Design

Social Game Review – The Oregon Trail


A note about format

The weekly thing isn’t really working for me, so these updates – like everything else on my blog – will be sporadic. The problem with trying to do one game a week is that some games just aren’t good enough to stick with for a full week, and thus a long time may go by before I’ve given a full week’s worth of attention to a game. Basically, when the game runs out and all that remains is the retention mechanics, I lose all interest.

A note about FarmVille

My next review was going to be FarmVille – the big granddaddy of social games. But I couldn’t even get an hour into that stinker. It’s nothing but retention mechanics!

From the vapid, insipid smile of the main character, to the tinny, tedious music, to the thirty-second intro that ends with a “Come back tomorow!” – the whole short experience was negative. There’s no game here at all, just a bunch of barely disguised ploys to get people to keep coming back.

It’s actually refreshing to see how far Zynga has come. FarmVille is obviously a naked grab for attention and cash, while CityVille was an enjoyable little game (even if it got mired down in requiring viral participation and silly retention mechanics). With the resources and talent they have available, I’m looking forward to their future entries into this space.

A game with history

The original Oregon Trail was written in 1971, and has since then entertained generations of youngsters who would otherwise have been saddled with crappy “Math Blaster”-style games in their classrooms. It was a game of epic scope and challenge, and nearly infinitely replayable – you could choose different professions and loadouts when you began, and faced different challenges on the trail every time.

It was not a game to baby players or hide the ugly truths about history from them. Characters in your party – characters you often named after friends and family – could and did die from dysentery, snakebite, and drowning with a frightening frequency.

I’m happy to report that the modern Oregon Trail on Facebook brings forward all these classical elements while updating the game to be more palatable to modern players who expect better graphics and the ability to crow about their achievements to friends.

A game with problems

I have to get this out of the way first – when this game first launched, it was kind of terrible. For the first few critical days of its life, it was laggy as HELL. I mean the Flash, not the netcode, either. No matter what browser or computer you ran it on, you’d get framerates in the mid-single-digit, and not much better. Normal play was difficult, and one of the minigames was nearly impossible.

Thankfully, this all seems to have been fixed as of today with a new release of the Flash client, and everything is just as quick and smooth as you’d expect and demand. I wonder what they changed?

The game!

For those who somehow don’t know – Oregon Trail challenges you to take your family from Independance, MO across America to Oregon City – a journy of about 2000 miles. You choose your profession, customize your wagon, and choose from a variety of supplies before you leave, vastly changing the difficulty of the trail. Some selections are, of course, locked until you gain higher levels, which means you’ll have to make multiple attempts at the trail before you have access.

Along the way, you’ll encounter nuggets of gold you can pick up, rivers you have to ford or float across, bandits who will try to rob you, and a whole host of random events:

  • Sand storms or mud that will slow down your wagon,
  • Snakebites, fevers, and dysentery which can drain the health of your party,
  • Or even good things like having your oxen “spooked”, which makes your whole party travel faster.

It’s funny, though – normally the rest of my party is sick and injured, while I’m just fine. For reference, this is what most of my game looks like:

Everyone Sick But Me

“Come on! Why can’t y’all keep up?”

But, also in keeping to the original game’s roots, occasionally you’ll come across reminders of you or your friends’ previous trips:

The spot where Jacob Died.

I guess Jacob didn’t make it that time.

Mini-games

In addition to the main game of trying to deal with the little obstacles placed in your way, there’s a few mini-games used to represent some of the struggles faced by settlers along the trail.

  • Over time, your wagon takes damage, and you can play a sort of Tetris-like game:
    Repairing Minigame
    You place the blocks from the bottom into the slots up above, and the fewer you use, the more you repair your wagon. It remains fun, regardless of the number of times when I’ve needed One Specific Piece to finish my repair perfectly, and Something Freaking Else popped in at the last minute.
  • When you run out of food on the trail, you can go hunting for wild game:
    Hunting
    Click to move, click to shoot. You need to focus on the larger game – buffalo and bears – to take home any significant meat, which is nicely balanced, because they attack back.
  • Occasionally, you run across a river that has to be floated down, and you play a white-water rafting minigame:
    River Rafting
    Pick up coins and crates while avoiding the rocks. It’s a much faster way to travel than hoofing it, that’s for sure.

Monetization

This game is monetized beautifully – pretty much every bad thing that happens, you can buy your way out of for “Trail Notes”, the in-game paid currency. However, I never felt like I HAD to do this, which is a pretty sweet balance. In fact, the things I found I *did* pay for were unlocks. For example, you can’t access certain wagon parts or certain trails until you reach a certain level, OR you can pay Trail Notes to access it immediately.

I do wish I’d bothered to buy my way out of the recent flood I suffered. I’m playing a Banker who gets bonuses if he manages to drag trade goods all the way along the path, and the flood wipe out 5/6 of the trade goods I was carrying. That really hurts.

Also, you can pay Trail Notes to refill your Energy (used to play mini-games) or your Stamina (required to travel), though levelling up does the same thing and happens often enough to make paying rarely necessary.

Viral channels

In general, all the viral channels are in place, but I wish this aspect had been flushed out a little more. There are a few things I wish I could have bragged about to my feed that I found I couldn’t.

You can still tell your feed when you made it to Oregon, or when a party member died, or when everyone died anyway, which is the important part.

A good port, a good game

I really feel that The Oregon Trail is a faithful re-interpretation of the original game – it feels much like the original did, and passing by someone’s tombstone on the side of the trail still fills me with that same glee as before – “I’m making it further, yes!” It’s fun to play, there’s a real sense of accoplishment when you finally make it to the end, and even re-starting is neat because of all the profession and wagon unlocks you earn along the trail the time before.

Blue Fang did a bang-up job on this game, and they have every right to be proud of it.

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