Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Room (IOS, Android): Frictionless Difficulty Scaling

You might think you have played a game like "The Room" before but you haven't. The basic premise,  solving a series puzzles to unlock increasingly more challenging levels  sounds familiar. There is a plethora of games involving rooms, locks, gates, cubes etc that employ this mechanic. Yet "The Room" is different in a few key respects. 

In the first instance the sheer quality of game sets it above most of its peers. Beautifully ornate artwork and animation  show off the game's multi level puzzles while an atmospheric sound track adds greatly to the ambience.

What really sets the game apart for me though is the effortless way the game tackles difficulty scaling. Difficulty is the greatest problem for any puzzle game. Too easy and the game becomes boring for lack of challenge. Too hard and I will eventually give up in despair or be forced to make a humiliating trip to Youtube to find out how to proceed. "The Room" deals with this by including a progressive hint system within the game. If you fail to make progress then after a short delay a little  question mark appears in the top right hand corner. The hints seem to come in three levels. At first it might say something vague like "Perhaps I should try something else". If you still don't make progress then the hint is updated with slightly more specific advice for example: "I wonder what that funny clock does ?" and finally a third hint will give quite explicit instruction like "Perhaps I should examine that strange rectangular grille under the clock."

These hints are entirely optional and the little question mark is very unobtrusive. When you are making progress it is very easy to ignore but should you get stuck there is almost always relevant advice to be had. Best of all there is absolutely no penalty for using  a hint. There are no achievements, no difficulty settings. There is no record of whether or not you used hints and nothing is lost if you do. This feels so liberating compared to the shame of having to select "easy mode" or being forced to rely on Youtube to get through the game. A small but very significant touch is that hints are given in first person as if you yourself are thinking these thoughts and they feel entirely part of the game.

All of this combines to make the hint system completely unobtrusive and painless. I think that frictionless is a good term to describe it. I have no idea how many times my daughter and I used hints when we played the game together. I don't know and I don't care because the game doesn't care either.

A possible downside of this frictionless difficulty scaling is that the game doesn't last very long because you never really get stuck. It took about three hours for myself and my daughter to finish the game playing together. At first I was a bit disappointing that the game was over so quickly but when I thought about it I would not have had it any other way. Without this hint system we would undoubtedly have got bogged down in some of the trickier puzzles and may even have abandoned the game. Yes we would have spent more time on it the game as we struggled to overcome these but frustration is not entertainment.

"The Room" is currently available in the Humble Bundle for Android or from Itunes for IOS.

You can read some of my previous thoughts on game difficulty here:

Monday, March 25, 2013

In which the obvious is shown to be not so obvious at all.

My wife does not know how to right click. I learned this while trying to introduce her to a new PC game. It took me a while to spot what she was doing wrong because I blithely assumed that everyone knows what right-click means. When I eventually spotted what was happening I asked her why she wasn't pressing the right mouse button she replied "Oh that button? I never use that. The mouse is already in my right hand so I assumed that right clicking just means pressing the normal mouse button."

Before chuckling at my wife's naivety (what on earth does she so when the computer asks for a left click?) please consider this: This lady is not dumb, nor is she a computer novice. Far from it in fact. This is a very smart highly successful professional who has been using computers heavily for more than twenty years.  In her work she routinely creates enormous complex spreadsheets. At home she is an avid photographer and has mastered a host of complex image processing programmes all running on Microsoft Windows.Yet she does not know about using right click to open context menus, a feature that has been a key element of every Windows operating system since 1995. 

I didn't think it was even possible to use a modern operating system without right clicking. It gives you access to many vital actions like copy, past, unzipping, opening properties, creating shortcuts, undoing actions, creating new files and folders. I don't actually know any other way to do a lot of these actions. My wife it seems either does without these actions or has found other ways involving keyboard shortcuts or left clicking menus.

I am sure there is a lesson for interface designers in this. Is it a failure of the operating system that such a vital function is so not obvious that a smart user can go for twenty years without discovering it or it is a triumph that there are multiple ways to achieve different actions leaving each user free to choose their own?

Mouse and Keyboard interfaces are dying they tell us, to be replaced by the intuitive simplicity of touch. Yet the context menu is not dead. Many touch screen programmes use long press to bring up a helpful context menu. I wonder if my wife knows about this? Should I tell her?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Using Netvibes on a mobile device

If you are one of the new migrants to Netvibes you may not realise that it has several mobile clients. You may want to try them all out before choosing the one which suits you best. I mix and match depending on the deice I am using and the quality of my internet connection. To get each version just type the url into the address bar of your browser. This text only version of Netvibes looks really ugly but I find it very useful useful on my phone. It gives you the information you need with no extraneous distractions and you can always click the header of a post to get to the original webpage if you need more. Great if your internet signal is weak because it uses almost no bandwidth. It only seems to show RSS feeds though so any fancy Netvibes widgets don't show. It doesn't seem to be able to judge screen size so be prepared to do a bit of manual zooming to use this. This is the official Netvibes entry point for all  mobile devices. It is supposed to direct you to the correct version for your phone or tablet . I prefer to just choose my own version., I am pretty sure these used to be different but now they both seem to direct you to exactly the same client. In fact I can use on my wife's iphone and on my android and I cannot tell the difference. It is a lot prettier than and uses an iphone like interface. Apart from looking prettier the main advantage of this over is that it has an extended feed reader view where you can see the first line of a post without clicking it. This is my least favourite client though and I rarely use it. I notice that it doesn't work on the Firefox browser but it does work on Safari, Chrome and Dolphin. I think this means it uses webkit. At one stage netvibes were working on an ipad client but I cannot find it. It just redirects to for me. I don't have an ipad so that could be the problem but I have tried changing my user agent to ipad and it still doesn't do anything. If all else fails why not use the desktop client you are already familiar with. This works great on my 7" tablet and is quite usable on my 4" phone as long as I have a decent data connection. I notice that some behaviour changes slightly depending on the browsser you use (things like whether or not clicking an entry opens a new tab). Dolphin is my favourite Android browser and Netvibes works great on it.

What about the Netvibes App? If you are an app addict you may be disappointed to find that the only apps netvibes makes are something to do with shipping timetables  (Edit: almost certainly a different Netvibes) but lets face it, Netvibes is a web portal you are going to need a web browser to follow those links anyway. If you really want a button on your  home screen which opens directly into netvibes then make a bookmark.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Not everyone is unhappy about the closure of Google Reader

Banner message across the Netvibes front page today (emphasis is mine):

If you're experiencing slowdowns or feed latency, please bear with us as we work hard to handle a huge amount of new users. Thank you for your patience

If you aren't familiar with Netvibes it offers a customised web portal (like the soon to be shuttered iGoogle) but it also includes a very flexible feed reading capability (like the soon to be closed Google Reader). I suspect that the big influx of new users are all migrants from Google. I have been using Netvibes for several years now. I originally switched from iGoogle and Google reader because Netvibes has much better support for mobile devices, even on Googles own Android platform but I am very happy with Netvibes overall and heartily reccommend it.
EDIT: Looks like I was right. Netvibes official blog have credited the increase with the closure of Google's reader and has already put up a helpful "how to migrate" page.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Far Cry 3 Thoughts on Finishing the Game

Main campaign completed, every outpost conquered, every radio tower climbed, every skill earned, every item crafted and a bunch of other side missions done along the way. I think I can take a break from the game now. 

I wrote my early impressions of the game before and I am still very much in agreement with those thoughts. In order to get the most out of this game you need to immerse yourself in the abundance of side missions and activities on offer and once you do it is a terrific gaming experience.

At that early point I was a little bit worried that it was too easy to unlock powerful weaponry early in the game which imbalances the early fights. This is particularly true if you take the scenic route and do lots of side missions (and you really should). Happily this problem rectifies itself after a while and by the end of the game you are facing hordes of tough enemies so you need all the weaponry you can get.

The main campaign is utterly silly which is a pity but it has some great missions. I had a particular dislike of one main character who you are supposed to find sexy but who came too close to the uncanny valley for my tastes.

Side Note: Given the current debate about the dreadful stereotypes of of women in video games I think it is a great pity that there is no option to play as a female protagonist. I think that would have allowed for a much richer storyline.

Overall a terrific game that has given me many hours of first rate entertainment. I have only one serious gripe: there is no way to replay missions without starting the game from scratch. If you are on PC you can find some save games on the net but console players are out of luck if they want to experience that sublime weed fuelled killing spree or any other mission again. They really really should allow you to replay old missions.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Did you grow up in a normal family?

Rare personal post coming, apologies in advance.

Pointing to the jumble of clothes in our hot press my daughter complained that we don't fold our clothes "like normal families do". That simple grumble triggered a knee jerk fear reaction in me.

My kids are embarking upon that great adventure in life called "The Teenage Years" and it scares me silly. It scares me because we have had so much fun and closeness during the preteen years and I know that that closeness is probably going to loosen a bit as my kids forge their own adult lives and personalities. I am going to miss that closeness so much. It scares me because of all the big bad nasties that the world has in store for young folk growing up even though I think we have done a pretty good job of preparing them. Most of all though it scares me because I remember my own teenage years as a dark and confusing time of disillusionment, loneliness and self doubt. I really don't want them to experience the same.  To be honest it took me about a decade to recover from my own teenage years. Looking back on it a lot of my angst seems silly to me now but at at the time I worried about many things which really didn't needs worrying about at all.

One of worries that constantly plagued me was that my family wasn't normal and that somehow I wasn't normal either. There were difficulties in my family but there was also a lot of love and there was a bunch of people doing their best to cope with the circumstances life threw at them. If that isn't normal, then I don't know what is. Unfortunately as a teenager I couldn't see beyond the saccharine stereotype of a perfect family living in contented domestic bliss. Even when later I began to come across folks facing much more serious challenges than we did it took me a long time to accept that we hadn't done so badly after all. I was a pretty smart kid in terms of book learning but for some reason I have always been slow to pick up on life's more fundamental lessons like that.

Perhaps I am being paranoid. Perhaps my daughters comment was no more than a passing grumble (our hot press is pretty shocking really). On the other hand she does share a lot of my genes. How can I convince her that there is room in life for all kinds of people and all kinds of families. There is room for people with messy hot presses and room for people with maniacally tidy hot presses. There is room for people who have their first serious boyfriend at 15 and there is room for people who have their first serious boyfriend at 50. There is room for people who like sport and room for people who like music and room for people who like studying. There is even room for people who like sport and music and studying. There are lots of tough things in life but the difference between people is not a tough thing it is a wonderful thing. Can a teenager understand that?

Apparently I have a coffee problem

 A couple of weeks ago my wife alerted me to the fact that I had developed an occasional odour problem. This surprised and distressed me som...