Monday, 16 April 2012

Interaction Design

Let's talk about how we play games and how that experience can have an (almost dire) affect on what we think of it. From consoles, controllers and keyboards to tutorials, menus and walls of text that can potentially destroy your motivation: Interaction design.

One of the main points of getting people to carry on playing is to keeping it as simple as possible; this goes from ingame, to menus to the actual console itself. If you were presented with a console that had twenty different buttons on it, you wouldnt know what to do save for reading the instruction manual instead they're very simple: There's an on/off switch. Similarly if you decided to make SHIFT reload instead of R then that'd just aggravate veteran players and new ones when they go off and play another similar game forcing them to remember various button layouts. Fortunately it seems there was a meeting one day where game designers got together and decided upon a general consensus towards what buttons do what. Yay.

CurrentGen consoles are all good, so let's talk about one that was bad:
Wannabe Transformer
A good example of how NOT to make a console is the SEGA Genesis, or more specifically the 32X. Consoles back then were about as intuitive as a Chinese keyboard, fiddly as hell causing you to spend the good part of an hour just plugging everything in. Plug and Play was not a term known back then. Plug, plug, plug, find an extension cable and plug some more then get pissed off and play would be more accurate. The reason why this one particularly gets a mention is due to how they upgraded the console. Every other company just created a brand new console entirely whereas SEGA thought it best to just add on heaps of shit turning it into some twisted orgy of plastic and wires.

I could go on but if you're interested in what a massive pile of ass this was its well worth watching this video review by the Angry Video Game Nerd.

When it comes to menus we've all been there, we all have a game that whenever we press the 'I' key our blood level rises just a little bit. The one that sticks out for me has to be The Witcher, they had a menu for EVERYTHING, there's nothing quite like bombarding me with a heap of lists to get me into a game, oh yeah! In fact its not just the menus that were aweful, but the entire gameplay; Swapping between sword fighting styles, pausing the game midfight, click-to-move and even click-to-fight by which I mean you had to click on the bastards just to attack! What era were they in when they designed this artifact? Seemless is not a word I'd use to describe The Witcher. I didn't so much enjoy the game but endure it, all because of how unnecessarily complicated it was.

Intimidating? Na, I love me a headache.
It is pivotal that you get the interaction right. The Witcher's story was great, it was engrossing, but did I enjoy the game? Fuck no! Eighty hours of my rockstar life went into struggling with that game because I can't quit on a game I've spent more than five hours on. God it was awful; handled like a walrus with ice-skates and that's the sad part; it would have been a great game if they had a simple-yet-modern 3rd person/over the shoulder camera angle that when you clicked the mouse it swung the sword, none of that cursor nonsense. Star Wars: Jedi Outcast 2 had three different sword styles, just like The Witcher but because it was a 3rd person click-to-slash game it was fun, easy, intuitive. It came out five years BEFORE The Witcher. Facepalm

Many game has made mistakes like this, early gaming was riddled with it but could you blame them? Noone had written a book on game design in fact the most common way to learn how to play would be for someone to teach you. Like card games, board games, chess; How intuitive is chess? I mean really? I still don't know all the rules. Whenever I played against my friend as a kid he always had to remind me what did what, the same with poker – I learn the rules, and then my brain farts them out the next day deeming it useless information.
So how do you actually play chess?
You cant pick up a deck of cards and go 'ah ok, so the queen of hearts does this' whereas, thanks to consoles largely being the same these days, you can pick up the controller and have a good idea of what you're doing based on the style of game. i.e. right trigger/R2 is fire, if it's not that then it's gona be right-back/R1. Nice and simple, if it's not one button it'll be the next. It's almost instinctive when playing a new game just to jam the controller to see what does what unlike ten years ago you always turned to your buddy to ask: 'So what are the controls?'

Failing that, the designers take it upon themselves to grab you by the scruff of your neck, throw you down and say 'HERE'S A TUTORIAL LEVEL!' Whereby you either skip and wing it through the next few levels or patiently experience what is usually a boring ass segment of the game where they often tell you the obvious: 'Yeah, so use the mouse to look around.' Yeah, no fucking shit. The fact that they deem it necessary to include that in a tutorial is either them being anal or a testament to the much speculated fuck-wittery of your average player.
Though I'm a skip kind of guy I don't mean to knock tutorials. Most games its a waste of time but sometimes you get something new, like haring across buildings in Assassin's Creed or how to survive in certain horror games and so I'd deem it worthy of my time.

Yeah, I will not remember any of that in 5 seconds time.
But does anyone enjoy a tutorial whereby they pause the game, tell you what to do or you have to read (heaven forbid) a wall of text? And then there are these bastards!(Right) Does ANYONE find these enjoyable? My mind looks at them, shits with woe and I'm left there jumping my eyes around the screen as if I'm on crack trying as hard as I can to remember the controls because these are ALWAYS on a fucking loading screen! Like, shit, I didn't know they'd be testing my memory.

The best tutorials are the ones when you don't even realise they're telling you how to play or where to go. They do this threw subtle yet cunning level design that when you find out how to do it you get a sense of satisfaction that YOU did and not the computer just spoon-feeding you.
That's not to say being told what button is what is necessarily a bad thing, its just a case of how they do it as an example a lot of games have whatever button you need to press on the screen when you need to press it like when you go to a door there's an 'E' hovering right there. It's not exactly creative but it's also not intrusive unlike Burnout: Paradise where they have DJ. Atomika pausing the game just to let you know you can do shit;

Got it, now on your bike I was having fun driving.
...pause my game you prick.

What made that particularly silly is that the guy is constantly on the radio anyway so why not just have him tell you it at those moments? Why take you out of the game?

A recent game that had a great tutorial level was Skyrim: (que rose-tinted goggles)

You're on a cart with three prisoners, you then find out one is the leader of a rebel group and is about to have his head cut off by the Imperial Legion. Bang! There's a rebellion against the empire and you're about to get the chop as well. This sets up the Stormcloaks (rebels) as the good guys and the Legion (empire) as the bad. That changes somewhat as you progress through the game but there's one part of the thesis. Next, as your head is on the block a dragon attacks. BOOM! Dragons are in this game too, and judging by how people around you act it's a big deal. Whalla, within the first five minutes of the game you're up to speed on current events.

...and then the game-play starts.

After the initial fleeing to a building you find yourself on the top floor of a building and need to jump across to another building. You now know you can jump in this game – it didn't just tell you in an oh yeah, you can do this too kind of way, instead it said you can do this... NOW DO IT BEFORE THE DRAGON GETS YOU FUCK!!!
Finally you escape the dragon's wrath into a stonewalled keep. Depending on who you chose to follow, the stormcloak or imperial (already letting you get a taste of choosing a side) the NPC will tell you to come over to them so they can undo the binds around your wrists; you go over, press E and there you go, you now know you can talk to people in this game. Moments later you come across the corpse of some poor bastard and are told to loot their gear and equip it; you now know that you can loot corpses and equip gear. Having just gotten some sweet loot you probably want to give it a test, handily, some enemies are coming your way; and now you know you can attack and block. 
Behind you! Yeah I'm not fooling for that one buddy...
 The rest of the sequence has you doing like things with magic, sneak (passed a sleeping bear, hinting that if you don't want to engage, there are ways to avoid it) and being told you have a map whereby the person you were with points you in the direction of the next area should you want to carry on OR he tells you if you'd rather do your own thing then that's fine. How good is that? Instead of wondering should I get on with the quest? Will it matter if I wait too long or can I even go wondering yet? He just flat out tells you that if you want to go walkies, then by all means go walkies but the dragon thing was a big deal, driving home that you've just began your epic journey.

Not once did they pause the game, make you read shit or do a boring ass tutorial level. They don't even tell you it's a tutorial level not that you'd realise as it's so action packed and engrossing you become completely immersed. Brilliant start to a brilliant game.

So we've looked at how games like The Witcher were bad solely because of unintuitve gameplay, whereas games like Skyrim started out on a strong leg due to an informative yet fun introduction and how generally being taken out of the game (breaking immersion) is not only dull in most cases, but really irritating and unrewarding. The point of rewarding players for being smart really needs to be driven home to game designers. There's really no sense of achievement when being told how to do something.

That last point brings me to consoles again, but this time the motion sensitive ones: Wii, Move and Kinect. I myself NEVER had an interest in this, I'm quite happy to continue sitting down while playing with a controller. Nevertheless in the spirit of talking about intuitive play, it really can't get simpler then one of these. You want to swing your sword? Swing the remote. Done. Well, that's what I thought anyway. You can't just make any old movement and it'll do it, you have to swing that sword in a particular way so don't go thinking your Obi-Wan Kenobi and start spinning around the place 'cus that ain't gona cut it. This really destroyed any hopes I already didn’t have with motion sensor play. Technology just isn't at that point yet where you really feel like you're in the game, instead you're left with what I can only describe as a step back for gaming.
For games like Wii Sports yeah of course it makes sense as the whole point is to be active yet for a game like Resident Evil 4 why would you play it with an awkward motion sensor and not a reliable controller? Surely it's just more frustrating and in the end you'll probably end up sitting down anyway. The irony is Nintendo brought out a controller for the Wii.

Went on a bit of a tangent there but the point remains, if not now then sometime in the future we'll have (I hope) games where you actually play the game as if you're in it, just think about that for a second! Like the Matrix or some shee-it as this current motion sensor stuff is for kids... or parties. Really.

As for 3D? When I can play it without having to wear glasses on my glasses or having to sit exactly perpendicular to the screen – then we'll talk.

Talk about irritating.

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