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Squish Prototype

Blog posted by JPickford on Sun, 01 Apr 2012
Subject: Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint

JPickford

Squish is the second of the prototypes built into Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint v2.0.

Unlike ISMMTTM, Squish isn't an entirely new game; It's a potential new arcade mode based on the MB game mechanic with a few key changes.

History

I've been tinkering with the idea behind squish on and off for a few years. Essentially it's very simple - take MB and add gravity. The added factor of constant downwards acceleration squishes the balls together and creates the possibility of chain reactions whenever a cluster is removed.

In practice quite a few of the MB rules had to be altered in order to create a working game.

An early version of the concept had a constant supply of balls appearing from the bottom of the playfield with the whole thing scrolling upwards. This worked reasonably well but I wasn't keen on the 'time pressure' element - I generally prefer games that can be played at a more leisurely pace. Time pressure or time limits are always tempting to add as they are an easy substitute for proper gameplay. Almost anything can be made into a game by adding a time limit.

I didn't really like the idea that filling the screen should end the game. It felt like game over arrived when things were getting interesting. Instead I tied the tariff (score multiplier) to the height of the ball pile so there was a reason to let the pile build up rather than just clearing as many balls as possible.

Random vs Chaotic

One common criticism is that the random ball colours have too big an effect on the outcome. It's really too much down to luck whether you do well or badly. I agree with this.

Interestingly, some of the most successful casual games have been described as being random. Angry Birds & Peggle are both often dismissed as being pointless or random. I would disagree with this, those games aren't really very random but I would describe them as chaotic. By that I mean the gameplay is sufficiently complex that it's almost impossible to predict the outcome of a shot with any degree of accuracy - certainly beyond the first collision. This may seem effectively random but it really isn't. If Peggle truly randomised the trajectory of the ball with each collision the game would be no fun at all. The game uses is consistent physics simulator (I won't use the word accurate because I've no idea if it is - nor does that matter really). The first bounce can be predicted or anticipated reasonably well, after that each bounce becomes less predictable and this unpredictability is compounded with each bounce. So, chaotic, effectively unpredictable but there are no random numbers involved.

Squish is both random (ball colours) and chaotic (the physics simulation). I think the chaos aspect is absolutely fine and desirable but if the random ball colours are strongly affecting the outcome then we have a problem.

I suspect the solution to this lies not so much in the random elements but in the fairly high failure rate of shots. With the balls tightly packed a high percentage of shots are simply not strong enough to push their way through the pack and make a connection. I'm already giving the balls a bit of extra power (I call it 'afterburner' in the code) which gives them a little push for a few frames after the initial shot. Hopefully I can tweak this a bit to achieve a higher percentage of successful shots. This sort of thing is a delicate balance so it can take a bit of trial and error to get right.

A couple of other variables I can play with are the number of balls needed to form a cluster; currently set to 7 (or all) balls of a given colour, and the number of colours on the playfield. Reducing either of these will make forming clusters easier and may help increase the percentage of successful shots.

The Future

I'm reasonably confident that we'll fix the existing flaws and produced a finished and satisfying version of this concept. Whether the resulting game stays part of Magnetic Billiards or is spun off as a separate product is yet to be decided. I'm hoping it'll be strong enough to stand on its own.

I'm expecting we'll release at least one update of the game in prototype form in the coming weeks.

 

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Comments

What I like about Squish is that it's actually better suited to the iPhone than the standard MB game. I think its because don't need so much precision which is a real boon on the small screen. If I'm at home I'm more liable to play standard MB, but out and about it's Squish. It's certainly taken over from Relentless as my favourite MB game mode (I regard ISMMTTM as a separate game and that is my overall fave!).

Having now played it for several hours (including 3 waiting in a hospital last week) I offer the following comments alongside what you mention above:

When you manage to clear a screen it can be very hard to build the height of the balls back up due to the game dropping in new balls that immediately pair up and clear.

Sometimes balls hang in the air just after you've cleared the screen. As soon as you take a shot they fall which can make planning the shot hard.

Purple balls. Seem to be rarer than other balls but then suddenly lots turn up at once. Deliberate?

At zero lives with a full screen the game doesn't end but keeps deducting lives after bad shots. I've had minus 4 lives on a couple of occasions before it decided to Game Over.

You're probably be aware of all of those things but probably worth me mentioning them as I've been playing it an awful lot.

 

JPickford

Good point about the clear screen. It needs to reset the formation.

I'm aware of the other bugs (-ve lives, hanging). They aren't top priority as they exist mainly due to the way Squish hijacks a lot of existing MB code. When I'm happy with the gameplay I'll separate and simply the code a bit.

JP

 

Another one I've noticed. You set up an intricate shot where you aim for a ball to gently fall into place. The ball lands, but the game times out and claims it's a noddy shot. Then when you take the next shot the ball will then gently fall into place with no contact being needed.

Seems like some kind of timeout issue.

Still consolidating my 5th position on the leader board. Squish is very addictive!

 

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