Good (for Flash)

Despite being a Flash game developer, i don’t often drink my own industry’s Kool-Aid. A round-up of the games i purchased in fiscal 09 listed only one Flash game – but Flash games are almost entirely free-to-play, so i must have played a bunch of them over the course of the year, right?

Actually, no. And for good reason: Flash games stink. Even the good ones.

Gentlemen, Light Your Torches

Angry torch mob

i fully expect to get mobbed for this post. i’m not trying to hurt or engrage people, but somehow i always manage it.

So here’s the deal: i was poking around on the Gambrinous Games portal and i saw a first-person Flash graphic adventure game called Morningstar by Red Herring Labs listed in their Top Games section. In their review, the Gambrinous folks gave it a 4.5/5, citing the game’s “astounding graphics”. So i figured “i like graphic adventure games. And sci-fi. And astounding graphics. And things what are free. Maybe i’ll try me some?”

So i tried me some.

And yes, i’m happy to report that Morningstar has outstanding graphics … for a Flash game. But compare it to any commercial game, and you’re looking back to 1991.

Morningstar

i’m fully expecting an MC Hammer soundtrack at this point.

Morningstar is also a well-written game with solid gameplay …. for a Flash game. Compare it to other first-person Flash graphic adventure games – most notably the slew of often abysmal “Escape the Room” games”, and Morningstar stands head-and-shoulders above them. But compare the game to any similar game in the commercial world – even the moderately poor discount bin software you find at places like Staples/Business Depot, and Morningstar doesn’t hold up – not in length, not in quality, not in puzzle design.

Oh, Murphy

Let’s think of Flash as that kid named Murphy in your grade five class. Murphy rode the short bus to school every day, and had to wear a helmet to keep from bumping his head. He wasn’t allowed to use a pencil because the tip was too sharp, but the teacher would give him gold stars if he “wrote” his assignment by pointing to a series of flash cards in the proper sequence. Murphy always ate five cups of butterscotch pudding for lunch, and had a Six Million Dollar Man backpack, even though the show had been off the air for years and he had never watched it.

Short bus

Murphy rocked a sweet set of wheels

Very occasionally during gym class, the other kids would let Murphy have the basketball and, miraculously, Murphy would sometimes throw the ball and it would go in the hoop. Then everyone would patronizigly congratulate Murphy on what a good basketball player he was.

Late-breaking news flash: Murphy was not a good basketball player. And by the same token, a Flash game that has above-average graphics and gameplay is still often worlds apart from what we typically plunk money down to play.

Walk Me Through This Thing

Very early into Morningstar, i got stuck. This is a problem with the entire graphic adventure game genre: players can get hopelessly stuck, and can’t proceed through the game without either consulting a walkthrough or randomly clicking on every pixel on the screen. The very best graphic adventure games have a few strategies to combat this problem:

  1. They offer a “lite” version of the game containing only straightforward puzzles for casual players. The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge and LOOM both did this.
  2. They remind the player of the goal. An in-game character might say “i sure WISH someone would get me a fish!” or whatever, to signal to the player what he is supposed to be doing. Some games even interrupt the player, maybe with a phone call from another character saying “Are you still out there wandering around? Find me my magic paperclip, and get back here!”
  3. They offer hints. These can be found either through an explicit “HINT” button, or something more subtle. In Morningstar, you click a button to radio your ship’s caption. The button says “Radio” instead of “Hint”, presumably so that the player doesn’t feel like a dummy
  4. The very, very best games offer progressive hints. A character or a button might divulge a vague hint at first, and every successive click yields a more and more concrete clue, until the player is just flat-out told what to do.

You Have to Burn the Rope

NO IDEA what i’m supposed to do here.

So kudos to Morningstar for offering an in-game hint system. But where the game really falls short is in communicating goals to the player. Often, you won’t know what you should be doing and why you should be doing it. And a few logical leaps make the game far more frustrating than it needs to be. i think we can learn to write a better adventure game by analyzing Morningstar’s errors and talking about how to improve the game.

WARNING: Here be spoilers. If you haven’t played Morningstar, head on over to “>Gambrinous Games and give it a shot. Come back when you get stuck ;)

GOOOOOOOOAAAAALLLL Communication

Very early in the game, you’re asked to fix a power conduit panel. The panel is loose, and you have a screwdriver. The player (in this case, me) makes the logical connection, and uses the screwdriver to screw the panel back in. But the conduit is still not working. Your character says the panel is “making crackly noises like a badly tuned TV set.”

Did you catch it? “Badly tuned TV set.” That was your clue that you need to hit the conduit with a wrench to fix it. Because badly tuned TV sets start working when you hit them with a wrench, i suppose? It’s pretty thin logic.

TV

Sorry – why are we structuring puzzles in a science fiction game around malfunctioning 20th-century technology?

Details, Schmetails

Later in the game, the captain gives you a shopping list of things to retrieve from another ship. They are complicated and unrelatable things, so i had trouble remembering them. He wanted a plasma injector (whatever that is?), some hyperbolic fluid (what?), and a charged fuel cell (i think i can remember that one). So off i march to the door, repeating “plasma injector, fluid, fuel cell” like i’m Dora the Explorer. i click on the door, and i can’t leave the ship because i have about four or five more puzzles to solve.

This is cart-before-horse goal communication. If i don’t immediately need those three items, i shouldn’t be arsed with them by the captain. Game should say simply that i need to go gather items to fix my spaceship, but first i need to repair the ship so that i can open the doors. The over-arching goal is “get supplies so the ship can leave”. The immediate goal is “repair holes in the ship to open the door.” The immediate goal should be the only one that is communicated to the player in detail.

For example, if your over-arching goal was “kill the vampire overlord”, and your immediate goal was “distract the dog to get his chewy toy”, you should not communicate to the player that he needs to consecrate a sharpened stake in holy water, hire a sherpa to traverse the mountains of Glorm, and equip himself with four mystical pieces of Styx-dipped armour. At this point in the game, “Kill the vampire overlord” is sufficient. The player needs the least detail about stuff that will happen later in the game, and the most detail about stuff that’s happening right now. So right now is a good time to mention that the dog is allergic to peanut butter.

Faulty Item Logic

More than a few times, i fell victim to Morningstar’s lacklustre item logic. As we detailed in our article 12 Types of Puzzles in Graphic Adventure Games, combining two items to make a third, or combining two items to dismantle something into multiple items is a common adventure game puzzle type. In fact, the example i gave was removing the batteries from an item to use them in another device.

In Morningstar’s second puzzle, you come up against a door with no power. Then you find a doll that the game tells you has batteries in it. Any adventure gamer worth his salt can figure out that he needs to extract the batteries and put them in the door, right?

Wrong. i had to radio the Captain for the upsetting solution:

Oh! ... duh?

Uh … between me and the game designer, which one of us should be considered dumb at this point?

That’s right – no need to extract the batteries. Just ram the doll’s head into the door panel. Somehow.

Now, since Morningstar is science fiction, i’m willing to let a few things slide. i’ll accept that, even now in 2009 as TV is in its death knells, a future populated with high-tech spaceships might reference a TV remedy that dates back to the rabbit-ear days of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Sure. It’s a stretch, but whatevs. So if we’re going to go with anachronism, let’s talk about removing the batteries from a device before using them in another device.

OR, if you’re breaking your own rules, why not throw a line in there explaining that the doll has a conductive, exposed electrical panel at the back of her head for recharging? Something like that? No – instead, we get this item description:

It’s a doll. Its user guide says it has advanced artificial intelligence. Batteries included.

“Batteries included.” Like, they’re inside the doll. So you have to get them out somehow, possibly even using the screwdriver you just picked up. That, or just ram the doll’s head into the electrical panel. That works too.

Feh.

Make the Player Feel Smart

i learned this lesson the hard way in my own game design, and i seem to keep learning it. A good adventure game designer makes the player feel smart. The very best games have me feel like i’m out-thinking the game, or anticipating story arcs. They make me feel like i know something the characters don’t, even if the game developer planned it that way. As the designer, your ego has to take a back seat. You’re not the star – the player is.

In Morningstar, i have to construct a bomb by making gunpowder. The three ingredients in gunpowder, according to the game, are carbon, saltpeter, and sulphur. i didn’t know that. i don’t know how to make gunpowder … perhaps because i’m not a raving psycho and an avid reader of The Anarchist’s Cookbook, or perhaps because i dropped chemistry in the ninth grade. But an earlier discussion of gunpowder, or some kind of ingredients list buried elsewhere in the game, is the subtle difference between the game being smart, and me being “smart”.

Dumb Guy

i is samrt now?

Don’t Make Me Read Your Mind

If you’re married, you might hear this type of thing once or twice every fifteen seconds: “There are lots of things i need you to do to help me today.” Husband is then, naturally, supposed to psychically know what those things are. And if he doesn’t know, he asks, and then gets yelled at for not knowing.

A much more effective way to go about this, wives, is to simply say “i’d like you to take out the garbage, clean the bathroom, and take the kids to the park.” That’s how we avoid screaming at each other when we’re 70 and can’t take it any more.

Old Couple

If i’m going to make it to 90, i’ll need either a mind control helmet or a vial of arsenic

Similarly, Morningstar requires the player to be psychic from time to time. Late in the game, there’s a cargo crate buried in the sand that the player is told he needs to pry open. The other inventory items he’s used specifically to pry things open earlier in the game don’t work. They’re only for prying when the game says they’re for prying. Instead, the player is expected to guess that he is to combine two of his inventory items to make a crowbar. The game does not drop any hints about this whatsoever – not even when you radio the Captain for help.

The two items the player needs to combine are a metal pipe and a Buddha statue. The description of the Buddha statue says something like “i could really knock someone unconscious with this thing”, leading the player to believe – oh wonder of wonders – that he will need to use the statuette on some other character. And until this point, the game has been setting up some sort of unknown enemy. It’s not too much of a jump to think that maybe one of these characters shows up and you have to use the Buddha statue to defend yourself.

What is too much of a jump is to require the character to make a crowbar without telling him to make a crowbar, and giving him two items which, in real life, you couldn’t use to make a crowbar. All the crowbars i’ve ever seen are solid pieces of metal with curved ends that taper to a point with a fork at the end. How i would ever hammer a pipe into this kind of tool – let alone with a Buddha statue – is beyond my comprehension.

The savvy adventurer, then, solves this impasse by using every item in his inventory on every other item in his inventory. Note: if your game ever makes the player do this, you earn a fail star.

Jay Is Gushing

On my quest for a Morningstar walk-through (i somehow missed the “walk-through” button in the game interface – duh), i came across the Jay Is Games review. The optimism and enthusiasm on the Jay Is Games site is wonderful, but i often feel that the reviewers are being too kind. Morningstar garnered a 4.8/5, with the reviewer saying “In all respects, Morningstar is a remarkable game.” In “all” respects? Really? In graphics (for 1991), sure … but in puzzle design? Grain of salt: this is also the site that gave the game a content rating of ” :S ” (??)

One of our readers, Rasmus Wreidt Larsen, suggested i buy Windowsill, a game by Vectorpark. Windowsill is one of the pilot projects that incorporates Flash microtransactions. i’ve always admired the stuff Vectorpark has done for its artistic merit, and i’m blown away by the interactive toys they imagine. But as a game?

Windowsill by Vectorpark

Let the hurting begin.

Windowsill (or as much as i saw of it, anyway), has you travelling through a series of rooms. Each room has a different impressively-animated doodad that you must interact with to open the door. Due to the non-literate style of the game, Windowsill can’t really give you any clues as to what you should be doing, so it’s anyone’s guess. i got stuck very early on in a room with a noisy bird. After trying for about ten minutes to leave the room, i just gave up. Now that i have two children and very little time to play games, my precious ten minutes are better spent on a title i know i’ll enjoy, instead of on frustrating experimentation.

But of course, buzz about Windowsill is very positive. It’s a “good game” … for Flash. It managed to hurdle that ankle-high quality bar.

Slam Not, Lest Ye Be Slammed

i’m not trying to dump on anyone here. i’m just looking very keenly at the Flash game scene and wondering out loud whether or not the kid’s gonna make it out there. Free is free, but once you start charging for stuff, even if it’s only a few bucks, expectations are raised. There are many, many 99 cent games on the iPhone that blow most Flash games out of the water. Can Flash keep up? Can Flash compete?

It’s not that commercial graphic adventure games don’t suffer the same problems as Flash adventure games. But if you were to honestly rank the very best of Flash, you might wind up somewhere among the very worst of commercial games. i think there’s a lot that developers can do to raise the quality bar on their games to move the industry into a far better position to charge money, and i’ll be detailing some of those techniques in an upcoming series.

The series will be mediocre, with lacklustre, meandering writing and pictures that don’t make immediate sense. But please rate each post 5/5 anyway. It’ll be good (for a blog).

24 thoughts on “Good (for Flash)

  1. Michael

    I have to agree with you — everything you’ve listed there is bad (adventure) game design. But the way the free-to-play Flash gaming industry works, that is encouraged, perhaps even necessary.

    Morningstar was sponsored by BubbleBox.com, so they paid Red Herring Studios several hundred (or thousand) dollars to put their logo in the game. It’s on the preloader, it pops up before the game starts, it’s on the pause menu, and it’s probably on the game over screen.

    That’s great for branding, but what BubbleBox really want is for players to head over to their portal, play the other games they’ve got, and click some banner ads. So the “more games” button links to BubbleBox.com. But if you’re playing the game on, say, Kongregate (or GambrinousGames), you’ve already got a huge selection of other games to choose from. So guess what other button links you through to BubbleBox.com? Yup, “walkthrough”.

    Lars from King.com explained this in a FGL chat event a while ago. Sponsors love puzzle games because players get stuck, and when they get stuck they have to check out a walkthrough on the sponsor’s site. That’s why there are so many of those “get the ball into the bucket” physics games out there, and why they’re all so quick to suggest that you should get a hint if you make any mistakes.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      MJW – Dastardly! It sounds like the modern-day equivalent of making games impossible so that you can sell a cheat book.

      Uh … time for me to write an adventure game?

      – Ryan

      Reply
  2. TJ

    Funny, I actually just got done playing Morningstar before seeing this…

    I agree that Morningstar, like every other adventure game in existence (that I’ve played anyways), gets a little frustrating at points. I also agree that the graphics are like looking back into 1991 in the respect that there aren’t any fancy 3d graphics or particle effects or any of that. However, I actually loved the visual style of the game, and wish more games would ditch the shiny new technology, and actually make something that has some character.

    I think the reason “good” flash games don’t compare to commercial games is that they don’t have the budget commercial games do. Flash games are FREE, which means little money is made to fund the next game. Commercial companies, who make millions(?) off of their games, can afford to put the extra time and money into producing more content. The tradeoff is that flash games are FREE, while commercial games in retail stores (even the bargain-bin) cost from $20 up to $60 for many AAA titles.

    You also seem to carry the belief that flash games don’t have as solid gameplay as commercial games, which I disagree with. I think the problem is that since flash games are so easy to make, that there are many people who make them just to show, and do a crappy job, and the internet becomes flooded with these POS games, and that’s what people tend to start thinking of when they hear the words “flash game”. I think the good, quality flash games, which actually have some time and thought put into them, have great gameplay.

    To sum up: You get what you pay for. Flash games provide the most entertainment per $ spent, and (IMO) the most entertainment per minute spent playing, which is all that should matter.

    P.S. If you want an example of a flash puzzle game with some good gameplay and good puzzle design, check out Guardian Rock:
    http://www.torpedolab.com/games/guardian-rock/index.html
    While it may not have the same amount of content as many commercial games in terms of play time (although you can pay for two extra level packs), it is much more enjoyable to play IMO.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Thanks for your thoughts, TJ. It seems a bit of a vicious circle: Flash developers can’t create bigger-budget games because they don’t have the budgets … in order to get bigger budgets, they need to charge for their games … nobody will pay until their games are up to snuff. It takes money to make money, i suppose. The companies sinking cash into iPhone games with higher production values are doing well. There are always Hasbro and EA games in the Top 25.

      Stick around … this week, i’ll post an article on our strategy to market our game Kahoots, which we have sunk significant dollars into.

      – Ryan

      Reply
  3. cavalcadegames

    Sometimes the fact that you are playing a Flash game, we, as player, determines beforehand the level of mental activity we are gonna use for that game. Which is almost nil. 90% of flash you can complete with just thinking shallowly. Go past that level of mental activity and i react negatively. I caught myself doing that with Richard’s (photonstorm) BugBox and some other flash games. It was easy enough, I just didn’t commit enough brain cells to it. That didn’t happen with Windowsill as I was already familiar with other VectorPark’s puzzle which to me are designed uniquely (animations and behaviors are the thin layer that guides you instead of words and items). Windowsill, hit the sweet spot for me and stands as one of the finest example of puzzle games, flash or non-flash. (others are samorost and the Grow series).

    I haven’t tried Morningstar but I happen to have a low opinion of jayisgames (as critics) and they are heavily biased for (any) adventure games. it seems to be that morningstar has a lot of fatal mistakes when designing adventure games. But I think you are prematurely demanding top notch entertainment from flash games. Come back next year when microtransactions have made investing more in flash game development – a sane proposition.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Cavalcadegames – ugh! i can’t share your enthusiasm for the samorost and Grow series. THey both LOOK great, but i guess i’m just not a huge fan of trial-and-error gameplay. There are a few single-screen stickman games online that are in the same vein … you have to lower bridges and fire cannons and open doors with precision timing, or else your stickman dies and you have to start again. They’re just not my idea of a good time.

      i agree that i’m probaby asking too much of the Flash game devs at this point. i have my fingers crossed (like you?) that microtransactions will turn this ship around.

      – Ryan

      Reply
  4. Colm

    Jesus, someone actually _reads_ those mini reviews I write for gambrinousgames? Fame .. at last! Ahem.

    I have to agree about general quality of flash games: when I said ‘astounding graphics’ I really did mean ‘for a flash game’ afterwards (what? my inner monologue doesn’t automatically type itself out? drat!). But I do believe that the quality bar for flash games is going to go way, waaay up in the next few years as the ‘how do we charge people?’ thing starts getting solved. (the bar is already about 100x higher than it was 5 years ago). I mean look at iPhone games; the $1-per-game problem doesn’t exactly make it easy to be a succesful iPhone game developer but the quality levels there really do deserve the accolade ‘astounding’.

    Reply
  5. Colm

    Also: that buddha statue / crowbar thing truly was retarded. I take it you didn’t go right through to the very end? There’s a bit more stupidity with crazy alien runes that made me go to a walkthrough again.

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Colm – no, i stuck around until the end. i didn’t mention the alien runes because GAH! That bit was awful. i read one walkthrough that just showed which codes to punch in, and i thought “no, dammit! i want to know if there’s any semblance of logic behind this puzzle whatsoever.” As it turns out, there’s the semblance of logic, but that’s as much as i’d give it.

      i have read somewhere that Riven: The Sequel to MYST does something similar by requiring you to learn an alien numbering system. Is that what they were trying to do? Is it at least done better in Riven?

      It sounds like you and Cavalcadegames agree that next year we’ll be treated to an influx of great Flash games. i’ve got my fingers crossed along with you both – and i hope that at least a few of those high-quality games have my name on them! :)

      – Ryan

      Reply
    1. Ryan

      MJW – Oh MAN. The Dizzy games were tortuous for me when i was a kid. i really liked the graphics, and i loved the idea of matching the item to the situation or character. There was a Winnie the Pooh graphic adventure game that had you schlepping across the 100 Acre Wood picking up objects and matching them to the correct characters, which i adored. But Dizzy? Damn. Throw in a few thousand spiders, punishing mine cart sections, killer frogs … were those games for kids, or were they meant to train stock car drivers in the split-second life or death decision-making they’d have to perform on the race track?

      – Ryan

      Reply
  6. cavalcadegames

    IMHO, they are really great games but maybe my frame of mind when i play these game are the key difference between me and you. I didn’t treat them as the same vein as Monkey Island type of adventures. I play them like i am inside the world they are in. I first observe the (wonderful) new place and explore it, play with it. In short, I am not after the destination, im in it for the journey.

    Design notes I have observed across these 3 excellent games are 1. make the world very interesting (visual and aural) 2. make ‘failure’ delightful 3. make sure that retrying is at most easiest.

    I am a fan of Monkey island, Broken sword, Grim Fandango so I do know the difference between them and i have tried lots of awful games both story based adventure and world-based adventure too. But if you are convinced enough that it wasnt just the wrong approach that made you hate them critical darlings then lets chalk it up to you being a non-fan. :)

    Reply
  7. David Williams

    I just wish to state that even my partner heard the cussing about Morningstar when I needed to make the crowbar – You want me to do what with what? – up until then I was doing great with the game, and really enjoying myself (as much as one does when playing a Flash game)

    Reply
  8. Marcus

    Look at where flash games were 10 years ago. Look at where they were 5 years ago. Look at where they are now. Saying flash games aren’t good enough, without acknowledging how far the industry has come in the past 10 years, is doubtlessly missing some kind of point.

    Also, why even bother judging Morningstar by its graphics? It obviously has a good style that works well for it, and it’s more like 1996 if you’re talking about the equivalents in console games. But if you want to talk about equivalents in arcade games, Dragon’s Lair looked like a Disney feature in 1983, but what does that really tell us?

    Reply
  9. willva animations

    Your talking flash down a bit lol, considering that most of the content is created by 13yo kids.. flash games are also a completly different style to any 3d game. If you can find a style that would work with flash.. you would succeed.

    http://amanita-design.net/samorost-1 is one example created by Amanita design. they also created samorost2 and machinarium which is new. http://vimeo.com/3082659

    =) if you have time and money, flash can do some amazing things.. its the time and money the industry lacks, so yes it’s going to be intresting to see how ad powered games and payed games compete =) thanx for the posts =) really enjoying them

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      Thanks, willva. Best believe that i’m SUPER excited about Machinarium. i saw it this year at GDC and popped, like, fifteen boners.

      – Ryan

      Reply
  10. Michael

    Ryan: hahaha so true. It wouldn’t be so bad apart from three things:

    – only three lives
    – no save games
    – have to collect 30 coins/diamonds/whatever to get the *real* ending

    The infinite lives cheats for Magicland Dizzy and Fantasy World Dizzy are permanently burned into my brain :)

    Reply
    1. Ryan

      MJW – Ditto Heimdall, if you ever played that game. It was so beautifully drawn, but so impossible. Happiest day of my life was when my brainiac friend showed me how to use a hex editor to modify the game code and give my character unlimited lives.

      – Ryan

      Reply
  11. Rasmus Wriedt Larsen

    Well I probably saw windosill more as a toy as well, but I was really impressed of the graphics and the interactivity of their world. So I played it with a big smile on my face all the time. I will agree with you on morningstar, I did play it and at some point in the middle (just after you make that bomb) then I just didn’t care for it no more. The things you had to do just made no sense. But it’s still one of the better click-adventure flash games I’ve seen, and as you say it way better than anything else out there (in the flash world). I sure have my fingers crossed that the microtransactions will make the games become better. In my point of view, there is loads of crap and more comming all the time, but there are some nice free games as well out there..

    Reply
  12. Michael

    Ryan: Never even heard of Heimdall. Perhaps ridiculously hard difficulty was just a staple of the Amiga days. I got stuck on the first wall of Zool for, like, a *month*.

    Reply
  13. Terry

    The glyphs were fine, it was just the enter xxx13 to shut off and xxx12 to turn on that was bogus. The only way I saw you could figure that out was via trial and error, which defeats the purpose of a logic puzzle.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to combine myself with a small buddha. I will then form Voltron, and blast the crap out of Morningstar’s developers.

    Reply

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