Posts Tagged ‘peggle’

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Angry Birds: The Illusion of Ease

December 23, 2010

Last week, I finally did something I wasn’t sure I’d ever do: I paid for a game on my iPhone.

Okay, so sure, it was Angry Birds, perhaps the definition of the modern mobile casual app. And yes, it was the “holiday”-themed edition, which happily meant that I got bonus Halloween levels to go along with my surprisingly challenging Christmas levels. And yes, it was 99 cents. I wasn’t sure what I’d get out of it, honestly, except that I knew I had enjoyed the “Lite” (read: free demo) version of Angry Birds proper, and the idea of getting more levels with a kid-friendly Christmas backdrop was awfully appealing.

And yet still, it’s surprising just how difficult this little game is to put down.

For a casual game, the challenge of Angry Birds is breathtakingly steep. This is mostly due to an approach to puzzle gaming very similar to the one that Super Meat Boy took to platforming to much acclaim earlier this year: bite-size levels and near-infinite motivation to keep playing.

The small levels are actually a necessity resulting from the game design — if you’ve never played it, the entirety of the game is spent flinging different types of birds at the “houses” of angry looking piggies. The piggies are protected by ice, wood, stone, and even the odd pumpkin/christmas gift, depending on which flavor you’re playing. Since the birds (oddly) don’t really fly, they just kind of get flung out of a slingshot, their range is limited. Their limited range limits just how sprawling the piggy habitats can be; these piggies aren’t so cruel (or so smart), after all, as to construct a house that simply goes beyond the range of a single slingshot stuck in the ground. These are small structures regardless of their relative strength; the thought of having to spend more than five birds knocking one of these things down is almost inconceivable.

This little piggy's house was made of stone.

This is also, however, where the difficulty comes in. For whatever reason, the number of birds is limited for each habitat, and the player is forced to use a specific set of bird types for every level. On one hand, this actually limits the difficulty of the game, as the problem solving process that the player must go through is simplified greatly by the inability to choose, say, the bird that splits into three little birds as opposed to the bird that lays a high-velocity egg. This is also the source of much of the difficulty as well, though — the player is limited to three birds in cases where three birds don’t seem nearly enough. It interestingly forces creativity on the part of the player by removing some of the player’s freedom to choose.

Also similar to Super Meat Boy is the near-infinite replayability that the difficult-but-tiny approach affords Angry Birds. There is a star system implemented that grants one through three stars for each level based on the player’s score — this offers incentive to play once all the levels have been passed. There are leaderboards that track the player’s progress against that of friends and, of course, the rest of the world — this offers incentive to play even once three stars have been achieved on each level.

And then there’s the one thing that Angry Birds has that Super Meat Boy can’t hope to offer: the illusion of ease.

angrier birds.

In a way, this is related to the illusion of difficulty I previously discussed in relation to Peggle — that is, while Peggle certainly benefits from the employing of certain strategies, levels that look easy and levels that look hard all mostly come down to luck because of the human mind’s inability to see beyond two or three bounces. The illusion of ease in Angry Birds is something like the inverse of that concept — given the limitations inherent in the game design, the player is tricked into thinking that even the hardest levels can be beaten. Super Meat Boy‘s hardest levels look hard, and the player feels like something has truly been accomplished when one is beaten; only the flow and memorization that comes with an absurd amount of practice can get a player through the most difficult levels in Super Meat Boy. Angry Birds doesn’t have that. There is always the sense that a level can be passed in the first try; failure is almost always narrow, as often as it happens, leading to the conclusion that success is just beyond the player’s grasp. “Next time I’ll get those piggies,” you might say, “and I’m bringing down every single brick of their house with them.”

This is what makes Angry Birds essentially the perfect iPhone game; if you have two minutes to spare, you feel as though you can pull it out and “progress” somehow. Even if you don’t get past a new level, you can at least improve your score on an old one; even if you’ve passed them all, there’s always that pesky leaderboard taunting you with its higher scores.

It all seems so easy. In many ways, it is.

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Peggle and the Redefinition of “Difficult”

January 13, 2010

I thought, for a while there, that I was getting better at Peggle. Slowly, but surely, its challenges were being knocked down; slowly, but surely, I asserted my dominance over the game and its all-too-simple physics-based dynamic. I could beat all of the competitive matchups, even on the highest difficulty. Knocking out 35 orange pegs was barely different from taking down 20. Adventure mode was almost a joke.

Still, on the very last 400,000-point challenge, there was trouble. 250,000 was a great score. 175,000 was a little more like my average attempt. It just…wasn’t…happening.

Now, please believe that I’m not making this up. I’m not. This is not editorial privilege, this is not a story of fiction built to reinforce an argument. This actually happened:

After ten attempts that involved lots of eye-bulging and internalized bad words, I gave the controller to my three-year-old daughter who had been begging to play for about the last two rounds. Some context: she always picks the dragon, because the dragon looks cool. She calls the owl “fancy-pantsy” because I called him a fancypants in a competitive game after a particularly beneficial zen shot. She knows enough to aim for the orange (mostly because her attempts at playing typically involve her brother and sister shouting “AIM FOR THE ORANGE!”), but knows nothing of strategy beyond the initial aim.

She came within a decent landing of beating the thing. 360,000+ after a mere 10,000 in the game-ending plinko slot. Ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot, complete with long shot bonuses and a fireball that had to have eaten half the board, and she just about finished the challenge for me.

*** (deep breath) ***

Of course, you can give yourself advantages -- like using flippers on this stage.

“Difficulty” and “skill” in Peggle are carefully-crafted illusions — or, at the very least, mean something entirely different than the same words applied to action, adventure, or even sports games. The concept of difficulty in a casual game like Peggle is tied directly to chance, with the definition of “harder” or “easier” hinging on whether your odds of accomplishing the goals the game sets for you get better or worse. Granted, one could theoretically say the same thing about any other type of game. Some lucky shmuck may well beat Ninja Gaiden II the first time he plays it, simply because his fingers happened to fall on the buttons at the right time. The difference here is that the odds of such luck happening in Peggle are not negligible. There’s always enough of a chance that the player who’s never played before is going to outmaneuver the master to make it worth playing.

On one hand, this is part of what attracts people who in no way define themselves as gamers to Peggle — when the prospect of success is always available, the intimidation that many games present to non-gamers disappears. On the other hand, it is that very ease that infuriates gamers enough to come up with apocalyptic scenarios in which casual gaming takes over and pushes so-called “hardcore” gaming into extinction.

Where Peggle wins over the latter group of gamers, however, is in adding decidedly “hardcore” scenarios like the one described above. The number of attempts that is typically necessary to succeed in these scenarios is enough to emulate the “hardcore” experience, because it feels like you’re practicing and getting better. The truth is, it’s still largely down to luck — even if you were able to line up your shots in the same place every time, your results could be wildly different thanks to the round-to-round randomization of orange pegs and the turn-to-turn randomization of the pink bonus peg.

None of this is to say that Peggle is a bad game; it just presents a shift in the concept of “difficulty” by leaving so much up to luck.

As such, next time I’ll try not to be so surprised when my three-year-old outdoes me.

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…of the Decade: The Shared Experience (Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty)

January 5, 2010

In our house, video games have historically (and understandably) been my domain. The games we buy are typically things I want to play, the ones I talk about loving are typically solitary experiences. There’s not a lot of opportunity for multiplayer in my house, because the kids aren’t old enough and my wife is generally not that interested in carrying out male-dominated fantasy scenarios involving extreme aggression. Can’t really blame her.

As such, it’s always a pleasure when my wife and kids do join me in a gaming experience, a feeling reinforced by the recent release of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a game that’s proven to be a blast whether I’m playing with my wife, my kids, or even by myself. Peggle, Puzzle Quest, or even the Yahoo! Games-based J.T.’s Blocks, all of these are things we’ve been able to play together to one degree or another. We were playing Super Bust a Move when we realized that we needed to get to the hospital for the birth of our oldest daughter. These are things I remember, and times I treasure.

Still, there’s one shared experience, from late ’01 to early ’02, that stands out above all the others. Metal Gear Solid 2.

Yes, really.

Obviously, Metal Gear Solid 2 is something that doesn’t exactly stick out as a collaborative or potentially shared experience. You don’t even get the option to play multiplayer of any kind. No, this is the one game that my wife found she could watch.

Not long after the game began, I found myself motivated not by the typical wish to progress and perfect the game, but by the wish to laugh with my wife over the absurd, increasingly convoluted plot that unfolded over the course of it. Anyone who has played Metal Gear Solid 2 (or 3 or 4, for that matter) knows exactly the sort of plot that Hideo Kojima likes to toss into his more recent work, and it has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with excess. Kojima will throw in giant robots, supernatural baddies, and flirtatious pseudo-love stories if they suit his needs. He’ll even strip his protagonist bare-assed and make the player play the hunt for clothes.

It was a wonderful time, sharing that game with the love of my life, and it defined this decade as well as anything else I played.

I have one more of these “…of the Decade” pieces in me, and then I’ll never bother you with them again. I promise.

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…of the Decade: The Casuals (Bejeweled and Peggle)

December 21, 2009

Peggle and Bejeweled collectively represent the breakthrough of PopCap games. This alone would make them “games of the decade”, given the level of ubiquity that PopCap has managed to achieve in the time since Bejeweled first appeared in 2001, but there’s so much more to them that they may well be the games that most represent the decade that may yet be known as the “aughts”.

Bejeweled long held a revered place in the hearts of browser-gamers as PopCap’s shining star, with gameplay that was almost too simple to be believed and a play style that was as much dumb luck as it was strategy — sure, those who played it more would generally get better scores than those playing it for the first time, but the possibility always exists for one of those nigh-endless combos that just racks up the points in a moment of blind luck.

Pushing Bejeweled into the casual stratosphere is the iteration that currently resides on Facebook, the insidiously addictive Bejeweled Blitz. Chris Donlan at Edge Magazine put it wonderfully in his recent writeup of Bejeweled Blitz:

[Bejeweled Blitz] advertises itself as a high-score rush, each game built to last exactly one minute — plus the Last Hurrah section in which any remaining unmatched special gems explode lavishly — suggesting you can probably get in a round before loading up Excel or checking the cricket scores.

That’s a total lie, of course. Blitz doesn’t take a minute to play — it takes a minute to play once, but that first go is always just theatre.

That’s exactly it — it takes a minute to play, but you could sit there and kill an hour easy trying to surpass the next person on your Facebook leaderboard, or trying to surpass 400,000 points, or trying to score 100,000 points for the 250th time, thus rendering that particular landmark “gold” on your stats page. Facebook is the perfect platform for casual games, and Blitz is the most perfect integration of casual gaming with social media to date. And yes, I’m including Mafia Wars and frigging Farmville in that discussion, if only because their constant updates drove me utterly bonkers until I figured out how to turn them off.

Peggle broke through in a completely different way: by appealing to so-called “hardcore” gamers while never sacrificing its casual appeal. Over the last year or so, you could find Peggle on just about every format imaginable — Xbox 360, PS3, iPhone, DS, and, of course, PC — and ever so slowly, people whose typical gaming diet consisted of things like Dragon Age, or Resident Evil, or even Guitar Hero (hi!) were confessing their addiction to Peggle. Any game that can have you playing against someone who has never played before (during which the newbie wins about half the time) one minute and struggling against some of the most wicked challenges ever put to digital media the next, all the while never allowing for complaints of “random shots” or “dumb luck” is something special indeed.

Only recently, I’ve blown the metaphorical dust off the Xbox Live Arcade version, trying to beat all 75 of the ridiculous challenges for the sake of 25 measly GamerScore points. Clearly, a Peggle addiction is one that may lie dormant for months at a time, but never disappears completely.

Together, Bejeweled and Peggle are proof that the rise of casual gaming does not signal the coming of the gaming apocalypse; or, if they do, we’ll be too busy trying to best our own scores as to not see it coming.

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