1775 and the Tyranny of Substance over Style

By Matt Thrower 14 Dec 2016 0

Rhode Island is pretty small by the standards of mainland America. Indeed on the map of 1775: Rebellion it's smaller than the tip of my little finger. So small, in fact, that it's almost obscured by the presence of any units there whatsoever. Let alone the three British Regulars and two Loyalist militia I wanted to fit in there during my first game. So, obviously, I put two fingers on the screen and pulled them apart to zoom in and select the province. When nothing happened, I presumed I was at fault rather than the game. That's how universal and instinctive that touchscreen gesture has become.

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It turned out it was the game after all. The programmers had forgotten to put in the feature when porting from the PC version, which received reasonable reviews. It's fixed now, but it gave me an immediately bad impression of the app. What is, in fact, quite a minor issue thrown up by a rushed port made me want to delete the game and go play something else.

What this illustrates is how used we've become to the fundamental usability of playing on a touchscreen. When I watch my kids playing with a keyboard and mouse they fumble, confused. It took my eldest months to master the WASD controls in Portal. Yet both of them could use a touchscreen with considerable precision by the time they went to preschool. This immediate, tactile nature is what makes mobile gaming such a delight. It's also why making even minor errors in this space can ruin a game.

Sadly, there are few better examples of this than 1775. The animations were too slow. There's a confusing hint system that looks like a tutorial but isn't. The game engine sometimes decided to hide the numeric counters showing the number of armies in each territory. Dice rolling across the screen would sometimes disappear underneath the results frame around them. As someone with some programming experience myself, I'm not going to suggest these would be simple to fix. But they're "soft" errors, mistakes in the interface easily overlooked once the "hard" work of encoding the rules, network play and an AI have been completed.

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Again, from my modicum of programming experience, I can attest that this is standard fare. Programmers like to cut code against problems with easily definable success and fail states. It comes with the mindset. Solving issues around the interface, where things are as much down to personal taste as to written rules, requires a lot more tinkering. A lot of incremental adjustments and touchy-feely calls on whether one approach "feels" better than another. It's repetitive and frustrating. It's also absolutely vital.

Everyone that's reviewed 1775 on mobile, from our own Nick Vigdahl to strangers on the app store, have commented on how poor the interface is. If you can't get past the interface, it doesn't matter how well the app enforces the game rules or how much of a challenge it puts up. You'll never get that far. Like me, you'll get frustrated and feel like reaching for the delete icon after five minutes of play. We expect everything to come packaged now: a tutorial to lean the game and an instinctive, usable interface.

Some may say that's a step backwards. That it's too much baby-sitting or hand-holding if you want to play a detailed game. There are still a few monster wargames that come with game manuals that need to be properly read and ingested before effective play. But outside of that sphere, we need to be realistic. Those of you who, like me, remember when strategy games came in boxes with paper manuals be honest: how many did you actually read? Very few, I'll wager. I certainly didn't.

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Behind these issues there looms a larger monster. The combination of easily delivered patches and ever harder release deadlines has lead to a culture where it's seen as okay to push out half-finished releases followed by an early patch. This runs the risk of disappointment for the consumer and a bad reputation for the developer. Yet that may be a small price to pay for the ability to carry on improving games after release. Paradox, for instance, has secured a name for itself as a studio that vastly improves games over the long run which helped to blunt some initial criticism of . Perhaps it's time that consumers and critics alike stepped back and started to take a longer view of what constitutes quality in a game.

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