Jun 25, 2012
Earlier today, Wilson Lim showed you how to create a gravity-based game called Flux. In this Workshop, Matt Porter critiques Flux, explaining what it would take to turn that simple demo into a real game.
Play the Game
Use the left and right arrow keys to manoeuvre your ship, the up and down arrow keys to increase or reduce the size of the magnetic field it produces, and the space bar to reverse the polarity. Collect the white crystals to increase your fuel supply – but avoid the red ones, because they use it up. Don’t hit a rock, or it’s game over.
Please bear in mind that this demo was created specifically for a tutorial, rather than for release on a Flash portal, so it’s naturally less polished than games we’ve featured in past critiques.
Flux is a barebones game. It has one core mechanic, and very basic controls. That being said, even the most basic aspects of a game can require careful balance. With a few small tweaks, we can make something that’s simple and frustrating into something that might not necessarily be a blast, but will be a much smoother and more enjoyable experience.
The core aim of Flux is to sustain energy for your ship by collecting white crystals, while at the same time avoiding red crystals. In addition, you must also avoid rocks, which end your game immediately upon contact. To mix things up a bit, the ship is equipped with a magnet of sorts, that can attract or deflect the negative crystals, but has no effect on the rocks of instant doom.
You can move your ship horizontally, but not vertically, using the left and right arrow keys. The last bit of in this otherwise currently bland game is that you can increase or decrease your magnet’s area of effect, by pressing the up and down arrow keys respectively.
So there you have it, that’s Flux. While there’s very little to this game, we’re about to break it down into more than the average eyes see, and come up with some simple, yet game changing, alterations.
The first and most immediate flaw in Flux is that there isn’t really a title screen.
Flux’s starting screen
There’s no instructions, no place to check high score, no title, no music… you’re just tossed onto a bland screen with a Start Game button. Pretty bad start, but okay, let’s move on.
Upon pressing the button, we now see our ship, and some objects in our face. Let’s just assume that we know what to do right off, and that there is a rock (instant death if it hits us) coming right at us (that’ll happen when positions are 100% random). We quickly get our hands onto the keyboard (we started using the mouse, and there were no instructions, so we’re not actually prepared for this), and attempt to dodge the rock.
Oh no, our ship isn’t moving! Does WASD not work? Well, actually, they don’t work (which is a horrible decision, as WASD and arrow keys should always both be supported where possible) – but believe it or not, that’s not our issue either.
The real issue is that the game area doesn’t have focus. We actually need to click the player area to gain control, even though we just pressed the Start Game button. Looks like we just blew up from an oncoming rock. So here we are, literally five seconds into the game, and all we’ve done is see a bland title screen and die from absolute unfairness. Congratulations, you’ve just lost the majority of all your players right off, and most of them have down-voted your game if it’s being played on a major portal such as Newgrounds or Kongregate.
A likely response from a Newgrounds gamer
While the above is an absolute mess, it’s actually quite easily fixed.
First off, we add a simple title screen. The quality can range greatly, but at the very least, we need a title, a play button, and something related to scores – whether it’s a list already on screen, or a button to let us view them all.
Next, we make sure that the play area has keyboard focus after the Start Game button is pressed. If this were my game, I would then choose to display the controls of the game to the player through pictures and text, and not just a wall of text. For good measure, I’d save a variable to a shared object that says the player has seen the controls, and I would never display them at the start of a game again (unless a “delete all data” button was pressed).
Now that the player has a good initial first impression, with a decent menu, and controls shown to them, we’d start the game. Here I would make sure that the game didn’t actually start until the player moved the ship. This would accomplish two things: first, we’d know that they have their hands on the keyboard and are ready to play; and second, they wouldn’t die from a randomly generated flying space rock within the first two seconds of the game.
Nothing that I just listed above is hard, but it’s just changed that poor initial first impression of this game to “this has potential, let’s see what happens”.
Now that we’ve taken care of analyzing the first impression, let’s focus a bit on the actual gameplay.
Flux’s play screen
The first thing I noticed when playing Flux, is that the movement was extremely stiff, and felt very amateur. It’s obvious that the movement is locked to a set speed, and that there’s no acceleration or easing. If we were to add some of that then not only would the game feel better and look more smooth, but our control would be far more precise, making for a much more enjoyable experience.
The magnet mechanic is actually pretty neat, but it’s a bit rough around the edges. The first thing I noticed, is that there are no restrictions on how big or small the attract radius can be. This allows us to go negative, and eventually appear to be positive again, but the magnet won’t actually do anything. This could leave various impressions on the player, from them being confused to them thinking the game looks unprofessional, so it’s important that we put restrictions in place.
One More Time
Assuming that players actually fun with the game the way it is (admittedly doubtful beyond the first play or two), we still have some fixing up to do. When the player dies, they aren’t really left with any incentive to play again. The game over screen should be used as an opportunity to tempt the player to play again – and simply having a button to let them do so is not what I mean.
Flux’s game over screen
In this case, the game over screen should still show the player’s score, but also their all-time best score. If their previous play was their best, this should be related to the player both visually and audibly.
Pixel Purge’s game over screen, for comparison
If we wanted to take things even further, we’d toss in Facebook / Twitter buttons, and allow the player to brag about their accomplishment with friends.
As I’ve mentioned, even with the critical flaws fixed, and the controls a bit polished, the game is still a bit boring. While there are hundreds if not thousands of directions in which to take a game this basic, I’ll just focus on some of the simpler yet still effective changes.
The first addition I would add is powerups. We’ve already got collision code we use for collecting crystals, so adding powerups is not that hard from a technical standpoint. For example, we could add a powerup that turns every red crystal into a white one. With a cool visual effect, and an awesome sound, grabbing of these would be quite rewarding.
The next thing I would do, is add crystals of different sizes, where the bigger the crystal, the harder it is to attract or repel. Give the larger crystals a higher score value, and a more rewarding sound, and you’ve now got some substance to your game. You’ll find players act extra risky around instant-kill death rocks, just so they can attempt to pull in a giant white crystal.
Speaking of instant-kill death rocks, why not add a way to get rid of them? With the simple press of a button (say, the X key), let the player shoot directly ahead – for a cost. To make the game more interesting, firing your weapon would require some of your energy, so it would have to be used sparingly. We could also add a powerup that explodes all rocks on the screen, or that makes the player invincible so that they can hit them without worry for a limited time.
If I really wanted to add a level of complexity to the game, I’d make it so that all crystals gained would be stored as currency, and after each game (or level), the player could spend those points on upgrading stats. They stats could range from maximum magnet radius, to increased energy regeneration from white crystals; the possibilities are nearly endless.
All of the biggest remaining issues are related to polish, and as many developers will tell you, this can take a long time to get right.
Some of the more major aspects of polish that are needed are as follows:
- The Times New Roman font needs to be replaced.
- The game needs consistent audio toggle buttons (to be found on all screens).
- More visual effects are needed to increase the graphical quality.
- The game needs to be 100% audio complete, with both sounds and music.
As you can see, it didn’t take too much to really rip this game apart, and then point out some simple but effective ways to fix it up.
There are enormous benefits to being able to fix up such a basic game. In reality, everything that Flux has is no larger or more complex than one individual portion of any other larger game. If we look at game development like this, we then see the benefit of being able to fix up such a simple game. We’re essentially able to view our bigger projects as small pieces, and we can then polish each piece up individually until it’s a smooth and enjoyable experience on its own. In the end, we’ll be left with a full-fledged game, comprised of many small, extremely well built pieces.
What do you think should be added to Flux? Post your suggestions in the comments – or you could even follow the tutorial and make the changes yourself…
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Jun 19, 2012
This week, Matt Porter critiques Jelly Escape, a popular new platformer developed by TawStudio Entertainment. Platformers are a dime a dozen on Flash portals, so let’s see what this one brings to the table…
Play the Game
The web has always had an abundance of platformer games, thanks to Flash. Unfortunately, most of them lack any kind of serious polish. Fortunately, Jelly Escape isn’t one of them; it’s an incredibly well built platformer, and it’s clear that the developers did their homework and studied industry hit and obvious inspiration: Super Meat Boy.
Jelly Escape’s main focus is simple, quick, addicting platforming, and achieves this quite effectively. The game has a number of tricks up its sleeve to engage the player beyond the first few minutes, and the overall level of polish means players are likely to stick with the game long enough to get to that point.
The most immediate, and engaging aspect of the game to me, is the retro feel. While there has been a surplus of retro-inspired games since the introduction of great Flash game frameworks such as Flixel and FlashPunk, most don’t take that retro-magic to the same level.
As soon as I saw the opening animation where quarters were being popped into an arcade machine, I was hooked. Even if you’re not a hardcore fan of classic gaming, the added story is a very welcome addition, and is sure to please most.
The second thing I noticed and was impressed with in Jelly Escape was the sheer number of levels the game had to offer. As soon as you start the game, you can see that there at least 60 – that’s a lot of levels! These are split into four sections of fifteen levels each, so I was pretty convinced that variety wouldn’t be an issue.
While I do love the sheer number of levels offered, I do think all great platformers should have a world map of sorts since, to me, exploration is one of my favorite aspects of gaming. Not only is arranging 60 levels as boxes with numbers a tad boring, it straight up tells you how many levels there are, and doesn’t leave any mystery for the player. I personally love unlocking a new world when I think a game is about to be complete, and this setup just doesn’t allow for that.
Another possible negative aspect of telling the player how many levels there are, is that they may find themselves slightly bored part way through your game and, knowing they’re nowhere near the end, just stop playing. If they thought that they might be nearly finished, they might just stick around another few levels to finish it up. During this time they may become bored and leave anyways, complete the game, or they might just hit your next big game mechanic that adds a breath of fresh air into their gaming experience, keeping them around that much longer.
There are a few levels that can be unlocked through your actions…
A proper compromise to having a full blown world map, versus a simple menu setup, would be to unlock new sets of levels upon the completion of a previous set. Jelly Escape has four sets, but perhaps only one needs to be seen at first; the unlocking of the others could have been used to spice up the player’s experience. Even if my love for exploration isn’t shared by all, it’s important as a developer to understand the various experiences that any gamer enjoys, so that you can be sure to fit in as many positive experiences as your game’s design will allow, and please as large an audience as possible.
Rewards and Stats
One of the strongest points of Jelly Escape is how much – and how often – the player is rewarded. Some of these rewards are given by playing the game well, while others are a bit more creative and are rewarded for completing actions such as following the developers on Twitter and Facebook.
While I’m generally against gimmicks, the unlockables are purely bonus material, and truly don’t take away from the game if you pass them up – so no harm done. It’s actually a great move on the developers part, and I’ll probably use it myself in future games, as I like their implementation.
In addition to the unlockables, the game also keeps track of a ton of stats, such as your best times and lowest death count for each level. Small features like this make for great replay value, and add a lot to the game.
Like many games of this style, Jelly Escape keeps track of how many of a certain collectible you get in each level. This information is shown on the level select screen, and is easily to understand. Unlike certain games, this rating actually matters. Far too many games will give you a “3 star rating” system of sorts, just for the hell of it, with no real incentive for the player to go back and master levels, but Jelly Escape offers two incentives to collect the energy bolts.
The first, which is my favorite, is that you can find characters locked up behind a gate within select levels (as shown on the level select screen), and if you’ve collected enough of the energy collectibles, you can set them free. Once free, you can use their appearance as your jelly’s skin, which is a pretty awesome addition, especially since some of the skins are based off of characters from other popular games.
The second, is that collecting enough bolts will unlock additional challenge levels. I played a few of these myself, and they definitely had an “unlockable level” kind of feel, much like the “secret” zone found in Super Mario World. Between these two awesome incentives, I definitely felt encouraged to replay levels, rather than to just rush through the game.
Level design is a strong point of Jelly Escape, as it should be with any platformer. There aren’t too many mechanics in the game, but what’s there is used very well.
I never found the level design to be too repetitive or bland, and was actually impressed with the overall diversity. In addition, the difficulty curve seemed to be rather balanced, as few levels stood out as too hard, but it did feel like the difficulty was slowly climbing. To make things even better, levels are littered with checkpoints so that death isn’t overly punishing: an excellent addition that makes this game far more friendly with its casual target market. Plus, I never encountered any levels that were strictly tedious and not fun.
While the level design is quite well done, some core design choices of the game do take away from the overall fun factor. The game has a rather zoomed out feel, because all of the levels are presented within a single screen. While this seems to be accepted among many platformers, I feel that a more zoomed in view, with a camera for scrolling, is the better approach. To me, this allows for more precise movement, and gives a hint of exploration during gameplay, as you can’t see everything at once.
On the other hand, the game design often requires the levels to fit in a single screen – for example, falling through the bottom of the level simply brings you back to the top, and some levels are designed around this – so perhaps this is just a matter of my preferences getting in the way.
I will note that Super Meat Boy isn’t limited to a single screen however, and I feel that if it had been, it would greatly deter from the experience. Perhaps this was a deliberate design choice, perhaps scrolling levels were simply a technical complexity the developers didn’t want to mess with; either way, I still feel a more zoomed-in experience would benefit the game’s design.
The graphics in Jelly Escape are retro, but kick things up with with massive attention to small details in visual effects. Touching walls covers them with your jelly’s slime, and spits out particle effects. Dying makes the edges of the screen tweak out. There’s a neat lighting effect in place where you can see better around your character, and collecting energy within a level increases this effect significantly.
The game is also very animation complete, something that is often lacking in indie platformers. The player is excellently animated, energy collectibles are animated, springs are animated; everything that should have an animation, does. All menus are very clean, and all menu items have a hover effect, which makes for a very polished game. While you may think that menus are nearly worthless in a game as simple as a platformer, retaining a polished and positive image consistently throughout the project is extremely important. If you’re not willing to polish your audio-mute button, don’t bother polishing your enemy animations, as a lack of consistency breaks the entire image.
All in all, the graphical quality of this greatly excels because of the extreme attention to small details. No single effect is a game changer on its own, but together, they make this game look ten times better than it would without them.
While the audio is nothing amazing in Jelly Escape, it’s still quite well done. I find the music very fitting to the somewhat dark and ominous atmosphere, and I personally feel it’s a very good fit.
As was the case with animations and effects for grpahics, Jelly Escape is extremely complete in the audio department. There’s sounds for literally everything. Jumping has a sound, landing has a sound, enemies hitting walls, opening gates, hitting buttons, dying, hovering over menu items; everything in the entire game has a sound, as it should be.
To further add polish, the toggle music and sound buttons are pretty awesome looking too. Each is its own small audio visualizer, which I found very neat. This is most definitely not needed, but if I noticed it, others did too, so take note of the positive effects such features can have on a players mode, and how it can effect their perception of an author’s hard work.
Jelly Escape may have its flaws, but I haven’t played a web platformer this polished and addicting since MoneySeize, and those were great (albeit somewhat frustrating) times.
Jelly Escape doesn’t take many shortcuts. A ton of unlockables, a huge array of levels, and badges on Kongregate make the addicting qualities of the game shine brighter than ever.
I definitely plan on revisiting the game to finish up those last 30 levels or so, as I’m a sucker for platformers; how far did you play before losing interest?
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Jun 6, 2012
Last time I did a critique, I suggested that Google Calendar was by far one of the last standing dedicated calendar web apps out there. This time around we look at a probable competitor: Teamup Calendar. Like Google’s offering, Teamup Calendar aims for the calendar-based scheduling app domain. Let’s see how this web based calendar app stacks up and whether it stands on its own as a viable alternative.
Once I set out to give the app a try, the first hurdle I had to cross was figuring out how to get in. Unlike the standard “Sign Up” or “Register” links, the home page starts with three main “call to action” buttons: “Login with Facebook” (which I usually breeze past for a whole bucketful of reasons), “Live Demo” and “Create Calendar”. Now the Live Demo is pretty clearly going to be a dummy setup, and I don’t know if the app will let me create my own Calendar without first logging in – which is a well understood norm in web apps.
Assuming you brave it and hit the “Create Calendar” button, the next page asks you to name your calendar and provide your e-mail ID. I assumed – again based on my experience with web apps in general – that I was going to be sent a password in mail which I could use to log into my new calendar. Turns out, all you get are a couple of links and a warning not to lose them. The links are to an administrator version and a user version of the calendar. What’s the difference, you ask? None explained at this point. Looks like I’m going to have to dig deeper.
Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: if you have used Google Calendar before, you are going to feel right at home with the Teamup Calendar interface. The same mini month calendar on the left, list of calendars below it, views at the top-right and the actual calendar in the rest of the space. If anything, the Teamup version seems more optimized because it utilizes the space Google wastes in its monstrous header. Also, I found the overall color scheme and visual hierarchy much clearer than Google Calendar.
One thing I did find very weird is that the calendar name I entered when creating the calendar appears at the top, while the actual calendar name defaults to “Calendar 1″. Sure, I can edit the name and add more calendars, but since I got here through a “Create Calendar” workflow, I expected the same of my calendar to be that. The way it works right now, I should have been asked to “Create a Context” for my calendars – like my company’s name, personal space, etc. – a superset that contain multiple calendars.
What I sorely missed right away was a way to quickly add events to the calendar using a text field and natural language parsing. The only way to add an event is to click the right location on the calendar and add the necessary details in the box. To its credit, Teamup makes the event entry box much clearer than Google’s version. Inside is the same old “what, when, who, where” routine. There is a “More…” in this box that I expected would give finer control over the event details; instead it just opens up a text area to add notes for your event. So basically the “More…” button opens up a “Notes” section.
A Simplistic Approach to Collaboration
Teamup takes a very different approach to most other collaboration apps out there. There is no registration involved, so pretty much anyone can join in almost seamlessly. Remember how I mentioned about the two links you get when you create a calendar? Turns out, everyone with access to those links can collaborate on a calendar either as an administrator or a regular user. Admins have the ability to add or remove calendars, change display settings and create or edit user groups with specific access restrictions. Users, on the other hand, can only view events, or add/edit them based on what privileges have been assigned to the URL they have.
I like this approach because it completely gets rid of the registration process for each individual user making it dead simple to add new team members to a calendar. For a small team like mine, this makes perfect sense. On the downside, you don’t get the usual perks associated with the system knowing each individual user. For example, there is no way to tell which team member added a certain task, and there is nothing preventing a miscreant on the team from messing around with the schedule of the rest of the team for whatever reason.
Despite how optimized the interface is, the app itself does not feel as snappy as it should. Adding and editing calendars, for example, takes up an entire page, forcing a page refresh every time I want to do either. Ideally, it should be something one can do within the context right there on my calendar view. The app also lacks a number of subtle interface touches that could make the experience so much more seamless. Here are a few things I was surprised to see in an app in this day and age of dynamic, snappy user experiences:
- When editing the time for an event, the dropdown always starts from the first hour of the day instead of the currently selected time slot.
- There is no indication of the current time on the Week & Day calendar views. Just a small red line to state what the current time of day is can make a huge difference in a user’s ability to quickly glance through their events for the day.
- In the Event Details box, hitting Enter after typing something does nothing. I found myself doing this often by practice.
When working with others on the same calendar, updates made by one user do not reflect for others till one manually refreshes the page. This means multiple team members could end up editing an event with only the last one to change having it their way. This could be a trivial issue for some teams, but a deal breaker for others, depending on their particular use cases.
Teamup Calendar brings a very interesting frictionless approach to collaboration on calendars, along with a minimalistic feature set that might be just enough for small teams looking for a quick way to manage meetings and schedules. Although it has its downsides in terms of the overall user experience, nothing stands out as a show stopper unless you need ironclad control for mission critical situations. Also, in this era where smart phones are becoming an integral part of people’s information management routines, the use cases for a web-only app are pretty limited.
I am myself going to give the app a fair try with my team at work. It seems to have just what we need and nothing more. How well it works for us and whether we are able to look through its limitations as a team, only time will tell.
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May 29, 2012
In today’s game critique, Matt Porter takes a look at the new hit tower defense game, Keeper of the Grove, developed by BooblyC.
Tower Defense games have always been a popular genre, especially for the casual / web demographic. This popularity has lead me to playing some pretty amazing Tower Defense games, as well as some horridly bland ones (with more of the latter, unfortunately). I love any game that’s easy to play but hard to master, and a good Tower Defense game is just that. Needless to say, when a well developed TD game comes along, I’m all for it.
Play the Game
You can play the game at its full size here.
While many Tower Defense games look great, the majority of the non-amazing ones fall flat on their faces due to bland gameplay. It appears to be a popular recipe to use the absolute basic form of a Tower Defense game, and to then polish the hell out of it. Unfortunately, gameplay has, and always will make a game, so extreme polish alone can’t do even this genre any justice.
Fortunately, Keeper of the Grove is not only extremely polished, but also pretty well stacked in the gameplay department. It has some serious balancing flaws, in my opinion, but it builds well upon the basic recipe of a Tower Defense game.
Skills and Upgrades
Units can be upgraded, and can even branch off into new units as you progress throughout the game. The game uses a “Wisdom Tree” upgrade system, which is where you must first pay to unlock the ability to have each specific higher level unit (within each map, not just once). To my knowledge, this was first seen in the hit Android game “Jelly Wars”, although it could quite possibly have existed long before.
This system creates a level of complexity where players must balance spending between getting higher level units right off, or taking a slow and steady approach. In addition to the upgrading of units, each stage awards up to three skill points, and unlocking achievements grants additional skill points. These can be spent as you please on upgrading the different types of units, and can even be reset if you’d like.
One potential flaw to this, is that players can reset and customize their skills for each stage, which detracts from the developer’s balancing of the map. It’s not a horrible flaw, and it’s one that doesn’t necessarily always get spotted and abused, but it’s definitely something to consider when developing similar systems in your own games.
There are three major flaws with Keeper of the Grove, in my opinion.
The first is that there’s a little too much luck involved for a game that should be obsessively balanced and rely mostly on strategy. Keeper of the Grove includes a magic system that allows you to use spells on foes – a nice addition one would think. While these magic spells are very neat, and fun to look at, they severely hurt the balancing of the game. Spells are dropped at random when enemies are defeated, and what spell you get is random as well.
The spells are actually quite powerful, so having one is a game changer. Perhaps you want to pull off a poison tower within the first few waves (an upgraded, rather expensive unit). Quite often, this won’t work – that is, unless you get an item that helps through the odds in your favor. Once this happens, you’ve got an early powerhouse setup, and there’s really no way for you to lose.
To emphasize this as a weakness, even the official video walkthrough shows the player using magic spells early on in levels, thus giving them an advantage that viewers could not replicate without extreme luck.
I like the magic system; I just think it should be less up to luck, and more controlled. A possible solution would be to show the player how to achieve getting a magic spell, such as by killing X enemies, or surviving Y rounds without losing a crystal. These sub goals would make gameplay interesting, and ensure that magical spells are still in the game, but in a controlled manner. I came up with this system literally as I typed this, so there are obviously better ways to handle the magic system than what made it into the game.
The second flaw, in my opinion, is the design of the tutorial levels. The first few levels introduce new units, and don’t allow you to upgrade many. This is fine, as introducing new elements slowly is highly encouraged in game design, but I dislike the way they go about it.
I’m forced to use Unit X in a level, but the level isn’t really set up in a way that’s perfectly clear about how this new unit is beneficial to me, and in what scenarios. If you’re going to limit the player to using certain units, for the sake of a tutorial level, it should be very clear (especially to a veteran of Tower Defense Games) how that unit should be used in that level, and what its role is.
I also found the number of waves for the tutorial levels to be a bit high. I don’t want the game to be short, but 20 waves on level four – a tutorial level – seems a bit too short. You want to speed things up at first, and show the player what awesome features your game has to offer. Slow things down too soon, and they may never experience what could have been your hook.
The last major flaw in my opinion, is the difficulty curve. Myself and many others reported that the difficulty spikes up pretty early, and out of nowhere. I personally found that the difficulty jumps greatly in level four. It wasn’t unbeatable, but there were new elements and units introduced, and perfecting it seemed nearly impossible (without getting upgrades and returning later) compared to the previous three levels.
With so much more of the game yet to be exposed to players, I think it’s extremely important to be careful about easing players in. I hadn’t even seen all of my units yet, and I was already faced with something I found to be pretty challenging, and slightly unfair (due to getting magic spells or not).
As far as gameplay polish goes, there’s a lot. The game builds far beyond the original recipe of Tower Defense games, and gives the player a lot to work towards. There’s a nice collection of awards to unlock (achievements), all of which also grant bonus skill points when achieved. In addition, the game also awards a final level that is only obtained by getting all the achievements. Tying these all together is an absolutely fantastic idea, as the player now has incentive to gain achievements.
The game becomes potentially easier through the awarded bonus skill points (a chance for struggling players to catch a break), and the average play time of each player is likely increased as they attempt to collect all these achievements to unlock that final level. The game also offers a hard mode from the start, which will likely provides any Tower Defense veteran with a nice challenge. Last but not least, there’s a nice looking bestiary for you to slowly unlock with tower stats, enemy stats, and so on – all viewable from the pause menu: a very nice addition.
The graphics in Keeper of the Grove are absolutely perfect. No shortcuts were taken in the making of the graphics for this game. They’re cute and casual, extremely polished, and full of charm. Menus are simple and clean as far as navigation goes, but they too are on par with the high quality seen throughout the game. Particle effects add great value to many of the animations, but aren’t overdone. Everything that should be animated is, including interfaces and screen transitions.
While the cute style may not be for everyone, there really is little room for improvement graphically. As far as casual web or mobile games go, this is the level of visual polish that developers should strive for.
Much like the graphics in Keeper of the Grove, the audio is extremely well done. It’s clear that the music was professionally made, specifically for this game, and not just grabbed from a random stock music site.
The music compliments the mood of the game by being quirky, charming, and upbeat. It’s exactly what the developers were looking for, and that’s exactly what you get when you hire a professional to do this kind of work. Many people skip out on professionally done music, but I know from personal experience that it more than pays off, assuming the rest of your game is of a quality that warrants such a thing.
The sounds effects are of equal quality and style. Everything has a sound, and the project as a whole feels very audio-complete. It’s clear to me that the developers know how to polish a game, and the audio backs this thought up.
While Keeper of the Grove isn’t going to break any records or earn too many hardcore fans, it is indeed a perfect example of a remarkably polished game. The game is visually and audibly exactly what players and sponsors alike want, which is a very good thing to take note of if you plan on pleasing both parties any time soon. The gameplay isn’t groundbreaking, but it is well done, and enjoyable.
All in all, it’s far above your average web game, and that’s not due to luck, so do yourself a favor and take note of what worked here and what didn’t.
On another note, it might be worth debating whether a game like this is worth polishing to the extreme, or if an original game idea would be a far better use of the effort that went into these amazing graphical and audio assets; what do you think?
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May 22, 2012
In this week’s critique, Ashish Bogawat gives us a detailed rundown of Google Calendar – specifically, its web-based front end.
When it comes to web based calendar apps, pretty much the only name worth mentioning is Google Calendar. A number of contenders have taken a swipe at this category of apps over the years, but they have all either died off or metamorphosed into broader roles like project management or event planning. Google Calendar, meanwhile, has held on to its roots as a dedicated calendar app and has prospered into a ubiquitous web app – with some help from Gmail and Android. Its direct integration with the popular smartphone operating system and email service means it will continue to hold its top position for a while to come.
But what I want to discuss today is purely the web-based front end of Google Calendar. If you have been using it for a while, you will no doubt have realized that the app hasn’t changed much over the years. In times when design trends and standards are changing at a breakneck pace and everyone is feeling the heat to stay ahead of the curve design-wise – including Basecamp and a whole bunch of industry leading web apps – Google Calendar has stagnated as far as its UI goes. Let’s take a look then at how (and whether) it manages to stay relevant.
The Google Calendar interface is not unlike most other Google apps – minimal, flat, low on visual hierarchy and decidedly under-designed. This is a good thing in some cases, bad in others. On a positive note, the interface brings pretty much everything you expect to see in your calendar right on to the surface.
To the left is a mini month calendar, a list of your calendars, and a pretty visible button to add an event. A predominant portion of the rest of the space is taken up by the actual calendar with events neatly marked out on dates or time slots depending on the view you choose. Flipping between a day, week, month or agenda view is simple and straightforward.
Hitting the arrow next to the “Create” button brings up an input field to quickly add an event with natural language meta data. So typing in “Meeting with firstname.lastname@example.org at Central Park next Monday 4 pm” actually adds an event for the meeting with John Doe as an invitee, Central Park as the venue and 4 pm the next Monday as the time and date.
This can be a huge time saver, if you do use the web interface to add events. A big chunk of users don’t. Thanks to its integration with all kinds of apps and platforms, there are numerous ways in which events can go into Google Calendar, so I usually use it only as a dashboard of what my days look like time-wise. There are some nice touches on that front as well. Click an empty part of an event box on the calendar and a popup will appear with some more details. Hit the event text instead and you are taken to the event page with everything you might want to know or edit about the event.
Built for the Savvy
Google Calendar’s all inclusive, flat interface also proves to be its biggest flaw, depending on what type of user you are. Although the app can feel extremely intuitive to regular, savvy users, it can actually feel extremely overwhelming for first timers. There is simply too much on the screen with little differentiation and visual hierarchy built in to segregate important elements from secondary ones. The virtual lack of icons also doesn’t help here.
The interface is also not always very self-explanatory. Here’s an example: when creating an event, there is an input field labeled “Where”. It is not immediately apparent what the ideal contents of this field should be. It was only when I once entered a US address in the field that I realized that Calendar will automatically add a link to the map of the venue when it recognizes the content. Till that point, I used to simply type “conference room” or “skype” in the field oblivious of it true potential.
Google’s new header doesn’t help matters much either. Sure, you might search for events in your calendar once in a while, but the huge emphasis on the search bar blocking off a big chunk of real estate is not going to make you use it every time. In my 8-10 years of using Calendar, I don’t for once remember searching for a task. I typically need to look at what’s coming up in the next few days and the work week view is always enough for that. For longer term goals, there is always the month view.
Then there are the minor UI niggles that abound in all Google web apps. The “Save” button when adding an event is at the top, which means I need to scroll all the way up after finishing entering my details in order to save the event. The sidebar in an events detail page is super confusing with little clarity on list of attendees, adding people, etc.
In the end, Google Calendar is a one-of-its-kind-surviving web app that gets the job done pretty well. Sure, you need some getting used to is and often an engineer’s degree to figure out everything the app can do for you, but it is usually simple enough for new users who are willing to give it some time to understand the basics. If you don’t like the flat UI, you might want to give Helvetical a try to try and spruce up the look a bit. As of now though, I wait for the day when Google will finally give some love to this semi-forgotten app of theirs and give it a much needed experience overhaul.
What do you think of Google Calendar? Leave your constructive criticism in the comments.
And if you’ve built a web app that you’d like the Activetuts+ community to do a critique on, submit it here. We’re looking forward to seeing what you’ve made.
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