Rydyn Ni'n Hoffi Coffi Software

"Rudden Neen Hoffey Coffee" – software, for the fun of it

Rayman Fiesta Run – Road to Nowhere

I had another game that I was interested in covering today, but I want to give it another week to cover its more egregious faults before presenting it for discussion. And so, today I wish to talk to you about a game you already know, a game outstanding in its class, and a game that left me profoundly disappointed.

The second game, particularly, is so polished it can light ants on fire when displayed on a curved screen

The second game, particularly, is so polished it can light ants on fire when displayed on a curved screen

Rayman Jungle Run, and its superior sequel, Fiesta Run, are rhythm-and-memory auto running platformers for iOS and Android, with the latter game being restricted to small screen sizes currently. At what they do, I have come across no better, but at what they don’t do…

Perhaps I had better start as normal, by recounting the story.

That was my retelling of the story. And there’s the problem.

First of all, let me make it clear that this by no means is a deal-breaker. The game plays beautifully, with the latter game in particular singularly focussed on smooth, parkour-like action almost throughout. The gliding sections are a little annoying and finickety, but far from unfair. The rest of the game just works – short levels don’t tax your patience when you fail near the end, and as soon as you do, you are back at the start, spinning your legs and ready to go again. The two-button control scheme almost never failed, with essentially the entire screen being responsive, and the camera never put Rayman in a position where my thumbs were obscuring him or the way ahead. The level of craftmanship really shows when things get difficult. When you’ve completed a level, Ubisoft Casablanca gives you a “twisted” version of the same level, even less forgiving of a mis-timed jump or glide; and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t seem like they spent MORE time getting these right than the vanilla levels! The idea of a developer spending more time on content at the tail end of an experience than the first five minutes runs counter to everything we’ve seen in gaming over the past decade or so, and here it is, in a mobile game! All this is before we even get to the presentation.

Just capturing the screenshots for this, I got so wrapped up in the fantastic gameplay, I finished a hundred-percent run and ran late on this post.

Just capturing the screenshots for this, I got so wrapped up in the fantastic gameplay, I finished a hundred-percent run and ran late on this post.

Oh, the presentation. Thanks to the UbiArt framework, we get some of the most gorgeously rendered sprites I have ever seen in a game, full-stop. Jungle run suffers from a couple of the enemies being too close in silhouette, but this is thoroughly ironed-out by Fiesta run. What with not having to worry about overlapping limbs, Rayman has always been capable of some smooth, vector-based animations, but the level of detail, number of frames, and overall ENERGY put into his character is fantastic. Meanwhile, every enemy is full of personality, and at the very least gently bounces as it waits for Rayman to bop it on the head, in a very Popcap-esque, joyful manner. Then there’s the music – eventually repetitive, yes, but even then it can only be described as ‘gleeful’, and compliments the nature of the game perfectly.

This is a game about joy, joy through every movement, sprite and sound. It can’t help but bring a smile to my face. And yet…

Here we go.

It’s not so much that the game doesn’t have a story – indeed, maybe I wouldn’t have a problem with it if it was purely abstract. ‘Run and avoid the pointy baddies’ might be enough. The thing is, the game obviously does have some form of story – it just doesn’t do anything with it.

Looking purely at Fiesta Run, at the end of end of every level a number of blue ninja dudes are freed from cages according to the number of ‘lums’ you collected in the level – glowing, golden coin-surrogates. Note that the level of interest shown in this is so low that they never even bother to introduce the name of said ninjas in gameplay. You are given no clue as to why they are imprisoned, or why collecting lums would act to free them. Mechanically, you are filling a meter, and all that this lack of context does is serve to reinforce how pointless it is. They clearly had the vestiges of a story here – and it didn’t have to be much, just a silly little tale to tell – but nothing at all was done with it.

For a game so exemplary in every other way, demonstrating what can be done with well-tuned mechanics, beautiful art and animation, brilliant music, and a budget most mobile games would kill for, this lack of the final element is depressing. It is almost a statement of contempt for mobile gamers – we are babies, impressed by flashing lights and colour. We don’t need our curiosity satisfied, our halfhearted efforts at contextualisation fully realised. So long as it looks nice and plays great, we’ll be happy.

Why is Rayman silhouetted? Because it changes gameplay slightly, and looks cool. That's literally the only reason.

Why is Rayman silhouetted? Because it changes gameplay slightly, and looks cool. That’s literally the only reason.

I just can’t help but feel like a company with the resources of Ubisoft should feel compelled to finish the experience, to put the cherry on top, to go the extra mile and show what the medium can do. If we can’t rely on the AAA developers (or, indeed studios funded by said companies, as in this case) to give it their all, then where do our yardsticks come from? Who will step in to elevate the medium?

Should we be happy with 9/10s of a game, if those 9/10s are so good? Is the story of the Half-Life episodes diminished by the lack of a conclusion? Is the world of Gormenghast weakened by Titus Alone? These are all valid, but negative questions from the point of view of a powerless audience. The question should always be asked from a position of power: that of the creator.

How much better could it be?

Hero of Many – Context and Mechanics

There are multiple ways to engage a player in a video game, from presenting a mystery to be solved, to developing engrossing characters whose arcs are resolved by completing gameplay sections, to pure kinematic expression via consistent and stable (from a control point of view) mechanics. All of these points of engagement, however, can be used by other media. Real-life (history, science, engineering) can provide us with an infinite number of mysteries to be solved and problems to be crunched. Literature and film endlessly bombard us with interesting characters to follow and be fascinated by. Sports of one kind or another can provide us with skilful and engaging kinematics. This isn’t to say that it is pointless for games to engage on these levels – far from it, they are all valuable tools in crafting an experience. Where a “game” really comes into its own, though, is with its unique party trick – applying context to mechanics.
Enter Hero of Many, a touchscreen-based (iOS, Android) “Action-Adventure” (read: genreless) game released by Czech developer Trickster Arts. The concept is simple: you control a bulky, defenceless, ovum-like ball of cells floating in the murky depths, propelling itself toward your taps with unseen flagella. Alone, black enemy creatures can make short work of you, but by gathering energy orbs, and sperm-like soldiers, you can develop a highly mobile and lethal Praetorian guard that can reduce hordes of enemy soldiers to so much floating debris in seconds.

Did I mention that the aesthetics are gorgeous?

Did I mention that the graphics are gorgeous?

You begin the game patrolling neutral sea with your elite guard, when you are attacked by the black menace (linguistically, yes, there are racial overtones, but since by the nature of the story and world design discrimination by silhouette is difficult the colour scheme is a necessity, and the one chosen is the best fit for the mechanics). Your troops are decimated and scattered, and you fall or flee into a pit which becomes cut-off from your previous path. All this is non-interactive, but is executed with such visual economy that it is difficult to criticise. Breaking the scene down moment by moment reveals such a wealth of gameplay information that the game would hardly be able to start without it, Within these few seconds, we have established:

The game eventually escapes from its monochrome starting areas.

The game eventually escapes from its monochrome starting areas.

1) The sperm-like creatures move with the ovum
2) Black sperm will attack you
3) Attacks are performed by overwhelming with numbers
4) You can run away
5) You can hide from enemies that haven’t seen you
6) The smooth rocks can be moved by entities, and can block paths.

It should also be noted that the soundtrack as this scene plays out is superb, precisely echoing the emotions it wants you to be feeling and demonstrating part of the soundscape that will be used to aurally denote the state of the game, which is a matter we will get onto later.
The only sour note I have about this opening scene is not at all the fault of the game, but rather of the meta-context in which it is presented. Whilst in this case every element is presented obeying the rules by which the game is played, far too many games use cutscenes, especially opening cutscenes, to allow actions outside of the rules. This completely undermines the scene’s tautological value, and is something we really need to stop doing. By all means, create context, but no world element should ever be seen doing anything that it cannot do immediately afterwards (for a recent example, see Skyrim, a game which, first and foremost, establishes that prisoners are transported by horse and cart. Never again in the entire game do you encounter a horse and cart travelling the roads of Skyrim. Then it prevents you from exercising the freedom to run, even if it would be a daft thing to do, in a game that is all about freedom. Then it establishes that dragons can cause permanent environmental destruction. Let’s face it, the thing is a trainwreck). This means that the player will still have to re-establish the rules through play, since they can’t necessarily trust what they have been shown.
So now we move onto our moment-to-moment to gameplay, and within the first five minutes the game shows us every one of its general mechanics – exploration, collection of energy and followers, solving of environmental physics puzzles, hiding from enemies when underpowered, overwhelming enemies with numbers.
This is really by-the-book stuff, but it does it superbly, betraying an achingly agonised-over period of design that has truly nailed the basic components of an opening sequence. Where it goes above and beyond, though, is in the sound design.
Simply put, if you cannot play this game with the sound on, do not play this game. The complete state of the game is reflected aurally, from item pick-ups to friendly soldiers hiding away to aggressive enemies, through to the aural reflection of the game’s emotional state. The passage from hunted to hunter is perfectly communicated, encouraging you to push for the finish in the final battle of the level, or keep a low profile as patrols sweep by. It completely contextualises the few inputs you have at this time, flinging your troops into the fray or darting behind a rock for cover. This is triple-A sound design in a tiny package.
Whether or not this continues to work for you is going to be down to, in part, how you play it. As far as mobile games go, HoM has a metric tonne of content, and if you try to blast through it all in one session, the slow rate of introduction of new mechanics may leave you feeling a bit worn-out. There are one or two other issues, such as some of the monsters having particularly difficult to make out weak points, the reset of your soldier numbers at the beginning of each level and the invincibility of your last soldier diminishing the value of your individual successes or failures, and the difficulty in gauging the relative strengths of two armies once there are a number of different soldier levels involved. The stutter in gameplay as you go past a save point is not appreciated, and could be handled better, and there is one puzzle where I am still not entirely sure why what I did worked to solve it, but these niggles are tiny parts of what is a tremendously well realised whole.
Overall, Hero of Many is a game I have waited a long time for – one that understands the mechanics of a touchscreen whilst delivering player-controlled story, with a gorgeous aesthetic and sound design to boot. Everything from the way the floaty physics is incorporated into the setting of the game world to the careful use of cut scenes to establish motive screams “attention to detail”, and you can’t really ask for any more than that.
Not perfect, but demands the attention of anyone wishing to deliver a story by contextualising mechanics-which, as game designers, should be almost all of us.

LARRY goes live!

And, just like that, with very little fanfare, Rydyn Ni’n Hoffi Coffi software has published its first game on the Google Play store.

LARRY the gerbil is a completely free mini game that challenges you to navigate a randomly generated maze; once with full overview of the layout, then again with only LARRY’s line of sight illuminated. There are local leaderboards and a cute little statistical system that will pop up a random fact at the end of every playthrough, but LARRY is fundamentally about just getting something out there for people to use, to introduce the world of LARRY and to start getting feedback over how well everything works.

LARRY began as a weekend project, for a family Christmas present, but with a little more polish it felt good enough to release to the world. Polish that took half an order of magnitude more than the ten hours I had expected, but most features that I had looked to include are now part of the package, and it will be interesting to see how robust the overall software is. There is no doubt that some of the code looks written to a deadline, but I have tried it on a few devices without running into any major issues.

With that, I’m going to head off to my day job. If LARRY gets downloaded even a couple of times, I’ll be calling that a success. If you want to try it for yourself, here’s the link:

Android app on Google Play

The empire grows…

Now that we’ve decided to go ahead and put software out to the public, there’s been a frantic session of grabbing names and pages on all those social media doohickeys that one has to worry about these days. Once we’ve nabbed them, we can get down to using them – expect an update sometime soon!

In the meantime, the rush continues…