Sunday, February 13, 2011

Oregon Trail: Good Idea, Poor Execution

One of the most common things I see in game design, is a very good idea executed poorly. I'm sure you've read the description of a game, or seen the box, or even just heard the title and been very excited about it, only to find that playing the game was a huge disappointment. Most experienced game designers have learned that good game ideas are a dime a dozen, and it's quality execution of that idea that makes a great, successful game. By execution I mean several things, including the art, programming, and most of all the finer details of the game's design and mechanics.

When I heard a few weeks ago that Oregon Trail was getting a Facebook game I laughed first, because hey, it's a classic from my childhood. My next thought was that it could be a really good idea. The core concept of the game should work well on Facebook - you travel for a long period of time, punctuated with interesting decision points along the way. I also hoped some fun minigames could be brought in to liven up part of the original game that couldn't be as fancy back in 1981 (the Apple II version).

When I started the Facebook game I was excited that it might be very good. Right off you can choose an occupation to set out on the trail with. They're all locked aside from Settler, but I could see that some are sold for paid currency, while others are unlocked when you level up. Each occupation has an advantage it gives you on the trail, and they're simple and easily understood. The choice of role will lead to strategy and personalization of your play experience. Also it helps solve the re-playability problem. You don't want your players to quit after one time through, so you have to make replaying more attractive. Each occupation equates to at least one more play through of the game with something new for the player to try out. Having all but one locked is also good design, making it simple for the player the first time, not asking them to make a decision when they don't have any way of knowing which strategy they would want to take (because they have not played the game yet). It also gives me something to look forward to when I level up.

Next up is the general store, just like preparing for the trip in the old game. You can spend money on different cart wheels, cart covering, food, medicine, weapons, clothing, and oxen (the best of which are aurochs!). The game is still in beta (short for "released before it was done because of pressure from executives who don't care about quality and want to tell their bosses that things are on schedule even though they clearly are not"), so some of the items have the same description as others (so I don't know why I would pay more for them). I had hopes that the next time through I would start with a lot more money and be able to more easily finish the trail (and with a higher score).

After buying supplies you choose you set up your family. You have 5 people, and you can set their pictures to any of 6 or 7 choices that offer good variety. Then you set a friend to each role (doesn't seem to matter, but it's always amusing to fill in your characters with friend's names). Finally it's time to set off and you get to choose what month to leave. I was pleasantly surprised to see this choice here at all. It lets you set the difficulty in exchange for bigger scores.

And we're off! There's a great animation of your wagon riding along. You have 3 main resources to deal with: energy, food, and stamina, as well as two less-transparent ones: wagon status and family health. Food and stamina go down as you travel... I can't figure out why stamina exists, and I feel like it should have been cut from the design. Stamina and energy return over time - stamina only while your wagon is stopped. Energy is used to play minigames. Your choices are search, repair, and hunt. As in the original game, hunting earns you more food, repair recovers wagon status, and search gets you a random consumable item. I've gotten beads (nearly worthless) and eggs (worth more food than hunting). This is all pretty good, though search isn't a game at all (you do nothing), and hunting is very lame. Repair is a copy of a Puzzle Pirates minigame.

After hunting you see a summary screen:

Big word telling me I did "Great" - that's cool. A big 55 lbs of meat, also good. The important info is loud and clear. What's up with the Kill Rate stat? 0.18? I hit 11/12 shots, killing 11 squirrels (yeah, squirrels). That's a 0.91 hit rate. What kind of math are they doing to get 0.18? This isn't really poor execution, just sloppiness. What's that "epic prey killed" stat? That sounds pretty cool. I went hunting several more times of course, and eventually I killed some bears and buffalo.

I collected 4 times as much meat, but only a "Good" rating? what gives? Oh maybe it's that indecipherable kill rate - I'm down to 0.07. My score is higher though. Also, still no epic prey killed. There must be some more secret or rare creatures to kill. The bad thing here, is that I collected 210 lbs or meat, but can only carry 200. There has been no information so far about how I could carry all 210.

As you're walking along, you might spot some gold in the back ground.

This is nice, as the bonus is small so you could ignore it if you wanted to, but if you want to watch it like a hawk it gives you something to do. There are also some traveling merchants you can pass... too bad I don't have any money to spend, and don't have enough inventory slots to hold anything else. More slots unlock as I level, so maybe next time through these merchants will be meaningful.

Oh no! One of my people was bitten by a snake! This brings up the first two big problems with this game. First, hitting an event like this stops my travel. I would have thought I could go afk or close the window and my party would keep traveling. I would have made traveling the thing that takes a lot of time, asking the player to come back in an hour when they get to the next location (town or decision point) in the game. The bigger problem, is that now one of my people is poisoned. Well, I bought some anitidoes, so I can cure them right away.

Five seconds later...

Another snake bite! This is soon followed by two sicknesses and yet another snake bite. Now four of my people are losing health. The bites and illness come so often that there's no point in curing them. In fact you immediately feel that the antidotes and medicine are total rip-off items that you should clearly never buy. I should also tell you, when you get bitten or sick, you have 3 choices. Pay money (real money) to fix it, ignore it, and wait and see if it gets better. Hint: it never gets better if you wait. They are clearly just trying to milk me for real money, and there's no way I'm going to pay them every 30 seconds to cure my people of repeating bites and illnesses. So my people are losing health. So far, I have not seen any effect this has. Seems like the health system is not yet implemented in the game. Maybe they'll die suddenly, wouldn't that be fun? Look, I remember dysentery being a bit problem in the original game, but this implementation is moronic. I shouldn't feel that my people are doomed to constant health problems no matter what I do.

I passed through a couple of towns, where I couldn't really afford anything beyond more food (which I was desperate for, of course). There are saloons in these towns, but the people inside don't say anything interesting. I would guess they intend to add quests here. Good idea, no execution?

I was warned there was no water, and I chose to perform a rain dance to get some (or, of course, pay money). As with waiting for sickness...

I failed. No explanation of how I could increase my chances, or even what my chances were in the first place. With so little information and feedback I feel cheated instead of challenged. When this came up again I tried going back to find an alternate route. This costs days (I surmise that if winter comes you get crushed) but I did find water. If the chance for success in the rain dance was more clear to me, I could see this choice being interesting. (I have tried 4 more times, and not yet once succeeded in the rain dance.)

Speaking of choices, I had to ford a river, or float across it. They tell me the depth of the river, and also warn that if I try to ford a river that is too deep, I'll fail. What they don't tell me is how deep is too deep. So I guess. First time I make a 2-foot river, second time I fail a 4-foot river. I guess 4 is too much? This choice will become boring very quickly. In fact, it's already boring. I know that 4 feet is too much, so it's not interesting at all. I would guess there might be % chances to succeed at each depth, but that doesn't show through very well. The player doesn't have any way to make this decision intelligently when they first come across it.

Then I came to a more robust river-crossing minigame. You steer your floating wagon across the river (the flow of this river makes no sense at all, don't think about it) avoiding rocks and collecting coins. There are turbo pads that increase your speed so much that you can't help but crash, so instead of wanting to get a speed boost you have to avoid them. It's like they didn't actually play this after programming it. It's good that they intended to have variety in the types of things you encounter on the trail. Good idea, bad execution.

I have run out of food. I used all my energy hunting for food, and that has run out too. The three times my food suddenly spoiled (forcing me to throw away a lot of food) didn't help. What a fun idea! For no reason at all, let's make the player's food spoil, just to screw them! I mean, the constant snake bites and sickness aren't enough, right?

This game could have been a lot of fun, and they did do many things well. Several glaring mistakes in execution create frustrating or tiresome situations that prevent me from wanting to play it any further.