Pocket Legends

Pocket Legends’ main menu. Just like WoW with 2% of the polygons.

Over the weekend my wife and I spent a few hours playing Pocket Legends (Spacetime Studios) together. Pocket Legends is an [M]MO[RP]G for the iPad and iPhone. The “M” for massive is “bracketed” because it’s more like Guild Wars (et al) than EverQuest (et al) in that the multi-player aspect comprises “town” or instanced dungeons, where a player hosts the instance. The “RP” for “role-playing” is bracketed because there’s really no role-playing component to the game at al — no back story, no character customization, no quests. Even so, the basic framework of the game fantasy MMORPG.

Characters

You can play one of three characters types: warrior (“Ursan” melee specialist), archer (“Avian” ranged or melee dps), or enchantress (“Elven” ranged dps and healing). My wife and I are playing enchantress and warrior (respectively) so we don’t know a huge amount about archers aside from seeing them in PUGs. To our eyes, they don’t seem to be a well-thought out class. (I started out playing an archer — I loved playing a hunter in World of Warcraft — and did not like it one bit).

As they progress in level, the player can assign a character’s attribute points (five points per level, allocated among Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence) and purchase and improve skills (you get access to a new skill every other level, and one point to spend buying a new skill or improving an existing one). Thus far there’s not much variety in skills — in many cases you’ll pick similar skills just to get different cooldown timers; and the only way to reassign skill points is to pay for a respec (currently $0.99), which is pretty annoying since skills can prove to be quite useless, and you can only have four available at a given time.

Your inventory: helmet, weapon, clothes, shield.

Characters also have four item slots: helmet, weapon, armor, and shield. Loot is allocated by some arcane semi-random process and no inter-character transactions are currently possible (although this is promised in 1.1 which is under review in the app store as I write this). Items come in varying grades: from white (ordinary), through orange, green, and purple, to pink (epic).

The loot tables are fairly thoroughly broken — we’ve gotten quite a few purple and pink level 28-30 drops while playing level 12-15 characters, and on top of that you have no control over who gets what, so you’ll often see something you desperately want randomly assigned to your partner, who can’t use it and can’t give it to you. (For now.) Also, right now there’s no special benefit for killing bosses. Loot drops appear to be utterly random.

Gameplay

The gameplay in Legends is very simple. If you touch and drag you orbit the camera around your character. Pinching (sometimes) zooms the view in and out. Everything except the walk-and-kill game is menus *.

Note: * Spacetime’s website says that their game engine uses Scaleform gfx, which is a library that lets you author UIs in Flash and then performs the necessary rendering using a custom engine — which seems to me to be about as massive a violation of 3.3.1 as might exist; it’s also entertaining since Scaleform has plainly implemented a highly efficient, cross-platform, hardware-accelerated Flash-rendering engine — a feat that has escaped Adobe and Macromedia before it. I suspect that they aren’t using Scaleform on the iPad/iPhone, however.

Further note: as of the 1.1 patch shopping now requires you to visit town and touch NPCs to visit certain shops. It’s not much, but it’s something. (And it also means you can’t buy new gear while in the middle of a dungeon, although you can still top up your potions.)

Pocket Legends offers a map, which is basic but can be useful

To move you tap a destination. (A glass joystick is an option; one I switched off after about 30s. The fact I tried it says something about how solid the tap-to-move UI is right now.)

To attack the nearest enemy you touch an on-screen button, and (by default) you run into range and auto-attack until dead. While auto-attack is on your toon will try to keep an enemy in range — this can become quite treacherous because a lot of enemies with ranged weapons are quite smart about backing out of melee range, which can get warriors into deep doodoo.

To attack a specific enemy you touch it which, when it works (about 33% of the time) targets the enemy (which is indicated graphically), and the use the auto-attack button or an offensive power.

To use a power (you can have up to four available) you tap its on-screen button. Frustratingly, using an offensive power on an enemy does not, right now, switch on auto-attack.

When you die (and you will die), you can respawn at the entrance of the current dungeon (and so far no dungeons have been terribly large) or, if an enchantress is near your body you can be revived.

In practice, a warrior will simply charge into a group of enemies and beat them to death using a combination of straight melee attacks and a point-blank AoE power that knocks back enemies and has a chance to stun. Enchantresses will use a combination of single target and AoE spells, some of which snare, some knock back, and so on. Warriors can AoE “taunt” and do a pretty good job of “holding aggro”. Players can spam health and mana potions to restore their own pools. Archers can shoot enemies of comparable level pretty much to death before they can run into melee range (obviously, ranged enemies will get a few hits in).

One very nice feature of the game is that different characters’ abilities can create combos. E.g. if the enchantress snares a bunch of enemies with her AoE frost spell and then the warrior uses his stomp in the same area (AoE damage, pushback, and chance of stun) affected enemies are “shattered” (i.e. take lots of damage), which is fun and gratifying.

From what I can tell, when it first came out, archers were extremely overpowered (in particular, they were very strong in melee) and warriors were complete gimps (hmm, sounds a lot like World of Warcraft). As far as my wife and I can tell right now, warrior and enchantress is a very solid combination; we suspect archers are the best soloing class.

What’s Missing?

Almost everything: quests, non-dungeon areas, back-story, variety, customization, etc. — but nothing that can’t easily be added later.

As of the 1.1 Patch, going to town now actually serves a purpose. Instead of being able to do all your shopping from the game menu, you now need to visit vendors in town to buy most things (and access your stash).

In essence, Legends is a game skeleton. It obviously has a huge amount of potential, but right now it’s a very basic Diablo clone (albeit with auto-attack, thank goodness). The content is incredibly repetitive (e.g. I think we’ve seen a total of seven kinds of monster and two kinds of terrain having bought two content packs) and, for what you get, not especially cheap ($1.99 for dungeon packs spanning five levels, which amount to perhaps two hours of gameplay, $0.99 for individual spiffy items like swords and breastplates, $1.99 for item “sets”, and $0.99 for miscellaneous things such as respecs, which are virtually compulsory given the way the skill system works).

That said, what’s there works pretty well and looks pretty good. Yes, variety and depth are lacking, but the same can be said for the $60, rave-reviewed X-Box 360 game Borderlands (which I’ve played quite a bit). As Yahtzee puts it — “shooting the same four or five guys in the face fifty thousands times”.

Business Model

It’s fairly clear once you download the free base game that Spacetime’s business model is “let’s try charging for absolutely everything and see what sticks”. Judging from their forums, what people want is more content, and what they’re willing to pay for is more content. Aside from content, the only thing we’ve bought is a new robe for my wife’s enchantress so she doesn’t look (exactly) like every other enchantress. I’d say the results there are mixed.

Playing the game is free, except that content beyond level 10 costs $1.99 per five levels worth*. (And, as far as we can tell, you’ll have to repeat that content quite a bit to advance five levels.) Playing as a duo, we’re able to handle content three-to-five levels tougher than par. Because this is the iPhone/iPad world, you only need to buy content once per account, which means we’ve paid $5 (roughly) for two expansion packs and a robe, and both of us can access the expansion packs. When you consider that World of Warcraft costs two people $30/month just in subscription fees, it’s quite a bargain.

Note: * it’s now “10 plat” where 5 plat costs $0.99, but buying more gets you increasing discounts, up to 800 plat for $49.99. Similarly, content is now available in discounted bundles.

Cruft

So, which of the following do you think affords you more screen real estate for word-processing “out of the box”: Word 2011, Pages, or Pages for iPad? (Note: the Mac screenshots are from a 1440 x 900 Macbook Pro 15″ display.)

Word 2011 (thanks to Boy Genius Report for original screen shot)
Pages 08 (09 is identical)
Pages 08 (09 is identical)
Pages on the iPad
Pages for iPad

I think these pictures pretty much speak for themselves (the bottom figures on the iPad screenshot are for using the iPad with an external keyboard, but since it’s already ahead that’s just rubbing salt in wounds). Here’s the real Hallelujah moment, though:

Pages on the iPad isn’t even hurting for room on its toolbar!

What’s more, it’s easy to see how even this very minimalist UI could be simplified. All you really need is to move the “tab” button to the keyboard (where it belongs) and eliminate everything except paragraph and character style selectors. (The ruler can be eliminated too — except when editing tables.)

Touching the Future

I’ve been seeing a few ads for HP’s Touchsmart PCs (and I see the PCs themselves in Costco all the time). I’m embedding an old ad, which is actually quite pretty (and pretty pointless) but you’ll get the point, I think.

Naturally, both this and the current ads are in marked contrast to Apple’s iPhone and iPad apps. The most obvious difference, for me — and the same applies to the notorious video editing scene in Minority Report — is that the computer user is standing up, whereas the iPad user is sitting down (and we don’t know what the iPhone/iPod Touch user is doing since they’re a disembodied hand). While I might like to fantasize about being Arturo Toscanini, the fact is when I’m doing serious work I prefer to sit. Even were I a user of standing desks (my boss is such a person), I would not want to have to perform wild gestures simply to do a little scrolling.

Another obvious difference is that Apple’s ads, however fast-paced, almost always make sense. You can tell what the user is doing and how they’re doing it. HP’s ads, like most Windows ads, simply feature lots of fast cuts with no clue as to what the heck is being accomplished, why, or how. Still, perhaps the message is:

A confused customer is a Windows customer.

The bad guy’s desk from (the original) Tron is actually a far more convincing interface than pretty much any of these “concepts”, precisely because it’s based on analogs of real-world designs that actually work. Yes, it’s stupid to build a calculator GUI that just looks like a calculator, but it’s even stupider to build a rocket science interface that works much worse than an ordinary calculator. (This is where I tried and failed to find a picture of the VR library UI from Disclosure to insert — along with Jurassic Park‘s “I know UNIX” scene, perhaps the biggest UI howler in Hollywood history.)

One question I’ve been asking myself lately is whether the mouse/trackpad is going to disappear, or how it might be replaced. Even modestly quick typists do not look at the keyboard as they type, but at the words they are typing. Over a hundred years of typewriter evolution never led to the idea that superimposing the user interface on the output was a Good Idea. Indeed, even for the most direct interaction with media (e.g. drawing and painting) physicality is often as much an inconvenience as a benefit (e.g. when painting on large canvases, artists will often use a long piece of wood (held with their off hand) to use as a wrist-rest to avoid inadvertently smearing paint with their wrists or elbow; similarly when drawing with pencils, smearing lead with one’s hand is a constant risk, and keeping one’s hand entirely off the paper is very tiring.

Geoff Hans’s by now famous multitouch demos show enormous potential for the glass touchscreen to operate as some kind of musical or artistic instrument, but that’s not the same thing as being a general purpose pointing device. A mouse is a lousy tool for playing a piano, but it’s unsurpassed for manipulating text selections and bezier handles.

It seems to me that overuse of direct-manipulation interfaces (move the window itself, not a mouse that controls a cursor) and touch-based interfaces in particular (where there is no perfect mechanism for differentiating between intentional touches (“your brush”) and unintentional (“your elbow”)) affords us a golden opportunity to reap almost all the negative aspects of physicality while not capturing many of the benefits (your tablet stylus or finger will never be as excellent an instrument as a graphite pencil, charcoal stick, or sable brush). You will, of course, probably have Undo.

The UI in Minority Report seems at first glance to be ridiculous. And at second glance too. I have no doubt that a far better touch-based UI could be created for such complex tasks than has thus far been envisioned in movies or HP Touchsmart commercials, but I suspect part of it must involve leveraging small gestures — e.g. treating a small part of a giant display as a virtual trackpad — and providing users with virtual points (mouse cursors, in other words).

As I type this post (on my desktop PC), it’s quick, easy, and precise to select text and make edits and corrections. A tiny movement of my hand will move a cursor from one side of my (large) display to the other, and I can indicate something to software merely by moving a cursor over a UI element (versus clicking on it or touching it). The iPad (and iPhone/iPod Touch) have very well-designed interfaces to facilitate performing text selections and caret positioning with a touch, and while it works OK it’s orders of magnitude worse than using a mouse. Yes, I have over twenty-five years of mouse experience, but I was drawing pictures on screen with a mouse a few days after first using one (and with my right hand — I normally write and draw left-handed), and I’ve been touching things all my life. I should also add that despite many years of trackpad experience, I am far less comfortable doing graphical work with a trackpad than a mouse.

You might think that the big problem here is “text selection”. In the future “a contract will only be as good as the tape it’s recorded on” (not sure where that’s from, sorry) or having text automatically transcribed, and the importance of text manipulation will disappear. Even if that’s true, and I strongly suspect it is not, the problem with touch interfaces is far more pervasive and subtle. Even surgeons have trouble keeping a finger rock steady, but most of us have no such problems with a mouse. In part, this is because a mouse’s default state is “rest” — lightly pull your fingers away from a mouse or trackpad and the cursor doesn’t move. Keeping the cursor stable is crucial when trying to perform delicate manipulations, such as rotating objects in 3d, or selecting the edit point in a video, or adjusting the tangent of a curve using a bezier handle. This is an extremely common situation for any computer user, and mice excel at it and fingers and hands utterly suck at it.

It’s possible that with very clever software interpolation we can iron out a lot of these problems, e.g. intelligently set thresholds with drifting “rest points” that allow an unsteady hand to be perceived as being steady, but even if we all were given the hands of surgeons, holding an arm out is work, keeping a mouse steady is not work.

When looking at things, bigger is better. When moving stuff around, small is better. This is why modern bulk carriers (you know: gigantic ocean-going cargo ships) have big windows and monitors on their bridges, but are controlled with small pointing device.

So it seems to me that the future of computer interfaces is — roll drums — the mouse. Direct manipulation gets trying, and your fingers get in the way. Trackpads obviate some problems but remain cruder instruments than mice. I suspect that the stylus will make a huge comeback at such point as touchscreens which also work with pressure-sensitive styluses come back because, let’s face it, great artists don’t finger paint. It’s also possible that the stylus combined with major refinements in direct-manipulation interfaces (including virtual trackpads, pointers, etc.) might win out over mice, but we’re a few years away from that.

Post Script

Last night I was messing around with Animation HD, a cute animation app on the iPad (that happened to be on sale for $0.99. There’s a slider control to set line thickness which I had used to increase the line thickness to make some crude strokes. I wanted to set the thickness back to (exactly) 16 to match my earlier strokes and needed several attempts and a lot of concentration to get it working. Obviously, this is in large part a software issue, but as someone who frequently makes very accurate adjustments with a mouse using equally poorly designed desktop software, it’s a nice example of the problems that need OS-level fixes.

I’ll add some iPad-originated animations to this post once they show up on my YouTube account.

Go Adobe. Go Flash.

I’ve been visiting the Adobe Store quite a bit lately, and it has inspired me to make this video.

Corrections & Notes:

  • I’m using ClickToFlash (for Safari) and not FlashBlock which is the Firefox equivalent.
  • The store is implemented in Flash, much of the rest of Adobe’s site is not.
  • None of this stuff works any better on the 3.06 GHz Core 2 Duo Dell I’m sitting next to (with the exception of mouse scrolling, which is supported by Adobe’s scroll widget).

iPad Development in The Future

Nerves

Judging from Unity’s two corporate blog entries on the whole 3.3.1 thing, I get the feeling that they’re feeling less confident as of Wednesday than they were on Friday (it’s dated Sunday but it was posted on Friday).

The fact that PhoneGap has been given Apple’s stamp of approval is certainly a sign that platform abstraction layers can be OK, but bear in mind that PhoneGap is completely open source and lives on JavaScript…

JavaScript

You may recall that JavaScript is not mentioned in the scariest subclause of 3.3.1 — JavaScript apps run on top of Webkit, and thus don’t need to worry about how they access APIs, don’t represent a portability issue, and don’t represent any additional backwards compatibility burden over the rest of the web.

(By the way, I don’t see how you can reconcile PhoneGap’s approval with the “Apple just wants people to write real iPhone apps” view.)

Virtual Machines & Scripting Languages

But if you’re writing pedal-to-the-metal game software, chances are you’re going to need to compile your code to binary and call the OS APIs from inside it (even if it’s not much more than “hey, gimme a graphics context to vomit OpenGL commands at”). It strikes me that Unity3d could take the approach of opening the source code that interacts with the OS to deal with the first clause.

As to the second, forcing Unity to ditch internal scripting languages and the associated runtime is pretty rough (and it’s going to hurt all serious game developers — I don’t know of any game developers who don’t use some kind of script engine and virtual machine somewhere — Prince of Destruction, released in 1994 (admittedly, it was ahead of its time in many respects) had three internal script languages, one of which ran on our own VM, and it was a truly native Mac game, running on AppleTalk and using Macintalk). Of course, maybe the ban will only affect virtual machines Apple can identify really easily (such as Mono or Flash).

Life Cycle: One Day, You’ll Be Grown Up

Apple’s current restrictions don’t make any sense in the long term (even accepting they make sense right now). Inevitably, the iPad (and its successors) are going to need apps like Excel or Word (both scriptable). I may want to touch my data, but I’m still going to want to automate common operations. Whatever Apple is doing now is part of the lifecycle of its platform — what Apple is doing now while it builds its platform is not necessarily what it will do when the platform is more mature.

It follows that Apple needs to bear in mind the “feelings” of third party developers who are merely doing today something Apple doesn’t want for tactical reasons today but will want in the future. (One might argue that Adobe should have considered the “feelings” of Apple and Mac users when it gave us crappy products for the last ten years, but if you’ve used CS4 under Windows you’ll see that Adobe is fully capable of giving crap products to everyone with no malice intended. Basically, Mac users got a halfway decent UI with a crappy back end, and Windows users got a crappy UI with a crappy back end — but it’s 64-bit. Woo! And it’s not like Flash isn’t a horrible CPU hog and battery drain under Windows, it’s just not quite as terrible as on the Mac.)

So the important message for Apple is that while it needs to worry about building its platform now, it also needs to worry about the number of enemies it creates in the process. Software developers are smart and have long memories.