Puzzle Mania

I devoured the original Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. It’s a great game, and it’s rather well known for being challenging. I didn’t find it terribly difficult, but I did need to think to make my way through the game. Part of that may be because I played a Wizard, and I found they were quite strong. Challenge of the Warlords got a lot of buzz through word of mouth and good publicity.

Puzzle Quest: Galactrix’s biggest accomplishment is the way it managed to bounce me right out of the game despite being a Sci Fi hungry Puzzle Quest addict. I was forcing myself to play, but I never found the game I hoped was buried underneath the endless luck-driven timed puzzles.

Then Puzzle Kingdoms showed up. It completely slipped under my radar – I only heard about the game a few days before it shipped. That was unusual, because Galactrix got quite a bit of hype. Infinite Interactive’s site doesn’t even list the game as released, and I haven’t seen a single review despite it releasing two weeks ago. And yet it’s a much better game than Galactrix. I’ll describe the basic mechanics since it’s not as well known.

As another color-matching game, Puzzle Kingdoms relies on acquiring mana (power) to charge units in your army so they can attack the enemy army. Armies consist of four units. Each unit requires a specific kind of mana, and the first unit of that in your army receives that mana. Anytime you acquire mana that doesn’t go to one of your units, it goes into the hero’s generic mana pool.

Initially, attacking is strategic. If you attack with multiple units at once, they all gain a damage bonus. Sometimes you want to hold off to give yourself a little bit more damage to finish off the enemy in fewer attacks, but you make yourself vulnerable to the enemy killing off your charged units. As you level up, your hero stats increase the attack and defense of your units. The number scale is much smaller than Puzzle Quest, so the +1-3 damage you get from combos should always be useful.

Unfortunately, Puzzle Kingdoms bears too much resemblance to an area where the original Puzzle Quest was weak: item balance. About midway through Puzzle Quest, I found a few items that gave my character insane amounts of power. There were still some difficult fights, but I’d have to self handicap to make the average fight mildly interesting. Puzzle Kingdoms has the same problem, but it is much more egregious in its flaw. After an intriguing early experience,  I found two items early that basically ensure I win any fight after a couple rounds. Every fight is trivial. It’s pretty common to kill the entire army of a boss in a single attack. Enemies are so un-threatening that I routinely give them damage block combines just so I can match the kind of mana I want. There are a few factors that cause this:

1) Items. Early in the game, I found an item that increases my unit hitpoints by 3. Suddenly, even cheap 1 hitpoint glass cannons became effective front line units. Shortly after that, I found a weapon that gives me +2 red power everytime I combine red blocks. Combine that with a goblin (and later a wolfrider) who only needs 2 red power to attack, and I get 1.5 attacks for combining a simple block. Without that, you need 2-5 combines to charge a unit. Right now I use 3 wolf riders, and I charge all three by making two basic red combines (or a single 4 combine charges two instantly).

2) Heroes & Scaling. Your hero quickly gains power, but past the first few zones, the enemies you fight don’t scale up for a very long time. I’ve conquered a good 12 kingdoms, about half the game from what I can tell, and the creaures are rarely harder than the ones I saw by the second or third kingdom. Meanwhile, my hero increases the attack/defense of my units by around 5/3. That addition is stronger than most of the creatures I fight. And I outnumber them. And I have spells. And I have items. My cheap wolf riders have enough base damage (10) to one-hit everything I’ve fought short of some dragons, and they attack almost instantly. Meanwhile, I keep fighting creatures that have 2-4 hitpoints and insufficient damage to kill my “frail” wolfriders.

I’ve thought about self handicapping to play the game, but even when I tried that it wasn’t a challenge with an unequipped level 1 hero and basic units. My own skill has increased disproportionately to the difficulty curve in the game, which means there’s no real way for me to get a challenge unless I field less than four units. The heroes level up fast enough that I quickly gain strength on new characters and once again outmatch the enemy units.

I’m curious whether it’s just my experiences or if the game’s difficulty curve is ridiculously, horribly broken. It’s disappointing because I like the game so much otherwise.

Creative Constraints

As Login ’09 approaches, most of my weekend time is going to be dedicated to getting my lecture on balance constraints together. This morning, I was gradually converting my many pages of notes into a lecture. At the same time, I discovered Warren Spector’s blog and started reading it beginning with the oldest posts.

I was working on a note about creativity flourishing within constraints, and how I want to be given a box so that I can find a way to break out. Coincidentally, this happened at the same time as I was reading Spector’s post on Clean Slate vs Reactive creativity, and I realized he had written a much more elegant and thorough take on the subject. The post is a year and a half old, but it’s definitely worth a read if you haven’t seen it before. I also recommend reading the two posts that lead up to that one.

Controls: WASD deserves to die

Earlier I mentioned that I’m indebted to Gothic 2. That’s because the newbie experience was so awful that it drove me to Gamefaqs, where I found this Survival Guide by alterEgo. In the guide, the author expressed his distaste for WASD and explained how he used ESDF instead. Reading his explanation made perfect sense, and I felt obtuse for never thinking about it before. Look at the keyboard. Where are your fingers? My left hand rests on A, W/S, E and R/F. There’s a little notch on the F key for identification. Placing my fingers on ESDF requires almost no adjustment whatsoever. Now, if I moved my fingers over to WASD, I’m putting a crink in my wrist. My arm is no longer straight and it’s not as comfortable to hit the keys.

I had wrist pain for years when I played PC games, and I coudn’t play WASD games well because I had to play cautiously. I severely restricted my playtime because I was looking at long-term injuries, and I avoided quite a few games. Then I switched to ESDF and it went away almost immediately. That’s huge, and it’s hard for me to understate my enthusiasm for anything that is not WASD. It makes me wonder how many other people have the same problem, because WASD is unnatural and jams up the wrist. RTS games are still an RSI risk, but that’s generally from requiring constant mouse movement and an absurd number of mouseclicks (even with hotkeys).

I’m still waiting to find a game that offers an ESDF control set, even if it isn’t the default, but I’m not keeping my hopes up. WASD is deeply ingrained in games, and it’ll be hard to get rid of even if it shouldn’t exist. Where else does this happen in our industry? What simple controls adjustments could we make to improve the general ease of gameplay and quality of life?

Controls: Abusing the Player

This is the first in a short series of related posts on the subject of game controls.

Every so often, I encounter a game that’s incredibly difficult for all the wrong reasons. While those reasons vary, controls is the one I’m going to talk about today. Gothic 2 is going to be my punching bag today, because it holds a unique place in this aspect. I’ve earned a reputation for being quite good at games and I like a challenge, but Gothic 2‘s newbie experience repeatedly beat me down. My arch nemesis, the Load Game screen, greeted me two out of every three times I ran into a rat, wolf, goblin or bandit, always imploring me to give it another shot. And so I did.

But why did I keep dying? It wasn’t just because the combat was challenging. The learning curve was harsh, but that was something I could overcome. My deaths were often the result of arcane controls that prevented me from performing the desired actions. Movement and attacking was difficult and unresponsive in general. It’s been a long time so it’s hard for me to remember all of the details about combat. Simple functions – like enabling quicksaves and binding a key to “use healing potion” – were features that could only be enabled through INI files. Why are those options locked away in an INI file? Is there a reason that I shouldn’t be saving my game, and therefore it should be inconvenient to do so?

The other elements of Gothic 2 were appealing enough that I kept going at it even as I was frustrated, and it might be the only time I’ve had to cheat to make it through a game. That actually came later, because I eventually got tired of dealing with the controls but I still wanted to finish the game. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and make a controversial declaration: difficulty should come from gameplay, not controls. Despite that, I’m indebted to Gothic 2‘s punishing difficulty, and I’m really only using it here to setup the points I really want to discuss. I’ll explain why in the next post.