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Posts Tagged ‘puzzle game’

Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been a month since I deleted Marvel Puzzle Quest from my smartphone.  I played the game for almost six months and had a decent roster of characters built up.  And yet… almost every single change that the developers made during the time I played the game made the game less appealing.  I finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to like it any more, and gave up.

The sad part is that the core gameplay is actually really solid.  The puzzle combat isn’t finely balanced, but I’m fine with that, as I don’t mind a bit of imbalance.  It is well crafted and adds some nice twists to the Puzzle Quest formula.  If the game can be taken purely on its combat, it’s a fine addition to the pedigree.

And yet, the progression scheme and monetization scheme (intricately tied together, but even without monetization, the progression would be awful) just kill the game in the long run.  Of course, that’s “kill the game for me”, since it’s apparently still live and gathering clients, but I would really love to see some numbers on what sort of churn they are seeing.  It is very much a “winners win more” game, with elements that skirt the dreaded “pay to win” area.  Some of the judgment on the latter depends on how you define the phrase, but for me, it’s clearly designed to give an edge to those who spend inordinate amounts of money on the game, in no small part because of how glacial the progression system is, and that you can pay to speed it up.

This is not anything new in the F2P arena, to be sure, and it’s less grievous than being able to flat out buy victories, but it does undermine what could be very satisfying PvP combat puzzling.

In the end, though, it wasn’t any single huge change that made me uninstall the game.  It was a death by degree.  The poor progression scheme.  Nothing worth spending money on (which saved me money, but it was still what I thought of as poor design).  New characters introduced fairly regularly… but predominantly at the rare tier, so recruiting them was a crapshoot with their slot machine sort of character acquisition.  (Almost everything in the game is tied to a random chance of acquisition or absurdly overpriced… sometimes both.)  The change in healing so that it was limited to the combat of the moment.  Damage persists after a fight, limiting the ability to play multiple rounds in succession unless you heal in the fight or pay for refills between fights.  You get a few free refills, but they don’t last long if you’re in a heated race to top the competition boards to get some character you’d like.  You can buy refills or wait for them to recharge, 1 every 35 minutes, and you can hold 5 at a time.  (With 3 characters in combat, that’s not a lot of healing to go around.)  Competition is mostly PvP of a sort (never against other players; the AI just takes their team and runs it), which isn’t terrible, but PvP really needs to be balanced to be fun, and when character levels can be as disparate as they are in the game, it gets old when you play a few successful rounds and then get matched with an overpowered team you have no chance of beating.  Normalized PvP (like Guild Wars) where skill and team composition rule would go a long way to making the game better… but that sort of level playing field is harder to monetize.

Playing the moment to moment combat was still good fun.  It’s just… everything else isn’t, and the combat alone isn’t enough to save the game.

On the other hand, there’s Slingshot Braves.  It’s sort of a weird mix of PS1-era graphics (so it still looks good; I’m playing on a phone for crying out loud), Squids and Angry Birds, with a gear upgrade system that feels a bit like Puzzle & Dragons (consume hundreds of little pieces of loot to level up your gear) and a newly introduced gem/slot system that is a bit like socketed gear in a Blizzard game, but you can also level up the gems by combining several of a kind, and you can move some gems around, so it has a slight FFVII flavor.  It’s simple, but the five weapons are fairly elegantly designed, each with its own niche.  Leveling gear is slow, and the only way to make your team stronger, but it feels just fast enough to be acceptable.  Marvel Puzzle Quest’s character leveling is very, very slow by comparison.

Acquiring gear is only done via very rare loot drops or by the “Gacha” system.  It’s effectively a gear slot machine.  This is a bit annoying, but the game provides you with enough “gems” (the currency you can buy directly or earn via play or the occasional promotion) to get the occasional new bit of gear in that system.  Gear is in four tiers (C, B, A, and S, increasing in value), and you’re guaranteed at least a B level bit of gear in the Gacha.  It’s a bit annoying in that the best gear seems to be in the Gacha gamble, but at the same time, you can level up your gear and evolve it to a higher tier with enough little loot drops, so you can grind into some good gear eventually.  It’s slow, and annoying to get great new gear that you then have to level up, but that’s the quirk that comes with leveling gear in general.  It’s still much faster than MPQ’s system, and less frustrating.

I’m not sure there’s much that offers good value for real money here, either, but at least progress in the game isn’t as tedious as is is in MPQ.  You can buy gems, which allow character renaming, larger loot libraries, Gacha “pulls” and stamina refills (each mission you play consumes stamina, which recharges slowly; a standard F2P throttle).  Still, it’s not necessary, and most importantly, buying gems doesn’t have a huge effect on your success or pace of progress.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the only multiplayer system is a cooperative one, so it’s OK if someone else is stronger than you.  You both win faster that way.  There is some light competition among scoring leaderboards on some events, but the majority of the time any reason you have to care about the gear other players have is in how much it helps you, not how hard it is to beat.  That’s a huge underlying shift in assumptions and goals, and it makes a world of difference.

…and is it telling that the progression scheme is the first thing I write about?  That’s really where these games live or die, since that’s where they monetize, usually.  It’s also where things get annoying, and where MPQ got worse as time went on, SB just keeps getting better.  Loot drops have been made more frequent, promotions give people more goods to work with, the gear Gacha was split into a weapon Gacha and an Armor Gacha (anything that increases player control over the slot machine is a Good Thing for players), and the new socketing system makes gear more flexible.

But how does it play, moment to moment?  Largely like Squids, where you fire your character in a direction and watch it bounce around the arena, beating on foes or careening off of your ally unit or the walls.  Maybe it’s just the billiards fan in me, but I love that a good eye for angles and thinking ahead pays off in the game.  It’s a simpler game than MPQ, but it still seems to reward player skill, and that’s one of the things that I appreciate most in games.

So, while Marvel Puzzle Quest’s fortunes in my library sank, Slingshot Braves has risen to be the game I most prefer to play at the moment on my phone.  Tiny Dice Dungeons is another great contender, but it hasn’t seen as many “live” changes.

I find it striking that MPQ made most of its changes to try to squeeze out more monetization, and it’s obvious.  SB wants more money too, certainly, but their changes have almost uniformly felt like they were improving the progression scheme, and occasionally the combat engine.  My visceral response to the two development teams couldn’t be more opposed.  The more I see each in action, the more I like SB, and the less I like MPQ.

In a world where games can mutate and adjust over time, I think it’s critical that the changes feel like they are making the game better, and that’s really the difference between these two when it comes to whether or not I play them and recommend them.

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I’ve played Puzzle Pirates for a couple of years now, and I’ve played Wizard101 since the open beta, though I’ll play both in fits and spurts.  Both have puzzle minigames, and both are a ton of fun.   There is one niggling little thing about W101 that bothers me, though.  At least one of the minigames is machine solvable.  (Yes, Tipa complained about busted minigames ages ago, and I actually started this article around then, but I’m just now polishing it off… since I forgot about it.)

The games in question are Diego’s Duel and Potion Motion.  The part that made me think this are the score tables with obscenely high scores and even duplicate scores (see Tipa’s screenshot for Diego scores), as well as the perfect predictability of upcoming events.

As a Puzzle Pirate veteran (and one-time Tetris addict, and everything in between), I’m pretty good and fairly experienced with puzzle games.  I had the second highest score for the Sorcery Stones W101 minigame for a while a month or two after release. This isn’t just sour grapes on my part, this is something that looks and feels like someone manipulating the game.

I also had the #5 score in Potion Motion until someone consistently filled the high scores with the exact same score of 12345.  (Which has since been surpassed, of course, but I doubt those are legitimate either.)  That was a very high score for the time, and I soon thereafter hit just over 10000, so I know that it’s possible to be legitimate, but to score exactly the same score seven times in a row, at the top of the charts, and with no clear outliers like a 12300 or 12450 just screams “hack” to me. (Oh, looky there, one of the hacks is documented.)

It’s been noted more than once that with online games, the client is “in the hands of the enemy”, who often can and will abuse it.  Cheating in offline games doesn’t usually affect other players, but cheating online is a problem if competition is important.  Thankfully, competition in W101 minigames is just for high scores (which do little), but they do act as currency and item fountains, which has effects on the interplayer economy.

W101’s minigames also differ from PP games in that at least some W101 minigames (Potion Motion and Diego’s Duel) are completely predictable.  New pieces in Potion Motion always come in in the same order, so it’s possible to learn the pattern and set up obscene combos and optimized move routines.  (At least, they used to be… I’ve not tried it in months, so please forgive me if this has since been changed.)

Sometimes, predictability is a good thing, as in Diego’s Duel, effectively a pattern recognition almost-platformer.  NES players wouldn’t have ever finished Ninja Gaiden if it were random.  Though notably, it’s possible to design a machine that plays Mario perfectly… the skill isn’t in learning to master a dynamic system and make good split second tactical decisions, it’s in memorizing the timing and patterns, then executing perfectly.  Potion Motion, on the other hand, would benefit greatly from randomized piece generation.

Puzzle Pirate devs go to great lengths to design their minigames to avoid machine solvability.  They are built on random piece generation and player choices, meant to maximize benefit within the constraints of an unpredictable system.  Game pieces behave predictably, and the game mechanics themselves don’t change, but the pieces of the playing board change.  Without foreknowledge of the pieces to come, the games are not machine solvable.

Of course, the puzzle minigames in PP are the backbone of the game, where in W101 they are little more than a diversion and health/mana refill. It’s understandable that their respective devs would have different priorities.

Still, if you’re designing a game in video format, and multiplayer competition is relevant to what you’re doing, it’s a good idea to avoid machine solvability. Someone will abuse it, and blow up the scoring curve.  Random puzzle piece generation can be a pain sometimes if the game board is prone to locked positions (sanity checks help, but those can be expensive), but even that can be dodged with savvy design.

In other words, it’s good to give players choices.  If their choices degenerate to locked boards with no moves, or One True Path that was devised by a computer (and executed best by one), you’ve destroyed player choice.  Client hackery is one (bad) thing, but a game designed in such a way that machines can find the best way to play them in the first place isn’t much better.

Yes, players will always seek to optimize their play (like an optimal build and damage rotation in WoW, something that Elitist Jerks are dedicated to), but it’s not ideal to make it easy for the cheaters to ply their trade.

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