Sunday, August 31, 2003

Notes on You Don't Know Jack

Cathy and I used to play YDKJ when we started dating. Lately she'd been missing it, so we ordered a used copy of volume 3 from and have been playing it.

There are many great things about YDKJ:

The quality of the graphic design is excellent. The fonts are big and clear. They don't look pixelly. The screens aren't cluttered. They obey the rule of three. Unlike other game show games, where there's full motion video, animated sprites of contestants, or other sorts of cheesy graphics, here we just have voice-over, text, and the occasional cute icon. "If you can't do it well, don't do it all," seems to be their motto.

The experience is finely tuned and gratifying. I once did a Wheel of Fortune game, and I can tell you that despite the animated sprite of Vanna it didn't feel like you were on a game show. The voice-over that sounds like it's coming over bad speakers and the background television-land chatter "heightens the emotional intensity of the metaphor" as Chris Crawford puts it in his latest book. Chris Crawford might also point out that because play is metaphorical rather than simulational, when they say "Kill the desktop" at the beginning of the game, reminding you that you're playing a computer game and not actually on TV, although it compromises the simulation it just doesn't matter. Oh yeah, and it's funny.

The game belittles you when you screw up. And sometimes when you don't. That must have been a tough decision for them; I'm *certain* there are people out there who told them this is a bad idea, if you make fun of people they will quit playing your game. Hell, one of the first bug reports I ever saw was one about Magic Candle II: the playtester was offended that a character made fun of him. "I don't play games to be insulted," he said. That guy needed to lighten up.

The game is not antisocial. Very few games out there are the kinds of games you can play with your wife. MULE is the example most people raise but MULE scores quite low on the usability front; my wife and I are both baffled by its interface. YDKJ is completely clear.

Like Tetris and Counter-Strike, YDKJ proves that you can make a great game with a low budget in a small timeframe.

And what does Volume 3 bring to the table?

One of YDKJ's strengths may also be a weakness; we played it for a long time and never got to the point where it was repeating questions. If it wasn't for the fact that we got a new computer and didn't want to start all over from the beginning, we would have had no reason to purchase a new version. So the YDKJ people succumbed to the pressure to add features. The obvious features of YDKJ are the "Three Way" and the "Impossible Question". Both of these 'improvements' are only marginal additions.

The "three way" is a little like a diet Jack Attack with lower production values. The "impossible question" at first seemed like "sandwich gameplay" (Clint Hocking forgets where he first heard the term 'sandwich gameplay'; maybe one of the Ion guys?) - i.e. you go and get a sandwich - but then Cathy managed to win two of them, so it actually seems like a pretty cool thing.

The smarter thing for Sierra to do might have been to release more games with fewer questions, and resist the featuritis. This, of course, is a problem that consumes all of software development. A good product, such as Microsoft Word, is made, and everyone buys it, and has no reason to buy any more, unless we add something to it. The only way to keep making money off the line is to add features. Most videogames don't have this problem: they get boring quickly, as you finish all the levels or missions, and you need another installment to keep playing.