Monday, 9 February 2009

Social gaming

I had a couple of friends come round last weekend so we could have a go on a some games I'd been wanting to try out. The first one was World of Goo, which I already knew I was going to love as I'd already played the PC demo. At first we were looking for some sort of multi-player mode, but then realised that all you had to do was point another wiimote at the screen to join in the puzzle solving. World of Goo is seriously easy to pick up, and we enjoyed it pretty much from the start. It follows the usual approach of starting you off with relatively easy tasks which get grow more and more difficult the further you progress - achieving a nice balance between your developing skills and the challenges you have to face. I also really like how you gradually start to become more and more curious about the goo and what exactly is going on in the game world. Who is the mysterious Sign Painter who leaves cryptic clues around the place? What are goo balls used for? What's with the random giant frogs? And so on. While I quite like this sort of randomness, one of my friends did point out the self-referential humour employed by the game might get annoying after a while. It was quite interesting to try and solve each puzzle with someone else though, especially since the experience seemed to have much to do with who you are playing with! While it made sense to cooperate and establish some sort of strategy together i.e. "you do the bridge and I'll do the balloons" (see image below), there was also the occasional competitive moment of "stop stealing my goo balls!". We didn't try it with three wiimotes but I have a suspicion it would have been quite hard to break down the puzzles into different tasks and it would have just turned into who can solve the puzzle fastest!

In contrast, de Blob supports multi-player play with a party gaming mode. The game is essentially a single-player adventure where you have to bring colour back to Chroma City by acquiring paint and bumping into things. It's amusing enough but not very engaging in the long term to be honest - I think I'm more intrigued by World of Goo's Sign Painter than the de Blob story. I had hoped the party mode would be a bit more interesting, but it essentially consists of three mini-games (which you have to unlock by playing the story mode) where you can compete against another player (actually up to 4, but while I do have 4 wiimotes, I've only got two nunchucks). The image below shows the split screen for two-player mode. We played it for a bit and it was entertaining but to be honest there wasn't much there to keep us going for long. The party mode just ended up feeling like a bit of a simplistic add on thrown in to try and tap into the Wii's success as a party console. Which is fine, if you don't want to invest much effort into it, or if you're playing with people who don't have much gaming experience.

If you want something a bit meatier though, there is Little Big Planet on the PS3, which I would seriously encourage anyone to have a go on. I'm going to ignore the user-generated content side of things for the moment as I think I want to do a separate post on this later on, and focus on the going through the levels, which you have to do anyway to unlock materials to design your own levels. I have played it on my own, and while it's incredibly cute and you could spend ages customising your little sack person, I found it a lot more fun to play it with someone. I first tried it back home at Christmas with my sister, and it brought back memories of how it used to feel playing together on my Mega-drive as kids - a sort of nostalgic bonding experience! The game encourages you to play with someone else by providing challenges you can only solve with the help of another player. I didn't realise until I was helping out at the Digilab stall in the Learn About Fair on campus a couple of weeks ago that you can play with up to four players. This was quite cool in terms of getting as many people to try it as possible but did get a little complicated trying to keep multiple sack boys and girls on screen at once (if your character disappears off to one side for too long you end up losing a life).

So, I think two-player mode works best, but while the game starts out easy enough some of the later levels can be quite difficult! Or at least they require a level of coordination and timing from both players that isn't always easy to achieve. The fact that there are frequent save points throughout each level means reduces the consequences of falling off a cliff or into crocodile jaws, being burnt to death etc but you essentially get four chances at making it to the next checkpoint, and that's between the number of people playing. So if there are two of you, and one of you has died twice, and the other once, the pressure is on for the second player to make it to the next check point in one piece, otherwise you have to go back to the start of the level It's an interesting mechanic, but it can get a little frustrating when things don't go very well. Plus, I tend to want to rush into everything when presented with a new level (I'm going to blame this on growing up playing Sonic...) when perhaps a bit of patience would work better. I also think that while de Blob and possibly World of Goo could quickly be picked up by any player, and played quite happily by a single player, Little Big Planet requires a bit more investment from two people to really reach it's potential as an engaging platformer. At the end of the day, I guess what you choose what you want to play based on the energy you want to put in and the experience you want to have.


Costas said...

Excellent blog post Jo.

I have played all three of those games to an extent and you really manager to get across how it feels to play them.

World of Goo, i really want to find a partner to play the game to the end. It requires good coordination between the played. I don't know whether the Wii version has the meta-game where you build a structure that competes with other gamers structures all over the world. That also adds to the fun.

De Blob, i think can be played by two people taking turns with the single player game as it really is a joy to watch. Like you said the multiplayer mode is not interesting.

Finally LittlerBigPlanet. This game tears me apart. I love it visually and how each object behaves in a completely realistic way. Also the idea for people to create levels.

However, i find that creating levels is only accessible to a very few people. Which is a shame because it's the main attraction of the game. Also as far as gameplay is concerned i think it's an average platformer which is also very difficult. A bad combination. It's not the relaxing game it wants to be even with multiplayer.

I think you also try Rock Band or Guitar Hero: World Tour for social gaming. It's expensive but you can start by just getting the software copy and one guitar. Then start adding the other instruments slowly.

Jo Iacovides said...

Thanks Costa!

The Wii version of World of Goo does have the metagame component but we forgot to go back to it once we had got hold of some more goo, so I really should have another look. Should probably give the single player mode in deBlob another try too.

I think we've mentioned the user-generated side of things before, with respect to Spore. As cool as it sounds, I guess it doesn't appeal to everyone. Like I said, I think I'm going to attempt a seperate post about this later on.

I have tried Rock Band - it's a lot of fun! And definitely quite a social experience, especially when playing it at the campus bar! I already have Guitar Hero III but I'm very tempted to get hold of World Tour... Luckily my birthday is coming up soon, so I might even be able to afford the whole kit!