Friday, 28 May 2010

Half Life 2 (Mac)

Half Life 2 is now available on the Mac, so I thought I'd revisit what I thought was my favourite game of all time. I'm surprised by what I found, and wonder whether this suggests that my UX demands have increased and become more nuanced since I originally played it.

Mac specific issues
Pro: Instantaneous switching between game and any other application.
Con: Disappointing frame rate (<30fps), especially for such an old game (2004)

Game issues
Annoyed by having to replay the same section over and over again because I don't understand how the game wants me to complete the puzzle, or move on through to the next section of the game. It's presented as an semi-open world, but in reality the only interesting paths are linear. I find myself unintentionally and unknowingly backtracking sometimes because I find it hard to read where I'm supposed to go, or what I'm supposed to do. Sometimes these backtracks can be very long and tedious, giving me a very large amount of game world to explore. Ideally redundant paths should be blocked, thus helping to guide me along the intended path. Alternatively, provide dynamic, non-linear gameplay where previous parts of the gameworld still have interest and fun, and where I really can chose my own way through the game.

Loading screens. Maybe back in 2004 this was acceptable, but these days it's not. I expect background loading at all times. If you're going to insist on a loading screen, at least make it interesting, perhaps interactive in a way that's relevant and plausible. Especially you should avoid interrupting the player while they're doing something highly interactive and feedback driven, such as piloting a hovercraft! After the loading screen has completed I often go a bit out of control with the sudden return to gameplay.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Play Diary: Mirror's Edge

I tried it out on the PS3 and enjoyed the experience of linking together moves to run over the cityscape, but was disappointed that the PS3 version didn't let me save multiple games - I'm told that you can do this if you 'log in' as a different user in the PS3 menu. I don't have a PS3 myself so didn't know this was possible, but it strikes me as a pretty bad idea. Is this how most games work on that console? How do you know which user you're logged in as? What's wrong with the traditional method of giving you several different slots to save in?

Anyway, it was cheap on Amazon so I decided to buy it for the PC as I'd heard this was the best version available.

First problem: Saving. On the PC I expected this to be easy (choose a filename, click save) but it looks like they've tried to replicate the console style. First of all you have no option to save multiple games, which is clearly a bad idea! Secondly the location of the save games is hidden (so how do I know what to back up...?) While most games default to saving in their installation directory, ME puts it into My Documents. Unfortunately there's a strict limit on how much data I can put here on my PC at uni as it's on a shared drive. As such I often log in to the computer rather than the domain, in which case My Documents is actually in a different location. The upshot is that the second time I played the game it didn't find my save file. Hugely annoying. As usual the internet had the answer as it seems other people were experiencing the same problem.

Discussed on IGN as Save file location.

An improvement over the console experience is combat and navigation. With a mouse you're able to move and react in a speed appropriate to the game. Looking around the environment with analogue sticks is slow, and trying to aim at enemies is inaccurate.

Personally I really like the use of colour and pixel effects. The enemy textures aren't terribly good though.

Overall impression so far is ok. I think they could have done so much better with a more free-roaming environment, or at least made the game less binary - currently I get the feeling that there's one correct route to take, and if you don't get it precisely right you die swiftly and without negotiation. To me this is pretty dull and breaks up the key aspect of the game: flow. Even something as simple as Prince of Persia's time rewind would be an improvement. Ideally though I'd like to feel like I had much more choice about how to navigate around with much more margin for interpretation and improvisation.

A typical scenario would be: Enjoy running and jumping to location X, take one false turn and die. Wait for reload, repeat the now boring navigation to get to the same point as before, try another option and probably die again. 3rd time lucky. Overall experience: tedious frustration.

An ideal scenario would be: Enjoy running and jumping to location X, take a false turn and have to run / jump / bounce / climb away, try a different option then run / jump / bounce / climb away again. 3rd time lucky. Overall experience: embodied flow.

I've started to watch the cutscenes now. I don't know whether this is because I'm interested in the story or am becoming disillusioned with the game...

Yahtzee's review.

Elevators are basically dull loading screens. Surely they can come up with something better than this? Especially on PC.

Got stuck in chapter 7 (the Boat). Had to read walkthrough.
Chapter 8 climbing the tall scaffolding is so annoying! How many times must I die!?

Play Diary: Dead Space

Started playing on Sunday 24th August.

Initial problems: huge mouse lag in menus and game. Searching the internet suggested that turning off vertical sync would fix this. This is a serious usability problem. After fixing that I had to increase the mouse sensitivity to its maximum in order to get the kind of performance I'm used to (I enjoy FPS games like TF2 and L4D.) Maybe this is due to the game leading on 360 and only being ported the PC. As such they may have balanced the enemies with the assumption that the player couldn't react very quickly as they had to control the avatar using a control pad.

Second problem was the perspective. Why does it use a 3rd person view? Enclosed interior environments are better suited to 1st person. Currently the character takes up a considerable amount of the limited view with no real benefit that I can think of. This not only causes problems for the player but also for the machine (extra texture & vertex processing.) My early impression is that this is an FPS, and my feeling is that a first person view would improve the experience. I believe the 3rd person view is more popular with Asian markets, but the realistic visual style and uninspiring grey/brown colour palette doesn't strike me as being very appealing in the East.

There are more control issues though. For example why am I obliged to continually manually press "B" in order to bring up a HUD showing me where my next objective is? It's pretty tedious. I feel like I'm being punished. In free roaming, open areas it wouldn't be so bad as you could see a long way into the distance, so wouldn't need to press it so often. But in small, enclosed interior environments it seems silly as there are such short distances between doors / bends in corridors, etc that the indicator is only useful for extremely short navigation, and hence has to be frequently repeated.

So far the narrative has been pretty predictable too.

I was a bit annoyed with the "Press E to get rid of the monster" QTE. I pressed E but nothing happened and I died. Turns out you have to *mash* E. Why?

Overall I'd say it is worth the £5 I paid for it, but that's all.

Yahtzee's thoughts.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Play Diary: Wii Sports Resort

Instructional Video: Nice, though play control (pause, rewind, etc) would be useful - it goes so fast through the steps that I expect many people will panic! Good that you can replay it in sections, but d-pad forward / rewind control through them would be appreciated.

Place Wii remote on a steady surface - I was holding mine in my hand, and it just automatically skipped through as if I'd pressed A.

Swordplay duel
Round 1: spam downward thrust, won
2: defended, draw
3: spammed attack, won

Free: 516 points? level 52

Frisee Dog
level 123 (430 points: blue, blue, orange, blue, purple, orange, x, x, orange+bouncing orange splodge, purple)

Stage 1: 27 points
2: 25
3: 24
F: 3 (2 misses, one was a miss-draw, i.e., I wasn't holding the Wiimote vertical, so it screwed up the orientation of my camera, and I ended up pointing into the sky - wanted to undraw but released Z, shooting instead.)
Total: 70 points (level 61)

3 point contest
Thought the diagram of how to hold the remote showed buttons on the wrong side...?
Scored 1 pt (level 4)

Table tennis
6-2 (level 100)

Power cruising - slalom - beach
151.9 pts (level 98)
Didn't get boost - does it reallly only last for half a second? And what's with the power-up bar?

Canooing - speed challenge
Feels great! played in the lake for ages, couldn't find 2 ducks though.
100 pts (level 60)

Cycling - Road race
Around the island.
Didn't get into it too much. Was 7th, went for the sprint but ran out of breath and came 14th (2:40.06)
Level 5

Air Sports - Skydyving
Didn't understand scoring mechanic - how do I get more than 1 other Mii in my shot? None of them seem to want to hook up after the 1st
38 pts (level 40)

Golf three holes - resort a
Played first hole: birdie

Bowling - 10 pin game
Auto throw style is a good idea (thinking Age Concern)
149 (level 144)
Surprised at how similar it is to the Wii Sports version, though at least spin seems to be easier to control.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Play Diary: Virtua Tennis 2009

Nice title & main screen. Simple.

Play Motion Plus movie resets console & returns to main screen (might be just my dodgy version.)

When choosing the training session, I thought the big right / left arrows would move the whole set (page) of sessions. Instead it just moves them one by one. This is an example of a developer implementing their own version of a scroll bar, but in so doing they break consistency with other scroll bars (which have lots of usability testing already done on them.) - some kind of visual feedback would help; it's very hard to see any difference in the boxes as they all look very alike. Even a sliding transition would help - currently box A is immediately replaced with box B. Maybe indicate the ones you've already done successfully?

"Select your control method"
Why doesn't it remember my previously selected controller (MotionPlus)? Also why can't I see all the options at once (there are left/right arrows for controller type, but L/R handed are both shown simultaneously.)

The three part "VT Coach" screen is a nice idea, but really doesn't help with the training. "Twist your body" - I did that *loads* but it didn't seem to make any difference. The little pictures don't do a good job of showing the necessary *movement*.
"The Wiimote should be held on it's side" (does that mean with the buttons facing left instead of the normal up?)
Also, this screen uses a button "Ready", but there's no pointer control. Confusing - tried to point at the screen and click on it. Until you've seen that this button automatically goes orange after a (long) time it's not clear that this indicates that it's inactive. In a windows environment this only makes sense when seen next to other items that are in the different state; this screen only has the one button so there's nothing to compare it to that would indicate that grey means "unavailable". Why does it take so long for the button to turn orange anyway? (again, might be my version of the disc)

Not clear how to make the opponent serve the ball. There's a bit 1 in a circle on screen. I tried pressing the 1 button but that doesn't seem to work. Tried the A button but that doesn't work either. Seems like you have to press A many times while pointing at the screen. Weird, inconsistent behaviour with no feedback when you press the right or wrong button, so I have to just mash a lot.

Lag between motion and avatar is disconcerting. Doesn't appear to be 1-1 motion...?
Targeting left & right - no idea if I'm doing it right, and why not. Would like some feedback (other than binary Success/Failure - repeatedly saying "Fail!" to a student is not good encouragement!) Wouldn't it be possible to analyse the player's stroke, visually represent it relative to the kind of stroke they're supposed to do, then allow them to practice with this 'ghost'? Would be much faster than going through the whole process of receiving the ball, returning, seeing "Fail!" then starting again. Assume they'll fail for the first few times and help with it! Also passing the training should be based on being able to reproduce the move consistently. I finally got 3 successful shots (but mixed in with about 8 failures) - this means I can do the move sufficiently well?!
Would be a good Usability question to ask the player to describe how they do each shot after they've passed - good test to see whether they really learnt anything.

When trying to do a soft shot:
Annoyed at how the avatar runs around like a nutter! Also how sometimes he'll stand further away from the ball than necessary, so when I swing he's not close enough to hit it; he had plenty of time to get to the ball, he just ran around stupidly. Seems that when I move the Wiimote back he'll stop running - but then he'll actually initiate the swing even if I haven't! Grr!

Training's frustrating and boring. Gave up after intermediate 9. Why not incorporate training as part of the first play through? I feel like it's optional (and not going to help me anyway.)

Player selection screen: Good that it has equal male / female split. Would have liked to order by country. Also would have liked to see player stats (what does "various shots" mean? "Tactical player" - surely that's up to my performance...?)
After selecting player 1, why am I asked to select player 2 in a 1 player game? Is this for the computer? Then why does it not indicate that?

What's with the cheesy rock music? Horrible!
Game is slightly more interesting than training. At one point I started to feel like I might actually be getting it.
Frame rate seems pretty low, but the graphics are quite low quality, so I don't know why this would be.


According to IGN you can control the avatar with the Nunchuck - I didn't see any mention of this in the game at all! They also say that this is a better option because the AI is pretty poor at it.
They also confirm that the MotionPlus controls are difficult.
They also comment on the low framerate, poor quality graphics and annoying music. Glad my thoughts are echoed by pro reviewers!

Videogamer also comment on the lack of auto-detection of Wiimote type.


Options -> How To
There are Back / Next buttons (in grey - doesn't this mean unavailable...?) but the screens also automatically switch over after a time period. This is annoying as it's too short for me to read and absorb all of the information.
It looks like I am supposed to hold the remote on its side, with the buttons pointing to the left. Why is that? Why couldn't they write the game to allow me to hold it the normal way?
They mention the "Visual Assist" - but where is it? How do I enable it?


When setting up an Exhibition mode (in the Play option on the main screen) there's a button in the top right called "Rules" (greyed out, but still available...) but it doesn't tell you the rules, it just toggles between a screen with Game mode, type, players, court ... and a screen with games, sets, tiebreaks, server, ai.


Session 2:

Played through remaining Intermediate tutorials. Emphasised orientation of Wiimote upon impact (also held with buttons facing left / on the side.)
Couldn't get the hang of slices in Advanced.
Played a match, felt much more in control. Won 1 game, lost match.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Play Diary: Plants Vs. Zombies

Loading Screen

Help - letter from the zombies.

Furious clicking (casual games paper) - Why Is Peggle So Addictive? Sumantra Lahiri, 10th March 2009
Analysis: The Universal (Brain-Eating) Appeal Of Plants Vs. Zombies
by Kris Graft, May 20, 2009.
Compulsion (cybernetic feedback; sympathetic nervous system, "flight-or-fight" - physiology paper, Grodal?). c.f. Tetris, Pokemon. Kris Graft (May 29, 2009) Analysis: The Psychology Behind Item Collecting And Achievement Hoarding. Gamasutra
[Shop] First click on icons sometimes doesn't respond.
[Zen garden] Accidentally clicking on background removes action icon. Would bubble cursor help? Didn't realise for a long time that right click removes action icon too (useful) - think this applies throughout other areas of game too?

Scaffolding - introduction of plant types. (plants chosen by Chris)

Game Modes


Vase Breaker.

Didn't use it much. Sometimes reveals important data (weaknesses.)
Does narrative matter? (e.g., zombie backstory.)


I use a lot of walnuts, especially useful with splash damage weapons and slow-speed plants.

Zen Gardens
Leave the snail to automatically collect coins (screensaver mode - HUD slides off screen)
Coins spawn & snail sleeps after X seconds (even while paused when focus lost.)
Tree of knowledge - didn't use it, too expensive. Finally got all of the upgrades (50ft tree) - apparently at 1000 ft you get the real final piece of wisdom. What's the point? Less visible, less reward than traditional highscore table.
Customisation: Move tool (aethstics only, not mechanics.) - with full screen of plants you can't move any; move tool requires an empty space to move a plant into.
Uncollected coins are lost if you move to a new screen. Annoying.
Click-fest doesn't work so well here (is it because there's no challenge, no urgency?)
Watering plants is binary state, based on timer - if you water it 1 second before its timer expires you'll still have to water it again. Dumb. Reduces the screen to mindless click-fest.
Golden watering can has little use: no timer or resource constraints on use of original can; difficult to select 4 plants anyway, even when circle appears over them all (it has to cross their centre point, 1 pixel off and the plant is de-selected.) - sometimes difficult to notice that a plant isn't selected.

Turning off audio when game loses focus is a great idea. Very important when Zen Garden is running on automatic to accumulate coins.

Loading Screen

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Research Assessment

Trying to get my head around what the best venues for publication would be.
ArnetMiner has a ranked list of conferences and journals.

This is the closest I could get to an RAE definition of how publications are assessed,

Section 2: Generic statement on criteria and working methods

"Assessment process


19. This is an expert review exercise. Sub-panel members will exercise their knowledge, judgement and expertise to reach a collective view on the quality profile of research described in each submission, that is the proportion of work in each submission that is judged to reach each of five quality levels from 4* to Unclassified (see Annex 1). The definition of each level relies on a conception of quality (world-leading) which is the absolute standard of quality in each UOA. Each submission will be assessed against absolute standards and will not be ranked against other submissions."