Electron Dance
1Oct/1725

Discussion: The Birthday Party

at sundown party shot

Dear subscribers, if you feel like chatting about anything at all from the slightly late September edition of the newsletter, please speak your mind in the comments here.

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  1. What a good cautionary tale! There’s a tangent here that’s kind of inspiring me to take on a writing project (“Sharing games: A memoir”) about the art of trying to get other people to have fun with you and the many many ways it can fail to launch. From the hopeless college matches of local halo deathmatch (i was the noob at console fps) to my folder of Humble-sourced local multiplayer games that are probably grand, but who knows when I’ll have the appropriate folks over to try.

    The anecdote I’d excerpt as an article would be starting with the platonic ideal of sharing games when we had a great time with lemon joust at our wedding reception. But then I’d pivot to the part i’d like to excise from my memory: the welcome party for all the out of town guests the day before where I’d tried to set up some interesting, unconventional takes on games and collaboration, but everyone just wanted to catch up with their infrequently-seen family/friends and meet people from the in-law side, so the games were a semi-ignored side dish for those less inclined to socialize (whoops, didn’t mean to reinforce that stereotype). Just like your son’s silly friends and their “it’s such a nice day that I want to play outside” nonsense. Where do people get those warped priorities?

    Really I won’t write that up, just like I won’t burn through the pile of humble-sourced single player games that don’t have any of the multiplayer excuses except for time (brb, gonna just speedrun through stellaris, Civ BE, Endless Space, CKII, Stardew Valley, Crytpark, and Kentucky Route Zero). But it’s a fun idea – maybe it could be “Sharing Games: A Field Guide” and just be a curated bunch of contributor essays. Ooh, or maybe it should just be #sharinggamesfails and I can let the internet take care of it for me. My work here is done.

  2. “button porn”

    This made me laugh but you do have a point. I’m playing Battlerite at the moment and, oof, it’s difficult juggling all those abilities, cooldowns and finger gymnastics in heated pressure cooker arena brawls. There’s a very high skill ceiling if you can get through the dexterity and control gate too. MMO HUDs scare the crap out of me.

    Contrast that with Rocket League which also has a very high skill ceiling but the controls are super simple and easy to wrap your head around.

    Cuphead’s a relatively simple (not easy!) old-school shooter but even its scant controls are enough to confuse Hailey in a pinch, which Cuphead does a lot of!

    We play a lot of Mario Kart 8 together and in the latest Deluxe version on Switch, Nintendo have allowed accelerate to be automatic/always on (one button less to press), kept the usual ability to motion steer and added in a kind of soft auto-pilot. I appreciate all these additions, even if I’m unlikely to use the latter two. Anything that makes it easier for folk to just jump into a multiplayer game is a big plus.

    “Never, I repeat never, let anyone loose on the Dream Valley course which is just flying. Which is just slow and horrible.”

    Aww, I really loved the flying in Sonic Racing because it separated it from other kart racers. Some levels were pretty spectacular off the ground, in the air and water! That said, Hailey wasn’t a fan of flying either but she didn’t realise you could drift in the air which is key.

    “Do they really have to select their characters each time?”

    Yeah, this is a really terrible oversight and makes repeat games very annoying.

    Pressing buttons to join in the right order has been a problem for local multiplayer games for a while now (for colour, character or screen corner preference) but it seems both Steam and the Switch have ‘controller ordering’ functionality to take some of that pain away.

    I seem to recall trying to play 4-player Rocket League and having a lot of issues too. Can’t recall whether it was 4-player local vs. 4-player online (a bonkers idea), or just 2v2 local. I suspect the former but either way, the physics were going crazy and there was so much lag.

    It could be that the friends didn’t want to be ‘hounded’ by a parent while playing perhaps? That could be the opposite of cool videogame van! Kicking a football, bouncing on a trampoline, hanging around and choosing what to play is different to a scheduled evening with dad watching over everything. I dunno, I’m just thinking out loud here! Combine that with ‘weird’ games and a sunny day. Were the friends the same ones that spent three hours in the videogame van?

    It’s funny because when I host games nights I have these grand plans and sometimes we end up spending a good hour or two just catching up and chatting, and that’s often without any weird games! :)

    So, the Side by Side videogame van?

  3. Hey Dan

    The Lemon Joust story is still one of my favourites. But I guess “The Birthday Party” is my way of broaching the topic that sharing games with others not a straightforward affair. I think there was an RPS article some time ago talking about the best way to run party games. Some complex multiplayer experiences are magic yet trying to find partners for them… Cryptark is good fun, although I’m not sure Cryptark is a great co-op experience, but so complex that there’s no way I could foist it on a friend who hadn’t played it. It takes study. You need to learn together. It’s hard to find an audience for complex single-player: it just gets worse for multiplayer.

    Do you cultivate a cadre of videogame friends… or cultivate a cadre of simple games that anyone can join?

    Gregg!

    Yes, a game like Rocket League you can have fun even if you’re not an expert. You can laugh at your own incompetence (we did). And racing games are easy enough, I think. But I think Dream Valley is horrible because it takes forever and flying doesn’t feel like driving – there are fewer guides. It is terrible for children and I doubt many casual players will have love for this level.

    On controller order: yes, this is a problem that comes up again and again which affects certain games more than others. Hidden In Plain Sight doesn’t suffer from this at all!

    During the party, I kept myself out of the games except to offer button advice occasionally. However I was moving things along at a reasonable pace. These weren’t the same children from the gaming van party although I detected a smidgen of disappointment it wasn’t a gaming van after all :)

    The Side by Side videogame rig would probably look more like that used by Pacific Rim jaeger pilots.

  4. “The Side by Side videogame rig would probably look more like that used by Pacific Rim jaeger pilots.”

    I’m fine with this.

    “Do you cultivate a cadre of videogame friends… or cultivate a cadre of simple games that anyone can join?”

    I think any game with a learning curve requires benefits from a sort of parallel or shared discovery and mastery, whether it’s co-op or competitive. That’s really tough to orchestrate if you’re not living together or playing frequently!

    I know Luke and I started playing SpeedRunners together online and loved it. I recognised that Hai might enjoy (it as a Mario Kart, Micro Machines and runner/platformer fan) so I encouraged her to have a dabble and learn how to play it before jumping in with us and we’ve had some amazingly close games where we’ve all been in hysterics trying to stay in the game. (This is mostly mixed online/local, but we’ve played plenty of pure local too.)

    Now, having witnessed how much of a riot SpeedRunners can be, Hai and I decided to run it by our games night friends and… it just didn’t catch on. I recall us being too good against the newcomers so we stepped away from the controllers so they could get a better feel for it. Still, they struggled. I’m hoping to try again at some point before putting it to rest.

    Assuming player ability/knowledge is equal, the other issue is player preferences. Some don’t want pure and simple. Some don’t want complicated. Some don’t want strategy, some don’t want to play football (even with rocket powered cars) or mount friends. Some don’t want to compete. Ultimately it’s about getting people to buy into playing in the first place. That’s the biggest hurdle.

    I’m willing to give most games a go, but these kinds of conflicts make selection a lot more problematic! And, y’know, I encounter the same issues with online games and friends as well (with the added factor of cost on top). It’s hard enough getting some consensus on single-player games!

    However, when the stars align multiplayer is magic and one of my favourite things about gaming so I think it’s worth the effort.

  5. For you and I, Gregg, it’s a no brainer about giving anything a go and seeing what sticks. But I’m thinking from a developer’s commercial point of view, the more complex the local multiplayer, the less likely anyone is going to want to try it. It doesn’t mean it’s doomed to failure – some games that would seem slam dunk failures have succeeded. Like Sumer. My God, that’s seems hella niche.

  6. Meant to get back to you on this.

    Yeah, absolutely. Simpler games will always be more accessible. Wii Sports was a runaway success because it dispensed with traditional controllers in favour of simpler and more instinctive motion controls (albeit, with less finesse) but it was also a straight up sports game so every activity was easy to understand and get into right off the bat (ho ho!). Oh, and it came with every console. That helped quite a bit. To be honest, I’m surprised Wii Sports wasn’t ripped off more. I mean, Sportsfriends is a cool alternative but it is alternative!

    I do wonder with Sumer. As I mentioned when you visited, there’s this weird cognitive dissonance with my gaming friends between learning how to play a multiplayer strategy videogame and playing a boardgame (which are almost always multiplayer strategy). Get folk in front of a screen explaining how to play and they switch off, get folk at a table with an intimidating rulebook, cards, playing pieces and die and they’re entranced.

    Sumer was the game to get to the bottom of this bollocks. I know my friends enjoy a good cerebral boardgame, I know they enjoy a good fast-paced videogame… do they enjoy a crossover with elements of both? I’m optimistic because when I’ve mentioned it to them (through the prism of it being a digital boardgame) they’ve been enthusiastic. We’ll see! Hailey’s retained everything she learnt from the tutorial a while back so that’s reassuring too.

    I think Comet Crash is one of the most niche I’ve encountered. 2-4 player (teams or no), Starcraft-like TD that’s twitchy and fast paced with lots of hidden depth. Local only. PS3 only. PS Store only. Good luck with that. I think Pelfast, the developers, are long gone.

    Hold the phone.

    http://cometcrash2.pelfast.com/

    Well, shiiit. August 2017.

  7. Gregg, there’s nothing like a comment with a twist if the tale. “How will complex local multiplayer survive? Look at Comet Crash, for example, which – OMFG A SEQUEL!”

    Nonetheless the point stands, CLM games (there you go, acronym of the day) are sailing against some brutal winds and only love rather than commercial support is going to see them through.

    I think people have certain expectations around videogames, a contextual baggage that can work against anything outside of the norm. Just look at how much uphill struggle the videogame tourism has had. I wish you luck with your Sumer game, remember to report back, Gregg.

  8. The newsletter mentions Cosmic Express on the playlist which makes it totally on-topic (also: kids and gaming, my wife asked if the kids liked it, because of the cute art style, and then the kids swarmed over when I was playing it and one asked “Why do you have all these games you don’t tell us about?”–older kid did the first four levels while younger kid watched, and then naturally decided he didn’t want to keep banging his head against it–though the cute art style isn’t necessarily a draw, older kid likes blowing stuff up perfectly well, though I guess he also does sometimes like doing that in a cute art style like he has specific preferences for which alien he wants me to play as in Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime)

    …OK, I had some thoughts, but what I want to say right now is everyone has to stop being racist to the poor green aliens.

  9. The main thought was going to be about how, over time, when you’re stuck on a solution it’s soothing to go back and watch your solution to Andromeda-15 replay.

  10. Andromeda-14! Dammit, I totally blew the landing on that.

  11. Matt, I stopped showing my children puzzle games because they get bored watching me trying to solve them. This goes back to Full Bore when my son loved the exploration but hated it when I stopped to solve rooms.

    They also don’t want to take on puzzle games because, as gaming time is closely managed, my son wants to play titles in which the time expended is repaid via progress. The idea that staring at the screen for 40 minutes and possibly only solving one puzzle feels like a complete waste of time to him.

    True fact: I did actually feel a little bad for it green guys.

  12. The green guys that left my seats all slimy? They can catch the next train!

  13. Gregg, if they were coming home from a party and vomiting all over the seat, I’d feel the same way, but they just want to go to the park. The. Cosmic. Express. Needs. To. Make. Reasonable. Accommodations.

    Joel, with me it’s not so much “showing” the kids a puzzle game as they come over and watch when I’m doing it around them. If they get bored, they wander off. (Or bug me to play something else with varying levels of success.) They do seem to be interested in watching the levels happen for some reason. Also yesterday Younger Kid asked to do the first level and with some help got through about eight levels of Andromeda and one of Ursa Minor. She has trouble using the touchpad to draw straight lines though which was part of where the help came in (and me pointing out that by putting that bump in she’d blocked off her return route, and also I have to do erasing myself which is hinty). Whereas Older Kid wanted to see the fun stuff that happens in completed levels, like the Delphinus level that depends on two green ones trying to jump into the train at once, and a Perseus one where a purple one jumps into the train and right back out into a house. Which is a bit off-brand for the kid exulting about how SimCity Buildit is about to let you go to war.

    Fun (?) fact about that Delphinus level; I solved it by accident, basically. I was drawing a track backwards from the exit and I didn’t realize that it went past the green ones first until I saw them trying to jump in.

    Boy I feel almost bad that I didn’t get to any of the substance and will have to double-post later.

  14. “Do you cultivate a cadre of videogame friends… or cultivate a cadre of simple games that anyone can join?”

    I’d been thinking the answer was “you create future videogame friends and train them to like what you like,” but reading all this I’m starting to question the wisdom of that plan. “gaming time is closely managed” – that doesn’t sound fun for anyone. Ah well, too late to turn back now.

    I’ve also been rolling around some thoughts about complexity in board games vs. videogames, and how much expectations matter for getting people to be willing to invest some time being not-very-good at a game before they start enjoying it. There are also some important differences w/ things like reaction time being less of a factor in board games and a huge factor in getting people to play genres they’re not already familiar with.

    Also, I wonder how many copies a board game has to sell to be successful. Seems like that’s way off from what you’d think for a videogame, but the margin from a boardgame sale that goes to the creator can’t be all that much. Makes ya wonder.. someone should write a book about the economics of game development.

  15. “I’d been thinking the answer was “you create future videogame friends and train them to like what you like,””

    I’ve tried this but eventually people stop wanting to come along to games night because Gregg’s going to make us play that Comet Crash game again! :-P

    “how much expectations matter for getting people to be willing to invest some time being not-very-good at a game before they start enjoying it

    I think this is mostly expected when anyone starts a game for the first time unless the rules and conditions for winning are super simple and easy to understand. Like Dixit or, I dunno, Kodama.

    “things like reaction time being less of a factor in board games and a huge factor in getting people to play genres they’re not already familiar with.”

    Yeah, it would be a task to get the bulk of mine and my girlfriend’s friends to leave the table and get on to a videogame. Controls and pace/twitch response would deter most of them for the more traditional local multiplayer games before getting to theme/genre. Racing and fighting? With Mario? Nah.

    There aren’t many turn-based hotseat games either (that are uniquely videogames rather than digital versions of existing boardgames) or indeed much in the vein of Sumer and MULE. I never managed to get Planet MULE working locally for four players but I think that could be an interesting experiment.

    Actually, this may explain why the Worms games are so popular and why Scorched Earth (and by extension ShellShock Live) are still fun with groups. They’re turn-based and simple enough to play and understand easily, fun to watch with enough random elements to spice things up, family friendly silly cartoon violence, and you can play with any number of players with a single controller. I’d never thought about all this.

  16. I’ve tried this

    Do or do not, there is no try. Once you create the future videogame friends you have to keep feeding and clothing them even if it turns out they’re inveterate cut-scene skippers or something.

  17. Only Nova 7 remains! Orion 12, Nova A3, and Nova D3 were the last to go before that. I was almost ready to surrender on Orion 12 and then I thought a bit about a constraint (lbh ortva ol ivfvgvat n pbeare jvgubhg qebccvat fbzrguvat bss, fb ng fbzr cbvag lbh unir gb ivfvg n pbeare jvgubhg cvpxvat fbzrguvat hc), and then I worked for a while and… it was solved. And I was like, why was that so hard? It seemed like it was a matter of technique rather than an insight. And on a macro level, bapr lbh pubbfr gur vavgvny pbeare lbhe pbhefr vf cerqrgrezvarq va bhgyvar; lbh unir gb ivfvg rnpu pbeare va ebgngvba gb nygreangr checyr naq benatr cvpxhcf, naq gelvat bar qverpgvba jvyy vafgnagyl oybpx lbh bss sebz erivfvgvat gur vavgvny pbeare. But I just couldn’t put it together!

    I was looking at your posts and I was like “Secret challenges? What secret challenges?” Then I looked for one and realized I had already discovered the mechanism that reveals them, except I thought it was a hint. Then I solved the level and said “That was a dumb hint! It wasn’t even helpful!”

    Some Resign Doominations soon, maybe!

  18. Matt:

    Nova 7 is the one level I cannot solve. I used a walkthrough to solve it a while back. It’s large and I can’t break it down into “okay, don’t go there /have to do that” mini rules which restricts the possibility space. I’m just randomly scrawling solutions. Nova 7 is like Andromeda 14 except I never solved it.

    If you’re doing challenges, you’re nowhere near done once you solve Nova 7. There’s a lot more to do than you think. Ha ha I love “that was a dumb hint”. (I also solved one of my tricky Taurus levels backwards – the ending defined the correct solution.)

    Gregg/Dan:

    Since I left school, I’ve never had a group of gaming friends. In fact, I probably spent most of my life embarrassed about my gaming habits. It’s only through the medium of Dance have I found my self-respect although I still feel twinges of having to apologise for my choice of hobby.

    From every I’ve heard, the economics of board games are pretty bad as well. There are too many board games. ;) Think Rab Florence said something like that on his old RPS series.

  19. I was just coming here to say that I had solved Nova 7, without particularly intending to be obnoxious about it this time! But if the opportunity to be obnoxious about it falls into my lap, well hey.

    Are there more challenges than I know there are? Nova 7 seemed to indicate the number of secret challenges and how many I’d solved. I’d had a slight fear that the broken stuff around the level meant there’d been a Cosmic Disaster, so I was relieved when it turned out to be connected to the challenges, and that when I finished I just got the train going past the credits to a jaunty tune.

    I had pretty much the same experience as you, where it was so big that I couldn’t break it down into mini rules much. In this way it’s not unlike The Great Tower–the issue is not that you look at it and think “I have to [get this sausage across this unbridgeable gap/get this purple guy over to the purple box without cutting off my return path], but how?”, you look at it and think “There are so many things I can do I’m not sure which one of them even would help.” On top of that, because in Cosmic Express the solution and its execution are separate steps–you have to draw the solution and then let it play out–there’s another step to figuring out what the basic obstacles even are.

    For me the key was that a lot of Cosmic Express and Sokobond puzzles rely heavily on Schmuck Bait. You’re like “Tab A can obviously go in slot A, and tab B is right next to slot B, and… the only problem will be figuring out how to get tab F to slot F,” but as soon as you connected tab A to slot A you were doomed. The key was laboriously bringing it over to slot F at the beginning. So I figured out how the obvious moves in the corners weren’t going to work, and then (after lots and lots of failed attempts) tried a way of doing some stuff that was based entirely on “There’s a natural destination for these guys, so let’s not send them there,” and then a fair amount of solution-scrawling got me to something that I could tweak till it worked. But I don’t feel like I have a mental picture of the level–like, some levels divide up naturally into parts and maybe Advanced Topology People would be able to process them in terms of how you need a certain number of entrances and exits through the crosses, or the portals rearrange the topology, but I’m just laying down track until I see that there’s only one way in to where I need to go and no way out, and then erasing it.

    Another thing about Cosmic Express is that there are plenty of red herrings in the levels, like crosses that you wind up not using. (Though sometimes those can be essential parts of the challenge, since you can’t make a 90-degree angle on a tile with a cross–a lot of my tweaking at the end of Nova 7 was based around working around an unused cross in this way.) In Stephen’s Sausage Roll this usually doesn’t happen and when it does it feels like a violation of the social contract, but in Cosmic Express it’s just part of it–that the levels sometimes have space in them for symmetry’s sake, and that part of the challenge is figuring out what you need to not use.

    Exemplary level select/secret challenge by the way, with the credit roll coming when it comes and the secret challenges making themselves visible. You can’t replay levels in the same way that you could in Sokobond without closing your eyes when you open the level and pressing R, but it’s more fun to watch your old solutions play out anyway.

  20. Matt,

    Go back to the Cosmic Express map. It will not look finished. Your journey is not yet over.

    It’s interesting what you say about “Schmuck Bait”. I think that’s part of Alan’s puzzle design ethos. He does his best to obscure the solution but, whereas in the past we might expect all sorts of noise to clutter the level, he just organises it to make sure the solution look unlikely. A challenge level I just completed had this exact issue where the necessary solution looked so unlikely I never tried following it through.

    But I do love that moment when it becomes clear what the real problem is. With Alan, you know it is there, waiting for you. You follow what the solution appears to be, waiting for the surprise to spring – and there it is. Like those levels where you just can’t get the train out because the passengers can’t reach their stops which are perches right by the exit. I did find that particular variant a little enragey, though, simply because it wasn’t obvious to me sometimes when the passengers could make their destinations and when they could not.

    I think some of the “red herrings” may actually be alternate paths. Some of the levels feature challenges push into using those pieces. I think some levels have more than one solution naturally, as well, regardless of hidden challenge.

  21. Yes, the Schmuck Bait definitely seems like an ethos. I was thinking about this already with Sokobond in contrast to Stephen’s Sausage Roll. If you want a puzzle with any difficulty you have to misdirect away from the solution somehow, and setting up an obvious partial solution that doesn’t work is one way.

    SSR doesn’t do it that much, though. It seems like it tends more toward setting up something where it looks like you can do a nice neat proof that the level can be done and you have to figure out which step of the proof is erroneous. Like the way it seems like you can’t get everything over to the grills in Twisty Farm, or Seafinger where you’re on a 2×2 island and you have to find a way to manipulate a sausage that is out of your reach. (One exception is The Clover on the first island where the sausages all start next to 2×2 grill squares but if you grill them there you can’t get back to the entrance. But even then it’s pretty clear that you’re stuck once you do that, though as usual you may spend a while trying to figure out if you might not be stuck. Well, I guess there are a lot of other levels where grilling a sausage on a 2×2 square in the obvious way doesn’t work, but that became so pervasive I stopped thinking of it as the obvious way.)

    Anyway both approaches make you rethink your assumptions and give you the chance at an aha!, but the assumptions come from different places. With Schmuck Bait, you’ve argued yourself into the assumption as a way of getting started on the problem, with the other approach you’re arguing yourself into the assumption because you don’t understand what you can do as well as you think you do. Which Alan also does do sometimes.

    Called to dinner now so I’ll be concise–
    Nova 7 is a level that brings in every disparate mechanic. The Great Tower is like that but it does it before you’ve seen the mechanics in other levels. (Well, there are more mechanics besides that, but it still has that effect.)
    Hrm. Are we talking about the white stars? ‘cos I’ve been working on those.
    Some more thoughts about red herrings but doesn’t’t Nova E3 have a straight up red herring? Or maybe I found an alternate soluton.

  22. OK, looking through your tweets about Cosmic Express I see that I have more white stars coming. I guess I need to finish all the existing ones.

    About the red herrings one thing I was thinking about Nightsky, where some of the features of some of the levels are set-ups for the alternative mode. Like there’s one level in Perpetuum Facory that has a giant turning maze that you can exit high, middle, or low, all of which take you to the same exit; in the alternative mode, there are a couple of tweaks to the level that force you to exit middle to unlock a gate, return via the high exit, and exit low to finish the level. But Nightsky is so much about atmosphere that red herrings and extra space aren’t an issue anyway.

  23. I finished all the existing white stars and MY BEAUTIFUL NOVA 7 SOLUTION YOU BASTARDS WHAT HAVE YOU DONE

  24. Yeah I didn’t want to spoil the surprise…

  25. So Cosmic Express made me think of Lyne which is kind of like what Gregg (?) said about taking red line to red square–it’s a line-drawing game that’s totally abstract and that indeed makes it kind of hard to grasp and unmotivating–which thinking of abstract puzzle games sent me back to Splice, and being me, I have SO MANY thoughts about the level select screens… which, in short, is that there are extra challenges (you can do some levels in fewer than your allotted number of steps) but the level select screen doesn’t show you which levels have those extra challenges. The only way to find one out is to do the level and get a card that says, basically, “You used all your steps and you didn’t need to,” but you can never see that card again. There’s a way of getting the level select screen to show you which levels you have done extra challenges for but isn’t the more interesting question which challenges I have left? It’s not a hidden challenge thing, either, because it does explicitly tell you when one is available after the level is solved. It’s just weird (but kind of of a piece with not being able to turn the music off, somehow).


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