Wednesday, August 1, 2012

About success, failure, and repeating the sins of our ancestors

Edit: upon rereading this article there is actually nothing here about success. Sorry! -Ido.

TeeGee of MoaCube recently wrote a very interesting article labeled Failure study: Rune Masters. Read it now, it's worth your time. In it he is analyzing the release of a game called Rune Masters by first time indie developer CodeDaemons that has suffered through some less-than-stellar sales.

I've been thinking of that article as I was getting ready to play a couple of games that have been on my backlog for a while. Two of these that I ended up actually playing were Shoot First, a shooter-roguelike (much more fitting of that label than its more famous evolutionary-cousin The Binding of Isaac), and the Lovecraft-themed horror-roguelike Infra Arcana.

I was much more interested in Infra Arcana, being a bit of a fan of the setting and the genre and somewhat averse to shooters. But even tho I was really eager to sink my teeth into it, I ended up playing a lot more of Shoot First instead. I think the reasons are mostly due to what I consider classic "roguelike sins", which Infra commits with much vigor and enthusiasm while Shoot mostly (but not entirely) avoids.

The first thing that Infra actually does quite well are the graphics, at least in-game graphics. The Lovecraft setting is a bit hard to get right graphically, since it mostly contains indescribable horrors, so how do you describe or show them? Infra very nicely utilizes minimalistic abstract graphics, a bit like classic-roguelike ascii-graphics in the resulting style but actually consisting of simple figures and objects rather than letters and symbols. It looks good and keeps plenty of room for your imagination to fill up with the unimaginable.

And what complements such graphics perfectly in a horror game? Creepy, instrumental music! Just enter "lovecraft" into and you'll come up with a huge list of perfectly suitable music for that theme. Naturally, Infra has no music. And no sound effects. And no effects of any other kinds either. Why would you forgo collecting the lowest hanging fruits in enhancing the atmosphere of such a gloomy game like Infra? They're not even low hanging, they've dropped straight at the developer's lap and they just shrug them away.

Onwards to the next classic roguelike sin - interface! This is what the menu screen looks like in Infra:

If it's a bit hard to figure out at that size, rest assured you're not missing anything. It's red text on a black screen in some fixed-width variation of Arial or some other equally plain font. The current selection is marked by being rendered as white text. And you can't select the menu options by clicking them (you can however press 'a', 'b', 'c', 'd' or 'e').

Oh, and none of these allow you to change settings such as full-screen/windowed mode. To do that you have to edit config.txt and restart the game (of course!).

Here is an in-game screenshot:

It's a bit hard to see the actually really awesome tiles and sprites (no sarcasm), but check out the HUD at the bottom: here is that fixed-width Arial font again in radiant green, red & teal on plain black background. Nice, right? Nothing makes you think Lovecraft more than teal, fixed-width, Arial. It goes without saying that there is no tweening or any other such graphical effects used in the game, everything snaps silently into position (which is actually alright with the tiny graphics).

How about input you ask? The game's maual (another txt file) lists 32 keyboard command in addition to the 8 movement keys (some of these are different cases of the same letter, e.g. r to reload wielded firearm and R to study texts). Needless to say the only way to access commands like save or exit is via such keys, as there is no in-game menu.

These are all pretty superficial complaints, but honestly it's not that hard to get them right and most players first impression will be harshly impacted by such seemingly trivial details.

At the same time despite its flaws, Shooter gets most of these right (even tho some keyboard controls in the menus are a bit strange and/or buggy) and that's probably almost enough by itself to make me much more likely to play it than Infra. It just feels much more like a game that had a lot of love & care put into it.

Anyway, this is all barley scraping the surface and goes into fewer details than I first planned, but this post is probably already the longest I have on this blog so I'll stop now. If you want to hear more about the subject of polish and feel I suggest you give the two following videos a watch:


1 comment:

  1. This is good stuff. The usability concerns do get trickier when the game actually wants to show a more complex readout to the player. For example, if the only status readout was a score, the game could well get away with a swirly gothic font for it. With the readout in IA, font choices or graphical flourishes shouldn't decrease the basic readability of the somewhat complex information.

    Roguelike dev mostly works off from what the big established games have done, and so far we have seen Stone Soup and Tome make some headway towards modern UI. What would be really good would be to get at bunch of games that are small enough, scope and content wise, that they make people go "hey, I could do that", and also have an approachable, modern GUI and make the best of their limited resources, presentation wise.

    It might be though that the very same cruddy interfaces that keep the mass market appeal down are what make the programmer types who actually get into roguelike dev going "hey, that's neat, I bet I could do that better..."