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Eurogamer reviews Braid: 10/10

Eurogamer has reviewed Braid and given it a score of 10/10, saying:

Braid has filled my head with so many ideas, so many opinions, so many emotions that wrestling them all into a coherent critique is like trying to strangle a swan made of jelly.

And then also:

Braid is beautiful, entertaining and inspiring. It stretches both intellect and emotion, and these elements dovetail beautifully rather than chafing against each other. Still wondering if games can be art? Here's your answer.

Impressive. Not the only review like that. It's live on XBLA now, allegedly.

(Copied verbatim except for that last line from Braid.)

A couple of changes to the blog

I just added automatic backing-upping to this blog. Then I upgraded to WordPress 2.6, and did that in such a way that I can easily upgrade to newer versions in the future, using Subversion. It all worked without a hitch, so I figured, what the hell, I might as well pick a different theme. This is Hemmed by Charlie, one the themes that came with my install. It's more minimalist, which is the way I wanted to go (and that one sucky graphic bug I introduced in the previous theme is finally gone). I still intend to modify Sandbox one day. Yep. Any day now.

Fairway Solitaire: The End

About two weeks ago I raved about Fairway Solitaire, a casual game I had just discovered (via Penny Arcade, I think). Just now, I have stopped playing it. In disgust.

A simple and naive way to provide... variety, for want of a better word, is to simply keep cranking up the difficulty. It's a time-honored technique: people have been doing this for decades. It has also caused many players to stop playing a given game with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Player behavior being what it is, not that many people get far enough into games to notice that the ending sucks. There is no evolutionary pressure to improve games beyond a certain point, just as in human biology there is no evolutionary pressure to avoid degradation and breakdown beyond a certain age (guess who turned 37 not long ago).

This is of course not the case with games designed for high replayability, such as games with a strong multi-player component. And you can list AAA games with great endings - say, Half-Life 2. But in games with a consistently high quality, I claim that few people will single out the ending as the factor that makes them buy the next game. How many games have really been designed for a great ending? It is a major blind spot.

(I am fully aware that all those games I ranted about earlier might all have had great endings. That is what made me rant.)

The problem with Fairway Solitaire is that it remains, at its core, a luck-based game. You cannot use any strategies, only short-term heuristics based on the current face-up cards and the next one in your deck (which you can see). The only longer-term decision that you can make is when to use your 'joker' clubs. Money-making is not tuned well, as I said before, and so there are no interesting decisions to be made there. There is a special event that takes away one of the items you bought (a pretty bad idea in my opinion), but I was always able to buy it back without even looking at how much money I had.

As you progress through the courses, the difficulty is slowly ratcheted up. The goals for each course become slightly more difficult, the courses become slightly more complex, the shuffling becomes slightly less advantageous (or so I infer from the fact that it is easier to make long runs in the early courses). Inevitably, at some point the luck factor starts to play a big role, and I had to redo courses several times, or even go back to early courses to farm joker clubs. I think that was about the point where the game stopped being fun, but I kept playing out of stubbornness.

The second to last course, Mystery Madness, uses a very non-intuitive card layout, where you cannot tell which card will be revealed when you remove a face-up card. Or, rather, you cannot tell which card you have to remove to reveal more cards. So you can easily find yourself riffling through half a deck, trying to get rid of one face-up card while twenty or more cards stay stubbornly unrevealed. I gave that a couple of tries with a full set of joker clubs, and finally gave up in disgust.

In my opinion, Fairway Solitaire would have been a much better game with about 10 fewer courses. It could have been positively awesome if it had allowed for interesting longer-term decisions. Still, I played it over 36 hours. I can't complain about the value for money compared to full-price games.

But I don't know if I would buy a sequel.

The Shoe Drops On Scrabulous

About 9 months or so ago, literally the only game I played was Scrabulous, a very popular Scrabble clone on Facebook and on it's own website. It's an ideal game for turn-based play, and the barrier to entry for the game is so low on Facebook - no need to register on another website, just click to install the app. After a while, my Facebook phase passed and my mistrusting Facebook phase started, so I deleted most of my apps and removed most of my personal information. As a result, I also stopped playing Scrabulous.

Now, RJ Software (two brothers from India), the developers and maintainers of Scrabulous, are finally being sued over trademark and copyright infrigement by Hasbro. I have no idea why that took so long, and for once, I am not picking the side of the tiny little underdog developer versus the huge corporation. Scrabulous is just a blatant rip-off (Kim has some details about that here).

However, Kim makes a good point: because Hasbro owns the rights to Scrabble in the US and Canada while Mattel owns the rights in the rest of the world, it will probably no longer be possible to play Scrabble with everyone. And that is a shame: I played many games of Scrabulous with friends in the US, and a friend of mine here in Vienna plays a lot with her mom in Oregon. Also, rumor has it the official Scrabble Facebook app is not that great. Not that Scrabulous was perfect - far from it. Still, I was hoping a 'pro' version of the game would be better.

(Via Brenda Brathwaite.)

Slides and videos from IGDA Leadership Forum 2007

A ton of material from the IGDA Leadership Forum 2007 is online now. Videos, slides, summaries... a lot of stuff. I haven't even started looking through it yet, but the list of sessions looks very tasty:

Leadership Track:

  • Building the Perfect Team
  • Leadership Lab
  • Death By 1000 Ideas: Managing Designers and Creatives
  • Managing Engineers
  • Managing Artists and Art Outsourcing for Next-Gen Games
  • Communication Breakdown: How to Prevent This on Your Watch
  • Caught in the Middle: Managing Staff, Teams and Executives
  • How Not To Dine In Hell: Next-Gen Development Without Killing Your Team

Production Track:

  • How Not To Schedule A Project
  • Agile Implementation
  • Something from Nothing
  • Working with Publishers as a Developer Producer
  • Local Anesthetic: Painless Game Localization
  • Cross Discipline Team Collaboration
  • Leveraging Outsourcing to Enhance Development
  • Dilemmas of the Publisher's External Producer


  • Ultimate Objectives: Lessons Learned From Building BioWare
  • 10 Surprising Ideas for Leaders on the Future of Games

Fairway Solitaire

So after all the griping about big AAA games lately, you may wonder whether I actually like any games. And the answer is yes, yes I do.

The game I am currently playing day and night is Fairway Solitaire. It's a variant of Solitaire dressed up as golf. It is very easy to get into, but very hard to stop playing. And it's nearly perfect. The golf vibe, the graphics, the sound, the interface: it all just works. Really tiny things, like how they handle player selection, are very nicely solved. The only minor quibbles I have are:

  • It helps to know a little bit how professional golf works. I had some trouble understanding how the 'Gain X dollars to advance' works, what with the fee and the purse and what not. But I figured it out eventually.
  • The money-making is not tuned well. Whenever an item is unlocked, I always have more than enough money to buy it. Maybe I am just a good player, but it takes away any interesting decisions between the rounds of golf.

I've been playing over 10 hours so far, and I am about halfway through the courses. Pretty good value for 20 dollars if you ask me. Check it out if you are looking for something addictive.

Usability and accessibility

I have a certain reputation with my gaming friends - I am known as Jurie "Died 3 Times During The Tutorial" Horneman. My frustration threshold is extremely low. It can be measured in millimeters (Um. What is that in non-metric? "Toe-nails". Right.) Not only do I fail comically so early that most people would say that the game hasn't even started yet, I feel no qualms about publicly blaming my mishaps on some poor game designer somewhere. Thank Donald Norman for that: After he taught me to blame doors, I was completely liberated.

Cases in point:

  • Skate and Burnout Paradise, where I respectively got stuck in the tutorial and failed to find the game.
  • Mass Effect, where I instantly got lost in the first mission. I mean, be serious: Spawn the player in the first level and then point him in the wrong direction? Do you know how much trouble I went through to rotate the camera just so at the start of some of the Manhunt 2 levels I worked on? Maybe this was a glitch - I can't believe this was left in the game.
  • Assassin's Creed, which generally befuddled me.
  • Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Don't get me started on the first boss battle.
  • Halo 2. I literally got killed by the first enemy in the game. This is a mass-market shooter? I played it again a while later, but the streaming issues, blah graphics, AI problems and a ridiculous cut-scene meant I stopped before very long. (I was expecting a somewhat serious SF story, not some crappy schlock where someone drop-kicks bombs through space.)

Why should gamers put up with it when developers don't take the time to polish the first 30 minutes or so of their games?

Anyway, I just discovered that Manveer Heir over at Design Rampage ran into a similar problem. He couldn't even start Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, and he rightly condemns the fabled design geniuses over at Konami for it. Right on!