The Dream Machine is an episodic adventure game by Erik Zarig and Anders Gustafsson of Cockroach Inc. This Swedish indie studio is known for a number of smaller games, most notably the acclaimed "Gateway" series. The Dream Machine is their first major commercial production. Development started roughly 4 years ago and the latest episode, Chapter 3, was released on October 2011. With only 2 more episodes to go the team is currently working on Chapter 4.
Initially the game was available for the browser only, playable through Cockroaches' website, but a few months ago we saw its release on Steam. I'm reviewing the on-line web version.
Delivering a game on-line comes with many advantages for both the player and the developer. For starters, the game is multi-platform. Players can play on multiple devices, while developers have the advantage of click once deployment, which saves a lot of development time. The Dream Machine saves your progress in the cloud, in addition to on your hard disk. This is a very convenient feature as players can continue where they left off from anywhere.
Another plus is that the developers are able to easily push updates without requiring their players to install a new version. In fact, players of The Dream Machine are completely unaware of new updates if they don't read the development blog the team at Cockroach often updates. Of course updates are also pushed through Steam, in which case the player doesn't really have to do anything either, but it's a process that takes more time for the developer (approval process) and the player does have to wait on Steam completing the installation process. It's not seamless. The Dream Machine has seen some updates already, fixing bugs, adding minor improvements and even brand new stuff. The last update added over 200 new interaction options to the game!
The people at Cockroach have also utilized another important advantage of running the game on a webserver. They're tracking statistics, similar to what most websites do. The developers are able to monitor, for example, where players get stuck, what item combinations they try to make and more. Statistics like these are obviously very valuable as it provides feedback on which parts of the game might need to be tweaked, for example to adjust a puzzle's difficulty. The team records item usage and replaces default "I can't use these two objects together" lines with unique responses for often tried combinations. Using this system, Cockroach basically have their own large test group, which is a luxury not many independent developers have. Some players might feel uncomfortable with the idea of being tracked, but we're assured the data is anonymous, as the game does not record personal information. Regardless, I think the team should create an option for players to turn this logging on or off, as people are increasingly aware and concerned about privacy these days.
Of course there are also downsides to the on-line model. What if the server goes down? What if my Internet connection stops working? Players are concerned about questions like that. They want to know what happens if the developer goes bankrupt, or simply disappears. Such things have happened before, after all. Steam may ease the minds of those concerned about this, even though it's still a DRM solution. For developers who want to keep their players happy by providing a smooth experience, it can be difficult to estimate what server resources are needed. How much bandwidth do we need? How much traffic do we expect? And can we scale up or down easily when the numbers change? I haven't seen any complaints about availability or poor performance yet, so I'm assuming the people at Cockroach have covered this well.