Sunday, December 7, 2008

XBox Live Community Games

XBox Live Community Games has been a new feature that MicroSoft has been advertising for some months, and that finally went live on November 15th (or thereabouts; I was busy working on the closed beta of Gwabs at the time, so it snuck under my radar for a while), with the 'new' XBox experience.

A while before it came out, I did have time to check out the games that had been accepted so far, and I was surprised to see that, at that point in time, over 60 games had already been accepted for XBCG. I had not been expecting so many games to be on the channel initially, and had been hoping for a much smaller initial push, as there had been discussion on the possibility of getting NaviBlast onto XBCG. Travis (the designer) and I had been debating whether to try putting it there, or on XBLA. There were certain appeals to each.

My fear, at that point, was that XBCG would be saturated upon start, and many of the games in it would not be up to 'snuff', and players would quickly disregard the channel as full of fluff and games that, simply, were not worth browsing through to get to the cream.

Today, I spent a little over an hour sampling some of the games on XBCG. It turns out that, as I feared, 69 games are already available on XBCG. While I do not think that there needs to be any time between game released, I think that the community needs to have more stringent controls when it comes to allowing which games are put on the channel and which are not; quality should definitely play a part, not only how accurate the game matches up to its description. Otherwise, all will suffer, as those few good games that get submitted will be encumbered by the weight of all the tech demos, incomplete games, or unpolished experiences pushed to the channel before them, causing the 'benefits' to indy game developers that MS was hoping to create to fail.

I took the time to test out close to 15 XBCG games today, to see how the market fared. It was approximatly 1/5th of the games currently available, so I cannot say that it is representative of the whole channel, but I simply did not have the time to test out all 69 games. I selected games that had interesting art, looked interesting (or made me curious), or that I knew of from checking out the submissions earlier. Below is a break down of the experience as I played through. For each game, I will rate it on the following scale:

1 - Would not download. If this game was a download, for free, I still would not go through the effort of downloading it to play it.
2 - Would not pay. If this game was a free game, I would put some time into it, but in it's current form / design, I would not put any serious money into it.
3 - Would pay. This is the upper echelon of community games, that would actually earn some dollar from this player.

PLEASE NOTE: If by chance you find this blog entry and you are one of the game creators, but did not get a high rating, do not be offended. I am not attacking you, but rating your game as a commercial product.

Abstacked - Is there a genre for 'Objects drop into the screen and/or you solve the puzzle by making pairs / otherwise fitting pieces together', or do we just match them to Tetris / Sega Swirl / other similar games? This game was one such game, whatever the genre. This was actually the last game I played, and by the time that I got to it, I felt rushed because XBCG creates demos by setting a time limit on the game, which developers have no control over. The time limit is short, so I skipped the tutorial and went straight into gameplay. It took me a couples tries to figure out what I was actually doing, and once I did, this was a charming little Tetris-like game, with passable graphics and fun levels. I was halfway through the 2nd easy level when my trial expired, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Rating: 2 - Would not pay. This game could use a little more polish before it surpasses the many similar free flash games / gamemaker games / etc.

Being - This one was a scrolling platformer that harkened back to the 8-bit days, but worse. This game could easily have been on atari, and while the graphics were decent - although there weren't many frames of animation - the camera was zoomed out too far for anything to look particularly interesting. The plot is particularly cliched, although you don't have to expect anything from a platformer. The fact that all you seemed able to do was jump, and collect keys, made the game far from engrossing, and the third screen I was on, which had many moving platforms, was too slow and not particularly engaging - get this key, move to that door, get the key behind it, etc. This game is great for a programmer learning the ropes of game design, and I myself am guilty of making several like it, but as a commercial product, it falls flat on its face.

Rating: 1 - Would not download. The great moments may have been hidden beyond the demo time limit, but what I saw of this game was not even as advanced as the original Mario Bros for the NES.

Blow - This game is, in a sense, a little bit like Lemmings. Given some bubbles, you must find a way, by placing fans to blow them around the level, to reach the end of the level. Where in Lemmings, you had to overcome obstacles, in this game you had to cause flowers to bloom (or something similar), then release the 'King Bubble' and guide him to the exit. While I was only on the third stage of the tutorial by the time the game demo expired, I was already impressed by the polish of the tutorial, the engagingness of the game, and the fact that I felt I knew exactly what to do. I was a bit turned off that I did not get to play a single level before the time limit ran out, but that's a small complaint as the kinks are worked out of the XBCG system.

Rating - 3: would buy - everything about this game screamed fun and polish, and the puzzles seemed simple yet challenging enough to really draw players in.

Colosseum - Of all the XBCG games that I played, this one was the first, and it was the only 3D-character one. I downloaded it because it was featured, but, even as a 'core' gamer, I found this game overwhelming, as when I started I was greeted with an image of the XBox controller and 10 different commands. I clearly was not able to remember them by the time the level loaded, but I remembered two key commands: move (left analog stick), and attack (right analog stick). I ran around chopping down random people, not really knowing why and pushing random buttons to figure out what they did as there was no prompting. While the graphics were fine, cartoon style graphics, I found the actual gameplay to be puzzling, as I was not entirely sure how to predict which attack my character would use, or how to do anything else. I beat the first level, but in the second level, this flying guy came out of nowhere and raped me as I tried to figure out how to block or dodge his magic attacks and diving-through-me attack. In the end, the game frustrated me, despite the fact that it was by far the most technologically advanced of all the XBCG games. A small amount of polish and some direction for the player would have made the game, which so far seems to be nothing more than a hack 'n slash, much less confusing.

Rating - 2 - I would download this game and spend about 15 minutes hacking things to pieces, at which point I anticipate a fair amount of boredom. I could be wrong on that point.

Duotrix - I never entirely figured this one out, again because I rushed right into gameplay because of the time limit, but it seems to be another Tetris-like this game, except that two blocks drop into seperate arenas at the same time and are controlled by the same controller. It could use some polish but it was an intriguing, if not entirely polished, experience. I don't have much more to say about it...I lost when there was a giant stack on my bottom half but almost nothing on the top half, and I couldn't figure out how to do anything to help my bottom half.

Rating - 2 - I would try this one out, play it a few times, and let my girlfriend try (she likes this kind of game), but I wouldn't put enough time into it to warrant the dollar investment.

Galax-E-Mail - This one was a fun overhead shooter, in the vein of Geometry Wars, only instead of shooting random shapes, you shoot other ships while ... doing something with e-mails. I only got past the first level before my time ran out, but I know that it has something to do with e-mails because I kept on collecting them. I was also able to amass a small army of followers who helped my take down my enemeis, which was quite enjoyable. And I was even able to change to one of three different ships, although the middle ship (mid speed, mid firepower) was by far the most balanced.

Rating - 2 - This game is pretty close to a 3, and if I had got to play the second level I think it would have been, as the second mission briefing was explaining the 'why' to me when my time limit ran out. This one fails because of the time limit, which is definitely something that, games coming in having seen it, will have a better time handling.

Hive - This one was actually 3D, but I didn't realise it until after the game. The concept is simple - generate some insect type things, have them either defend your base, attack your opponent, or collect gems. I can't remember if there was a difficulty level, but I found the Ai to be laughable. If there was, I'm sure I selected the easy one. It was a fun concept, and is probably fun to play with friends. Because of the camera angle, everything looks 2D until the end screen, at which point you realise that the game uses 3D models. I would play it more.

Rating - 2. I think that this game suffers from one key thing: I was able to play a full session before the time limit ran out, and I was given no indication that there was more to the game after that, other than multiplayer games. Since you can play the games any number of times (just always starting from ground 0, with the time limit), this one is almost entirely free. Of course, if you like it you should pay the creator to support him and his efforts, but the thing is that there is no apparent reward for doing so.

Melvin's Meltdown - This game is yet another Tetris-like game. Coloured squares fall into a grid, and based on which key you push and where your 'gun' is, you destroy certain one of thems in a certain row. It's actually a fun concept, and it had a really polished look. It did take me some time to figure out what I was doing, and I don't think I saw a tutorial on it before my time limit ran out. Getting a high score would definitely require more practise than I had.

Rating - 3 - I would definitely buy this one, it was polished and fun, and seemed like it would reward the player for playing more. The only downside is that it seemed to have been untested, for the most part, on XBox, as some of the HUD items went off screen a tiny bit, an indication that the creator didn't account for the difference in screen space on a TV versus a computer. A small bother, to be sure, but that small bit of polish could make the difference in converting that many more customers.

Oh Snap - Tetris-like game number 4, this one actually reminded me a lot of Lumines (although I've only played Lumines once), except that at the end of the level it said 'oh snap!'. It confused me the first time, and the second level had hard-to-see graphics. Overall, it seems like a less polished version of lumines, with slow graphics.

Rating - 2 - I would play it instead of lumines if it was free, but for money, I would go for lumines over this one every single time.

Organon - The only 3D shooter, this one was pretty poor. The concept is simple - take a 1st person shooter camera, remove the limits at the top and bottom, make it move forward constantly, and put a bunch of boxes in a big room. Then, shoot some of the boxes in a time limit. The game, unfortunately, failed to feel like more than what a programmer would put in as a proof of concept of a grander game design, or as a training mission for a space shooter. On its own, the gameplay was not exciting or compelling enough for me to want to open the game again.

Rating- 1 - This is not a game I would enjoy playing past the initial experience.

Sin(surfing) - Despite the cute name and simplistic gameplay, the game is confusing. There is no tutorial, and you seem to jump into things quite quick. It felt as if the programmer had played it a bunch on his own, and knew all the controls, and did not think about how players would pick them up having never played it. I accidentally quit a couple times while trying to figure out the controls because I hit b, which apparently is 'back' (although that is never explained anywhere - the first time I thought I had actually game-overed).

The game is simple...there are some sin-like waves coming your way, you're on a surfboard, do tricks and get a score. However, I could not figure out how to do cool tricks other than make my character ride low, and spin, and at first, I just kept falling through the wave and dying as I didn't know how to land tricks. Even after I figured out how to speed up (which was not well explained in the control map), I still couldn't pull off anything that was cool, and with the character being so small, I have a hard time imagining any tricks looking particularly interesting.

Rating - 2 - This game is worth the time it takes to play it on the demo, but I don't know what I would do after that. You could just play it for free, as it takes less time than the demo to play a complete session, although as above, if you enjoy it you should pay for it to support the developer.

Swords and Monsters - This game was a joke. It was a bad, bad, bad, bad joke. You click on 'new game', then select either a male or female character. Then you hit a three times and win. Depending on how fast you do all of this, you get one of three text endings, none of which are particularly interesting. In short, this game is a short, pointless joke, that even acknowledges that in the 'please buy me' screen.

Rating - 1 - Not even worth the time of the click.

Totem - Yet another Tetris like one, in this one you are building, and destroying a totem pole, with the goal of destroying its base. Despite its simple concept, the game is actually confusing, as I could not figure out why sometimes certain totem pieces broke and some didn't. If you understand it (again, a problem with the time limit), it felt like it could be a decent Tetris-like game.

Rating - 2 - From waht I got in the time limit, this one was not much of a winner, and could use a little polish. The fact that the control map shows about 8 different commands when only three or four of them seemed necessary would help, by making the game less overwhelming. The rest could be revealed over time, instead of at the opening.

Weapon of Choice - When I saw the demo for this on on the creators club site, I felt thankful that there was some good games on XBCG to make it worthwhile. After playing it, it satisfied. The controls are simple - left stick moves, right stick shoots (like geometry wars), left trigger is jump (which works surprisingly well with the shooting and moving). It felt polished, the graphics were beautiful, and although this game is for sure for core games (far too hardcore for the casual lot), I can imagine it being a huge hit. It feels similar to the contra games. I would say that it was the most beautiful game on the XBCG as far as look and feel goes. Only complaint was that at one point my character died, and I wasn't even aware that I was getting hurt.

Rating - 3 - If I could only by one game off of XBCG, this would be it.

ZSX4 Guitarpocalypse - With a name that ridiculous, you have to try the game out. It seemed like a small, Smash brothers like fighter, where a bunch of people run around a small map and bash zombies with guitars, and also bash each other. I didn't realise it was versus until one of the Ai characters bashed me off the map.

It looks like a fun game for people to play with their friends, which I had none of with me when I did this test. There was a nice feature where the AI seemed to randomly pick a character, moving its cursor around as if it was unsure which character to select. Either that or it auto-matched me with other players. I doubt that, though, but I could be wrong.

Rating - 2 - I'd play it for sure, but it suffers from the same as Sin(surfing) and Hive - it seems to be a game you can play in a single sitting before the time limit runs out. Again, pay for it if you like it, but I personally wouldn't spend more than a few plays at this.


There seems to be one features about XBCG that no game properly accounted for, and that was the time limit (which seemed to be somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes, although I never timed it). Some games you could play entirely in that limit, some didn't let you get to the game in that time, a couple played fine but didn't do anything to make sure that the time limit contained the best experience.

The market does seem, unfortunately, saturated with poor games or games not compelling enough to spend more than 20 minutes on (from what I saw), which does worry me and push me more towards XBLA if possible over XBCG. Hopefully with time and as the system is tweaked, this will be taken into account, and XBCG will be a viable channel for indy games to put their games.