I supported the Ascension Online Kickstarter in February of this year and I have been impatiently waiting ever since. There were delays in getting the Windows client out before the end of the year, and the Android version (the real reason I kicked the project) wasn’t coming out this year at all.
With just five days left to go, Stoneblade Entertainment sent me a closed beta key.
Let’s run through the functionality in this first closed beta release:
- Up to four player hot seat play.
- “Easy” level computer player.
- No online play.
- Only the very first core set is available.
- Honor can be adjusted for longer games but cannot be adjusted down for shorter games.
- There are personal avatars, but they come from a mish-mash of the different sets.
- The art is from the redesigned set.
Sound effects and music
I’ll start with the sound effects and music because it sets the tone for the entire experience: cheesy. The background music is basically a droning loop with someone chanting.
There are sound effects for almost everything. A monster appears in the center row: a growling sound. Someone plays a card that makes runes (money): some weird ass chime. Someone plays a card with power: the sound of a blade being unsheathed or scraped across something. There’s a sound when you buy something. There’s a sound when you banish something. There’s a sound when you punch the cultist, and when you push the Play All button or the End Turn button, a sound when your deck gets reshuffled, etc etc.
Some sound effects don’t make sense. When you decline to use an effect (such as declining to banish a card in your hand or discard pile) the game makes a sound you’d expect if something went wrong.
It’s overload and midway through my second game I couldn’t take it any more and turned off all of the game sounds.
Stoneblade decided to make the user interface completely different from the iOS app. I don’t know if there is some sort of contractual reason to do so, since the iOS game was made by someone else. There are some limited usability improvements compared to the iOS app, but for the most part the design choices make little sense.
A good change, for example, is getting rid of the various border colors. As a usability advocate, part of my job is to look for accessibility problems for people who are color blind or have problems with fine motor control, etc.
The rest of the UI needs a lot of work. Here are some things I don’t like about it:
- The controls for playing all, looking at your deck, looking at your discard pile, and ending your turn are all entirely too big and take up valuable space. Same thing with the avatar.
- Hooooly shit the card art is ugly. I never thought I would say this, but I actually like the original Ascension art more. I have played over 2000+ games in the iOS app and an unknown number of table top games, and I just can’t get used to the new style.
- Ascension cards come from one of four factions: enlightened, mechana, void and lifebound. Each faction has its own color. The entire card background of the card is the faction color in the original game and the iOS app. The new design features a large, neutral colored area for card text, and the faction color is a sliver around the edge of the card. While the neutral background is a readability improvement, I like the original design better. It was easier to identify factions this way and is super helpful when chaining together cards that depend on each other, like many of the lifebound cards.
- The overall palette is very dark, which lessened our ability to read the cards and see what was going on.
- Because of the darkness of the UI, the bright, glowing ASCENSION in the middle of the board is not only unnecessary but incredibly eye-catching.
- The draw deck (I guess that’s what the big poofy white thing is on the right) and the void black hole on the left are very large and take up valuable real estate. Someone on the official forums has complained about their cards being too small on their laptop; I run my desktop at 1920×1080 but Stoneblade should have designed the UI with smaller resolutions in mind.
- The bottoms of the cards are cut off, “tucked” away underneath the bottom of the screen. This is dumb as toast. The bottom of the card is where most of the information is! Stoneblade should have just lifted the iOS “board” and re-used it in the Windows version.
- This might be the first time I’ve ever said or written this in my career, but it looks like whoever designed the Windows interface came from a touch UI background. Until now, I’ve always said the opposite: it’s easy to tell when a desktop UI designer makes their first app interface. But wow, why are the buttons so damn big?
- The font looks anti-aliased. Probably another thing that will be fixed as the beta progresses, but it’s hard to read.
Here are some things I don’t like about the user experience (UX):
- In the Windows client, you single click to play a card in the center row. This is not a standard Windows paradigm. You single click to select, double click to activate. Imagine if you single clicked a file on your desktop, would you expect it to open? Single clicking does allow for faster game play once you know what all the cards are, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to break a well-known user experience technique like this without a very good reason.
- The location of the UI element that shows how many runes and power you have is in a weird place. Right now it’s next to the end turn button. Basic UI design puts summary information at the top of a screen. In addition, knowing how much power and money you have is critical when deciding what cards to interact with in the center row. Why is the rune and power summary UI at the bottom right of the screen? It should be in the top and center of the UI, so it is as close to the center row as possible. Maybe if the draw pile, void, and opponent UIs weren’t so damn big they would have had room.
- This is probably just a beta bug, but it’s possible to resize the screen to a point where several of the controls are covered up.
- One of the great things about a digital version of Ascension is easier card management. There are a TON of cards in Ascension, especially as you start acquiring all of the expansions. This also means that there are a lot of cards to learn, and even repeat players need to look at a card every now and then to make sure they know what they do. Zooming is accomplished in Ascension by using the mouse’s scroll wheel. This is going to be a problem for people without a scroll wheel or people who use a laptop that doesn’t allow for zooming on the touchpad. Coupled with the single-click to play problem, this is a big deal.
Overall, I am very disappointed with the first release of the Ascension Online beta. The game is missing key functionality, such as online play and rankings. I have no idea why Stoneblade released this build with just the core set, as the iOS game already has several expansions and promo packs already. The meatspace game has even MORE content, but to release a beta with only the core set is deflating.
Part of my job in the real world is to manage the product road map and release schedule for a multi-platform software product. What I’m looking at today is something I would have released as an alpha or a very early beta after about four or five months of work, not ten.
Hopefully the game will improve, but it’s going to take some significant UI/UX rework to keep this from being the ugliest Windows game I have played in a very long time.