Randomness, Robustness and Engines Oh My!!!

This is going to be a mishmash of things that bug me about most games, things I do slightly differently, things I didn’t do right and things I’ve learned along the way.

In addition to Randomness, Robustness, and Engines; let’s add Activities vs. Puzzles vs. Entertainment, Story, Replayability and Variations. Okay, you talked me into it. I’ll also mention Training Levels, Help Systems and Gamification in general.

I was lucky enough to be hired by iWin in 2004 to create their 2nd entry into the Casual Games Market. It was called Mah Jong Quest and I ended up doing 3 versions of it. One reason I was lucky is that I really wasn’t qualified to do the job that I was hired to do. They hired me because of my Puzzle and Windows experience. In the first 7 months at iWin, I would learn and do many things I had never done before.

  • Start coding real C++ instead of just using it as “A Better C”.
  • Use a full blown and complex and buggy framework with Cast Members (Sprites).
  • Use mostly external Data Driven through Configuration files.
  • Be part of a Large Scope Game project managing many Art resources (and dealing with art deliverables from the Artist).
  • Working with a Producer.

But I was the Puzzle Guy and I learn quickly. Another time, I’ll tell the full story of Mah Jong Quest was designed/created. For now, I want to focus on what bugged me about other games and how I used this opportunity to address some of those issues.

First, I hate almost any game that just “ends” and has no replay value. If you love/like a game and/or a particular puzzle, there should be enough randomness in it to let you replay it as much as you want. Physical puzzles, often have one solution and when you’re done, you’re done.   This Frog puzzle is a great example. If you have the 9 physical objects, then when you’ve solved this puzzle once, you’re done with it. I liked it so much that I created my GapWar puzzles from it and have used it in 3 different games now (to reach three different audiences).

The version I did, just uses Color Triangles because all I cared about at the time was the pure math and challenge of the puzzle. I missed the need for it to have an aesthetic quality apart from the puzzle. I will eventually do this puzzle one last time with the aesthetic quality added to it. What I did get right, and this is what I feel I can do to almost any puzzle is…I created variations (both obvious and not so obvious) and in each variation I was able to create all levels of difficulty that I wanted.

One problem I had with setting difficulty levels is that I always made even the easy puzzles a bit too hard for most people. I ignored the fact that I’ve been doing puzzles my entire life and that what’s obvious and too easy for me…isn’t necessarily obvious and too easy for everyone. And as I created more and more puzzles of different type, I learned that the fault of this was entirely mine. I have some really smart friends that have been stumped by what I thought were easy puzzles. Even writing tutorials that walk a player through a puzzle didn’t work the way I thought and stumped a lot of bright testers.

To me, any game or puzzle that has a tutorial level has not done it’s job. A good game will present challenges in such a way that the game will teach you as you solve those first few levels. In Clutter, I think I got that part right (in the main game, but not in all of the mini-games). Even in the main game, I probably used Pop-up Help a bit too much.

Clutter is more activity than puzzles and certain people found it too easy. In the sequel, in the options screen, there will be a difficulty setting for anyone who wants to challenge themselves beyond the set pace of the game.

One thing, I also learned while doing Mah Jong that is missing from my old Puzzles By Joe puzzles is that a Casual game is first and foremost Entertainment. Even if I think that very few players really read the story within a game, the story still has to be Entertaining on whatever level it’s aiming at. I tried to make it real easy for anyone to ignore the story portions of Clutter. I also tried to make it easy for them to decide to read the story later in the game. I absolutely hate games that make you watch every frame of animation or read every line of dialog telling “the story” that really doesn’t have anything to do with the actual game.

Lastly, I hate unwinnable games. I don’t even play Klondike solitaire because it’s less than a 50% win percentage even if you play the game perfectly. At least 10% of the time, a Klondike layout is unwinnable regardless of the choices made. In Mah Jong, it’s possible to play some games that when you get stuck you can prove it wasn’t winnable.  Some Mah Jong games give the lame cheat of a “shuffle” to save you at that point. (that just seems wrong to me).

The thing I’m proudest of with my iWin Mah Jong games is that all layouts have guaranteed solutions. A good game should never beat you…a good game is one that when you lose, you have no one to blame except yourself.

I didn’t get to all my topics, but that’s enough for now. I think I’ll have to do a sequel to this topic in the very near future.




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