Some things that I found interesting about Tiny Wings:

  • It’s a one-button game, using a mechanism that works well and that I haven’t seen before. Which makes me happy for the medium: if there’s valuable novelty there, there’s valuable novelty everywhere.
  • It has a procedurally generated world, but each world persists for a day. (Rather than giving you a new world every time you play or having the world persist indefinitely.) I’ve never seen that before, but it works well in this context. Incidentally, Jason Rohrer has some interesting things to say about different possible benefits of procedurally generation worlds on the latest Experience Points podcast, starting around 25 minutes in.
  • The game’s achievements do a better job of serving a mentoring function than those in any other game that I’ve seen.

Actually, I think I have a fair amount to say about that last topic, so let me break out of bullet points for a bit:

At any given point in the game, there are at most three achievements available to earn. You start off with an initial nest, and with three tasks to accomplish: once you’ve accomplished all three, you get a new nest and a new set of tasks, and repeat. Which is already pretty foreign to the traditional notion of achievements; in fact, the game uses the term ‘objectives’ instead of ‘achievements’, so I guess I’ll go with that.

Some of the objectives are strictly about showing off your mad skillz: reach the Nth island. And some of them are gimmicky: the one that sticks out the most to me in that regard is the one where you have to turn your phone upside down and reach the 5th island.

But most of them don’t fall into either of those categories. Or at least they didn’t to me. To me, the metric that “really” mattered was: how far did I get? (For the record: I’m no stranger to the 7th island, though I don’t reach it most of the time; I’ve reached the 8th island exactly once.) But there are a ton of other metrics that the game provides, should you chose to pay attention to them: score is the most prominent, but there’s also the number of coins, the number of cloud touches, time spent in fever mode, the number of great slides, and probably others.

Most of the objectives center around one or another of these metrics: collect 200 points, do 5 great slides on the third island, etc. And the truth is: without the nudge given by the objectives, I wouldn’t have spent as much time on those metrics: I wouldn’t have spent several hours over the course of a couple of days trying to stay in fever mode for 34 seconds, for example. (And, in retrospect, I’m still kind of amazed that I succeeded at that one…)

But another truth is: I’m glad I followed that nudge and did so. It added texture to my experience: without these varying goals, I would have just been touching the screen over and over trying to get as far as possible, and I would have gotten bored and frustrated fairly soon. But with the different goals given by the objectives, I had to think differently about my approach to the game: how would I play it if I really want to get a lot of cloud touches? What causes me to drop out of fever mode? The difficulty curve set by the objectives was also very well done, which was a big help in keeping me interested.

And, it turns out, pursuing those alternate goals helped me make progress towards my main goal of going as far as possible. Take fever mode as an example: if you want to make it to the later islands, you can’t come to a crashing stop very often, at least once you’re past the first three or so islands. So staying in fever mode is very useful; and barely missing great jumps, while not as useful, is generally better than completely botching a jump.

In fact, to my surprise, I actually learned quite a bit about how to play the game from some of the objectives that seemed like gimmicks at first blush. For example, one (late) objective asks you to do a great slide directly after an island jump five times in a single game. That is hard to do; until then, I was happy when I got great slides in those situations but also kind of surprised. But that objective made me think about exactly what I needed to do to maximize the chance of that happening (generally, you want to go for the second depression, and start diving quite a bit earlier than normal), with the result that I could make it farther even when I wasn’t trying for that objective.

Or, a more dramatic example of this: another objective asks you to reach the fourth island without doing a single great slide. Which was difficult both because it’s hard to avoid doing great slides and because it’s hard to make enough progress while doing that to make it to the fourth island. I eventually figured out a technique for the latter (ask me in the comments if you’re curious), but the former was more interesting to me. In particular, once or twice I got frustrated because the game credited me with a great slide when I hadn’t touched the screen at all: I hadn’t slid, let alone done a great job of sliding! But once I’d gotten over that frustration, I realized that I’d learned something potentially useful about the range of possible approaches to great slides: and while I never tried consciously to earn great slides without touching the screen at all, I did switch my approach towards earning great slides. Before, I’d always held onto the screen until I’d hit the ground and started, well, sliding; these days, though, I only hold onto the screen until it becomes clear that I will earn a great slide, and then I release the screen even if my bird hasn’t hit the ground. And I’m sure it would have taken me longer to realize the benefits of that approach if I hadn’t had that objective.

The objectives also work well in tandem with the daily procedurally generated islands. It turns out that some sets of islands are better suited towards some objectives than others: for example, the first time I saw the objective that asked me to reach the fifth island without any speed coins, I had islands with several pairs of adjacent speed coins (and, I believe, one trio of adjacent speed coins), making that exceedingly difficult. So I was glad that, the next day, I’d have a fresh set of islands to play with. But the flip side is: frequently I’d get a set of islands that seemed reasonably well suited to my objectives, but where I’d want to practice on those islands to improve my skills to meet them. (For example, the islands might have approachable enough beginnings to make great slides after island jumps plausible, but even so, I’d need to practice on them a lot before I could hit those great slides at all reliably.) So I very much appreciated the stability of having a set of islands last for a day, while also enjoying the novelty of having a different set of islands each day.

So: yay achievements! And there’s a lot here that other games can learn from. For what it’s worth, the objective that did me in was reaching 175,000 points: I only came close to that once (my top score is 163,707 points, but it’s 20,000 more than my second best score, and my 8th score is under 130,000 points), but I enjoyed my attempts at reaching that bar.

(By the way, I’m ‘davidcarlton’ on Game Center, if anybody wants to add me.)

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