’re not making or playing games?

 

With the indie game developer market being what it is, I still spend time looking for a “real job”. Besides that and prototyping new ideas, I go camping occasionally, and fly-fishing — nature is really restorative and often an inspiration for game ideas. And I daydream while drinking the occasional craft beer (or cheap beer when money’s tight), thinking up new amazing ideas for video games, most of which I realize the next day are pretty bad ideas.

 

Perhaps then it’s no coincidence that Shiren is arguably the first roguelike to predominantly feature outdoor environments. What’s your preferred style of beer to inspire all that creative thought? And what video game ideas of yours have passed the “morning after” test, but haven’t yet become reality?

 

The graphics and music in Shiren took the game from being very good to classic in my mind. For people who love pixel art, the game is brilliant.

 

I’m a huge fan of Belgian beer, especially dark and strong Trappist Ales. A crisp Czech Pilsner, malty British Ale or hoppy Sierra Nevada also helps with the coding from time to time. And with my name, a nice pint of Guinness always hits the spot.

 

To be honest, there are few ideas that have passed the “morning after” test — at least ideas that aren’t just ripoffs of yet another Bit Generations game (I did some work on a game inspired by the GBA Bit Generations game Orbital this past winter). I suppose my first Android game, RGBbot, is one of those ideas that passed the test. It was meant to be a match three game, but a “match” was a combination of red, green, and blue “zombie” robots to make them disappear in an flash of white. That game was pretty rough and lacking in polish, but had its fun aspects and a fun little back story.

 

Q: How did you first get into roguelikes, and what was your first exposure to the Mystery Dungeon series?

 

Although I had a buddy way “back in the day” (early 1990s) who was obsessed with a PC port of the original Rogue, my first real exposure to roguelikes and first Mystery Dungeon game was actually Shiren the Wanderer, which it turns out is a pretty good one to start with.

 

I was teaching English in Japan at the time, and bought a DS to make the hour long train commutes to work every day more bearable. I had played through the GBA re-releases of Mother 1+2 (Earthbound), and then Mother 3 and was looking for a new game. I’d seen the big posters designed by Akira Yasuda for Shiren at an electronics store in Shinjuku when the game was released in Japan, but didn’t know what to make of it — I figured it was some anime stuff that Japanese gamers were into and that I wouldn’t like. Little did I know…

 

Anyway, I looked the game up on the internet, saw it was actually a hardcore (brutal even) “roguelike” game and knew I had to give it a try. Within a day I was hooked. (Shiren is deceptive at first — it sometimes takes a few floors to “get it”) I ended up playing the game almost exclusively for over a year, including getting the <spoiler>Borg Mamel leveled up to 99</spoiler>.

 

I recall reading some Usenet postings (17 years ago!) in rec.games.video.nintendo by a fellow named Alan Kwan. They were essentially dramatizations of his experiences playing through the “Shrine of Buffu” (renamed “Kitchen God Shrine” in the North American release for the Nintendo DS). These postings were also formative for roguelike pundit and Shiren superfan John Harris, who mentioned them in one of his Shiren-focused “@Play” columns for the now-defunct GameSetWatch.com (RIP). It would be another decade before I actually got to play the game for myself, thanks to a fan-made English translation patch for the Super Famicom ROM. Did you imagine at the time that your fluency in both languages was affording you such an incredible opportunity that would be unattainable to the majority of Western gamers for so many years?

 

I saw John’s @Play articles mentioning Alan’s playthroughs and read a bit of them. I never thought too much about my Japanese skills in that respect, especially since I’m not completely fluent. I saw Shiren as an amazing game and was happy I could give the excuse of “studying” the language while I played. I did make heavy use of the gameFAQs walkthrough for the SNES version. I even printed out a little booklet version that I carried with me on the train and it was a huge help since reading Japanese is notoriously difficult due to all the Kanji.

 

But I guess in retrospect it did afford me an amazing opportunity, although it made me a “Mystery Dungeon True Believer” and I now sometimes feel like a street preacher trying to convert passersby.

 

Q: What’s unique about “Voyage to Farland” that sets it apart in a market increasingly flooded with roguelikes?

 

It’s a crossover between western graphical and ASCII roguelikes (and a bit off to the side given its inspiration). Voyage uses a lot of sprite-based animation, sound effects and music. And admittedly, Voyage borrows heavily from Shiren concepts, making it sometimes drastically different from western roguelike games in its approach, even though Shiren itself is a distillation of Rogue and Nethack onto the console platform with a Japanese sensibility. One reviewer on Amazon wrote (paraphrasing) that Voyage has a simple enough control system to be approachable while at the same time being complex enough to be interesting.

 

I’ve taken great pains to have the items and their interaction with monsters be fairly consistent. An example is the Levelup Bead: wave it at an NPC in your party to increase its level (and fighting power), but in the hardcore dungeon before it has been identified, waving it at a monster will “level up” the monster, quickly turning an easy fight into something much more serious. After you’ve identified the bead, you can leave it on the floor for a certain type of monster to toss at you, giving you an instant level boost.

 

I’ve also tried to have enough diversity in monster abilities to set up “moments of mayhem” for lack of a better term, where seemingly simple situations can turn deadly and apparently doomed situations still have a path to escape with clever strategy and item usage.

 

Voyage has another layer of complexity in the vial item. Vials are inspired by Shiren’s monster meats, although they end up being a bit different with the presence of the “Catapult” monsters. You can capture any monster in a vial, drink the vial to become the monster and use its special abilities, like moving through walls as a Ghost, moving double speed as a Witch, or standing back and throwing electrical pulses as a SparkDroid. I’m not sure if other indie roguelikes are doing that sort of thing, although they may be. Working on my own games has unfortunately left me with less time to try other games.

 

I appreciate your concept of “moments of mayhem.” The aforementioned John Harris once wrote, “The beginning of roguelike wisdom is in recognizing critical moments. A critical moment is a turn in which, if you don’t do something important, you may die before you get your next turn.” I believe a lot of the latter-day fanaticism around roguelikes stems from this gameplay element. In a world where almost every game on the market coddles the player and spoon-feeds them from start to finish, many gamers find the critical moments of roguelikes to be a refreshing change of pace. We can even see these elements emerging in [slightly] more mainstream games like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Can you ever see yourself working for a commercial video game developer, and if so, what conditions would have to be met?

 

I couldn’t agree with you more. John’s concept of the critical moment in the context of roguelike games is insightful to say the least. A casual reader may say it’s just an obvious observation, but a more careful look of his breakdown of the phrase reveals there’s more to it. “Moments of mayhem” is related and also hints at the complexity that can come out of a system of seemingly simple AI rules in a turn-based game like this. Both as a player and as a programmer I’m often amazed at some of the funny and at times horrific things that happen in a monster room.

 

I also enjoyed John’s observation that “The first thing you should know about Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer … is that it is a game.” In other words, you can actually lose.

 

I haven’t given too much thought to working for a “real” commercial developer. I guess it would be a trade-off of salary vs. creative freedom. I’m not even sure many places would have me, although I do sometimes fantasize about getting an email from Chunsoft asking me if I’d like to move back to Japan and work on one of their games.

 

Q: It took about 13 years for “Fushigi no Dungeon 2: Fūrai no Shiren” (1995) to receive a commercial translation and North American release as “Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer” (2008). How did you decide to tackle the daunting task of creating the first Mystery Dungeon style game of western origin for mobile?

 

I didn’t really think it through to be honest. If I had, it may have been a bit too daunting and kept me from finishing the game. The game started out as just a hobby while I was in Japan to see how far I could take the concept and if I could actually finish and release it. I was also wondering what I’d do when I finished Shiren (which is quite long, but would still end eventually). I worried whether I’d have hardcore roguelike withdrawal or something crazy like that. So tinkering with Voyage kept me busy in the winter months when there wasn’t much else to do.

 

If Voyage is the first Mystery Dungeon style game of western origin, that’s kind of cool. But I’m not the only one developing in this sub-genre these days — Devlin is working on The Wizard’s Lair, so he’s a fellow wanderer of the Mystery Dungeon path.

 

Voyage certainly predates The Wizard’s Lair, so I think you can safely lay claim to the throne. It’s simultaneously encouraging and depressing to think about new games such as “Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity” receiving a North American release. Encouraging because at least the series continues to receive support on these shores, but discouraging in that publishers seem to feel it’s only a viable product if it’s skinned in a way that appeals to the mass market. If you look at Fire Emblem, it’s evident that Awakening didn’t need to be similarly sugar-coated to be considered a viable product for North American consumption. Do you think the poor sales performance of Shiren in the US has doomed the Mystery Dungeon series to Perpetual Pokémon-ification in this market?

 

Because of the “street preacher” feeling I mentioned, it always cheers me up when I find that there are indeed small pockets of hardcore Mystery Dungeon fans out there — both people diving into the game and posting about successes and also starting development of MD inspired games like Devlin has with The Wizard’s Lair.

 

I wish I knew how the Shiren sales are affecting future games. People sure seem to look forward to the Pokemon versions and there’s nothing wrong with that really. They’re charming games after all. On the topic of Shiren sales, I did a bit of research a while back for a tweet and found these numbers: 329K sales of Shiren DS in Japan (pop. ~127million), 170K sales in the Americas (pop. ~528million). So sales were roughly 8x higher per capita in Japan than in all of the Americas.

 

I have a feeling Chunsoft know the score and will still make more hardcore games. They had the guts to make a game like Shiren in the first place, which not many studios would do. I just hope they haven’t given up releasing them in the west. There are actually a couple of Android versions of Shiren that Chunsoft released, but unfortunately they’re region locked to Japan, last I checked.

 

Q: You’ve gone out of your way to ensure that Voyage is readily available through multiple distribution mechanisms, including the Chrome Web Store. You’ve even produced a version for Linux. Is portability a significant factor in the choice of the Google/Android ecosystem as your primary development platform? Any plans for iOS?

 

The main reason for moving from NDS homebrew to Android first was the low cost of entry. The one time developer fee and ability to develop on the PC I already had was attractive. I was making a bet that Android would grow — this was back when it wasn’t taken too seriously, but the first Droid had just come out — and getting in before the market got saturated was appealing.

Along the way, there were requests for a PC version of the game, and Slick2D finally made that possible (with Linux support an added bonus). Porting the game to the Chrome Native Client SDK got PC/Linux/Mac support in one package.

 

I’d like to make an iOS version, but the cost is holding me back currently — I gather I’d need a Mac and couldn’t use the old, cranky notebook PC I have now. But it’s still a definite possibility.

 

Perhaps some generous Mystery Dungeon fan reading this will be compelled to donate a Mac to the cause. Is there any chance we’ll be able to play Voyage on the forthcoming Ouya console?

 

A donated Mac would be awesome but an iOS build would still be pretty expensive I think. A few hundred dollars for device hardware and then the yearly app store fee. We’ll see after I’ve had a short break. I also got a request to make a PlayStation Mobile version recently, but that looked somewhat expensive, too. Just breaking even on the Android version took longer than I expected.

 

Ouya would be really cool since I feel this “action console roguelike” genre is well suited to a hardware controller. I made a lame attempt to win one of the Ouya dev consoles during their Twitter giveaway, but my tweets went un-retweeted and other teams who’d had success on Kickstarter pitches won most of the consoles. I’ve already done some basic work in the Ouya emulator but I’m very cautious about further hardware investments these days.

 

Q: It must have been very challenging starting from scratch with art direction and assets. Can you share with us your process?

 

The process was as muddled as you might expect from a lapsed programmer trying to make art for a game. The earliest sprites and background tiles were pretty rough frankly. Then I found Daniel Cook’s free prototyping graphics sets, so early sprites and backgrounds borrowed heavily from there. Voyage’s “Hero” and Oba monsters are still derived from one of his sets, although I had to take the single frame sprite and change it into animated sprite sheets (walking, swinging weapons, etc.) in all directions.

 

I’ve actually gotten better with practice at making art assets over the 6 years I’ve been working on the game. An example is the Toy Robot NPC I added recently which looks much better than some of the older sprite sheets I made. I’m also happy with the way the owl sprite’s flying animation turned out. Nevertheless, sprite based animation is very labor intensive.

 

More generally about the “feel” of the game, I liked that Shiren deviated from dungeon-only floors in artwork and I wanted to try that for Voyage. In fact I may have gone too far since there are 10 or 12 forest and stream-themed “floors” in the starter dungeon before you get to a floor that could genuinely be called a dungeon. The hardcore dungeon that’s unlocked later has more dungeony and less forest-oriented artwork, however.

 

I’d like to hire a real artist some day, and a couple of people have even volunteered work that’s finally been included in the game with the Chrome version. Shroomarts in particular has been really generous with time and ideas.

Voyage to Farland promotional art by Shroomarts
Voyage to Farland promotional art by Shroomarts

I can only imagine the contributions you might receive if the game were to get the kind of exposure that comes with an iOS release. Voyage is clearly a labor of love, and that dedication really shines through. Are there any particular graphical elements you’d prioritize for a real artist, when that day comes?

 

You’re probably right and I’m starting to feel guilty dithering on an iOS build :) I guess it would make sense to prioritize background tilesets first, since they’d have the biggest impact for the least amount of work.

 

That being said, I wonder if artists would still be willing to work on new graphics when they find out how much work is involved in the monster animations. Unlike a roguelike with static tiles for monsters, this game requires about 60 frames of animation for each monster or NPC. Even an experienced pixel-artist will likely need a week for the spritesheet for just one monster. Multiply that by 30 or more monsters and then add all the background tiles… It’s a pain in the neck, but I love these simple 4 or 6 frame pixel art animations.

 

Q: What type of feedback have you gotten on Voyage? Do you have a development prioritization process based on user suggestions and requests?

 

I’ve gotten feedback that’s all over the place, from it being a game for 5 year olds to being way too hard. However, a few Nethack gurus have gotten in touch and seem to like the game. It’s always tricky with this type of game to know which feedback to pay more heed. I mean, Shiren got a lukewarm response here in the west and yet it’s one of the greatest video games ever made, in my opinion.

 

For ongoing development and expansion of the game, I’m going partly by my own sense of what made Shiren good, balanced with requests from players. I recently made a change to the boss fight at the end of the starter dungeon based on feedback from a knowledgeable roguelike fan — something I thought was in the spirit of “losing is fun”, but in retrospect was probably just plain unfair.

 

It’s always a challenge to strike a workable balance between your creative vision and the on-ground realities for the consumer. But it sounds like you’ve been able to effectively filter the signal from the noise. That said, are there any “lines in the sand” where you simply won’t compromise your existing game design?

 

I can’t think of any lines in the sand, unless it’s something like removing permadeath and letting the player restore from arbitrary save points.

 

For many requests, I usually have a go at implementing them. Especially if the player asks in a non-ragey way. As a case in point, I finally added some alternate control schemes in the latest Android version because I could see how many players would want it and I really respected the roguelike bona fides of the players requesting it.

 

Q: What are the biggest hurdles you face as a small indie game studio?

 

Getting noticed. Paying the bills with what are admittedly niche games. The markets become saturated quickly and the fact that I’m pretty bad at marketing doesn’t help.

 

Hopefully this interview gets you some much-deserved visibility with folks who may not have heard of your games before now. Regarding marketing, have you considered a promotional “blitz” approach such as Amazon’s free app of the day? Do you think it would ultimately be helpful or detrimental?

 

I’ve read stories of a few developers who weren’t happy with the Free App of the Day promotion at Amazon, but it would be a fantastic opportunity for someone like me. Since I generally make games that don’t require any server overhead and getting noticed is the hardest part of this gig, there’s little risk of it being detrimental and high potential for a sizable reward in mind share.

 

And it’s funny you ask, because I was contacted last week by Amazon Japan about doing the Free App of the Day promotion for Microchip Monsters. It would probably be a great opportunity for Peculiar Games and Microchip Monsters in particular. It might also work for Voyage to Farland, but the target audience seems quite different so we’ll have to see.

 

Q: Tell us a bit about your latest Android game, Microchip Monsters.

 

It’s funny that I started working on Microchip Monsters thinking I’d make a casual game to help fund development on Voyage. But it ended up being more “casually hardcore”[1] than just casual. As a result, sales have been weak on Google play, Amazon and the NOOK app store, although the free version on Google play has been somewhat popular.

 

I’m still trying to develop my sense for what has mass appeal and what’s just too weird for most people — I should have known a game about the ghost of a murdered nanobot in your smartphone getting revenge on the virus that killed it would be a bit… uh… out of the mainstream.

 

One nerdy point that might be interesting is that the minimalist design of the microchips in the game is actually inspired by VLSI chip CAD software that engineers use. There was always something lonely yet compelling in an abstract way about the way chips look in that software.

 

On behalf of all fans of the weird, I applaud you for not caving in. I also love hearing about your sources of inspiration. I’m reminded of Miyamoto’s recollection of exploring the caves around Kyoto as an inspiration for Zelda. Sometimes the most deeply personal experiences make for a truly compelling game, and I think a lot of the stigma around that approach has fallen away in recent years (at least with indie games). Do any other personal experiences come to mind as yet-untapped inspirations for future games?

 

I like surreal or funny bits in games, which is probably why I enjoyed Earthbound so much. People shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of whimsy, I think. So yes, there really are black holes and wormholes in your smartphone — I thought everybody knew that!

 

During design I actually develop back stories for most of my games that I never reveal. That includes both Voyage to Farland and Microchip Monsters. Games should have a bit of mystery, and for indie games, players shouldn’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with the developer and learn a couple of secrets along the way. So I’m waiting for that quiet moment on some obscure forum out there to explain a bit deeper when the time comes.

 

About life inspiring games, a fly-fishing game would be fun if it was done right — complete with accurate casting physics (fly casting is really hard) and RPG-ish fly-tying collection mini-games. And maybe throw in a fly-fishing ghost story I wrote a few years back as another RPG mini-game.

 

Also a roguelike game where you play as a roguelike developer and fight “monsters” out in the perilous app market and blogosphere would be kind of cool — or perhaps too niche. We’ll see if that last one sounds so good tomorrow morning…

 

Q: In a utopian future, tell us about what you’ll be doing a few years from now.

 

I’ll be living in a small house somewhere in the mountains near a trout stream, tinkering with indie games for a small but livable income. And maybe I’ll be home-brewing beer again. :)

 

Thank you, Patrick!

 

[1] “Casually hardcore” is a bit of wordplay, for starters — again, whimsy. In this case it means that like the game Peggle, it offers something for both casual and hardcore players. Microchip Monsters is fun for casual players who just want to tap and blow stuff up and progress to the next level. The controls are also designed for casual play — on smaller phones you can play one-handed and it passes the “could I play this on a jam-packed train” test. But hardcore players will notice there are bonuses for optimal mine placement — more points for destroying multiple viruses during one probe launch. The hardcore player will also appreciate the “cleared” achievement symbols, for while unlocking the next stage is only somewhat challenging, clearing ALL the viruses in a stage can be extremely difficult.

We are all wrong.

All of the popular, knee-jerk suggestions for proscriptive action in the aftermath of the Newtown school massacre are terrible, on both sides of the issue. I say this as an NRA life member, who also thinks the recommendations aired at today’s press conference are an absolute joke. Everyone wants a self-serving quick fix, an “easy button” that will magically solve a problem that neither side will admit is deeply more complex than will support their agendas. Nobody wants to look inward, or to think for a second that they may personally have something to do with the larger problem; it’s too horrible a notion to even begin to contemplate. What’s even scarier is committing to the necessary and difficult long-term work toward cultural change on multiple fronts. We want the path of least resistance: to do only what’s required to make the problem temporarily disappear from our radar screens, so we can get back to ingesting an endless stream of pop culture adver-tainment and slowly killing ourselves in various ways.

I salute everyone who is tunneling methodically past the symptoms toward root causes, ignoring the noise and focusing on signal.

sorcerer_kings_1

Review: Sorcerer Kings

One Missed Call from Gandalf
Did I just get a text message?

Sometimes, even the loftiest of intentions can fall flat during execution if you don’t temper your ambitions with pragmatism. It kills me to write a review like this because I can’t help but admire the vision of the developer. After all, what self-respecting Pocket Tactics reader could possibly find fault with a studio that describes itself as “dedicated to the development of strategy games, made in the the spirit of classic board and miniature games, and exploiting the unique environment of multi-touch devices”? Unfortunately, praise for its creator’s mission statement is the kindest thing I have to say about iPad fantasy wargame Sorcerer Kings. There might be a half-decent game buried in here somewhere, but numerous glaring problems will prevent all but the most determined masochists from finding it.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Sorcerer Kings is that it has a distinctly beta-quality, “game creation system” feel from start to finish.  You’ll begin with a flawed and non-interactive tutorial comprised of static images that look like they were created in Skitch in about five minutes. You’ll then move on to pre-game unit selection, where you’ll build your team. The game allows you to select from three different classes of units against what appears to be an arbitrary total points allowance. However, no distinction is made between types of units until after you’ve added them to your team. It’s a painfully cumbersome interface, and it sets the tone ominously for the actual gameplay.

The control scheme can be downright infuriating at times. First and foremost, there’s no undo function. Because of the obtuse user interface, it’s quite easy to do something you didn’t intend to do. I had to start over many times because of an errant tap. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the controls don’t feel even remotely native to the touch screen interface, despite the aforementioned mission statement of the developer. Something as simple as rotating a unit relies on context menus and precision tapping, marred by guesswork. Where are the swipe gestures? There’s no clear indication of when turns end. No explanation in the tutorial of what terrain does or doesn’t do, yet your opponents always seem to gravitate toward wooded areas. According to the credits screen, play-testing was performed solely by the developer and two other people with the same last name. I think that speaks for itself.

What is this i don't even
It’s a good thing we don’t teach people how to drive with tutorials like this.

Aesthetic issues are plentiful in Sorcerer Kings. On a fourth-generation iPad, the unique and pleasingly minimalist artwork by Roberto Cruz is wasted on visual elements that are often no bigger than your pinky fingernail. I’d love to enjoy the individual art assets without resorting to using a magnifying glass. I hate to dwell on visuals in a genre that usually doesn’t need to lean on them as a crutch, but the entire presentation is a mess. Unreasonably small in-game fonts sit on distracting, low-contrast backgrounds. Units might as well be postage stamps floating around the foldout map of Britannia that was included with some mid-period Ultimas. Jarringly, unit commands and in-game alerts pop up in the standard iOS window decoration, but the endgame summary window has a semi-customized look to it. Did I mention there’s no sound? None. Zero. Not even a click when you tap to confirm you’ve selected a unit.

It’s a shame that the same care and attention that went into the art assets didn’t seem to spread to Sorcerer Kings’ user interface. This must have been a great-looking game on the drawing board – but it unfortunately needs to go back there.

SCORE

1 out of 5

Links

Review: Wild Wilf

Wild Wilf is fun, yet perplexing.
Swipe fatigue.

Think of some of your favorite classic video game puzzlers. Now imagine if they were all one game. That’s the developer’s approach to design with Wild Wilf: take the proven mechanics from several hit games of yesteryear and reconstitute them into the videogame equivalent of an everything bagel. Imagine Sokoban meets Boulderdash meets Minesweeper, with a Montezuma’s Revenge aesthetic. Now picture a “turn the tables on your enemies” element, like Pac-Man eating a power pellet. Congratulations, you’ve just envisioned Wild Wilf.

The titular Wilfred Wilde1 has embarked to the New World on a treasure hunt to restore his family’s depleted fortune, in an effort to pay off debts and adequately provide for his sweetheart Marigold. It’s a cute but sparse bit of backstory in the typically plot-starved genre of puzzle games.

The jungle aesthetics of the game are pleasing, with a decidedly retro style. I played Wild Wilf mainly on an iPhone 5, whose aspect ratio is thankfully supported by the game. On the flip side of that coin, the individual tile graphics of the game are extremely small. This makes some of the functional tiles difficult to tell apart, including ones that can get you killed if used in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Playing on an iPad is much easier on the eyes.

Just in time for charity singles season.
“We Are The Wilf”

An unusually long tutorial is used to explain the many ingredients that have been cribbed for inclusion into the game. Each level of the game involves reaching an exit, with varying combinations of obstacles thrown in your way, and often requiring the collection of items on your way. The game initially appears to be turn-based, but a few of the hazards move independently of your own movements. One type of enemy even follows your movements at a fixed pace. There’s also a time limit on each level, with bronze, silver and gold medals awarded for reaching the exit in progressively shorter amounts of time. While this is a common practice in many games, particularly on iOS, the lack of iCloud progress syncing can be annoying if you’re going to be playing on multiple devices. The omission is disappointing, especially for a universal app. Also lamentably absent is Game Center integration of any kind. No leaderboards, no achievements, so your bragging rights extend to whoever’s within earshot.

Wilf can move up, down, left or right via an incremental, “one step per swipe” movement scheme.2 While this degree of precision is necessary for some of the game’s more intricate sections, it can be downright cumbersome on the more wide-open levels. The movement scheme also unnecessarily extends beyond the core gameplay and into the menu interface. Why should the player have to swipe twenty times to scroll through a list of as many levels?

At first I was quite put off by the inclusion of a time limit. I wanted to be fair, so I approached the game on its own terms. The App Store description touts its “mix of arcade and puzzle gameplay,” so it’s clear that developer Bleepy Toy was going for a hybrid style of game. The conglomeration of different puzzle game mechanics can also be an acquired taste. Whether or not it works for you will depend on a few things. Is the decathlon your favorite Olympic event? Did you enjoy such supergroup charity songs as “We Are the World,” “Voices That Care” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” This game is to puzzlers what the Super Smash Bros. series is to fighting games. If I had to compare Wild Wilf to a single game, it would be Adventures of Lolo. And much like that 8-bit classic, Wild Wilf is by turns frustrating, delightful, and challenging.

SCORE

3 out of 5

Links

1 No relation? Wilfred Wild (1893 – 1950) was a British football manager who served as manager of Manchester City from 1932 to 1946. 

2 “Update coming soon to add alternative control method for those of you who prefer ‘Tap Anywhere’”

 

Pen review: Uni-Ball Jetstream Sport 0.7mm


Uni-Ball Jetstream Sport 0.7mm (old body style with three ovals on the clip)


People on the Internet love them some Jetstreams. That much is obvious even to the casual observer. I quickly fell in love myself, but alas, it ended up being one of those love affairs that burns brightly, briefly, and then flames out. The biggest problem for me is that, as smooth of a writer as it is, at the end of the day it’s still a ballpoint. The clumps of ink are still there. It’s definitely the best ballpoint I’ve ever used, though.


JetPens provided me with a sample of the Japanese version of this pen, but for all intents and purposes, it’s identical to the American Jetstream Sport in 0.7mm (save for a single “racing stripe” near the top that’s missing on the Japanese version). I should point out that this is the older body style with three ovals on the clip, and the clip is the same color as the rest of the body. The newer body style tapers to a “pinch” just above the grip, and the grip itself appears to be slimmer and curvier. I’ve never used it so I can’t say which is better, but if you prefer the older style it seems you had better buy in bulk immediately.


The pen feels good in the hand and is an unquestionably smooth writer, a fact on which Uni-Ball’s marketing department has capitalized in a YouTube video featuring one “Doctor Uni-Ball.” At first, I loved it so much that I purchased a box of a dozen just so I could share them with friends and coworkers. Perhaps I was caught up in the effusive praise that every Internet review seems to lavish upon this pen. And in fairness, as I’ve already stated, I would still choose this pen over any other ballpoint within reach, be they hybrid or conventional (although I have yet to try the Pilot Acroball). The problem is that the ink still tends to clump up occasionally, though not nearly as frequently as with conventional ballpoints. I also don’t see the consistent lines that I typically get from gel pens. There’s plenty of evidence in my writing sample for this review.


Maybe it’s because I was also trying out a variety of other pen and ink types for the first time while I was getting acquainted with the Jetstream Sport. But after a brief period of infatuation, it seems to have gotten lost in the crowd. I can’t see grabbing this pen when it’s on the desk next to a Pentel EnerGel, for example. The latter would win almost every time. Their price points are very similar, especially now with the EnerGel-X line. The Jetstream is starting to look a bit less attractive lately, but I’ll always look back fondly on our time together.

Pen review: Pilot B2P

Pilot B2P writing sample
Pen: Pilot B2P 0.7 (furnished by JetPens)
Paper: Rhodia No. 12 Graph Pad
I wanted to hate this pen. After all, it’s just a G2 refill in an eco-friendly body, right? I’m supposed to look down my nose and scoff at it, aren’t I? Well, I don’t hate it. I don’t know if I love it either, but it has enough redeeming qualities that I can’t dismiss it outright. It feels better in my hand than the standard G2 barrel, though not as good as a G2 Pro. For this ink, the 0.7 seems to flow more smoothly than the 0.5. To be continued…
…I definitely prefer the aesthetics of the B2P to those of the standard G2, but that may be simply because the G2 hasn’t had an update in eons, and I’m just sick of looking at it. (Enough with that gross, rusty-looking area near the top of the refill!) The biggest design differences in my opinion are that the B2P barrel is a little wider, and the “grip” is simply some indentations cut in the plastic. The eco aspect (89% recycled content) is a nice touch, and the price differential is actually insignificant enough that it’s easy to justify choosing the B2P over the G2. That was an important business decision by Pilot, because as the premium prices of hybrid vehicles have shown us, sometimes the upfront cost of going green can be hard to swallow.
At the end of the day, it’s still a G2 at heart. That can be a good or a bad thing, depending on your writing habits and personal preferences. While I may be a tad biased, I will share a story that I hope proves the degree of objectivity with which I approached this review. I put the B2P up against the three other pens that JetPens recently sent me for review, and let a small group of my work colleagues evaluate them with no pretext whatsoever. This is a group of people with diverse tastes in writing implements, and every single one of them independently chose the B2P as the winner. Take that as you will, but it certainly speaks to the broad mass-market appeal of this pen.

Pen review: Kaweco Sport Classic

Kaweco Sport Classic

Kaweco Sport Classic

Fine Nib

Rhodia No.12 Graph Pad

I’m a firm believer in maximizing utility. Perhaps that’s why I shied away from fountain pens for so long. They always struck me as overly fancy instruments that tethered the writer to a desk. This pen completely changed my mind! Form follows function here, no doubt about it. It writes smoothly, is lightweight and is perfect for carrying around all day in a pocket. Bravo, Kaweco. You’ve made a believer of me!

Pen review: Zebra Sarasa Clip 0.3mm


There must be something I’m missing when it comes to Micro Tip Gel Ink pens. The Zebra Sarasa Clip 0.3mm feels good in the hand, but it seems like it will take some time for me to get used to. This is definitely the finest point I’ve ever used for writing, and there’s undoubtedly going to be an adjustment period. They seem to be well-loved by aficionados, so I’m being very patient and giving it a chance.


Every stroke is like sandpaper across the desert. And I can hear it, too. For my writing style, at least, it’s quite fatiguing. Nor is it a smooth writing experience. Perhaps this was a poor choice with which to begin my journey, but if nothing else this will give me a valuable sense of perspective as I continue to explore different options.


Love the push clip design, and I suspect I’d love the whole package a lot more in a 0.5mm or 0.7mm tip. The Viridian Green ink is gorgeous in color. I don’t usually give much consideration to color when writing, but this ink’s vibrancy made me take notice.


Maybe I’m just not ready for the 0.3mm yet. It’s too scratchy for my inexperienced hand. I’ll have to revisit this down the road. I’m not ready to pass final judgment, but for now, this isn’t a pen I’ll be returning to on a regular basis.


Pen: Zebra Sarasa Clip 0.3mm, Viridian Green (furnished by JetPens)
Paper: Ampad Envirotec Recycled Steno Book # 25774