I love the fact that high score tables are back in fashion. Only better than they were before. Like, so retro.
When all this were green screens, my friends and I used to compete against each other to see who could get the best scores at home and on arcade machines – not just ever but within a single session and within constraints, like a time limit or playing one-handed. And then, when games could be completed, we’d see who could finish first and then perhaps fastest or with the best score or…
The competition’s compelling and the drama that unfolds through the rivalry is unique (although comparable perhaps to sporting events).
Then you’d get so good at a game and love it so much that you’d want to keep playing it OR you’d be so useless at a game but still want to play it that you and your friends would make up new ways to play, challenging each other to play in unusual ways. “I bet I can score most in a minute without shooting” and “I bet you can’t do that backwards. Or using only your feet. Or your mouth. Or your…”
Microsoft didn’t exactly invent Leaderboards and Achievements but they certainly brought them back in vogue and they enhanced them, mainly by maximising convenience but also by improving feel and drama with the use of points contributing to a shared Gamer Score and very visible lists.
As far as Juggle! is concerned, the four main areas of interest to us were:
- Leaderboards. Official high score tables so you can share and compare your awesome scores with your friends and the world. Or feel really sad that you can’t possibly compete.
- Challenges. Issue formal ordeals to other players.
- Sociability. The scope to share your key moments with the world.
- Achievements. Formally defined and acknowledged acts of accomplishment.
We’d already got the ball rolling with the last two ourselves but realised pretty quickly that we’d be better off using someone else’s repertoire for the first two. So we took the decision to use OpenFeint instead, with a view to supporting iOS 4.0 Game Center when that becomes more widespread.
OpenFeint‘s pretty good. It’s certainly saved us having to build an appropriate system from scratch. My only real gripe with it is its inconsistency with the highly stylised Juggle! – it stands out as a layer rather than a seamless part of a whole experience. (There’s also the fact that it uses the third person for its Facebook posts and the first person for its Twitter tweets, which makes it hard to have fun with the messaging because it has to work with two mostly incompatible contrasts.)
LEADERBOARD, LEADERBOARD, WOULD YOU WORK FOR ME?
Juggle! supports five Leaderboards: one for the best score in each of the three modes of play; one for Greatest Hits (the most number of ball hits achieved in a single game) and another for Oldest Ball (the longest any one ball survives in a single game).
Leaderboards that didn’t make the grade included seeing who could reach the highest level (not as much precision as how long you can play) and who could juggle the most balls (that didn’t have enough scope for growth; seven, by the way, in case you were wondering, is the most I can manage but I reckon I’m on the cusp of eight).
When I’m designing I tend to use a three-tier challenge system: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary challenges are critical to winning while secondary challenges aid success; tertiary challenges have no bearing on the game’s outcome and are nothing more than alternative ways to play, to enhance and deepen the experience. The latter for me are what Achievements should be all about.
Yes, Achievements act as more visible recognitions of the more important moments you experience during a game. Sure, completing a level or zone or game is undeniably an achievement and something to share with the world. But I get ceremonies for that anyway. I want Achievements to be special in some way; to make me play in a particular way – preferably a different way – rather than just go through the motions doing what I’d do anyway.
Completing a level or zone or game perfectly or without loss of life – that’s an Achievement. But, of course, once you start supporting those and all the other less remarkable Achievements along the way – that’s a lot of Achievements, which devalues them. I hate too many Achievements. I like each one to have real resonance.
Deciding where to pay attention was aided by the statistics tracked in play: score; time played; level reached; ball hits; most balls in play and balls lost – and combinations of those stats, such as keeping so many balls in play for so long. I also played and watched others play to see what springs to playful minds.
As a result there are six Achievements to earn in Juggle!, which feels right given the game’s scale. The aim was to ensure that each Achievement upheld The End as much as possible – primarily they’d be dramatic, make you feel good and embody a twist. I… mostly managed to achieve that.
- OBSESSION Keep the same ball in play for five minutes. This requires a different sort of focus; you have to ignore the noise of the other balls in play and do whatever it takes to keep that one ball alive.
- HOTSHOT Juggle the same three balls for 60 seconds. This is my favourite. Pursuing this definitely improves your skills.
- SIX-PACK Juggle six balls at once.
- TON-UP Lose 100 balls. There’s a surprising amount of skill required to do this.
- ZEN Play a single game for 10 minutes. I like the focus on survival for a good chunk of time here.
- HITMAN Achieve 1,000 hits. This replaced LEVEL BEST (reaching Level 30), which simply didn’t feel good, partly because the ceremony overlapped with levelling up.
I appreciate that these are tough to achieve; that’s my preference. But another reason for doing this was that I expected the essence of Juggle! to appeal more to a certain type of player – one in search of a certain type of classic challenge. Like me.
For a broader appeal, a better alternative would be three tiers of Achievement to suit different degrees of skill; sets of merit badges to collect and encourage improvement. For example:
- TRUE LOVE for keeping the same ball in play for only three minutes.
- JUGGLY for juggling three balls for 30 seconds.
- FIVE-STAR for juggling five balls at once.
- TUMBLY for losing 50 balls.
- CHILLED for surviving for six minutes.
- BIG HITTER for 500 hits.
I had all these plans for challenging people at this, that and the other, like some kind of kerazy DIY Achievements system, but it was just starting to feel overly fragmented and complicated, which is a good sign to call it a day.
What we ended up with is one challenge for each of the three modes of play: a score to beat, which you tend to end up using to rub your new best into the faces of friends.
Simple but effective.
I’m interested in what friends are playing and how well, but I hate being spammed. Fortunately, there are OpenFeint options to take care of that.
For the Juggle! messages I wanted to add a little twist – more life via commentary on context and more drama through considered framing of moments to create more of a sense of a story. But that didn’t work out so well in the end, in part because the infrastructure wasn’t appropriate but mainly because there was way too much to be done to make it work. But, you know, one step at a time. What we have works fine and gets the ball rolling.
WHEN ALL’S SAID AND DONE AT THE END OF THE DAY
Juggle! has been played – and still is played – obsessively here. A great many knobs and dials were twiddled to get the perfect mix, to make sure Juggle! purrs like a well-tuned supercharged kitten engine and plays as lovely as possible. It’s been played and tweaked and tested to within an inch of its life and now it plays just how we like it – how we believe it should be played and enjoyed.
I like Juggle! Actually, if I’m honest I’m a little peeved that it’s functionally not as pure as a 1972 version ought to be – it features modes I was expecting to use in later versions – but I can live with that because overall it feels like a plausible historical artefact and captures the vibe of the time while being contemporary enough to feel timely.
It has an unusual feel in play. I like the contrast, the ebb and flow from chilled to frenzied, like a tennis player on the receiving end of a relentless ball machine. And I like the fact that you feel in control of that pace. I like the tension experienced, barely hanging in there during the crazy later levels, desperately keeping any single ball in play just to stay in play. Those tend to be the games that end with me sweating, hands shaking, heart pounding, eyes wide and leave me feeling invigorated and very much alive. That’s the old school buzz right there.
Juggle! is diverting – good for nibbling or taking a trip. It’s challenging, definitely – deliberately – but not insanely so. It feels like there’s plenty of scope to improve your performance; you have the tools to hand and you just need application on your part. The paddle motion takes a little getting used to, but when you do get used to it, you can pull off some funky play and appreciate some quality moments keeping four or more balls in the air.