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Things 132: Mobile games I recommend

I’m fascinated by the developments we’re seeing in mobile gaming, and am particularly interested in what sort of games we’ll see emerging as tablets become more mainstream and people figure out cool ways to use a touch interface.

I’ve spent the past few months trying out anything that sounded promising, particularly things that seem more suited to tablets than mobiles. Here are my favourite mobile games I’ve tried so far, split by business model, as that’s the first thing people want to know these days.

 

Games that you just buy

Star Command

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Android; PC and Mac forthcoming apparently
Best experienced: On a tablet
Theme: Star Trek / Pixel art
Genre: Strategy
Original release date: May 2013

Shields are down. The enemy have teleported aboard and are making their way towards the engine room. The medical bay is on fire. But the enemy ship is weak. Do you keep your tactical officers on ship weapons, or peel some off to defend against the intruders? Do you send the engineers to repair the med-bay, or have them try to set up a sentry droid before the enemy gets to them?

If you think making those kind of decisions in a pixellated Star-Trek-like environment sounds like fun, then this game is for you. The dialogue is lightly amusing too, for example, here are three dialogue options to choose from after being hailed by some unintelligible penguins:

A playthrough took about 4-5 hours, which felt about right. There’s some extra things to do which add replayability but I haven’t touched them yet.

 

Super Hexagon

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Windows, Mac, Android, Blackberry, Linux
Best experienced: On any mobile device
Theme: Geometry / Trippy
Genre: Twitch
Original release date: August 2012

You rotate a small triangle to avoid the ever-encroaching hexagonal walls. The walls move so fast that if you pause to make a conscious decision about which way to go, you die. The only way to last more than a few seconds is to train yourself to move instinctively, which is difficult, but gives a tremendous feeling of flow when you achieve it.

Difficulty modes are ‘Hard’, ‘Harder’ and ‘Hardest’, but progress will unlock harder modes. You get the idea.

 

Year Walk

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Windows and Mac forthcoming apparently
Best experienced: On an iPad, with a friend
***Companion app***
(essential) (iOS)
Companion app best experienced: On a small iOS device, while you play the main game on an iPad
Theme: Swedish folklore
Genre: Spooky puzzle
Original release date: February 2013

Year Walking is a Swedish folkloric version of a Vision Quest: someone wishing to see the future isolates themselves and fasts for a day (commonly on December 31st), then walks to the church at midnight. The dream-like things they see as a result are interpreted as signs of the future.

This may or may not be real (quite pleasingly, the English page for it on Wikipedia has been deleted as an ‘obvious hoax’, while the Swedish version is present), but in any case it’s a lovely idea for a short, spooky little puzzle game, best played under the duvet at midnight.

The art style is very Jon ‘I want my hat back ‘ Klassen (but isn’t actually by him). This impressionistic trailer gives a good idea of the kind of atmosphere you can expect:

The experience is quite short (I would guess between 1 and 2 hours, depending on how quickly you figure things out), but is extremely atmospheric and polished, and felt well worth the money to me.

 

First bit free, buy the rest

Cytus

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: Android, Playstation MobileiOS (not free!)
Theme: Anime Sci-Fi / Mostly circles
Genre: Rhythm Action
Original release date: January 2012
Best experienced: On a tablet

Circles appear. A line moves back and forth across the screen. You tap the circles when the line crosses them. If done correctly, you find you are tapping in time to the music, and this is very pleasing. Later on things get really crazy.

Well, that’s rhythm action for you. You get to try quite a lot for free (at least on Android), so if that remotely appeals then you should try it. Once you have the hang of it, you can then attempt to impress other people with your circle tapping skills. In my experience, they are actually quite impressed. They might have just been saying that, though.

 

Badland

Official site
Platforms: AndroidiOS (not free!)
Best experienced: On a tablet
Theme: Cute but dark / silhouette
Genre: Tap to flap
Original release date: March 2013

The one-button tap-to-flap genre seemed pretty simple to me until I played this. Powerups change your size (which alters your handling), coefficient of friction, speed, or the speed at which time passes. That’s fun, but it really gets going when you suddenly clone up to a swarm of 20 flappy things, all responding to your taps in sync (as per the screenshot above).

Essentially half of the game is free (on Android), so you should really just try it.

 

Free but you can buy things

Nimble Quest

Wikipedia, Official site
Platforms: iOS, Android, Ouya, PC/Mac/Linux (paid)
Theme: RPG / Pixel art
Genre: Snake
Original release date: March 2013
Best experienced: On a mobile

It’s really all there in theme, genre and screenshots: you control a conga-line ‘snake’ of RPG characters, attacking enemies and collecting power-ups. New characters are unlocked as you achieve higher levels, and each character can be upgraded with the coins you collect… it’s quite surprisingly compelling.

It’s the brave new world of free-to-play, so there’s a bunch of currency and in-app-purchase (IAP) going on. I recommend this approach:

  • Buy the red gems IAP. This gets you about 4x the amount of soft currency earned per game, and is a fair way to pay for the fun you get out of the game
  • Play the ‘arena’ mode. This updates once a day (I think), and if you do well enough you get a decent amount of the hard currency the following day
  • Once you get deeper into the game, spend hard currency (as you earn it) on the ‘speed’ powerup, because that makes early progress quicker, makes your attacks more concentrated, and the whole game becomes much more thrillingly twitchy.

Tim Mannveille tweets as @metatim, and previously raved about Smash Cops Heat for Android/iOS.

Things 131: Frozen is objectively great, Internet decay and hamsters, Shower danger

Data-based movie recommendation
In 2010, with the release of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, I looked back at the historic trends to try to understand where Disney went wrong in the 00’s. The Princess and the Frog (and Bolt before it) were successful in terms of IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes ratings, but less so in terms of revenue.

I concluded that Disney had to somehow maintain this level of quality in order to build back their reputation. With Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, and most recently Frozen, that’s exactly what they’ve done. In fact, since 2011, they’ve consistently outperformed Pixar (despite owning them):

Frozen currently enjoys the highest IMDB rating Disney have received since The Lion King, although due to self-selection it will be somewhat overstated in these initial weeks after its release.

On a more personal note, I’ve now seen Frozen twice, and highly recommend it – do be advised that it is a full-on musical, but co-composed by one of the people behind The Book of Mormon, so there’s a lot to enjoy even if that wouldn’t usually be your cup of tea. It’s also highly notable for having two female leads with real agency (I’m looking at you, Brave, with your arbitrary plot-advancing Will O’ the Wisps).

Video –Automated Automata Architecture
Continuing the Disney-is-actually-pretty-good-now theme, here Disney research demonstrate how they can generate the gearing required to closely recreate an arbitrary cyclical movement, then 3D-print the result to make the automaton. I particularly like the cyber tiger at 3’30”:

(via The Kid Should See This)

Tumblr – Video games with modified objectives
No wrong way to play” collects examples of people playing video games in ways not intended by the designers. I approve of this.

Tim Link – Learning to Cheat, part 3
Two years ago I surprised myself by betraying someone pretty meanly in a public game. I began a series of blog posts post-rationalising the whole thing within a game-design framework, and after a guilty two-year gap I finally posted my full confession and/or excuse.

Internet decay
If you’ve ever navigated early entries of Things on the blog, you might have seen some dead links, and some links which went dead and got fixed, and some which died again, as I periodically go back and attempt to fight digital entropy.

Based on this insignificant sample, it seems like the half-life for links on the internet is 5-10 years, and considerably less for YouTube videos. This is pretty distressing as laziness/convenience drives us to rely on the internet for files we’re interested in – after all, your options are essentially a) saving a lolcat in downloads>pictures>cats, renaming the file so you can easily find it, and maintaining off-site backups of your data to hedge against hardware failure, or b) just image search “I have a cat and I’m not afraid to use it” from any device, which is a lot more appealing. (Naturally I still choose option a).

There’s a few good links on the subject here, including the compelling quote:

“People are coming to the realization that if nobody saves the Internet, their work will just be gone.” – Alexis Rossi, Internet Archive

Hamster fighting machine / response
Here’s an example of why it’s important to hold onto things on the internet. In 2005, Jarred Purrington made the Hamster Fighting Machine comic/poster (which you can see here or here but not on the original link because it’s dead)

In 2010, Dale Beran (writer of previously-Thinged webcomic/cogent nightmare “A lesson is learned but the damage is irreversible”) posted a lovely response.

Answer – 100 Chalices
Last time I asked if you should choose a chalice with 50/50 odds of being poisoned over one random chalice out of 100 which 100 fiends have each independently and randomly poisoned one of.

Restated, this is asking if you would prefer one-hundred 1-in-100 chances of death vs a single ½ chance. Richard correctly reasoned that the average amount of poison-per-chalice is double in the 100-chalice room, and some degree of bunching in the distribution (i.e. some chalices getting poisoned multiple times) didn’t seem likely to offset it, so the 50/50 chance is probably the best bet.

For any of you not familiar with the probability behind this sort of thing, here’s a quick summary. In the 100-chalice case, calculating all the ways a chalice could get poisoned is very difficult, but calculating the probability of it never getting poisoned is much easier as there’s only one way that can happen. The odds of avoiding poison any one time are 99/100, and this has to be repeated 100 times. So:

Odds of avoiding poisoning = 99/100 x 99/100 x … x 99/100 = (99/100)^100 = 37%. Clearly not as good as the 50% chance in the two-chalice room.

As a post-script, if you’re interested, the expected ‘bunching’ of poisonings would look a bit like this:

This is also a very important concept when evaluating risks in your own life for things that you repeat. For example, I noticed that I tended to step out of the shower in a needlessly risky way, with a risk of slipping (and getting seriously hurt) of perhaps 1-in-a-thousand. That seems tolerable, until you consider that if I showered once a day for 2 years, my odds of avoiding such a fate would be (999/1000)^730 = 48%, in other words I’d be more likely to have at least one such accident than not! So, watch out for that.

Answer – Kickstarter videos
I’ve spoken to a few people about the fact that Kickstarter videos always make me feel less motivated to put my money in. The underlying reason seems to be that a Kickstarter page typically does a great job of selling the product/reward, but the video often ends up being more about selling the people behind it (as being worthy, or in need of your money). Before the video I don’t even think about that; after the video, that’s just another reason to say no.

-Transmission finally ends

Things 130: Reviewing with a different lens, Of mice and sandpipers, What’s wrong with surveillance

Reviewing with a different lens

I like the gimmick of reviewing one thing in the style of another in order to shed some light on the genre as a whole. Here’s two examples of that.

A review of the concept of pay-to-play games (or what you might consider ‘normal’ games, in which you just buy the game and then play it) in the style of articles criticising the concept of free-to-play games (which now dominate mobile, and make their money from various forms of in-game purchase). This raises some excellent points, but I would add that free-to-play is still relatively immature as a model, so has some legitimate problems that should get mitigated over time.

My personal least favourite aspect of free-to-play is that a lot of such games (regardless of genre) revolve around resource-management, where the resources are the player’s time, the player’s money, and typically two in-game currencies. People who aren’t good at this particular skill end up having a less fun time across all such games!

Similarly: what if we reviewed films like we reviewed games? This suggests even the way we culturally appreciate and understand ‘normal’ pay-to-play games is still immature compared to other media.

Good long reads

Theme park fast-passes as metaphor for left/right ideologies: Are we a nation of line-cutters, or are we the line? (1.8k words)

The historic development of scientific consensus on animal “consciousness”, and the lovely idea of thinking about wild animals as collections of individuals rather than uniform groups: Being a Sandpiper (3.7k words)

Film critic Hulk lays down exactly what was wrong with Tom Hoopers adaptation of Les Miserables, by giving a quick masterclass in cinematography. This is the best thing written in all-caps that I’ve ever read: HULK VS. TOM HOOPER AND ART OF CINEMATIC AFFECTATION (7.9k WORDS)

That last link is huge (but very well structured), so here’s a quick excerpt to explain the central point. Hulk quotes Gordon Willis, cinematographer on The Godfather (and many other great movies):

“You can decide this movie has got a dark palette. But you can’t spend two hours on a dark palette. . . So you’ve got this high-key, Kodachrome wedding going on. Now you go back inside and it’s dark again. You can’t, in my mind, put both feet into a bucket of cement and leave them there for the whole movie. It doesn’t work. You must have this relativity.”

Hulk then follows this with

WE’RE TALKING ABOUT TOM HOOPER AND THE FACT THAT HE WANTED TO MAKE AN “INTIMATE” AND “ORGANIC” LES MIS SO HE FILMED THE ENTIRE THING IN CLOSE-UP AND HAND-HELD.

DESPITE THE FACT THAT THAT WAS INAPPROPRIATE FOR ABOUT 90% OF THE MOVIE.

YUP. HE PUT BOTH FEET IN THE BUCKET OF CEMENT.

On surveillance

A few years ago I started to draft a series of blog posts with the titles “Ubiquitous surveillance is possible”, “Ubiquitous surveillance is inevitable”, and “Ubiquitous surveillance is abominable”, but never got around to finishing them, stalling when the ‘gather data and evidence’ phase spiralled out of control.

With Snowden’s leaks on the NSA, the first two now seem somewhat redundant, but I’m still surprised how few good articles I’ve found that specifically identify the problems of  ubiquitous surveillance. Most preach to the choir and insist that the whole project is inherently bad, without digging into exactly why.

The insidious part of ubiquitous surveillance is that, at face value, it allows for perfect law enforcement, which should be a good thing. We have laws, and naturally we try to enforce them, so why would we not use technology to enforce them as efficiently as possible?

In 1984, George Orwell wanted to articulate the real issue so much that he used blatant exposition, in particular:

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

The key issue is that the state in 1984 has so much power (largely through ubiquitous surveillance) that society is in stasis: the power can never be overthrown, it will only grow stronger, and it will always crush any dissent.

Unfortunately 1984‘s extrapolation is so extreme, I suspect people have the general impression that since the society from 1984 is terrible, we just need to avoid doing exactly that – without recognising that it’s conceivably the conclusion of a feedback loop we are already beginning. That feedback loop being: a state with such pervasive surveillance can use that very power to maintain and continue to extend it’s surveillance capabilities.

(Incidentally, this means the news stories I think we should really watch out for are those where a state uses surveillance to either extend the reach of its existing surveillance, or to defend its right to continue using that surveillance, both typically via blackmail, and unfortunately for the conspiracy-theory-nature of this concern, both very rarely made public)

So anyway, here’s the one article I’ve found that expounds on these problems more cogently: Why ‘I Have Nothing to Hide’ Is the Wrong Way to Think About Surveillance.

(You might recall I collected responses to the ‘Nothing to Hide’ argument in Things 110)

Videos

A really wonderful minute of a mouse attempting to haul a cracker up a shelf (no sound needed):

I recently caught some of the London International Animation Festival.

This video, ‘The Solipsist‘ won the award for visual innovation; the effects are extraordinary, yet 99% practical. It’s 10 minutes with three main segments, so if you’re in a hurry you can just skip through it and get the gist (sound helps):

At the opposite end of many scales,  ’The Banker‘ is short, low-budget, low/no-aesthetic, crude, rude, oddly paced, and still weirdly compelling (sound essential, 2’59″):

Puzzles

Suggested by Matt: 100 Poisoned Chalices

Through some implausible scenario that is not necessary for the puzzle, you are compelled to make a deadly choice: to choose and drink from a potentially poisoned chalice from room A, or room B. In room A, there are two chalices; one has been poisoned, the other not. In room B, there are 100 chalices, and 100 fiends have each independently and randomly poisoned one out of the 100- chalices; as a result, some will have been poisoned multiple times, some once, and some not at all.

Which room should you select your chalice from?

For those of you thinking “I know how to calculate that”, that’s great, but I encourage you to guess which room gives you the best odds first!

Kickstarter video paradox

I’ve backed 13 projects on Kickstarter to date (I’m currently hoping stretch goals can be met for Bee and Puppycat), and seriously considered many more.

The Kickstarter page is effectively selling you something. Very commonly, if someone watches a video about a product, they are more likely to buy it (if only because they self-selected to be that much more engaged with the process). But speaking personally, every time I watch a Kickstarter video, I end up feeling less likely to back the project. Why might that be? Is there a way to do it right?

- transmission ends

Things 129: Kids Special (Strange Hill High, Octonauts, The Phoenix)

People tend to assume children’s entertainment isn’t as good as it was when they were young, probably due to a three-pronged attack of rose-tinted nostalgia, the best shows being renewed (Sesame Street) or repeated (Bagpuss) so giving each new generation a sense of ownership over them, and poor curation for adults out of the current crop.

Recognising that this is a highly subjective enterprise, I’m going to pick out a few good examples of current kids fare in attempt to at least fix the latter. There’s even a kid-entertainment-based puzzle at the end.

TV Series with Puppets: Strange Hill High
I occasionally take a look at current children’s TV to see what sort of animation techniques are being used, and Strange Hill High caught my attention through its fascinating combination of designer-vinyl-toy-style puppets combined with CG mouth animation.

The premise is entirely encoded in the name so I won’t bother to elaborate on that. Most importantly, it actually makes me laugh a few times per episode, which can’t be said of many other TV series. To be fair, 90% of it is fairly standard kids ‘comedy’, but it’s sufficiently fast paced that I don’t mind sitting through that to get to the other 10%.

If you seek reassurance from known quantities, it also features the voice of Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), and the head of the writing team is Josh Weinstein (The Simpsons).

It’s on iPlayer right now (I recommend starting with 99 cool things to do with a time machine), and you can start to get a bit of a flavour (though not really enough) from the opening few minutes:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5ll7kot5bo

Picture Books: Octonauts
Again, I first engaged with this franchise through the graphical design: I was impressed by the stylishness of their bath toys. It turns out there’s a whole CG animated series, which is quite good (mostly due to the use of regional accents), but it all started with a series of charmingly whimsical picture books. Here’s a few snippets to give you an idea:

Decoding the language of a sad fish:

Pictures that glow in the dark (from this book), which it turns out fascinate me just as much as when I was a kid:

Weekly comic: The Phoenix
Now I look back on it, more than anything The Beano looks like a primer on culture, mapping out the tropes and stereotypes of an idealised sort of pre-war age (vicars having tea, go-carts, hi-jinks, the threat of The Slipper), equipping the child with the reference points needed to navigate modern entertainment, while keeping said child entertained with a never-ending stream of speech bubbles that all end in exclamation marks (I only noticed this years later, and haven’t been able to read more than a few pages at once since).

The Phoenix is a modern kids comic that’s nothing like that. For one thing, it features work by James Turner, who I’ve featured in Things before (with this mind-bending 9-panel comic).

It’s also got a bunch of other surprisingly good stuff. Bunny vs Monkey by Jamie Smart features high-quality hijinks like this and ever so often will just go incredibly dark, like this:

For being simultaneously educational and entertaining, I’ve never seen better than Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy, in which he interviews the reanimated corpses of the “dead famous”, and doesn’t really sugar-coat things that much:

There’s wonderful art by Lorenzo in Long Gone Don:

Finally, ‘Professor Panels’ by Neill Cameron teaches kids to make their own comics, sometimes delightfully deconstructing the form, such as the episode in which a mecha-comic-creating-monkey starts to misfire when a banana is added to its workings:

If you’re interested, do check out their website, which has a free digital issue, a link to the iPad app, a starter pack you could buy, and a bunch of other good stuff.

Video: Tune-Yards My Country
I like this music, and the video is pretty good too. Be sure to stick around for the funky syncopated brass solo around 2’40″.

Puzzle: The Perfect Power-up Purchase Path
The LEGO console games are aimed at children, but provide some solid co-op entertainment for adults too, especially if you derive pleasure from smashing things and collecting coins – or in the LEGO-themed parlance of the game, ‘studs’.

In many (all?) of them, studs collected in the course of play can be used to purchase various upgrades. One such upgrade is the ‘x2′, which once bought, doubles the value of all the studs you subsequently collect – so a level where you might collect 100,000 studs will instead net you 200,000. There are other similar upgrades, like the ‘x4′, which multiplies by 4 – and they apply cumulatively, so if you have both x2 and x4, you get an 8 times multiplier, so that level would now net you 800,000 studs.

Naturally, the more powerful multipliers are more expensive to buy… but having a multiplier will help you save up for the others more quickly. Here’s a price list:

  • x2 = 1 million studs
  • x4 = 2m
  • x6 = 3m
  • x8 = 4m
  • x10 = 5m

So, the question naturally arises: if you want to eventually purchase all 5 of these multpliers, what order should you buy them in? (In case you were wondering, yes, they really do keep accumulating, so when you have them all you have a 2 x 4 x 6 x 8 x 10 = 3,840-times multiplier).

For the more mathematically inclined: what is the generic strategy for any multiplier series f and pricing series g? For the more game-design inclined: if you really wanted to encourage children to do some maths, how would you design the pricing for these multipliers? Alternatively, if you wanted to make the game as fun as possible, what multipliers and prices would you set?

Answer: Spoilers Sometimes Matter
Last time I asked if we could really believe research demonstrating that spoilers always improve enjoyment. The consensus seems pretty clear – even though ‘mystery’ and ‘twist ending’ stories were included in the research, it nonetheless seems very likely that there exist a few counter-example stories in which experiencing them unspoiled adds a tremendous amount to the experience. Since one can’t tell reliably tell which these are in advance, it seems wiser to err on the side of caution, and continue to avoid spoilers.

-Transmission Finally Ends

 

Essentials