Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Adventure Games on the iPad

Broken Sword is a genre defining title for the modern adventure game, proving that point-and-click adventure games are still with us, and didn't die with the upsurge of gaming in the last decade.  What's interesting to me about Broken Sword as a game is the way it moved from its origins on the desktop and console platforms to iOS, and in particular iPad.

The above "Let's Play" video is the first in a series show-casing the recent reboot of the game franchise "Broken Sword: Directors Cut", played in this video on the Windows PC platform, I think.

The 2D visuals, that is the lovely background images and Dave Gibbons outstanding comic-style 2D animations, are the big investment (not being 3D or requiring fancy mechanics) and make it a no-brainer as a business proposition to port to new platforms.  Check the Wikipedia entry for lots more interesting trivia about the game including its first publications in the late 90's.  Broken Sword was released on iPad in 2010 in a HD version, and in 2012 on Android.  It's available on the Mac OSX desktop store as I write this for $AUD8.49 - not bad for a game that's been around for over a decade.

On the PC the cursor based hot-spot interaction makes sense - part of the challenge of the game is moving your mouse cursor all over the rich images on-screen looking for objects to interact with.  When you find one, the cursor transforms into a gears icon to tell you that you can "Use" the item, or a eye icon to indicate the look command.  There's similar UI idiom features for other gameplay aspects associated with classic point-and-click adventure interaction.

"Proves the iPad Ultimate for Adventure Games"


Not much of this PC interaction works very well on iOS, or touchscreens in general.  Not only do you not want to be dragging your finger around the tablet and seeing a cursor change, as it would be a horrible UI usage, you also don't want to spend that time.  That's not how you use an iPad.  However according to Chris Reed's review in Slide to Play Broken Sword demonstrates how iPad is the ideal platform for Adventure Games.  So clearly when they ported to iOS and the touch-screen interface they must have gotten something right.

Chris Reed says "proves that the iPad is the ultimate platform for adventure games"
Well, as it happens I agree with Mr Reed, and that is why my current game under development EthEx 2080 is targeting the iPad.

As Reed points out it is not all upside - the constraints of game size meant that the magnificent voice acting that is seen on the PC game does not make it to the iPad, and I guess not to Android either.  Those constraints don't just come from the storage on the iPad, they are a function of download times as well.  If you're on a packet-data connection with your iPad you don't want to be downloading massive sound files and the store has its own ways of dealing with game authors who want to put up huge games.

So what is it that the iPad can offer writers (like me) and players of the modern adventure game?  And how is it that these game designs can still attract premium game buyers on the AppStore over a decade after they were first inked?

Immediacy 


I think this is why so-called hidden object games are so popular on iOS devices: as a player you can just reach out and touch the objects in the scene in a very intuitive way.  I love adventure games and because of that I don't like hidden object games - they seem like a dumbed down version of a genre that means a lot to me.  But hidden object games seem to do very well on the AppStore and on mobile in general.  I think a big part of this is because of the "reach out and touch it" immediacy that object-interaction on the touchscreen gives you.

Other games which involve moving a character around the screen always have to have some indirect way of controlling the character or camera movement.  Racing games can use the accelerometers, the screen can show virtual joy-pads - there's lots of ways to use the touch UI to approximate interactions from console and PC on a touch device.  But in my view, adventure games are the native ground of the iPad and its touchy-feely cousins.  Really the point-and-click adventure game becomes just the touch adventure game.

Iconography


Another feature of adventure games for iPads and other tablets is iconography.  Typically with a game if you have some UI feature that you want to expose to the player you need to come up with some clever graphics to indicate to the player how to interact with it.  You need trash-can icons, up-arrows and so on, or worse you need whole tutorials to explain it.  Where adventure games win is that the screen can show an actual door, nicely rendered, and its totally obvious that tapping on it can cause the character to go through it, to the next room.  As well as being part of the scenery the door is also automatically part of the UI, in a very seamless way.

Of course as the designer you have to be aware of expectations of interaction that  you are setting up when you put things like this in the scene, and if its not going to work like the player expects you better be ready to handle that.  For example, if the door is locked your UI must show this clearly with some suitable in game text, maybe a "clunk - its locked" sound effect, and so on.

Then it can be part of the game for the player to over come that "Huh?  I tapped the door and could not go through - where is that damn key!" if done properly.

Hot-Spots


In the iPad adventure game Yesterday, by Pendulo Studios which I played through recently the issue of on-screen hot-spots was handled in an interesting way: with a "find hotspots" button.


In this 3D (Unity I think) point-and-click game you can highlight all hot-spots visible by pressing a "cross-hairs" icon button at the bottom of the iPad screen.  This causes a visual ping effect to be displayed for each hot-spot.  It's a little bit irritating because you press it, the effect activates in some random order for one hot-spot, then the next, then the next - when there are a lot of hot spots it is hard to see where all of them are, and to know if you've visited them all yet.

If the guys at Pendulo were wanting to make it a bit harder to find the hot-spots they achieved it by making the hot-spot-target button feature quite a bit harder to use than it could have been.  It does make it possible to locate that hard to find hotspot, and less likely that you'll leave a room having missed some crucial clue.  Still I did exactly that on one or two occasions.

Character Animation


In Yesterday as in a number of modern adventure game titles they have chosen to use 3D animated models for the characters.  Since today's modern mobile hardware is pretty capable in the OpenGL hardware department you might think this would be a good way to get beautifully rendered characters that are far more compelling than their 2D counterparts.

Not so much.  As with other games simple models have to be chosen, so as to get smooth animation on mobile, and also to reduce the size assets take up on flash.  To make this work, even with a involved and dark title like Yesterday, the characters are exaggerated and cartoony.  I think this is done in part because with an exaggerated character, we are less likely to comment on the blocky polygons they are made up from.  Don't get me wrong, I think Pendulo have done an amazing job with Yesterday, I absolutely love the game.  But going for 3D does not buy a "cure-all" pill for character animation.

When you compare it to the animated ink and cel-colored style characters of Broken Sword, the immersion and compelling nature of the characters is a feature of both games.  Despite Yesterday coming from a larger Indie studio (I think Pendulo is around 15 guys) and being over a decade more recent, the characters are very comparable to Broken Sword.

Characters Explain Scene Changes


Can you get away without character animation?  No, I don't think so.  The Slender man indie games meme shows that with enough atmosphere and the right type of game you can explore from the first person without showing a protagonist character.  Old games like Myst and the Seventh Guest did the same.  However these modes don't translate well to modern expectations.  In a recent review of Riven for iPad, Jason d'Aprile is very critical of the game and how poorly it translated to 2013, and the expectations of iOS game play.  Of course Riven is the sequel to Myst put out by Cyan World after the huge success of that unique adventure game, with its beautifully pre-rendered 3D scenes.

As d'Aprile points out the game feels very empty (Myst and Riven had no protagonist character) but more importantly the scene changes seemed clunky - if you have no character then your cues for moving to scene to scene are gone and the change of view point rather than feeling cinematic, start to feel arbitrary and jarring.  When you see your animated character walk to a window and turn to look out, its completely natural when the scene changes to show what is out the window - but without the character the change does not work.

Again, you don't need 3D characters for this to work.  Check how beautifully the 2D characters in Broken Sword take you through the door into the next scene in that game, by viewing the "Let's Play" videos or playing the game itself.

Casual versus Hard-core


I just had to come back and edit this article as I had previously used the term "serious games" to refer to those more involved and deeper titles like Yesterday and Broken Sword as opposed to casual games.  Apparently the correct term is "Hard-core" game, and the usage "serious game" has come to mean something more like "educational game".  Confused?  Me too.  Anyway, now edited for correct usage.

I would love to see more real point-and-click adventure games on the iPad, and I mean not just hidden object games, with a bit of window dressing.  In that category I put games like Valerie Porter and the Scarlet Scandal:


The writing, creative assets and even the UI & animations of the hidden object games are such a pale imitation of something like Broken Sword that I cringe to mention these games in the same breath.  In Valerie Porter for example when two characters are interacting on the screen their un-animated portraits slide in from each side of the screen, and exit the same way.  It is visually very disappointing.  But really, this is just Sudoku with salad-dressing.  This is a popping bubble-wrap kind of game where you tot up the number of items you can click on crowded screens.  There is no "use the paper clip on the door lock" kind of logic here.

What I do believe is that the existence and popularity of such hidden object games means that there is an audience of players out there waiting and hungry for the next quality adventure game titles.  Games like Broken Sword show also that 3D is not necessary:  consider putting aside your Unity engine guys and go back to basics.  As Dave Gibbons showed you can do awesome character animations that are darker, richer and more compelling in 2D than many 3D offerings.

To date games for iPad and iOS have been by default casual games.  These games are easy to put down and pick up, play on the bus, and not get too involved in.  But for real adventure games to come to the iPad players must be ready for more hard-core games.  The fixation on casual gaming on iOS is why hidden-object games are so far the big preponderence of "adventure games" on the AppStore - and in my view its something that good game developers need to break through.  Games like Yesterday (see above) are part of this redefinition of what an iOS game can be.

So bring on the iPad adventure games!