Mobile Game Review: Lost Echo [iPhone/iPad]

I discovered this game from the promotional category “15 Greatest Storylines” in the iTunes store for iPad/iPhone. Most of the mobile games I download are free, but an impressive trailer plus the fact that the game was on sale ($0.99 from a usual price of $2.99) was enough to make me buy this game. Lost Echo has been out for some time, released on Sep 2013 for the first version.

This game is an authentic adventure game where you control the main character, following a storyline that gets pretty mysterious after the first few minutes of play. The game’s graphics are all 3D rendered in real time, and depending on where you move the camera angle changes, sometimes gradually and sometimes suddenly.

When I first saw this game’s trailer on my iPhone, I was blown away by the graphics, but after playing it for about an hour or so on my iPad my impression dropped a notch. This is not only because the larger screen size shows off the flaws more easily, but because the design quality of the environments varies significantly, with some contain areas of very simple geometry that stand out. Also, the app preview shows some of the more interesting and better-designed areas, which is only natural from a marketing point of view. Overall they have done a great job with texturing the environment to create realism without using too many complex models.

I’ve been playing for around 90 minutes total time, and the story and dialogue is pretty well-written so far. I am not sure if they are purposeful, but I feel there are similarities to some of the Final Fantasy Games (story and dialoge-wise), plus Half Life series (mostly visual). I haven’t played many true adventure games on iPhone/iPad, but it’s great to know there are some serious adventure games like this on mobile devices. The only drawback story-wise is that sometimes I feel this game devolves to a click fest where I have to just click on everything in sight until I hit upon the right object.

The controls on the game take some getting used to be able to efficiently navigate the world, but even given this learning curve I think there are some things that could be improved. For example, clicking on a location to move there does not normally show any UI confirmation, unless you have happened to click on a hotspot representing a object or other important place. This makes for a frustrating experience, especially because sometimes it isn’t clear whether the place you clicked on is a legal location to walk to. Usually I end up clicking many times quickly to make sure the character starts moving.

There was one scene I just played involving a card game where clicking on a button on an overlaid menu to look at my hand of cards didn’t work properly – instead it acted as if I was trying to touch something on the backdrop, giving me the message “This is a wine crate”. Eventually I figured out I had to click my cards on the table first but I was almost ready to give up. There is one more short scene involving fixing a rattle that was surprisingly hard to control, and I feel that part should be cut completely from the game since it didn’t add anything tangible to the experience.

I also had to struggle with the camera angle, since it would change unpredictably and sometimes I didn’t know where I had to send my character to force the necessary angle change. I think some of this is unavoidable in adventure games with dynamic camera angles, but I think they could refine things a bit. Once you get to the camera setup on each area it’s not that bad though.

For some reason, part of the time when I was playing this game there was no music, even though I had my volume turned up all the way. When I went back and played the next day music was suddenly working, and from what I’ve heard it’s pretty good. This issue might be related to my device, however. Another thing that I experienced once is my iPad getting extremely hot after playing for a few minutes, though this too could be a device-specific problem (it’s an older model).

Almost immediately after starting this game I could tell it was a low-budget effort – not in a negative sense but rather that the team tried to do the best with limited resources. For example, the fact that areas are reused several times in the story, and also the fact there is a lot of dialogue. Both of these things could be attributed to their storytelling style, but with a big budget I’m pretty sure would exposed more areas to be explored.

Looking at the developer’s site (KickBack studios), the team is in fact very small with only two people, who must have worked very hard on this game (their first) in the last two years or so. I’d be very happy if I could ever make a game this cool that could get such visibility from Apple, and I’m looking forward to this studio’s future releases.

Despite the few flaws and annoyances, for $0.99 this game is totally worth it, so I recommend you check it out on iPad or iPhone.

lostecho

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Mobile Game Review: Quantum Cheeks [iOS/Android]

I came across Quantum Cheeks on a fellow developer’s blog on WordPress, and decided to review it. It’s the first game from a small team of developers who are learning Unity, and the tone of my review takes that into account. The game is out for Android, iPad, and iPhone. I only played it on iPhone 6.

The concept of the game is simple – guide a hamster through a series of radioactive barrels. The controls are very simple: click anywhere on the screen to make the little thing jump out of his (her?) current barrel and hopefully into another one. Many of the barrels are in constant movement, rotation or translation along some path, and the core gameplay element of this title involves getting the timing right with respect to the barrels on screen. Each stage ends when you reach the ladder at the end of it. There are also some seeds you can collect along the way to get extra lives, similar to coins in Mario Brother.

The graphics are fairly simple but sufficient to support the gameplay. There are some little visual touches that caught my eye, like the fireflies on the first world. There was clearly a bit of effort put into this effect since their paths seem dynamic and there are different sizes of fireflies, plus a fading effect in and out. There is also a nice parallax effect with multiple layers of background, but I had to really pay attention to notice it. One minor nitpick is that the resolution of the barrels on the first world is too low and could use some refinement. The barrels on the second look pretty nice, though those on the third stage have a weird design, maybe a space ship?

Because of some issue I wasn’t able to hear sounds or music, although I think it is supposed to be there. Will update this post if I get that figured out.

My favorite thing about this game is element of shooting a hamster back and forth between barrels. It’s challenging, a little addicting, and adding the “hamster” idea gives life to what would otherwise be a dry physics simulation. I am not sure if the team plans to keep working on this game, but I think it would be interesting to expand on the concept, with more barrel types (maybe ones that explode after a single use) and more interaction with the world, for example bouncing off walls and such. Since they already have a physics engine I think some of these additions wouldn’t take that much additional development time.  I also like how you can just randomly shoot in one direction and have a chance at hitting a barrel in the distance, and I think if they can foster this sort of experimental play the game could be even better.

My biggest issue with this game is the bugs or inconsistencies I saw, which I notice even more being a software developer. I’ll give a detailed list here because I think they can probably fix these in a follow up release if they like.

1) Sometimes clicking on a barrel doesn’t seem to do anything. I noticed this mostly on barrels that are rotating back and forth 180 degrees, since it requires nearly perfect timing to eject the hamster at either endpoint. I would allow ejection at any point, and if the designers really want to limit this, queue up a click and eject when a valid point is reached.

2) Sometimes a rotating barrel will start ‘twitching’ back and forth for several seconds, after which it eventually stabilizes again. Seems like something has gone awry with the physics engine here. 

3) Once or twice it seems like a barrel ejected me before I touched the screen, though this is hard to reproduce.

4) There was at least one barrel (pointed up and to the right 45 degrees) which seemed to have less power than the others, so the distance the hamster was projected was unexpected.

5) At least once, I saw the game end before my character was completely off screen (on the right side). It would have gone off screen eventually, but the timing caught me off guard. This one is very minor, though.

6) I usually played the game in landscape mode, but there seems to be several issues with portrait mode which automatically triggers upon device rotation. Rather than go into all of them here, I recommend just disabling portrait altogether since it’s probably not worth the effort of supporting it.

In spite of these issues, the game is still fun to play, and I recommend you check it out. If you do, please consider giving their team feedback, since as a developer I can tell you this is one of the most important things for them (:

Link to the game’s release blog post with download links: https://rhyskucharski.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/quantum-cheeks-has-launched/comment-page-1/#comment-7

Mobile game poll

It’s been about a week since my latest game for the iPhone, Dokusen: The Art of Domination, has been released. I am planning on writing more details about how the game is doing in the App Store, but for now I’ll just say it is doing much better than my previous game based on the data from first few days.

In order to get some feedback on the game to help me improve it and future games I create, I’ve created a simple poll.

If you have a iPhone device, you can check out the iTunes page here and download it if interested. Or if you are not looking at this page on your mobile device, you can just search for “Dokusen” in the app store on your iPhone.

If you can’t or download want to download it that is fine too, but please consider taking the poll to explain why that is so.

You can also check out the game’s app preview video here.

Apple Connect App provides incorrect download statistics

I check my app’s download statistics on Apple’s Connect app pretty frequently, and was surprised when a weekly total for my latest app was significantly less than the daily count from a few days ago. I tried restarting Apple’s app, but got the same figures.

Starting to get concerned that the figure reported a few days ago was mistakenly inflated, I checked the download statistics on the iTunes Connect site (under the Sales and Trends area), and was relieved to find the aggregate numbers there were close to what I had seen in the app for the daily numbers. The numbers in the App Analytics page are all still zero, probably because the app has only been out a week.

I have no way to verify for sure which number is correct, but the odds are that the aggregate numbers being displayed in the Connect app. In my case, the numbers were over 10x smaller than they should be, which is a pretty serious bug.

If this doesn’t correct itself, I may send Apple a note since it’s pretty bad a bug this basic could escape unfound by testing. But maybe it only happens in a rare situation that doesn’t effect most users. Though the numbers are slightly different for my apps that have been out for several months, the difference is no more than 10 downloads.

If a company like Apple can’t provide accurate download statistics, it might be wise to consider using some 3rd-party SDK like Flurry which should give a more accurate count, plus much more information on how your app was used. I haven’t tried this myself, but am considering it eventually.

If anyone has noticed this bug please let me know.

Mobile game development: putting finishing touches on visuals and sound

For my latest mobile game project, I decided to spent more effort on the overall player experience, in particular the visuals and sound. After I worked out the basic gameplay rules and level design, before releasing the game I went back to put some of these finishing touches on.

For the experienced mobile game developer, these types of things are second nature, but for the hobby game developer who is still learning the ropes it can take some time to shift one’s thinking to be player-centric. These refinements also contribute to the game’s overall appearance and can result in more downloads if they are showcased in screenshots and app preview videos. Ultimately, one of the best types of marketing is a game that markets itself with appealing graphics.

In this post I’ll highlight some of the visual improvements I did, followed by some audio and sound ones.

Visual

  1. I used a star field animation rather than a plain background on the screen behind the game board. This took some tweaking to get right, and I ended up using different layers of stars to add depth, with colors and speeds set accordingly. For example, stars that are closer move faster and are brighter looking. The stars also fit well with the ‘meteor’ element which is introduced into the later levels.
  2. I added an animation at the beginning at each level where the tiles fall into place from the left and right sides of the screen.
  3. When a game ends, the tiles fall away off the screen.
  4. Touching and holding the screen causes the tiles in the same column and row to be highlighted up. This has to be done since the actual square being clicked on is usually not visible because the user’s finger covers it. The color of the highlighting is white for valid spaces, and red for invalid ones.
  5. I spent a great deal of time tweaking the animation for when tiles expand or ‘grow’ outwards. I ended up with using a random timing for when tiles appear, and this gives the game a certain chaotic feel I thought was fitting. Also, rather than a tile suddenly appearing, the color grows quickly from the center of the tile.
  6. I added a white square showing the last tile placed by each player, since it’s easy to forget.

Sound/Audio

  1. I added background music which had a retro feel to match with the visuals, and a high-energy feel to make the game more exciting.
  2. I added sounds corresponding to winning or loosing a game.
  3. I added a sound signifying that the user tried to place a tile at an illegal location.
  4. I added a sound for when the tiles fall into place at the beginning of each level.
  5. For each tile appearing as part of the expansion process, I play a chime-like sound that gradually increases pitch.

For the app preview video, I found another high-energy song which I really liked so I used that instead of the game’s actual music. I also shut off the sound effects since I thought they would be distracting. But the visuals are all intact, so if you are interested you can check out the app preview video here.

Six nice things about advertising your game online

Though I’ve never been a huge fan of advertising (as a consumer or producer), after spending a few hours trying to push my latest game on various online spots, I’ve started to get used to it, even enjoy it a bit.

The main purpose of advertising is to get more people to learn about your app and actually download it, but there are some other perks that come along with the ride. I’ll mention a few which I’ve noticed.  Most of my efforts have been put into posting on forums and these items reflect that.

1) It’s a great form of market research – you can see what types of games are out there being marketed, as well as how they are marketing them (videos, contests etc). You can also get a feel for which games are getting more attention from the views on their posts. One might argue that looking at the various app store’s ‘popular games’ categories gives similar information, but often the apps that get that far have a large marketing budget, and those techniques don’t necessarily apply to the average indie gamer.

2) You can advertise your game using very small chunks of time, unlike development which may take you just 15-30 minutes to get ‘in the mode’ and actually start writing code. Once you prepare your screenshots, videos, and text for your posts, the actual process of posting is pretty quick and can be done in a few minutes. Often the most time is just spent registering for an account.

3) You can get much more feedback about your game, whether from hits on your various forum posts or comments. Much of this feedback comes quickly, sometimes in only a few hours. Though not nearly as nice as actual downloads, these can translate to some type of satisfaction or motivation to continue marketing your game.

4) After you have found the first few top forums and posted to them (i.e. Touch Arcade), you have to start spending a bit more effort to find those which are less popular, but have a chance to help bring in more users. Finding such forums can be rewarding, as can be the judgement process in deciding which are worthwhile.

5) Rather than using the same text for all posts, you can customize each one based not the form theme, user base of the forum, and what games seem to be popular on that forum. Through this process you can improve your writing, creativity, and ability to perceive trends. For example, if you find out a certain post on that forum seems to be getting a lot of hits, you can see if you can relate your game to it somehow.

6) Knowledge of how to advertise software online is a very valuable asset, since it can be applied to any of your future or past projects, irregardless of genre or platform.

Dokusen: The Art of Domination [Gameplay basics]

Recently I was skimming the forums where I advertised my new puzzle game, Dokusen, and realized someone had made a comment about how they had no idea how the rules worked. I was planning on writing a post about the game’s rules anyway, but this made me decide to do it sooner rather than later.

Each stage has a different board size and shape, along with a different set of players. The types of players are as follows:

1) User player: the person playing the game, present on all board levels.

2) Inactive player: a player who begins the stage owning one or more squares. This player type does not place any more tiles with intent, but the existing tiles will spread automatically.

3) Active player: Same as an inactive player except it gets to play a new tile once each turn like the user player.

Basic game flow

1) User player plays a tile of their color in any legal square. Legal squares are defined as any square except one already owned, in other words either a black square (not owned) or one of a different color which is owned by an enemy (active or inactive player).

2) If present, one or more active players each play their color tile on any legal square. The level of skill of the active players depends on the stage.

3) All tiles that are currently on the board are then expanded or “grown” to legal spaces, if any.

4) Special effects will then take place (such on meteors on stages where they appear)

5) Back to step 1, where the user player goes again. The game ends when all the squares are taken. If the user player owns over half (50%) of the available squares, that stage is won and player proceeds to the next stage. Otherwise, it is a loss and the stage must be replayed.

The only other thing that needs to be explained is the rules for “growing”. They are actually pretty simple – a square will change ownership to whatever color is surrounding it on more sides (up, down, left, right) than any other color, excluding black. To see this in action, let’s look at the first few moves for level 5, which contains a inactive player owning four squares at the start of the level.

tutor

The user player decides to play on the topmost square, and you can see this represented by a white dot. After that, the tiles around squares of both the user player and the inactive grow and expand outwards.

tutor_2

Let’s talk about two squares and why they changed colors during the growing process.

1) Top left blue square above: this one was bordered by black on left and bottom, nothing above, and blue on the right (the one the user player just put down). Since black doesn’t count, the square was ‘dominated’ by blue and so it became blue.

2) Square in the middle of the board: this one was bordered on all sides by orange, so it became orange.

For the next turn, the user player (blue) decides to play on the bottom center of the board. During the growing stage, this new blue square expands to the left and right, but does not grow up. This is because there is an orange square two above it, such that the square about the newly placed square is bordered by black on the left and right, orange on the top, and blue on the bottom. Since there is a tie, the color doesn’t change.

tutor_3

I hope this explanation made the rules a little clearer, but if you have any questions feel free to comment on this post.

I recorded a short video of the above game which can see below. I ended up loosing, but the purpose of this post wasn’t to teach strategy. I may do another post on that later.