Now I’m Sad (about Shooter Games)

PopCap, the independent casual games developer and publisher, renowned for intuitive and addictive games like Bewjeweled, has put on their site one game I … just … don’t like.

Normally, I hold this company — one of the few internet startups to escape from the dot-com bubble burst, in the highest regard.  They know about design, and gameplay, and how to make a game visually appealing.  Their games consistently provide me with entertainment.

I guess this is the problem they have with being a publisher now: they themselves do not make all the games on their site.  So, this new game, Platypus, does one thing and a half things right and lots of things wrong.  Let’s dissect.

What it does right: it has a comely and standout visual style.  It uses claymation graphics to set it apart from the pack.  Cool.  I would love to see more games with this style.   The half-a-thing it does right is having different difficulty settings.  I like that they’re at least trying to cater to different play levels.

What it does wrong: pretty much everything to do with the fact that it’s a side-scrolling shooter.  This is a genre of game more popular in the days of yore, and there were clearly going for a retro feel.  However, I got the impression that the developer felt that the way games were set up back when is the way games should always be set up.  So, what’s specifically wrong:

  • Not enough explanation (or, perhaps, assumption of knowledge).  Oh, you need to fire at the little crates to get some powerups, and not the balloons they’re attached to?  How would I know that?
  • Arbitrarily hard.  A perpetual problem with side-scrolling shooters — sometimes an enemy just pops out and kills you with now warning.  Perhaps a little flash on the side of the screen would help the player realize there’s something to which they need to react.
  • Visual clutter.  What’s background and what’s foreground?  What affects the gameplay and what is there to be pretty?  Since everything was created with the same claymation, this game especially needed some indicator of what the player should be paying attention to.
  • Hard to recover from being a less skilled player.  If you don’t get the powerup (which requires some skill), you start being unable to accomplish the other in-game tasks, whereas if you get the powerup it becomes monumentally easier to get the next one.  Some sort of extra reward for the better players is good — but a game shouldn’t punish players continuously.
  • Non-stacking progress.  In this day and age, I see little reason to have a shooter game that doesn’t have some sort of permanent upgrade to the ship at higher levels.  Yes, higher levels can be more challenging, but at least give the player something to work towards, customize, or hold onto as they progress.  I don’t think it’s enough (even in shooter games) to have progress be only how far you’ve gotten in the game.
  • Some things just don’t make sense.  Perhaps a minor point, but: can’t you have a name that makes sense and has something to do with the game?  There is not a single platypus in there.  On a related note: haven’t we evolved beyond the point where spaceships drop fruit worth points?  Can’t you design things that should clearly be collected that are not bunches of bananas or grapes?

So, PopCap has finally published a game I don’t like.  I’m sad.  But I do have hope that their next ones will be better — especially since I pretty much like all their other games.

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2 Responses to “Now I’m Sad (about Shooter Games)”

  1. Nate Austin Says:

    It’s almost as if they hadn’t learned the lessons that casual gaming has been screaming for the past 10 years.

    It always amazes me how much most stuff sucks. And occasionally, even from a high class company like PopCap. But on the other hand, I find it very encouraging, since I’m in the casual games business right now. There seems to be plenty of opportunity to one-up the big guys.

    In conclusion, INTERFACE INTERFACE INTERFACE.

    peace, yo.

  2. oneirichaberdasher Says:

    Weeeellll, not just INTERFACE, INTERFACE, INTERFACE right? There were serious design flaws in the game that couldn’t be fixed with the best interface in the world.

    Certainly interface needs to inform design, and vice versa, but the real problems I had with PopCap’s game wasn’t that it was unplayable, but that it wasn’t fun.

    You are correct that you can do better than the big guys, though. I expect only the finest from you, Nate.

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