Engagement and retention studies: Lifeline 2: Bloodlines

icon-androidFor the first entry in my series of posts about player engagement and retention, I’ll take the easy way by talking about Lifeline 2: Bloodlines, from 3 Minute Games.

To quickly present the game, you play as yourself and are contacted (by mistake) by a teenage american magician girl en route to avenge her dead parents and save her little brother kidnapped by some kind of daemons or dark magicians. The link is the result of a half-failed expensive spell (she was actually trying to contact her brother) which she cannot afford to attempt a second time. So being stuck with you on a very difficult and scary mission, she asks for your support and help.

The gameplay is basic, as text is written on the screen, through small sentences from the girl, and choices are often required from you to direct her, like in a “choose your own adventure” book, but with no dice or character sheet (only choices).

Engage!

ingame-screenOn the player engagement side, the game makes it right by not trying to immerse you in any fantasy world, as the plot takes place in contemporary Oregon, and more specifically makes you play as yourself. Of course, you may not buy that a magician girl is contacting you by mistake, because she failed a spell. If you do not, then the game is over. But it’s more likely that you installed the game because you were willing to play this kind of game. This obstacle passed, the situation is quickly presented by the girl, and you quickly have some choices to make, which of course are important for the player to feel concerned by the story (even if 90% of the choices have actually no impact on the plot). Another stuff that is very important, and often not considered when looking at player engagement analysis, is the production quality. The writing is very good (at least in french, but I guess the original version is good too), the visual is simple but effective (an old paper background, some ink droplets), and the music and sound design is very subtle, but always present and illustrates the change of actions during the game. The text is served by small bits, leaving a few seconds between each sentences. This rhythm is clever, as it take away the game from considering it a book, and just makes sense as the girl is (supposed to be) talking in real-time. As I said before, the fact that the player often has to make a choice (there are rarely more than ten sentences before a player’s action is required), keeps the player alert and immersed.

Nowlifeline2-main-screen, this is retention!

On the retention side, the game system is just marvellous. Connecting the player to Arika (the magician girl) in “real-time” allows the devs to always master the rhythm of the game very precisely. Many times during the game, Arika tells the player to wait until she completes a task (walking to a given destination, resting, eating, preparing a spell), and the game then just pauses. the player has nothing to do except quitting and wait to receive a notification from Arika. Thus, the player never plays the game for too long, and is left waiting for the rest of the story. It could be frustrating, but given the concept of the game being played in real-time, it always feel logical that there is time with nothing to do. Then, the player receives a notification from Arika explaining that she finished her task, and is waiting for the player to talk to her again. Then, the plot resumes. The devs always are in control of the rhythm of the game which is the best way to make sure the user remains engaged and does not grow tired of it.

So smart

All the game’s efficiency relies on this unique game mechanic, that the player is connected “for real” to Arika, the girl on her mission to save her brother. It may have fallen flat if all the production quality was not this high. Everything has been carefully thought to make this bond feel very real, so the devs can keep complete control on the user experience. This is very clever, and as far as I’m concerned, works very well with me.

Engagement and retention study series: Introduction

Puzzle&Dragons

Puzzle & Dragons – One of the most addictive game on the mobile market

Steam and GoG sales and discounts, Humble Bundles, Playstation Plus, free-to-play games and so on… These are great opportunity to grow my collection of games. But weirdly as I have more and more games, I have less and less time to play them.
This issue, which I think is shared by many players, has made player engagement and retention decisive in a game success. Even paid games need it to ensure the success of its DLCs or sequels.
So I decided to play and test them during 30m to 1h, and try to deconstruct the engagement and retention mechanics in each one of them. My own tastes will obviously influence my judgment, but I’ll look to find what specifically makes me want to return to them or not.
I will write about them on this blog, which will act as a memo for me, and maybe you might find it interesting and informative.
See you on the next post.

Re-Post: Rock, Paper, Shotgun: The 50 Best Strategy Games Ever Made

RPS_stratheaderWe can find many game rankings on the Internet, but I found this one particularly interesting. The presented games are shortly but greatly introduced, summarized and analyzed, with other similar games linked to each one of them.
It is not a nostalgia approach, as each one is analyzed by today’s standards, and how they would be appreciated if discovered nowadays.
The older goes all the way to 1983, 4 of them are totally free, and I find the ranking actually relevant, even if I didn’t play lot of theses games.

Here is the link:

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2015/04/24/best-strategy-games/

Mirror’s Edge: A big misunderstanding

mirror-s-edge-pc-1369333713-141Mirror’s Edge is the funniest game I’ve played from the last generation consoles (PS3, XBOX360). I played many great games, some very touching, some very interesting, but this really is the game I had most fun with. It has been moderately appreciated, but I met many people who love it as much as I do. So, I wanted to give tribute to this very good game, and try to understand why it has not had all the praise it deserved.

Too short ?

medgpc126The first thing I want to correct is the duration of the game. It has been the main criticism made to it, since one can complete the story mode in about 8 hours. Yes, that’s pretty short, even if some very succesful games have an even shorter duration (Call of Duty games for instance, in their campaign mode). But stating that Mirror’s Edge is short would be ignoring its time-attack mode which adds between 10 and 50 hours of additional gameplay. And that’s actually where the real gameplay is, as the story mode is barely training to the time-attack mode. Unfortunately, the game has not been marketed this way, and many critics have simply ignored this mode (which is a big marketing failure in my opinion). Why is this mode the real deal ? Simply because it takes environments you used to play in the story mode and asks you to get to a goal in a given time (this is what a time-attack is, no surprise). But what’s great is that if you take the same path as in the story mode, you will simply get 1 star. The 2nd star will require a perfect performance. And the 3rd star are only available if you find a new path with complex shortcuts, which require a lot of skill to pass with success. As an example, I spent about 1 hour in each of the first 3 tracks to get the 3 stars. The feeling you have for getting the three stars is really rewarding, and since you have at least 23 tracks to beat in the base game (more have been added as DLC), that’s a lot of work/fun to get all the stars. Most of the fun actually comes from the search of the optimal path, and the skill to run through it.

Players don’t need Runner-vision

medgpc031Which leads me to the second big design mistake of the game: the runner-vision. Since it’s an optional feature, it’s an avoidable mistake, but developers should have reserved it for easy mode, or at least inactivate it by default for normal mode. It really spoils part of the fun, as it makes the game really feel like a corridor. When disabled, it challenges you to find the right path (or one of the paths) in addition to crossing the stage as fast as possible. It makes the game feel a little more “open-worlded”, as you feel that the path you found is part of a larger choice. You need to choose a path quickly, and have the skills to run through it as fast as possible. It adds a puzzle element to a skill oriented gameplay. The runner-vision should really be a help for the player dying too many times at the same stage, but it really spoils the gameplay. Once again, if you consider the story mode as a training field for the time-trial mode, the runner-vision may be part of the learning. But very few people see the story-mode as a training mode.

No shooting in a running world

medgpc080The third flaw in the design (but once again avoidable) is the use of weapons. The game is NOT a First-Person-Shooter, and should have never been. Using weapons breaks the skilled running aspect of the game. There is an achievement that can be unlocked by killing 0 enemies. I don’t know why I chose to try to get it, but it was a real good decision, because it makes the game more challenging, while removing a badly developed aspect of the game. Except for a few parts, you can even avoid any fight against enemies, thus making it a running game and nothing else. I feel the same way of stealth games that adds some shooting sequence in the game, when I would have liked it to be just a stealth oriented character. Because making your character able to kill all enemies with guns makes you wonder why in hell are you even bothering running away from them, when you can kill them all. Constraining yourself to resolve stages only by running gives an amazing feeling of being untouchable, in a credible way, even against a horde of heavily armed soldiers. The skill-oriented gameplay gives you, as the player, all the credit for successfully overcoming all the obstacles the avatar meets.

“What a feeling”

medgpc038To conclude, I’d like to talk about why this game is so amazing. Mirror’s Edge is a truly unique experience, with amazingly simple and powerful control-scheme: two buttons, one for upper and one for lower contextual actions. The rest of the challenge is just about timing. A few milliseconds delay will change the action of Faith (the avatar) to pass the obstacle, and make her lose some of her speed. Since the real pleasure come from crossing the environments at the fastest speed, you quickly find yourself trying to achieve that (I really enjoyed the third time I played the game, and that’s an evidence of its high quality). This requires observation (if you remove runner-vision), anticipation and timing. This is a fully simulation-oriented design, which makes a great difference from more arcade-oriented running games, like Assassin’s Creed. In Assassin’s Creed, running through the environment is impressive, but not very rewarding for the player. Mirror’s Edge really gives yourself a true sense of being smarter and quicker than all those soldiers trying to kill you (close to the feeling you have in Shadow of the Colossus when you achieve to kill gigantic creatures using your intelligence, creativity and agility). But as I said before, the story mode is just an introduction for the real game which is the time-trial mode. Many critics said that it is a bonus mode to reuse existing environments, but some very good games are only driven by mode such as this one, and nobody talks about them as a bonus mode (I specifically think about Trackmania games here).
I wanted to give a few words about the visual and sound-design of the game. These are just amazing. Very few games from the last-gen (and even current-gen so far) have reached this quality (I can think of Journey, but that’s it). These qualities have been highly praised and explained in any review about the game. This opinion, at least, is widely shared among people who played the game.

 Alive in an open-world

mirroredgeA reboot of Mirror’s Edge has been announced during the 2013 E3, and the only thing we know is that it will be an open-world game. This is a great news, since this game will really benefit from this feature. The original already had kind of open levels (what you actually see in time-trial mode), but an open-world may be a perfect fit for this gameplay. Let’s hope developers make good choices regarding which features they will reboot, and which they keep as is.

Book Reviews : The Art of Game Design (a Book of Lenses), A Theory of Fun and Level Up!

artofgamedesign_newsIn the perspective of becoming a good Game Designer, there are three things to do: Play games, study Game Design, and more importantly create games. The first one is pretty easy, and I do it since almost forever. The third one is difficult, because designing game is not enough to actually create the game, it needs to be developed. I’m currently working on it, but what brings me to this article is the second thing: study Game Design, as in “scholar studies”, i.e. learning from other people who took the time to share their experiences with others. There are of course many sources for it (an amazing one being the GDCVault web site and their numerous videos, some of them being free to watch), but I will talk about three books I’ve read in the recent years.

A Theory of Fun, by Raph Koster

theory of funA Theory of Fun, by Raph Koster, is a very theoretical book trying to understand and explain what are the cognitive processes in the player’s mind that create the feeling of fun. The book is short but very dense. The author tried to illustrate his ideas through drawings, which often help a lot. The content is difficult because it looks at the player’s emotional process through psychology and cognitive science. I think the book deserves a second reading to grok it completely.
Describing the book in a few lines is no easy task (and there are many good exhaustive reviews out there): Raph Koster first explains why playing is necessary to human beings’ development, as a learning process. Then he explains why fun is necessary to define a playful experience, and finally what fun is made of.
A great thank you to M. Koster for having delivered this very deep analysis; this book is a must-read.

Level Up!, by Scott Rogers

levelupLevel Up! By Scott Rogers is the opposite of Theory of Fun. It’s a very practical book about designing a game from start to finish, describing the different phases from pre-production to production. The overall book is very focused on realizing a 3D action/platformer game (obviously because the author knows a lot about it).
There are some very interesting concept to take in this book, like the “theory of un-fun” or the triangle of weirdness. It also explains in much details what the three C’s are (Character, Camera, Controls), which is very crucial in any game design. There is a part about documents a Game Designer have to produce, which can be inspiring, if you’re creating console action games (I couldn’t find help in it to write documents about an educational game we pitched recently).
To sum up, I find it a lot too focused to learn from it. There are interesting lessons, and I’m glad I read it for them, but all in all, it’s targeting a very specific audience. If you happen to create an action/plateformer game, you will probably find help and inspiration in it, but at the same time, it seems too directive, meaning that if every 3D plateformer game designer follow this book, their games may have too much in common. Just take inspiration from it, keep some distance, and you will find that the book can be hepful.

The Art of Game Design… A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell

art_of_game_design_book_of_lensesThe Art of Game Design… A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell, is just in the middle of the two previous books, and it does it very well. It takes a functionnal approach of Game Design, by looking at it from very different points of view.
These perspective are used to understand what a game is made of, deconstructing it into very small concepts which help seeing what each part of the game design is meant to do and if it actually does achieve this goal. Many chapters aim at understanding how each people that will “interact” with your game design will use it and react to it, so you can ensure that it takes them into account (going from your client to the players, through developers, artists, community managers, etc…)
This book is very, very interesting through and through. Every lesson is a good one, but is not something to blindly apply to your game design. Each chapter aims at making you think about the best way to apply these lessons, depending on your specific context (client, targeted audience, development team, etc…). Each important lens is described through a series of questions you must use to challenge your own game design (there are 100 lenses in the book), which are very valuable in a brainstorming context, or when you try to figure out what is flawed in your game.
A very highly recommended book!