MMObility: Shadow Cities confuses the heck out of me

I like unusual games. No, really, I love them. I would rather puzzle away at some oddball of a game than be forced to play the same old game that I have played before. I don't mind taking my time with a new title, learning its rules and lore. Of course, my goal is not to hunt down every morsel of information about a game, either. There is a fine balance between knowing how to play a game and practically keeping a cheat sheet next to my laptop or phone.

Sometimes a game comes along and makes me really scratch my head. It's rare, though, especially in this age of YouTube videos and newbie Q and A threads. Shadow Cities has given me more of a hard time than almost any other game in recent memory.

The question is: is this a good thing or a bad thing? Click past the cut and we'll discuss it.

Let me explain a little bit about the game before we get into it. Essentially, Shadow Cities detects your real-life location through your phone, then asks you to rule your area of the world by defeating NPC sprites and real-life human players. You cast spells by drawing symbols on the screen. To cast a heal, for example, I draw a backwards Z symbol and I am healed for a certain amount of damage.

The game is one of these new ARGs, or alternate reality games. I am not really down with that title, and would prefer enhanced reality or slightly altered reality. Alternate reality makes it seem as though you are going to look through your phone and see an entirely different world, one that is based on ours, and with completely different rules. None of the ARGs I have played really live up to that level of involvement, yet.

It's an interesting concept, but not really a new one. We've been playing alternate reality games since we were children. Games like Marco Polo or hide and seek have basically the same effect. If you can remember the last time you had a game of hide and seek, you might remember the real fear or excitement you felt when hiding. I remember one particular game, one that occurred on a hot summer night, and I ended up underneath a pile of leaves for probably 15 minutes. I was definitely in this reality, but layered on top of it was this thin layer of other reality.

Do I get the same feeling with Shadow Cities? Well, not yet. I haven't played much, even though I planned on attempting to while at E3. I figured that if there would be one place that would be good to play it, it would be at a convention that was filled with gamers including two of my bosses (both of them had the game on phones of their own.) But I forgot to play it and wouldn't have had time to anyway. So now I am playing catch-up.

One of the main problems with many games that have a steep learning curve is that if you stop in the middle of the tutorial or newbie experience, you come back later and have no idea where you left off. I am now doing a series of basic quests, but all they really do is instruct me to attack things. I am learning everything else by reading the forums and asking the other players in the app chat. This is where alternate, or altered, reality starts to fall apart. If I am having to consult with a website every 10 or 15 minutes to answer a question, I'm not really feeling "sucked into" the game.

For example, there is a quest in game to find a guide. From what the quest says, I am supposed to nominate someone as my guide simply by tapping the button. OK, I think, I'll tap the button.

What button? There is no button.

Also, why would I nominate my own guide? In my experience as an MMO gamer, a guide is normally assigned to you when you have the need for one. Heck, if I am in charge of picking out my guide, isn't there a chance that I will pick someone who needs a guide as well? I went on the forums to find the answer and found only half-answers. Also, I know I am supposed to interact with other real-life players in-game, but what if I live in the empty place that I do? I live North of Dallas, Texas. This means that the main game of choice around here is probably Farmville. So when I log into Shadow Cities, I find no one around me. Yet I have heard about epic battles with scores of players. How depressing.

Then I started to learn about teleporting or warping myself around the area. I went to "cloud view" (imagine a Google Earth view, zoomed out a bit above your hometown) and found some red beams of light, clicked on them and cast the warp spell. Soon I found myself in a new area, with a few more things around me. I spent some time looking around before I decided I was in over my head and returned home.

Next I figured out a bit about the gateways that appeared around my town. I can target one of them and "buy" the gateway using mana potions. If someone else has bid on the gateway, I must outbid them. If I do, I can own the gateway. What does this mean for me? I have no idea. Also, mana potions can be earned in game, but the rate at which you earn them is so slow it's easier to just buy some. Until I figure out what the hell I am doing, however, I am going to hold onto my funds.

The game is filled with little oddities like the ones I have just talked about. For example, I can connect my game to Facebook from inside the app, but there is no Facebook sign in on the main website. While I know there is a pretty good game underneath all of this noise, I have to ask: is the "learning curve" in games like Shadow Cities really just the result of lack of information, or hidden information? How could some of my problems be solved by better or simpler design?

I know that the newbie tutorials or quests could do a lot more to explain what things are and how they work. In fact, the developers took some time and placed some guidelines on the main page of the website, so why couldn't they give more information in game? Of course a lot of this information might seem very basic to someone who has played the game for a while, and it's very possible that I am missing some of it right under my nose in the UI or quest text. I have to wonder, though, if mobile gaming design needs to be simpler or more complicated? Does the format work with quick play sessions too well? Do developers need to "hide" information in order for a game to feel complex or deep?

I have to say that none of this has discouraged me from trying to find more time for the game. Either I am am falling for the trap of hidden information or the game really has something. I will keep poking away at missions while in-between writing or playing other games, in the hopes that I will one day look back and laugh at how simple it all was.

What do you think? Does mobile design feel dumbed down or too complex? Have you played any ARGs?

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr.
This article was originally published on Massively.