10 March, 2011

Demo Impressions: Guns of Icarus

written by Blain Newport on Thursday, 10 March, 2011

Guns of Icarus is a 3D browser game about defending a zeppelin from air pirates.

You run around on a ship with plane engines on the back, held aloft by a zeppelin. Then planes attack and you have to run around to different gun emplacements to shoot them down while also repairing your airship's components. If you fail to keep your zeppelin or rigging intact, you die. If you fail to keep your engines intact, you stop moving, which means you can't escape your pirate attackers. If you fail to keep your cargo hold repaired, you won't be able to get upgrades for completing the segment.

The game looks nice. There aren't enough steampunk games, in my opinion, so I appreciate the setting. Even though there wasn't anyone using it for me to test, the game has a multiplayer mode, which I suspect would be chaotic fun.

There are definitely areas to improve upon, though. And as an exercise in game design I thought I'd list them along with proposed solutions. (If that doesn't interest you, just look at the pretty picture and move on.)

The preceding picture demonstrates a source of confusion for me, the gunnery feedback mechanism. I don't appear to be hitting the plane, but the little red X keeps popping up with every shot which makes me thing that maybe I am. But sometimes planes die very quickly, and sometimes they die very slowly, which leads me to believe the red X doesn't mean much.

Suggestions: If the red X means the attack caused damage, perhaps it could also indicate amount. I think the easiest way would be through transparency. If the X just barely shows on a weak hit, and only becomes fully opaque on a strong one, that would help. Also, an "out of range" icon when looking at distant targets with the Gatling gun would have helped me better understand its limitations.

Introducing Game Mechanics
The game introduces new mechanics as they happen. The first time you use a gun, the game pauses and you see its stats. When a component is damaged, you get information on what it does and why it's important to keep it in good repair. In a complicated game this is a great way of keeping players from being overwhelmed. They only get the information when they need it. But in Icarus it consistently felt like I got the information after I needed it.

Plus, it would often pop up while I was in the middle of a heated combat, so I'd often click through to get back to what I was doing, which meant I never learned the finer points of the game. Should I prioritize repairing the engines because I'll be attacked forever until I get to my destination, or is that the worst possible thing to do because new waves of enemies will be spawned by my forward progress? I HAVE NO IDEA, AND PLANES ARE ATTACKING ME, AND EVERYTHING IS ON FIRE!

Suggestions: I'd try introducing any new parts that can be damaged before play starts. That let's the player know to anticipate trouble with them, give due consideration to protecting them, and take a few seconds before the attackers appear to get an idea where they are. Otherwise they have to deal with being under attack, learning the function of a new component of the ship, being told that component is on fire, and having to go find that component all at the same time.

It would also be nice to be able to get information on upgrades from the upgrade screen. How do I know if I want a super Gatling, super cannon, or Tesla gun if I don't know what they do?

Other Feedback Mechanisms
First off, I very much liked that the HUD for the game features old fashioned analog displays. They definitely add character. But they weren't always easy to read.

Suggestions: The distance to destination display seemed like a thing I should be checking a lot, but it was always a blur when I glanced down at it.

I'm probably just old, but a large print version might be nice. They seemed pretty small at 1920x1080. Also, the first three digits are really the important ones, so if could you set them apart somehow, maybe by making them black on white, that could help a lot.

Again, I like the design of old fashioned indicators, but I got confused trying to remember which was which in the heat of battle (especially when repair icons were on top of them, like in the picture). Adding a small empty space on either side of the cargo bay gauge, so that the gauges were grouped by ship location, might be enough. It might also help to swap the zeppelin and rigging gauges with the engine gauges (at least for people who are used to reading left to right, top to bottom).

And finally, it could add a lot to the feel of the game if there were damage related sound cues. I remember listening to enemy shots hitting my airship and thinking it would be helpful if I knew which part they were hitting. I imagined little *pop whoosh*es when they hit the zeppelin, rope snapping sounds when they hit the rigging, metal pings for the engines and wooden *thuck thuck* sounds as the cargo bay takes hits. That might be too much effort, and it might be a confusing cacophony when under heavy attack, but it seemed like a good idea in my head.

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