Secret Codes for Starcrossed

Some people have gotten stuck near the end of Starcrossed, when it starts to get pretty hard. If you find yourself getting stuck on a level, try these cheaty cheat codes!

Refill Energy Refill: while playing, just type “moonpower” (without the quotes). You won’t see any feedback until you type the whole thing — then you’ll see your energy bar instantly refill!

Instantly Win Level: while playing, just type “starpower” (without the quotes). Type it correctly and you’ll instantly win the current level and go on to the next!

Just a warning though: using either of these codes will reset your score to zero! So if you’re going for a high score, you can’t use these codes.

Enjoy!

Casual games are getting harder

As Jesper Juul (his company made High Seas) mentioned to me in an email recently, match-3 puzzle games seem to be getting harder. He’s right… they really are. In fact, the newest match-3 puzzle games are really tough! In earlier posts, I had suggested that the DS game Puzzle Quest was too difficult to be a casual game. But maybe I’m wrong. The newest match-3 games rival Puzzle Quest in difficulty.

I still think that, in general, casual audiences want to be engaged by a game, rather than outright aggressively challenged by the game. They don’t think it’s fun to retry a boss stage over and over until they get it right. But what was once engaging is becoming boring. What was once a perfectly-balanced match-3 game three years ago is too easy now. I think the hide-and-seek item hunt game genre is undergoing the same thing: the newest entries in the genre are significantly harder than the earliest ones. That genre is solidifying, too, and it’s much younger than the match-3 genre.

This is a tricky problem, because it means it’s harder than ever to know how hard to make a game. Starcrossed isn’t a match-3 game at all. But it’s played on a similar board. Do any of the player’s match-3 skills come into play in Starcrossed? Probably some match-3 skills, yes, but not all of them. So … yeah. I guess I should make it kinda-sorta hard, then? What do I use to measure?

The only real way to tell how hard to make it is to get members of your target audience to play your game and give you feedback. If you’re making a match-3 game, your audience is match-3 enthusiasts, so you’ll have to find some and get them to test your game.

At this point, you might be shouting, “Just stop making games in the same genres!” There’s some merit to this: if you make a game that’s significantly different from the common portal games, you can assume that the audience doesn’t have any skills in your game, and it’s a bit easier to balance. You can err on the side of easy.

But as I found with Starcrossed, even a game with significantly different mechanics has some crossover skill. Let’s face it: casual gamers are starting to get real gaming skills, and those skills will carry over into almost any kind of game they play. The audience is solidifying. They’re getting better, and casual games are getting harder as a result.

Starcrossed now available on iWin

I’m extremely happy to announce that you can now download Starcrossed from iWin games!

Starcrossed is a unique new puzzle game with a celestial theme. Help Ione rescue her sisters and restore the heavens! Although it looks at first like just another match-piece game, it’s actually quite a bit different.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of the game, be sure to check out the Challenge Grid. This is (IMO) where the game is at its best: each Challenge has a different rule set and objective, and there’s TONS of neat challenges to discover. The constantly-changing gameplay really satisfies my ADHD impulses. :)

Give it a try!

Starcrossed Gameplay Screenshot 1Starcrossed Gameplay Screenshot

In-Game Credits Screens

Should your game have a Credits screen? Of the games I have handy, more than 50% have a credit screen. Yet some of the biggest names, such as Luxor 2, don’t. Instead, their credits are only in the readme.html file that comes with the game.

What’s the advantage of having credits in-game? It’s unlikely that people are going to be impressed by a list of names… and the people who ARE impressed by a list of names are the sort of people who read readme files anyway!

I removed the credits screen from Starcrossed, partially because it seemed unnecessary, and partially because it wasn’t very polished — and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time making it look cool. There are credits in the readme file, and that’s enough for me.

Am I missing something here? Is there a point to in-game credits aside from the vanity effect? I know in the brick-and-mortar games world, people really like having their names in the game’s documentation… getting your name in-game is cool too, but not as important. Presumably this is because the sorts of people who care (such as Moby Games) use the credits from the booklet, not the in-game credits. But even that is just vanity; it means nothing.

Especially in the casual games market, where brand names are irrelevant, let alone developer names, I think credits screens are an unnecessary detail. Unless your credits screen is awesome to behold, don’t bother.

Any casual game devs need $20?

So I’ve done a couple of the “analyze your game for $20″ deals I mentioned earlier, and they’re a lot of fun. And I think they’re pretty useful, too — not that I had any amazing insights, but a new pair of eyeballs is always handy.

I wish I could analyze my own game this way, but I can’t. I’m too close to it. I’ve also subjected friends to alpha testing, and I’ve even done a full beta-test with hundreds of people. But after the beta, I made lots of changes, and now I have nobody left to give me first impressions!

If you’ve got a bit of time to spare, and you’re a game developer (or are an experienced casual game beta-tester who can give lots of feedback), and want to earn $20, drop me a line! :)

VS 2005′s Installer Creator Sucks

I have the nice fancy Visual Studio 2005 Professional, so when I wanted to make an installer, I figured it’d be trivial. I created a new Setup project, and then I figured out how to drag files into it and make registry keys, but then I got stuck. I couldn’t change even the most basic things like the Company Name! It always installed to “Default Company Name.” I knew there had to be a way to edit this, so I searched and searched. For hours! Now I will add this knowledge to my blog so that Google catches it and helps other lost souls.

The Company Name, etc., shows up in the Properties tabbed window. To view it, choose View->Other Windows->Properties Window from the menu. (It’s NOT the button along the top that says Properties, nor the menu option that says “Properties Manager”, nor the dialog that pops up when you right click an item and choose “Properties…”. Those are DIFFERENT properties in there. Brilliant.)

The secret is that you can’t just go to the Properties tab any old time. The Properties tab is context sensitive, so if you click on something in the User Interface window, the Properties tab shows properties for THAT window instead. The trick is to remember that the Properties tab only shows data for the last thing you clicked on.

So, to edit the basic setup properties:

  1. Go to the Solution Explorer tab and click on the base node of the project’s tree. (Such as “MyApp_Setup” or whatever you called it.)
  2. IMMEDIATELY click on the Properties tab (or use Alt+Enter to jump to it). Don’t click on anything else in the mean time!

Like so much of Visual Studio, it seems obvious once you’ve figured it out. But only after you’ve figured it out! Maybe if I wrote lots of Visual Basic apps this would have been trivial for me. But I don’t, and it wasn’t.

Having other troubles with VS 2005 Setup? If you want to do anything besides install some files, you’re going to need help from the Microsoft Knowledge Base. I needed to add a shortcut to the Start Menu to uninstall my program, and there’s no chance I’d have EVER figured out how to do this on my own. It involved creating a fake project and configuring the fake project’s files in weird ways. Good luck!

Instead of VS 2005… I gave up on VS2005′s setup process. It’s too inflexible and way too hard to figure out. Instead, I switched to Inno Setup. It’s free and very powerful. The “newbie” download bundle comes with an alternate front-end called ISTool. Make sure to get that! When you create a new project in ISTool, a wizard guides you through the steps of making an installer. I had a near-perfect installer in 5 minutes. I was incredibly impressed.

The only down side is that Inno Setup doesn’t create .MSI files, but for casual game installers, that’s not an issue.

Analyze your game for $20

You may have noticed that I don’t put up a lot of Game Analyses. I love to analyze games, but the write-ups take a few hours of time, and I always feel like I should be working on something that pays the bills instead. I still play lots of casual games, but I only jot down a few notes on each one, and never write up a web page for them.

But I do love doing the write-ups. So I was thinking, what if instead of making write-ups of published games, I wrote up analyses of almost-finished games, just for the author? So here’s my pitch: if you have a mostly-finished casual game and would like a second opinion on it, I’d be happy to provide one. I’ll play your game for an hour or so, write up all my notes (three or four pages worth), and send them back to you — all for $20.

This will include:

  • a mini-QA session (I’ll try to crash your game),
  • checking for common oversights (for instance, do you support lefty mouse button swap?),
  • notes on the intuitiveness of your control scheme
  • notes on your game’s presentation.

I’m not a super expert, but I do have years of experience as a professional game developer crafting user interfaces, which means my comments will at least be somewhat relevant. Think of me as a very attentive beta tester who will give you copious notes on my experience.

The results will be sent privately to you, unless you’d like them added to the Game Analyses section of my website, which I’d be happy to do too.

Anyway, drop me a line if you’d like to try it. I’ll do the first one for $10, as a Getting Started offer :) There are crazier schemes on the internet, right?

The quality of an endorsement

I love Pac Man Championship Edition on the XBox 360. It’s an amazingly crafted game with tons of polish and perfect level design. You should buy it.

But wait, should you listen to my endorsement? The fact is, I’m really, really good at Pac Man CE. My score puts me in the top 150 overall, and the top 10 weekly. Naturally, I play a lot more than I should — hours a day. I’m completely addicted.

So does my being good at the game make my endorsement less valuable? Well, if we take it to the logical extreme, let’s suppose that I was the #1 Pac Man CE player, and I told you, “You should play this game, I’m the world’s best at it!” Yes, of course you would find that endorsement a lot less valuable than an endorsement from a friend who is only so-so at it, but who loves it anyway.

But professional game reviewers tend to be really good at games — very often to the detriment of their review. No review I saw mentioned that God of War 2 had tough bosses even on normal mode. That’s because the reviewers didn’t find them tough at all.

But it’s not like I endorse every game I like, even if I’m good at it. I like SOE’s Everquest 2 a lot, but I won’t recommend it to people because SOE has made too many rookie game-balance mistakes — I have no faith in their ability to maintain the game. (And trust me, I know rookie MMO game balance mistakes. I made all of them when I rebalanced Asheron’s Call 2. And, like the SOE game balancers now, I didn’t even realize many of them were mistakes until years after the fact.) But even though I only endorse a game I truly want you to play, my idea of “you” the audience is naturally tempered by my own abilities.

In the end I much prefer demos, but I can’t afford to play all the demos that exist out there — I need to use reviews to narrow my search. Hmm, if only Rottentomatoes.com did casual games!

“Sculpted” content versus “freeform” content

Another useful way to categorize game designs is by their approach to content. Some types of games (such as adventure games) are completely “sculpted” by the designer: every bit of the content has been planned out beforehand. The traditional match-3 game, on the other hand, is “freeform” — a large portion of the gameplay comes from randomness. That doesn’t mean the designer didn’t work hard on the balance — they likely spent a long time making sure the randomness felt fun — but in general it’s still a lot easier than making sculpted content.

As casual games get ever more elaborate, we’re seeing sculpting become a requirement rather than a choice. These days, even match-3 games have pretty significant “sculpted” aspects: it’s not unusual to have unique board layouts for each and every level of the game. You might call this “mini-sculpting” because that the designer still relies heavily on randomness, but they limit the randomness to ensure a fun and constantly-changing experience.

What are the advantages of sculpted content?

  • The pace is exactly as the designer wants it
  • The designer can create obstacles for the player to overcome; these are often much more fun than just playing randomly-generated levels
  • If the game has story, it can be tied intricately into the sculpted gameplay.

But what about the disadvantages?

  • Even the longest sculpted game is shorter than an infinitely-long random game. The user has less content.
  • A game that’s unfettered by tight sculpting can adjust its difficulty upwards or downwards to better match the user’s ability. (Sculpted games can do that, too, but of course that means you have to sculpt an easy mode and a hard mode and so on.)
  • If the user gets stuck, they are stuck forever. They can’t try again and hope that the board is different.

More and more games are going the sculpted route, or else combining sculpting with some randomness, even though this shortens the game. Not really surprising. Sculpted content feels more “polished”, and polish is much more important to a casual game than play duration!