Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Completed - Quantum Conundrum

Quantum Conundrum is a light colourful family friendly first person puzzle game by Airtight Games, the Creative director for this game is Kim Swift, one of the minds behind Portal. Unsurprisingly it feels pretty similar, you have a constrained indoor environment that moves the player from puzzle to puzzle and a complete lack of violent conflict.

The player is the nephew of Professor Quadwrangle sent to keep him company. The Professor is not particularly pleased by this turn of events, but this is apparently now a semi-regular event. He is voiced by John de Lancie who does a good job portraying an arrogant egotistical professor who isn't above accepting a little help when necessary and whom does seem to feel a little responsibility for the player.

The core mechanic of the game is dimension shifting, there are a total of 5 dimensions used during the game normal, fluffy, heavy, slow-time and reverse gravity. Each puzzle will give the player access to some or all of these, sometimes they won't be available from the start so part of the puzzle is locating and retrieving the batteries required to unlock the other dimensions.

These puzzles get quite complicated as the interactions between dimensions increases, swapping between fluffy to lift large items and throw them, slow time to then jump on them and use them as a platform, heavy to get the item unharmed through lasers and reverse gravity to keep it in the air. This is definitely more in line with Portal 1, where you can become pretty frustrated because you know the solution to the puzzle, but you cannot quite get the dimension shift timings right.

That is where I think Quantum Conundrum biggest flaw lies, as a game it feels fiddly, most of my deaths were because I pressed accidentally pressed the wrong button or I managed to simply mistimed the next shift. I know what I needed to do, I knew what I did wrong, but it still took me another 5 attempts to pass couch surfing without dying from bumping the ceiling. I think this makes it more frustrating than it is aiming to be. I was especially disappointed with the DLC because it was more of this fiddly timing based content rather than more story.

I really like the way that the dimension shifts alter the art style, you would never miss which dimension you have shifted into. Everything changes drastically in appearance, but each object remains recognisable. It is especially cool to see how the paintings on the wall change. I recommend trying to find all of the variations. I also recommend trying to find all of the titles of the books in the game, they are all Science! variations of other works. I also really enjoyed the soundtrack, it is appropriately light and fits well with the overall aesthetic style of the game

The game tries to soften your (too frequent) deaths for you by popping up a little screen with "Thing #N You Will Never Do". I understand the attempt at humour and think it works for most people, but I really wished you could turn it off. Things they will never get to do are one of the things that make young deaths tragic. I am probably a little oversensitive to this particular issue but that really left me cold.

Overall, it is a very good first person puzzle game, I enjoyed the story and most of the puzzles and would like more storyline content. It ends with a very clear sequel hook and I was surprised and disappointed that the DLC does not seem to continue it, seems that I will be waiting for Quantum Conundrum 2.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Streamlining - Skyrim

I often see streamlining being used as a dirty word, a lot of gamers seem to think that it is just a codeword for 'dumbing down' mechanics. I think that the leveling system in Skyrim is a great example of taking what was a terrible system in Morrowind and Oblivion, finding the core of it and bringing out something great.

First, to look at the previous system. It seems like the designers had the thought:
"I love RPGs but they are so unrealistic, why does shooting a bunch of people with arrows let me increase my speech or make me better with swords?"

I have been struggling to describe the system used in Morrowind and Oblivion, so here is an excerpt from The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages

Each class has five Major skills, five Minor skills, and seventeen miscellaneous skills. Each time your character increases any combination of Major or Minor skills ten times, they become eligible to gain a level. Both Major/Minor skills gained by paying a Trainer to teach the skill and those gained by reading books count towards a level. Miscellaneous skills do not count toward this progress at all. You can check your count of major/minor skill increases toward a level at any time by hovering the mouse cursor over the Level line of the Stats menu.

Upon gaining the tenth increase of Major/Minor skills, and at each subsequent increase of any skill type, a message will encourage you to "rest and meditate on what you've learned". You will gain a level the next time you rest for any length of time. Using the wait command is not considered resting for this purpose. You must use a bed or other resting object, or rest outside of towns or cities.

For each level, a short explanation of the character's sudden, if not unexpected, increase in power is shown along with an illustration of adventuring gear, and the attribute multiplier list. While you rest, you will choose three of the primary attributes to increase. Usually one or more of the attributes will have multipliers next to them, meaning that those attributes will increase by more than one point if you choose them. The multiplier for each attribute is determined by the total number of times that skills governed by that attribute have increased since the last level up

Note that all skills advanced during the level count for the multiplier. These advances do not roll over to the next level for multiplier calculation, though your major and minor skills still count towards determining your level.

The outcome of this system is that two character who have done similar activites but slept (and thus levelled up) at different times will have different statlines. This leads to the strange concept of "Efficient Leveling" where in order to maximise your character you advance skills only by specific amounts each level, it requires careful planning and preparation and is pretty easy to stuff up.

I think that Skyrim benefited from Bethesda making Fallout 3. Fallout 3 was built in the same game engine as Oblivion but uses a more conventional RPG leveling system. You get XP for killing things, doing quests, picking locks etc. What it doesn't have is classes or stat increases. If I want to be a thief in Fallout, I advance my sneaking skills at every opportunity. I don't need to decide this at the beginning, I can decide to start investing half way through the game and it still will work.

What does Skyrim do with the Elder Scrolls system? It takes the core "You only get better at something by doing it" and bases everything around that. It eliminates classes, it eliminates most of the stats. It actually uses an XP system but never shows the player XP values.

When you use a skill in an applicable way, you gain XP for that skill, when you get enough of it, that skill advances. When a skill advances you gain Character XP equal to the new level of that skill. When the character gets enough XP they level up. The progress can be seen through various bars in the skills menu, the bar for character level is also seen whenever a skill advances.

Once again, this means that player actions determine the type of character that they play, not a choice they make right at the beginning. It gets at the heart of the systems used in Morrowind and Oblivion while removing the complications that weighed down the old system and made it terrible. It is a case of streamlining taking a clunky bad system and creating a great system that achieves the central purpose without creating strange side cases.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Cloud Security

A friend of mine recently mentioned this article in a chat. It involves a US technology journalist who had his apple account compromised and through that, his phone, iPad and computer remotely wiped, his social network accounts compromised and his Google account closed.

Despite the generic security advice at the end of the article, there is nothing that the end user can realistically do to protect themselves from a social engineering attack against the support staff for a vital cloud service they use.

The problem, like many in security, is that security has costs. The cost here is the appearance of good customer service; it seems like good customer service to bend over backwards in order to help a customer in need, especially if they are nice or at just the right level of pushy, it seems like it is good customer service to fix their problem in a single phone call.

Most of the time, it is probably safe to do so, I imagine the ratio of malicious customers to innocent people on the other end of the phone is pretty low. There are plenty of people who have screwed up and just want to get access to their account back but don't have access to their email right now. It feels bad to tell these people that you can't help them right now. Maybe if they could find or contact someone else who can find that important email, you can help them get access to their account/their daughter's (who was recently in an accident, we need to get access to help sort out her belongings).

Good customer service is really important to most companies, they pride themselves on it, it is a major selling point that you can get help, quickly and easily and without stress. The thing is, actual good customer service is more than just helping people in need, it requires care and precision. It means getting things right, not getting things done fast.

Protection against social engineering like most security is a trade-off with convenience. It requires testing staff to ensure that they are appropriately suspicious and it requires policies that support this behaviour and training that makes staff understand why those policies exist.

It is going to be interesting going forward seeing how companies react, email has for a long time been treated as a low priority for security. The underlying sending and receiving mechanisms were not built for security and are still insecure, and yet they are the hinges for most of our online dealings. Most services I use will send a password reset to my email with little to no verification required, meaning that if you get into my email, you can get into pretty much everything I use. This applies more so to smartphone users as those account can be used for remote access to phones, providing location information and also the ability to as seen in the article maliciously wipe out information.

Companies and users need to start looking at what each system they use represent and what someone with hostile intent could do if they gained access and start adjusting where their security priorities lie.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Completed - Blackwell Unbound

Blackwell Unbound is the second game in the Blackwell series. Rather unexpectedly it does not continue the adventures of Rosa and Joey, instead it takes place in the 1970's following Rosa's aunt Lauren and Joey. It was originally going to be a flashback sequence in a sequel following Rosa but it grew too much, becoming its own tale.

Blackwell Unbound is longer than Blackwell Legacy. It focuses on two originally seemingly unrelated cases that of course turn out to be much more related than they initially appear.

Rather than having a trusty computer and internet connection to look up people and places, Lauren instead has a phone book and landline phone. This means that you often end up briefly heading to your apartment just to turn a name into a phone number or location so that you can head on to the next location. I like how the reliance of these everyday tools means that we can venture into a large variety of locations without either Lauren or Joey have a mysteriously complete knowledge of location geography, people and businesses.

Lauren and Joey also have a very different relationship than Rosa did, Lauren clearly has accepted her role as a medium and that Joey isn't going away. They have a reasonably good working relationship and they banter a bit more.

The game has a hidden timer to it. Lauren is a chain smoker and there are 2 achievements that are possible, one which is to finish the game before she finishes 20 cigarettes and one for finishing the game with Lauren smoking at least 100 cigarettes. It is an interesting idea and one designed to get people to play through it multiple times. I kind of liked how you got some of these meaningless statistics when you finish the game.

One thing I do not like about the achievements for the various Blackwell games is that Dave Gilbert really seems to like achievements for solving a puzzle without making any mistakes. I find this really annoying especially since it is possibly to encounter these puzzles well before you have the information to solve them, before you really even know that it is a puzzle. It basically means that they are a set of achievements that can be gained either by playing through the game twice or to just use a guide to finish the game. Adventure games already have a significant problem relating to guides, they don't need to give players more incentives in that area.

Blackwell Unbound is a good prequel and it sets up the events of Blackwell Convergence, it took me about 2 hours to finish it.