Challenge Accepted: The 1000 year game.

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A few weeks ago I got my weekly invite to my friend James' game night.  I go as often as I can because he's one of my favorite designers to work with as well as being one of my best friends.  On this particular week he wanted to work on something new and he pointed us to a website where a designer had issued a challenge.   James wanted to try this out and asked us to bring some ideas to game night.

Four of us got together and started building on an idea that James had and by the end of the night we had a nice two player game using simple components that we'd all contributed to.  I love that kind of collaborative effort. Over the next week James showed it to another friend of ours and they expanded it to three players, and at the next game night we changed it around some more (somewhat radically.)  You gotta like change!  It's coming along nicely and should be a fun entry into the contest.

But that's not the game I want to talk about.  Once it's done I'll post something here so you all can see it and comment.

I like the idea of this contest on so many levels.  First, I agree with Daniel Solis; there's not a lot of incentive to make a "new classic."  At least not a lot of monetary incentive.  There have been some reasonably successful games in this category like Blokus, or maybe Gipf, but in general that's not where the money lies.  I applaud him for setting this up.

Second, this is a great design challenge.  Making a game within a set of parameters like this is tough enough, and keeping it simple enough to be a new classic is even more difficult.  No game with an 80 page rule book is going to last 1000 years.  It has to be simple and elegant, but with a great depth of play.

Since I first heard about the challenge I've had about four different ideas for mechanics or such that I think could turn into a game for the challenge.  None of them are very far along but I'm pretty excited to explore them and see what develops.  I'll post more as it develops.

Back in it: A first impression of WoW Cataclysm

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Let me start by saying: I'm a Blizzard fanboy.  That's kind of an understatement, really.  I've been playing their games since the original Warcraft came out.  I'm an especially huge fan of both Diablo games and World of Warcraft.  I've been to several Blizzcons and played both the WoW CCG and miniatures game.

I used to be a fairly hard core World of Warcraft Player.  Twice.  I played it from beta through launch, and then for a year or so (possibly as long as two.)  I was in a high end raiding guild.  I eventually quit because the game stopped being fun and started being about politics and loot whoring.  I just wanted to play the game and have fun.

I stayed away for another year or so, until Burning Crusade came out.  I started playing with some of my real life friends who were in a much more casual guild and the game became fun again.  We still did high end stuff, but more casually and with more fun in mind.  I was still pretty hard core, though.  At one point I was experimenting with programs that let me play five characters at the same time on the same computer, but coordinating keypresses.  I also thoroughly ravished their "recruit a friend" program to powerlevel multiple characters.

My wife and I played through the release of Lich King right up until my daughter was born. (In fact, my wife ignored her early contractions so we could finish a raid.)  A baby pretty much put a stop to our ability to raid effectively, or really to play, and so we hung up our accounts.

I like WoW a lot, but I also like not playing WoW as well.  When I play WoW, I tend to miss out on a lot of other gaming.  It takes so much time to go on raids and level and do quests.  It's all fun, but you don't have as much time to play some other game that is going to eat up 10+ hours to finish.  My consoles tend to languish, unplayed.  I miss releases of the biggest PC games as well.  And it's harder to go to game nights and keep up with hot board game releases when you have to schedule around your raids.  So, there's pluses and minuses.

As you may know, Cataclysm just came out.  It's a very exciting expansion on paper.  They introduced two new races; the Worgen and Goblins.  They greatly reduced the restrictions on which other races could be what classes (really only paladins and druids still have many restrictions.)  There is, of course, the obligatory new zones for the high end players and an increase in the level cap.  However, one of the biggest changes is that they completely revamped most of the "old world."  They resculpted many zones from the original release of the game, added a ton of new quests, made it so that you can fly in those zones for the first time, and many other changes.  It's an amazing amount of work to update those areas so that people want to go back and play in them.

After a lot of thought about it (and some gentle coercing from some friends that still play,) I decided to give in and try it out.  I didn't even have to go to a retail store.  You can purchase and download directly from Blizzard.  I reactivated my account, patched up to full (it took about a day, I think, including downloading and installing Cataclysm.)  Then I jumped right in.

Some of my friends that still play are playing alliance so I thought I'd start by making a Worgen.  I've always wanted to try a hunter, and that combination is available as Worgen.  Next I had to decide on male or female.  I play both.  I don't role-play female; that would be weird.  My philosophy is that I'm going to have to stare at this avatar for a very long time and I want it to be something I like looking at.  Usually this means that for "pretty" races I choose female and for "ugly" races I choose male (since they tend to look tougher.)  Worgen females aren't pretty, but the males look tough, so the choice is easy.

The starting experience for the Worgen is fun and full of story.  You start as a human who's town in beset by werewolves, and play through the war that follows as the wolves are defeated and the undead move in.  Along the way you get bitten by a worgen and change over.  Alchemists discover a way to suppress your bestial urges.  In the end your war with the undead is interrupted by the Cataclysm and you join up with the alliance to help out.

Blizzard makes very good use of their robust "instance" technology which allows the world to change around the player.  I can't count the number of times this happens in the starting areas.  You'll be sent to talk to an NPC and when you come back around the corner the area is destroyed or full of monsters, or something.  It's very cool and immersive.

Since I last played there have been significant improvements to the user interface.  Blizzard has always had a very open policy regarding their game.  Anyone who wants to can make "add ons" that help players out.  They've made thousands of them that do anything from making routine actions automatic to helping keep information at the players fingertips. It's very cool and Blizzard must love it because they often take those add ons and incorporate their functions into the game.  For example now the mini-map tracks where you need to go to get a quest done.  This is new and very cool.  They've also added the ability to toggle what you see on the minimap. Everything from trainers to innkeepers to quest NPCs.  That's great.

I played my Worgen until I left their starting area and got to someplace "familiar."  After about level 13 or so they join up with the elves and start playing in their areas.  This would normally get boring for me, but this is Cataclysm and those areas are VASTLY different than the last time I went through them.  Some of the old quests remain, but there're a ton of new ones as well.  I'm pretty sure no one ever runs out of things to do anymore.

The next time I logged in I decided to see what the starting experience is like for the other new race, the Goblins.  O.  M.  G.  Goblins in WoW are sort of the comic relief.  They work with technology, but aren't very good at it so they are always messing up in amusing ways.  Also, if someone's sending you on a quest to do something funny, it's often a goblin.  All of this comes through in the Goblin starting experience and more than I could have imagined.  The Worgen story is full of tragedy and angst and the Goblin one is full of humor and fun.

First of all, you don't start as a lowly anything that has to run around and kill rats.  Oh, no.  You're the boss of a factory that makes a highly addictive soda pop.  Your first quests include zapping lazy trolls that work for you and riding around in your car to pick up your buddies.  I loved it.  It was just such a nice change from "kill 10 rats" or "go get some orders from that low ranked guy over there."

As much as I loved it, though, I haven't finished it yet.  The next time I logged in I immediately got pinged by a friend of mine who offered to help me with my "main."  A lot has changed since the last time I logged in and my character was essentially trapped where he was.  The portals have all been switched around and I needed to get somewhere that I could access the new ones.  He's a mage so he came and got me and took me where they are.  He also invited me to the new guild and I decided to hang around and explore the new high level content.

First, guilds are greatly changed now as well.  They have levels, just like characters.  As the guild levels up, everyone in it gets special advantages like bonuses to XP or increased movement speed, or extra gold.  Blizzard knows what they are doing.  Plus, each character has a level in the guild.  Doing quests gives you guild experience.  As you level up in the guild you gain access to more guild functions as well.  It's pretty cool.

I explored the main city a bit, and then decided to head off to the new lands, so I got on a boat.  Halfway through the voyage the boat was attacked by a giant squid and I was pulled overboard.  Thus began my adventuring in the new underwater realms.  It's a very interesting experience to adventure in three dimensions instead of just two and I'm not sure if I like it, yet.  You can avoid a lot of stuff, which is nice, but it can also make it harder to find what you are looking for, and you can get surprised by things that are closer than you thought they were.

The new talent system is ok.  Previously you got one talent point per level from 10 on up and you pumped them into talents in any of three areas for each class.  Now you only get one point every other level and you must choose one of the three areas to specialize in.  You can still spend points in the other areas, but it seems like it's a lot harder to be a hybrid than it was before.  I really haven't finished exploring this aspect, though, so I might be wrong about that.

The biggest surprises were the items, though.  Blizzard has always put out new, more powerful things with new expansions.  The characters level cap is going up, so they need more powerful things.  In the past, though, the new stuff was always paced realistically.  If you were a top raider before the expansion the first items you'd get in the new content wouldn't really compare with your old top end equipment.  That is NOT the case here.  The first quest I did had a reward that far outshone my old "epic" gear.  On the one hand it's nice to have new loot, but on the other hand I worked for weeks on each piece of that gear and now I can just toss it aside for things that people hand me for almost no effort.  It works fine, but feels bad.

Well, that's pretty much where I am.  I've gone through the initial storyline about saving the survivors of the squid attack and defending them from the nagas in the area, and I'm on to a quest line about some human thieves in a cave that's fun so far.  I'm about half way through my first new level.  I haven't even gotten to the main hub for the new content yet, so there's lots to do.

I'm enjoying the game, but I don't feel really hooked this time.  That could change as I start to play around in dungeons and such, though.  Assuming I let myself get to that point. There are several things that could keep me from getting there.  First, I like playing a lot of different games these days and (as I said above) there's not much room in my queue for playing both WoW and Fallout 3, for example.  Second, I don't think my lovely wife is coming along with me this time, and that's always been a huge reason for me to play.  I love how we help each other play.  The child just isn't really going to let both of us play at the same time; nor should she.  I've been sneaking my play in late at night when she's asleep.

So far, though, I have enjoyed it and will keep playing for the time being and see where it leads.

Daddy, where do games come from?

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It's not really fair of me to start up a brand new blog without paying some attention to the old one, is it?

I've been working on a lot of game designs recently, and it's had me thinking about my process for making a game.  I'm not sure how long I can ramble about this, but let's start with initial concepts.

My games usually start with a single idea.  Most often it's a mechanic I want to explore.  It can come from another game I've played where I liked something but didn't think that it had been done right (or at least the way I thought it should be.)  Or I want to explore it more than the designer had or take a minor mechanic and focus an entire game around it.


I designed an unpublished game for Wizards that eventually became mob themed (title: Mob Rules) before being killed, but it started with an idea.  I was a designer for Magic: the Gathering and was fascinated with how much of the rules of the game were on the cards and not in the rule book.  So I set out to make a game that only had one rule:

On a player's turn they play one card from their hand and then draw one card from the deck.

Now if you really want to get technical, there HAVE to be other rules than that.  There's game setup, there's creating definitions for "hand" and "discard" and a whole slew of "maintenance" rules, but the core idea was solid, and I especially liked that there was no winning condition in the rules.  The only way to win was to play a card that said "You win."  Or more specifically, "You win if you X."

So I started with that one rule and set about making a game that followed it and was hopefully still fun (in the end the game was green-lit, art was created, and text was laid out, before the plug got pulled.  So it was at least fun enough for that.)  I started by making cards with different colors/factions.  Then I made cards with rules on them that cared about what color other cards were.  I put numbers on the cards as well and then put rules on the cards that cared about them.  I introduced mechanics that weren't tied to cards like the concept of "money" and made some of the cards care about it.  Games evolved differently as players focused on areas of the game based on the cards they were drawing.


The second most common way I start a game design is with a theme of some kind.  Time travel, or zombies, or something will strike my fancy and I'll think about ways to make a game out of it.  Most often this gets married to a mechanic I'm interested in and we're off to the races.

Guillotine happened in this way.  I was having lunch with a bunch of the other game designers at Wizards of the Coast one day and we got onto the subject of the French Revolution for some reason.  By the end of the lunch I'd decided that it would be a good theme for a game. I settled quickly on the idea that the players should be the headsmen competing to get the best nobles from the line, and the rest of the basic mechanics fell into place from there.

Ideas can come from other sources as well.  One game I'm working on at the moment started as an idea about packaging components and a whole game has evolved from it.

Once I've gotten my initial idea I tend to create games like a parfait (who doesn't like a parfait?)  Maybe more like an onion, or even better, like a space station.  There's the initial idea at the center, and then I add bits to it wherever they seem to fit best.  I keep adding bits, and then discarding them when they don't work.  I guess the best way to describe it is that I have a very "modular" approach to design.  I ask questions like "What's the hand size?"  "Do players score as they go or only at the end?" and so on.  I then create the mechanics to support those ideas and bolt them onto the superstructure (I like the space station metaphor) until I've got something I can prototype.

Sometimes the game comes together well and with a clear vision and I make the whole thing up for testing.  That can be a lot of work, but if I have faith in all the pieces it saves time because it's much easier to tune a completed game.  Sometimes, though, I need to test the core to see if it's worth creating the whole station or not.  It can be hard to know if that initial mechanic is even viable without testing.  In the most extreme cases I'll only do the bare minimum of extra design work.  I'll create a playable game, but with a lot of bare bones mechanics surrounding the core I want to test.  That way I'll (hopefully) be able to isolate that mechanic and see if there's something worth pursuing.

Once the basic structure is done it's playtest, playtest, playtest.  I try to play every game as much as I can.  I learn something new with every game I play.

The most important advice I can give about playtesting, though, is "don't be afraid of change." Don't hold onto a bad mechanic just because you love it.  It might be wrong for the game.  And don't be afraid to scrap or heavily modify big sections of the game to see what works.  In fact, as much as you can, think ahead of time about different ways the same game might work and test them all out.  You'll find hidden synergies in the mechanics this way.

Also, bring a pen.  Take notes.  Change components in between games as you discover problems and try again with the changes.  I say between games because in general you should finish most playtest games you start, even if you've discovered something minor that is wrong and you want to change it.  You'll get valuable data about the endgame, scoring, etc. that you'd never even get to stopping and starting again.

I hope this post has helped you get some insight into my design process and maybe even helped you think a bit about your own.

Holiday Update!

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I haven't abandoned my blog, honest!  It's just a busy time of year, especially with a 2 year old.  I hope to write something up soon about the winter events on Facebook.

As some filler, here's the list of games I've been playing:

Cityville - I really like this game.  It's not perfect, but it's the best city builder on Facebook.  I reviewed it recently, and it still holds up.

Mousehunt - Still a fun skinner box.  The winter event is entertaining, too.  It's an optional play space in the game with fun content and a good prize.

Frontierville - I'm a bit tired of this game, but the winter event is keeping me interested enough for the moment.

Monster Galaxy - it's Pokemon on Facebook.  Really.

Restaurant City - This one is on the down side of my interest.  I will probably quit soon.

Fallout 3 - I grabbed this while it's on sale on Steam and I'm really enjoying it.  The only bad part is that I'm such a complete-ist on these games that it will take me forever.  But I'll enjoy every minute.

Dominion - the game of choice for work lunches, and probably still my favorite board/card game at the moment.  We play at least a couple games a week.

Welcome to my town - Review of Cityville

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Cityville is the newest of the "city sims" that are currently popular on Facebook.  It is also the latest Zynga game, so there's a lot of force behind its design and marketing.

Like most city sims, Cityville sets you up as the leader of a small town destined for greatness.  Many of these games are set in historic periods such as ancient Rome, but Cityville chooses something that looks like small town America, which I like.

At its roots the game play is fairly standard for this type of game.  You buy structures and place them on the map.  Each structure has a timer associated with it.  After the timer is finished you can click on it to collect some money.  Spend your money on bigger and better structures; rinse and repeat.

However, Cityville has some very interesting twists and additions to this standard formula.  Let's explore the good and bad, shall we.

First, the good.  Cityville has an interesting modification of the standard money loop.  It does have the standard structures (in this case residences) which simply spit out money at regular intervals, but it also has a more complex money loop for businesses.  They are not really generators, they are transformers.  The player acquires "goods" from multiple sources and puts them into a business.  That business then converts the goods into money with varying degrees of efficiency (and time) depending on the building.

Goods are primarily gained through a simple farming mechanic.  There are a limited number of crops with varying grow cycles.  It costs money to plant them, then they produce goods, which you run through the business to make more money.  Rinse and repeat.

So why not just load up on residences, which don't require the goods step?  Two reasons.  First, there is a hard cap on residences.  Each one provides population for the city, and you have a cap on that based on how many Community buildings you've built, and they aren't easy to build so the cap doesn't go up very quickly.  Second, the residences are sure money, but not very fast money.  Using the goods/money loop is far more efficient.  It's really the primary economy driver, with residences just being a good way to pick up some spare cash.

Good mechanic #2:  Quests!  Zynga took a page from their Frontierville game and loaded the game with quests.  I've been playing a few days now and I've never run out of little goals to shoot for.  The quest system is fairly simplistic compared to Frontierville.  It really just guides you toward doing what you should be doing anyway or setting minor goals for you.  It doesn't have any of the crazy "ask your friends" items, etc.  I find it to be a fun little addition that makes me feel like I always know what I should be doing at any time.

Good mechanic #3: Boosters.  Zynga clearly did their research and checked out what their competition was doing.  This mechanic is lifted straight out of Millionaire City.  Decorations in the game are functional and position matters.  When you place a flowerbed or stop sign or what-have-you, it has a radius associated with it.  All residences and businesses in that radius get a percentage bonus to their output based on the particular decoration.  It really encourages you to set up your city in certain ways.  City blocks are very important because it allows the maximum number of buildings to surround a set of decorations and all get the stacking and overlapping bonuses.  As an aside, though, I think a hardcore look at this mechanic might show you that the rewards for careful placement are not really that great when you stack them against the amount of time it takes to get everything just right, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

Good mechanic #4: Streets.  This part is not really about how streets function as a mechanic, but about how they make the game feel. In most of these games, streets are purely decorative.  Any powergamer worth the name quickly discards them and packs his buildings in as tightly as possible to get maximum gain from their limited space.  That is NOT true for Cityville.  All buildings must have at least one side on a street in order to function.  Well, the community buildings and storage buildings don't for some reason, but the residences and businesses do.  Like the Boosters above, this helps make sure that your city actually looks like a city and not a storage area for old buildings.

Good mechanic #5: Bonus bar.  This works just like in Frontierville.  Whenever you collect anything in the game, an icon pops out and you can click on it.  If you don't, you'll still get the reward after a couple seconds, but if you do a bonus bar starts to fill up.  The more things you collect in a period of time, the higher the bonus.  It fades out after a few seconds to further encourage you to get as much done in a short time as possible.  It makes you feel clever for waiting to do as much as possible in a short time, which is really just a nice bonus for logging in at farther intervals.

Good mechanic #6: Train!  There's a train which functions as sort of a trading post.  You can choose to either send goods around to some number of your friends asking if they would like to purchase them, or send money around to them to ask if they want to sell any goods.  All the amounts are set in stone, and there's a timer involved, but I think it's a fairly clever way to put trading into a game.

Good mechanic #7: Franchises.  Basically, players can put down plots in their city which their friends can use to build businesses on.  The player who owns the town treats it as a normal business for the most part (transmuting their goods into money,) and the player who places it gets bonuses from it in exchange for having put it down and supplying it with goods once per day.  It's one of the more clever social mechanics I've seen.

Good mechanic #8: Collections!  This is very similar to Frontierville.  Most buildings and crops occasionally spit out "items" which go into collections.  These items are organized into sets, and when all the items in a set have been found they can be turned in for a bonus.  It just adds another level of interest to everything in the game, although see below for the flip side.

OK, now the bad.  #1 Bugs!  OK, this isn't a mechanic, but it's the single most frustrating thing about the game at the moment.  There have been some fairly serious bugs that have lessened my enjoyment of the game.  For one the game forces random refreshes after you've just collected all your buildings and farms, forcing you to do it all again.  Then there was one that prevented me from asking people for resources I needed to complete a building.  I know the game says "beta" on it, but really, all Facebook games say that and you shouldn't be driving traffic to your game with these kinds of problems.

Bad mechanic #2: Economic holes.  There are a lot of minor glitches and flaws in the game economy.  For one thing, the balance curve for goods production is off.  The general shape is correct with fast crops being more efficient because you have to manage them better, but the long term crops are just terrible in comparison.  The longest term crop I plant is 8 hours, and that's usually only because I'll get slightly more while I'm sleeping.  The only time I've planted longer crops is for quests.  This also creates a problem for collections in that if you want to do the corn collection you need to plant corn, which is a terrible crop.  Now, you don't have to do the corn collection for anything, but it's still annoying.

Also, there's no 2 hour crops (at least not yet.)  It jumps from 1 hour to 4 hours, which is a considerable difference.  It would be a nice middle ground, and see below.

Bad mechanic #3: Energy.  In general I don't really mind energy in games.  However, in Cityville it ties directly and strongly into the economy.  It's the primary reason that the fast goods can be so efficient.  You really can't sit there and gather high efficiency crops because each one takes an energy and you will burn it much faster than it regenerates.  Since collecting from buildings also takes energy it puts a lot of pressure on balancing collecting goods and collecting money versus energy regeneration.

Bad mechanic #4:Storage.  The concept is easy.  You have a limit on the amount of goods you can hold at any one time.  You can increase the maximum by building special buildings.  As a money sink it's not bad, but in practice the entire system is just annoying.  Also, the buildings that increase your cap take up valuable real estate.

These three bad mechanics all come together in a perfect storm to make the economic cycle very frustrating at times.  If you plant fast crops you run out of energy.  So you plant slower crops.  While you're waiting for them to mature you run through all of your goods and have empty businesses sitting around.  Ah, but you could just grow more of the slow crops!  Not really, because you have a storage cap, so it's very difficult to gather a large amount of crops at one time.  So you increase the storage cap by spending money and space on storage buildings.

Ideally, there's a balance in there somewhere.  There's some amount of storage space that allows you to grow the perfect number of crops with the correct cycle, and the exact right businesses to use up those goods and make sure that your energy is recharged when the next crops mature.  Honestly, I kind of like that challenge, and some of the mechanics like the train help correct errors, but I can image that it might get very frustrating for casual players.

Overall, though, I really enjoy Cityville.  It's easily the most fun of any of the city sims I've played, including City of Wonder (which I also quite like.)  Once again Zynga has taken all the best elements from other games on Facebook and added some clever touches of their own to create a "best in breed" game.

SpazzingOut: First Impressions of the Kinect

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I've wanted a Kinect since I saw the first trailers for "Project Natal."  The potential for this thing blew me away.  And I'm not just talking about waving your arms around to knock back dodgeballs, either.  Having facial and voice recognition hardware in everyone's living room is staggering.  Using TV's for video chat, voice commanding the console, it's all so amazing.

However, let's get back to what's happening in my living room now.  (Caveat: this is all first impressions after a day of playing with it.  I may be downright wrong about some features of the games that I haven't run into yet.)

I saw that Walmart was having a special deal on the 4GB Xbox 360 with a Kinect that started at 6am on Saturday.  I have a 360, but it's a first gen and I've been thinking about upgrading anyway.  I didn't really want to get up that early so I browsed around and found that most places were already sold out, so I had almost set my mind to getting up and fighting crowds at Walmart when I found that while Bestbuy.com didn't have any of the bundles for direct sale, they did have them available (at Walmart's price, no less) for pickup at my local store.  So I quickly bought one, got a reasonable amount of sleep, and walked right in and picked it up the next day.  I also picked up an extra controller, a cable to transfer my old hard drive to the new one, and two extra games.

I set up the new system in short order and got down to business with the Kinect.  First up was the game that comes with the bundle, Kinect Adventures.  It's basically a set of minigames using the Kinect with a weak metagame wrapper.  You collect badges and trophies by doing a series of minigames.  This unlocks other badges and trophies. You can also do "Free Play" of the minigames.

Overall, the minigames are pretty fun.  You bat balls around a room, you ride a raft down rapids trying to slalom between poles, you plug leaks in a glass box you're standing in, you float around popping bubbles.  They're quick and fun and have you jumping, leaning, ducking, and waving all over the place.  It reminds me of Wii Play, really.  It's just fun stuff there to show off the basic capabilities of the Kinect.

The second game I tried was Kinectimals.  It's kind of like Nintendogs but on a much bigger scale.  You get a pet feline (tiger, panther, cheetah, leopard, or lion) and then you play with it.  Playing with it gives you points which unlocks new ways to play with it, new toys, new minigames, etc..  There's also an exploration mechanic for the island you're on which can unlock new pets for you, etc.  The game is beautiful!  Really amazing.  All the pics and videos you see don't really do it justice.  They've captured some really nice stuff in there mechanically as well.  The pet comes up and breathes on the TV screen, making it fog up.  It bounces around looking at stuff.  If you want the world's biggest virtual pet game, look no further.

The Kinect part is nice, but the controls are a little wonky.  It's great for petting the cat or brushing it, but throwing a ball takes a bit of getting used to and aiming your throws is difficult.  Steering a toy car also takes a bit of practice.  Luckily, everything's pretty easy to do.

The last game is Dance Central.  Of the three, it's easily my favorite by a large margin.  It's sort of the Rock Band or Guitar Hero of the Kinect.  Basically, you're given a choice of songs to dance to, and each one has a set of moves associated with it.  You must perform those moves as the song plays.  The closer you are to matching the computer, the higher your score.  Each song has three difficulty levels and a practice mode that goes over the moves you need to learn one at a time.

This game is a lot of fun.  You may feel ridiculous, and there might be some laughing, especially when the screen shows photos of you doing the dance, but it's pure fun.  The Kinect controls are really good, too.  It's not just about putting your hand in the right place, it reads your body outline and matches it with a "perfect" computer.  It outlines the parts of your body that are incorrect in red so you can improve them.  Genius!  I also like the control scheme for UI functions which involves moving icons on the screen with your hands.

I have to say I'm very impressed with my Kinect so far.  It does a good job of reading your position and actions.  The only problems I've really had were things like stepping on the correct spot on the floor in a Kinect Adventure minigame or it not reading a jump correctly on occasion.  Those are really minor compared to how much fun I'm having, though.  I also feel like I'm getting a pretty good workout at some games that I find to be quite fun.  It really beats watching a Dancersize video or playing Wii Fit.

I'm sure I'll have much more to say on the subject as I continue to play with it.  I especially want to get the fighting game I saw.

Friends, Fun, and Meh: A review of Poker Night at the Inventory

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I'm a big fan of Telltale Games and have been since I started playing their revival of Sam & Max a few years back.  They've continued to impress me with continually making games based on well loved IPs such as Strong Bad, Wallace and Gromit, and Back to the Future.  Their games are entertaining and clever, they have good puzzle design and amazing story writing, and they are fun!

So when I saw that they were doing a poker game staring Max, Strong Bad, The Heavy (from Team Fortress) and Tycho (from Penny Arcade,) I thought that it would be a no brainer, especially at $4.49 on Steam.  Let's see what I got.

There's a nice intro showing you "The Inventory."  A back room speakeasy with a poker table.  There are a few NPCs wandering about the place during the intro including Sam.  It's a movie, though, and you go on rails, following the narrator down to the poker table as he explains some backstory about the place.

Then you get to the table and start playing immediately.  The NPCs are always the same (so far, anyways.) Max, Strong Bad, The Heavy, and Tycho.  You start with a stake which you throw down ($10k.)  The game is Texas Hold-em.  Blinds start at $100/$200 and go up at regular intervals.  Play continues until you knock everyone out or are knocked out yourself (although you have the option of watching the rest of the match if you get bumped.)  Once you fold a hand you can press a button to jump to the end of the hand.

Let's talk about the good parts.  Telltale did an amazing job with the dialog.  The NPCs are constantly prattling on about this and that.  They each have an OK number of one liners to deliver as they bet, raise, fold, or check.  They do get repetitive, though, after a few games, but you can't really fault them for that.  They'd need a large number of them for that not to happen.  The gems, though, are the character interactions.  Entire conversations happen between the characters.  These usually happen in pairs with some back and forth banter, but can sometimes include everyone at the table.  The pairs thing is obvious, though, since the number of players is always decreasing and you want to make sure that they still have something to say.

These conversations are hilarious and appropriate to the characters.  They often contain in-jokes that are funny even if you don't know the reference (which is tough to do.)  Strong Bad taunts Tycho about how many hits his site gets.  Max asks the Heavy about whether he can get him some new weapons.  It's all clever and entertaining and well worth the price of the game.  There are also enough of them that it takes a while before you get repeats and even after 10 or more tournaments, I am still hearing new ones.

There is a decoration mechanic as well.  You "win" new table tops and decks of cards.  The cards come every 3 tournaments you win, and the tables are triggered by specific events like the identity of the last player you knock out.  There is also a collection mechanic.  Sometimes a character wont have the $10k to join the game, so they'll put up an item instead, and if you win the hand that knocks them out, you get the item.  I have three of the four items, so I don't know yet if anything happens when you get them all.

Also, there're apparently some Team Fortress unlockables associated with the game.  I haven't played that game, so I couldn't really say if they're good or not, but if you're into that kind of thing, this game is probably worth getting for those alone.

Now the bad.  This is not a very good poker sim.  There are problems both with the UI and the AI. The UI is minor things like the fact that you have to wait until it's your turn to act.  Most poker sims I've played give you the chance to at least fold a bad hand before it's your turn, and the really good ones let you pre-assign your action and automatically undo it if something changes before your turn comes around.  It's just something I've gotten used to and miss here.

Another minor UI concern is that the controls are all hard to find.  I finally had to hit Esc during a game to locate the ability to change the deck and table designs, and to see what collectibles I had.  That should be a lot easier to find.

As for the AI...  I guess "frustrating" is the best way I can describe it.  The AI feels somewhat stupid and random, but this makes it very tough to play against.  It stays in with bad hands all the time, which is nice when you catch them, but makes it very difficult to bluff.  Also, the various characters all seem to play with the same AI.  I would have much preferred for one of them to be a rock, and one to be super aggressive, than for them all to play the same way.  I'm not 100% sure this is true, but I haven't detected any differences if they are there.

So overall, this is a fun little game and well worth the $5 price tag for the entertaining dialog alone.  There's a bit of metagame there as well.  However, if you're looking for a good poker sim or you don't care about these characters, keep looking.