The number of games I know that have made the transition from a mobile platform to the PC is vanishingly small. Primarily this is due to the limitations of the mobile platform that necessitates simplicity in almost all respects, something that is at odds with the expectations of gamers of other platforms. Some do make the jump, indeed they can even be quite palatable if some effort is given to the transition, however their roots are always indisputable with the trade mark multiplicities baked into the very core of the game. Echo Prime, a new title from Robot Entertainment who are behind the Orcs Must Die! series, is a textbook example of a game with a primary platform in mind that suffers when translated elsewhere.
You’re an elite enforcer on a quest to protect the galaxy from an alien threat. During an engagement with the enemy however your ship becomes damaged and drifts slowly towards a black hole. However this black hole is actually a tear between this universe and the wider multiverse allowing you to establish a link with a race of beings called the Echoes. This link grants you abilities far beyond that of any normal human, enabling you to protect the galaxy from the imminent alien threat. From then on its up to you to fight your way through untold hordes of enemies ranging from robots gone awry all the way up to massive alien commanders, ready to squash you without a second thought.
As is the case with all mobile ports the graphics of Echo Prime are incredibly simplistic, done so that it can run on the widest range of devices possible. There’s no option to crank them up to ridiculous levels on the PC unfortunately, so you just end up with the same thing running at a larger resolution. This means it runs well but honestly there’s rarely enough happening on screen to stress even a decade old PC, even if you try to do something silly like run through the whole level to bunch up all the enemies together (there’s rarely more than 20, total, in a level). This makes it somewhat obvious that the target market was most certainly not the PC and more on the mobile market.
Echo Prime is a hack ‘n’ slash time waster with every level being no longer than a couple minutes long and you never being swamped with more than a handful of enemies at once. There’s 2 basic forms of combat the first being a simple ranged attack that you can spam by holding down. The second is a melee attack that you’ll automatically switch to when enemies are in range. The enemies you’ll face are just about as varied with them being designated as either melee or ranged and acting accordingly. If this isn’t sounding incredibly nuanced to you then you’d be right on the money as it’s catered more towards spamming attacks, either kind will do, than any kind of meaningful strategy.
It became clear early on that the AI in the game is rudimentary, to the point where I’m sure that the path finding algorithm is a straight “walk directly at the player” for 90% of the enemies. Whilst there are some elements of strategy that you can potentially take advantage of (environmental hazards like oil slicks and toxic gas) you likely won’t need them once you figure out that you can shoot nearly every enemy before they get on screen. This is because enemies are placed all over the level before you start and will remain there until their either hit with a projectile or they come within a certain range of you (which, you’ll note, is after you can see them).
This is not to say that playing a true melee character wouldn’t be viable, it certainly is given the fact that melee weapons are usually an order of magnitude more powerful. Consequently if you’re a classical min-maxer like myself you’ll quickly learn that there’s no need to buy any weapon but the very best you can for your level bracket. The first time doing this is a little bit of a struggle (time wise more than anything else) but after that you’re pretty much guaranteed to waste any enemy near you without having to think about it. This means that the challenge of the game is almost non-existent, removing any sense of driving purpose to improve on your character.
I will admit that the Echo system is pretty cool, allowing you to choose from an incredibly massive range of augmentations to spice up the game play. Better still you’re allowed to choose one from another player to use for that campaign, something which can lead to awfully broken builds like my double-double shot build which could spawn upwards of 20 bullets with a single click. This also sends back credits and upgrade points to the people you borrowed them from, encouraging you to upgrade your Echoes fully in order to have them picked before anyone elses. Unfortunately once you find a build you’re comfortable with you’re quite unlikely to stray from it, even if you happen to borrow an Echo that has some cool abilities.
It’s painfully obvious that the whole game is designed for fat fingering on a tablet screen with all the buttons being huge and all the controls having touch centric ideals built into them. This works horribly on PC with the dodge function detecting “swipes” all the time, often leading your character to dive in a direction that you didn’t expect them to. Worse still the large collision radius used for the cursor can mean that you sometimes end up clicking on things that you can’t see, like when you’re clicking on the edge of the screen to move forward. It’s highly frustrating to use and the game’s simplicity is its saving grace in this regard as any kind of twitch reaction is nigh on impossible.
The story is incredibly basic, being told primarily through small chunks of text before the mission begins. It’s little more than a bit of flavour text as it often doesn’t amount to much more than “You need to clear this place out” or “We need to defend this because of X”. Indeed past the initial set up the story seems to be a second thought something which is entirely a symptom of the game’s design to be picked up, played for 5~10 minutes, and then put away. This might be passable on a mobile device but in a PC title it really doesn’t cut it.
Echo Prime is a perfect example of why straight ports of a mobile game are just not compatible with the PC platform. The simplistic graphics, pick up/put down nature and extreme simplicity is perfectly suited to a platform where those things are key but when brought to the PC it just feels cheap. The idea has a lot of potential and I believe that Robot Entertainment could make a great version of it for the PC, however this current incarnation is far from that, showing its mobile roots almost too proudly. For PC gamers I’d rethink buy this on your PC as it’d be much better suited to your phone or gaming tablet.
Echo Prime is available on PC and iOS right now for $9.99 and $5.49 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours total play time and 25% of the achievements unlocked.
So I’ve decided to try my hand at being a game developer after spending way too many hours thinking about it and wanting to do something more exciting than developing yet another web application. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried my hand at developing games either, I did a semester long course in games development back when I was in university. That course still rates as one of the most fun and interesting semesters I ever spent there, especially when your games were put up against the harshest critics I’ve ever met: the lecturer’s two kids. After finishing that course however I never really continued to try and make games until a mate of mine introduced me to Unity.
For a straight up programmer like myself Unity is a bit of an odd beast. The Unity editor reminded me of the brief foray I had with 3D Studio Max back in college, as it sported many of the same features like the split screen viewport and right hand column with all object’s properties in it. It’s very easy to navigate around and it didn’t take me long to whip up a simple littlesolar system simulator, albeit one that lacks any form of gameplay or semblance of realism. Still being able to go from never having used the product before to making something that would’ve taken me weeks in the space of a single weekend was pretty exciting, so I started about working on my game idea.
So of course the first game I want to make is based in space and the demo I’ve linked to before was the first steps to realizing the idea. It was however very unrealistic as the motion of the planet is governed by simply tracing out a circle, with no hint of gravity to influence things. Additionally the relative sizes and distances were completely ludicrous so I first set about making things a little more realistic to satisfy the scientist in me. Doing some rough calculations and devising my own in game scale (1 unit = 1,000KM) I made everything realistic and the result was pretty tragic.
The sun took up the vast majority of the screen until you zoomed out to crazy levels, at which point I couldn’t find where the hell my little planet had gotten off to. After panning around for a bit I saw it hiding about 4 meters above the top of my monitor, indistinguishable from the grey background it sat on. Considering this game will hopefully be played on mobile phones and tablets the thought of having to scroll like a madman constantly didn’t seem like a fantastic idea, and I relegated myself to ditching realism in favor of better gameplay. My artistic friend said we should go for something like “stylized physics”, which seems quite apt for the idea we’re going after.
It might seem obvious but the idea of suspending parts of reality for the sake of game play is what makes so many games we play today fun. The Call of Duty series of games would be no where near as fun if you got shot once in the arm and then proceeded to spend the next hour screaming for a medic, only to not be able to go back into the mission for another couple weeks while your avatar recuperated. The onus is on the developer however to find that right balance of realism and fantasy so that the unrealistic parts flow naturally into the realistic, creating a game experience that’s both fun and doesn’t make the player think that it’s an unrealistic (or unfathomable) mess.
I’m sure my walk down the game developer road will be littered with many obvious-yet-unrealized revelations like these and even my last two weeks with Unity have been a bit of an eye opener for me. Like with any of my endeavors I’ll be posting up our progress for everyone to have a fiddle with over in The Lab and I’ll routinely be pestering everyone for feedback. Since I’m not going at this solo anymore hopefully progress will be a little bit more speedy than with my previous projects and I’ll spend a lot less time talking about it 🙂
It’s really easy to fall into the trap of trying to build something you think is simple that ends up being a complicated mess. Us engineers are amongst the most common offenders in this regard, often taking a simple idea and letting the feature creep run out of hand until the original idea is coated in 10 layers of additional functionality. I’d say that this is partly due to our training as modular design and implementation was one of the core engineering principles that was drill into me from day 1 although to be fair they also taught us how quickly the modular idea fell apart if you took it too far. There’s also the innate desire to cram as much functionality as you can into your product or service as that would make it appear more appealing to the end user, however that’s not always the case.
When Geon was starting out I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do: see what was going on in a certain location. That in itself is a pretty simple idea and the first revisions reflected that, although that was probably due to my lack of coding experience more than anything else. As time went on I got distracted by other things that forced me away from my pet project and upon return I had one of those brainwaves for improving Geon in ways I had not yet considered. This lead to the first version that actually had a login and a whole host of other features, something I was quite proud of. However it lacked focus, was confusing to use and ultimately whilst it satisfied some of the core vision it wasn’t anything more than a few RSS feeds tied together in a silverlight front end with a badly coded login and messaging framework hidden under the deluge of other features.
Something needed to change and thus Lobaco was born.
Increasingly I’m seeing that simplicity is the key to creating an application that users will want to use. On a recent trip to Adelaide my group of friends decided to use Beluga to co-ordinate various aspects of the trip. Beluga really only does one thing, group messaging, but it does it so well and in such a simple way that we constantly found ourselves coming back to it. Sure many of the functions are already covered off by say SMS or an online forum but having a consistent view for all group members that just plain worked made organizing our band of bros that much easier. It’s this kind of simplicity that keeps me coming back to Instagr.am as well, even though there’s similar levels of functionality included in the Twitter client (apart from the filters).
Keeping an idea simple all sounds like it would be easy enough but the fact that so many fail to do so show how hard it is to refine a project down to its fundamental base in order to develop a minimum viable product. Indeed this is why I find time away from developing my projects to be nearly as valuable as the time I spend with them as often it will get me out of the problem space I’ve been operating in and allow me to refine the core idea. I’ve also found myself wanting simple products in lieu of those that do much more just because the simple ones tend to do it better. This has started to lead me down the interesting path of finding things I think I can do better by removing the cruft from a competing product and I have one to test out once I get the first iteration of the Lobaco client out of the way.
I guess that will be the true test to see if simplicity and focus are things customers desire, and not just geeks like me.