Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Game Room

New to Xbox Live Arcade this spring is Game Room, a virtual arcade space where you can play retro arcade and console titles and issue game challenges to your friends.

The games in Game Room are pretty faithful recreations of the originals. You can even select different viewing options, including the original arcade feel that replicates the pronounced curves of the CRTs used in the old machines. Unfortunately, the same can't quite be said of the controls. Games that control with a joystick seem to work just fine, but games with special controls aren't quite as good. The arcade console Tempest, for instance, had a knob that allowed for very quick and precise control over your paddle. That control over both speed and precision is just something that doesn't work quite well when translated to pushing a stick left and right. The old Intellivision console had a numeric keypad on its controllers, and so each keypad button that a game uses is mapped to one of the buttons on the controller. While they made their best attempt at grouping like functions on the controller (i.e. Sub Hunt had keys for ¼, ½, ¾, and full speed, which are all mapped to the four cardinal directions of the D-pad), you still have to take some time memorizing the translation before you can play the game effectively.

On the plus side, this app has some serious potential for sucking some money away from me. On the first day alone, I was eager to buy Tempest and Yar's Revenge. The challenges are a great idea, letting you call out or answer a call to play a certain game based on certain rules (e.g., who can last the longest in Tempest, or who can get the highest score with the default settings in Centipede). The "medals" you can earn in each game are kind of a neat idea, too, as they give you something to shoot for outside of simply playing the game, but they're straightforward enough that you don't have to go out of your way to get them (no having to set up a "custom room" with a second controller plugged in to boost).

However, there are more than a couple negatives. For one, the user interface doesn't feel like it was tested for usability. There is a "showcase arcade" where most of the arcade cabinets are already set up, but to enter it, you have to press 'X' on the main menu. Why not just make this a menu option? The first time I entered the showcase arcade, it was from accidentally hitting X, and it took me a bit of time to figure out, first, where I was; second, how to get out; and third, how to get back in if I wanted to. And, whether in the showcase arcade or your own, they opted to preserve a "realistic" arcade feel by having actual arcade cabinets and, almost always, an Avatar playing at each one. It's all well and good, except as you're browsing the arcade, it's difficult to see what machine you're looking at. The game's title in its original font and design isn't always legible when seen on a virtual cabinet on your TV screen, and the Avatars' large heads tend to block most of the game cabinet's screen and even some of the name placard.

A rather glaring UI issue that I find completely annoying (and really fuels my doubt as to whether it was tested for usability) is the Atari 2600 console screen. The Atari 2600 had a series of switches on the console that you used to select difficulty and game types, and to start or reset the game. To access these switches, you press a button on your controller, and a pop-up window with those switches appears on the screen. However, this pop-up window almost completely covers the game screen, so as you're pushing, for instance, the Game Select switch, you can't see the screen to see what game you've selected. You have to keep closing the window to peek. It borders on unusable.

Another issue I'm running into a lot is connectivity. Very frequently, I get a warning message about not being connected to the Game Room server. Fortunately, most of the time, it's recoverable. When ending a ranked game, I'm warned that failure to connect to the server could result in a lost score, but I have the option of hitting 'A' to try again, and it almost always connects on that second try. (Or, if it fails, it doesn't tell me.) When I view my challenges, I frequently see "Challenges are not available", and I have to back out and re-enter the challenges list before the message goes away and the challenge list is active.

Whether this is related to connectivity or not, I don't know; but I have had my medals and level reset once so far. I had already earned six medals (three each in Tempest and Yar's Revenge), and I had ranked up to Level 2 (and earned an achievement for the trouble). But one night, I thought I'd check my profile, and I noticed that my number of medals had somehow dropped to 3 (only three medals that I had in Yar's Revenge as of the night before — which, if I had thought about it, I might have realized it seemed odd that the game seemed to be "re-awarding" me the medals as I was playing Yar's, because it probably was) and my level was back down to Level 1. I worked on and re-acquired my medals in Tempest (which was no easy task, since I'm not nearly as skilled in Tempest as I am in Yar's), and sure enough, the game made a big deal about awarding my medals and showing me level up to Level 2. (No extra achievement points for doing it twice though.)

And, I shouldn't forget that, on that first night, Game Room wouldn't even let me buy any games. I'd press my button, but nothing would happen — no points deducted from my account, no new game for my arcade. It did seem to resolve itself by the next night, but of course that meant I wasn't purchasing my games on "release day", which meant I didn't get the free "mascot" with each arcade game I bought.

And that's when I can even start the application. Fairly randomly, Game Room gets stuck in the "Loading" screen, where the progress bar stops at about ¼ and never moves forward, until I force an exit to the dashboard and try again.

The concept behind Game Room is a good one, good enough for me to fight through the issues to get to the actual games, relive some old memories, and reclaim my title as a Yar's Revenge champion. But the issues are numerous, enough to make a lot of people I know forgo the experience altogether, which is really a shame.

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