On a mission to stay curious

One of the challenges of having decades of experience is it’s easy to become complacent and think you’ve seen it before. It is easy to jump to conclusions, so it’s important to remain open-minded and to look for fresh perspectives.

Here are some of my favourite ways to try and stay curious:

A playful spirit

Playing games is seen as a childish activity, but it requires the ability to learn and adapt. It creates a safe environment in which to make mistakes, which in turn gives permission to try more outlandish or unexpected courses of action. Taking some of this into the real world is great for being brave about trying something new and how to learn and adapt quickly.

Seek out fresh perspectives

We already have a natural bias to think others see the world the same as ourselves and the world of social media magnifies that. Sadly this often creates a highly divisive ‘us and them’ situation,  making it harder to understand those perspectives we don’t share.

However, there is a huge amount of value in finding a way to build links with those who have different experiences and different perspectives. By concentrating on the things we have in common, we can open ourselves up to conversations that challenge our thinking. No one needs to change their mind, but seeing how others got to their perspective builds empathy and broadens our own understanding.

Adventure time

I love to travel, but sometimes doing unfamiliar things can be scary. Whether we are going to new places or standing up and giving a presentation, doing something we find challenging is a great way to prove to ourselves that we are capable of more than we realise. Broadening our horizons, often while actually having fun, because there’s a buzz in realising we did it!

I’ve yet to succeed in curing my fear of heights this way, but I’ve still managed to walk through the Amazon canopy bridge walk and zipline at Victoria Falls. So it’s a great adventure to not let my fears hold me back.

Wild imagination

One of the things I did to survive lockdown while staring at very familiar walls was to play games that needed me to use my imagination. Playing tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons (at least the way I like to play it) is a group storytelling experience. You get to create a character and need to think about how their perspective may differ from yours or the other players and then you’re presented with a series of challenges that you look for interesting ways to solve. Finding a fun story together with your friends is a great way to collaborate and deal with the unexpected.

Keep learning

I started this by talking about how it’s easy to jump to a conclusion if you feel you’ve seen the problem before. A way to challenge those assumptions is by providing yourself with new experiences, whether it’s feeding llamas or fighting dragons. Learning something is a great reminder that there is always something new for us, be it a different language, a musical instrument or a crafting hobby. 

How does that help at work?

Your day job might not always offer opportunities to explore imaginary worlds, but it can offer possibilities for collaboration and work with different perspectives. Trying new approaches can lead to better problem-solving and learning faster and not fearing mistakes are all ways to improve innovation. I hope we can all stay curious together.

AAA Games and UX foundations

For Christmas I received Red Dead Redemption 2 for the PS4, the much anticipated latest game from Rockstar Games, makers of the GTA series. What amazes me is that despite the huge budgets for these games, they still seem to overlook getting the UX foundations right.

There is so much time and effort put into these games; the crunch on this game got some press attention at launch, but ultimately no one was surprised. All those hours and all that hard work, crafting a beautiful open world experience that is truly outstanding. However yet again (and this is consistent for Rockstar games) they haven’t addressed a terrible menu system and an even worse control system.

I wonder if this issue persists because new game releases are often evolutions of previous games, and like trying to fix the navigation on a website, making the changes after everything has been built on top of it, becomes a prohibitive barrier because it’s too expensive and requires too much rework. But if you spend many years and hundreds of millions of pounds building a game, like a house, get the foundations right!

It also doesn’t seem to diminish the game’s success, RDR2 has sold very well. Gamers are all about overcoming challenges, I just prefer my challenges to be by design rather than neglect. To fail to address the control system in a game, feels like filming a movie while neglecting the lighting, or recording an album ignoring the balance, it’s so intrinsic to how the consumer experiences the final product.

My complaints about the RDR2 control system stem from a need to perform some kind of finger contortion to use the selection menu. Usually, I’m a fan of radial menus in games, it makes the most of the joystick and is great for quick select. But in RDR2 you hold L1 to open the menu, then just the joystick to select your choice, but there is an added level of complexity where you can use triggers to blindly scroll through the options in each space of the wheel and R1 tabs through different menu wheels.  In addition if at any point you release L1 on a selected item is will use/toggle/select, which can often lead to unintended results.

Red Dead Redemption 2 wheel menu showing how trigger is used to change the item.

Combined with an unforgiving game system, so that if you fire unintentionally in the wrong place,  or remove your mask at a critical point, the game will punish you with people shooting at you, higher bounties or even death. This game is often challenging for the wrong reasons and that’s a shame because there’s a lot to enjoy too.

My other major complaint with the controls and the menu system is around context. Controls vary depending on what you’re doing, for example, riding your horse, standing next to your horse, walking around, armed or unarmed. Controls changing based on context is pretty standard, but my problem with RDR2 is consistency. The challenge of modern games is their increasing complexity, while the controller remains largely unaltered. So in trying to meet the needs of that complexity buttons have to do more than one thing. But most games reduce this complexity through consistency, so the right trigger will fire weapon, whether on foot or on a horse, firing with a gun or attacking with a fist. But RDR2 then also uses the triggers for navigation,  increasing the risk of mistaken action.

For a good example of a wheel menu look at Overwatch.

Overwatch’s control system is largely very good, one exception is a relatively new character Moira who uses magic in her hands to attack, rather than a gun. The main attack action throughout the game is the right trigger, but with Moira that heals! In addition this animated from her left hand, so there is a visual disconnect. You often see newer players unintentionally healing enemies before attacking. It makes no sense to me that they don’t swap these around so there is continuity between the user action and what they see on screen, and so right trigger is consistent with the main attack as with other characters.

Demonstrating the disconnect for Overwatch’s Moira, between the controls and what is shown to the player.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is still a beautiful game, although I confess I’d rather go bird watching than on a train heist. With all software development it’s a matter of priorities, but if you can have someone dedicated to animating horse scrotums I’d suggest you can find the capacity to make sure your control system is uo to scratch.

Playing at UX for Design Exchange Nottingham

Recently I spoke at Design Exchange Nottingham about playful UX. I’ve had a long standing interest in games as well as professional career in UX and I thought I’d talk about how they inform each other. Plus if all else failed I might get some people interested in some new games.

I’ve shared the slide deck on SlideShare:

But I thought I’d write up my notes as well since SlideShare wasn’t playing nicely with Keynote.

DxN event

Introduction

The intention of my talk is to look at what we can learn about UX from games, what they can learn from UX and whether games can make us better designers.
What can we learn about UX from games?

Learning from Games

The first game I talked about was Monument Valley.

 

Monument Valley title

Monument Valley

Monument Valley is a great mobile puzzle game that won the best iPad game in 2014. It had about 2.5 million downloads, before it was mentioned on House of Cards. It has a loose narrative and a beautiful clean art style.

When talking about user experience in the real world, architects create some of the most interested spaces and experiences, such as these:

Tverrfjellhytta

Tverrfjellhytta – Norweigian Wild Reindeer Pavillion by SNØHETTA

DxN-talk.005

When we consider architecture in games, we are often talking about level design, whether it is the more traditional Victorian London or a more fantastical setting. But level design is the physical system setting for gameplay and often a key factor in designing your experience.

Read More »Playing at UX for Design Exchange Nottingham

New projects – UX Notts

UXNottsPoster

Frustrated with the lack of local UX events, I’ve decided to run one. Thanks to support from both the Creative Quarter and my colleague Wayne Moir we have now got a UX event in Nottingham.

UX Notts has its first event on the 19th November and the Pavilion on Lace Market Square. Which will be looking at Agency vs In-house design.

Previously I’ve been involved in running events like Nottingham’s Girl Geek Dinners and helped with Women wot Tech in Sheffield, but I’m looking forward to doing something specific to UX and to be back in the centre of Nottingham.

Updating the Bechdel Test for video games

If you are not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it is a simple test to apply to films; (i) there must be at least two women in it, (ii) who talk to each other, (iii) about something besides a man.

Many films still fail this test, though it was made popular back in 1985. The test only goes as far to look at the visibility of women in film, and to examine that they are defined by more than their relationship to a man. It doesn’t examine how the women are portrayed and a film that passes the test may in no way be a feminist film. It’s simplicity is both it’s strength and it’s weakness.

I’m interested in how this could be applied to the context of video games. But in order for it to work I think there needs to be some changes. So here is my version:

(i)There must be a female character with whom you can interact, (ii) who doesn’t need rescuing, (iii) and isn’t a prostitute.

Such a test comes with the assumption that there are gendered characters within the game. Some games, such as Flow or Space Invaders, do not have any characters of gender.

Samus Aran from Metroid

Samus Aran from Metroid by Ivan Flores

Conversation vs. Interaction

In film, the story is conveyed to a passive audience primarily through the dialogue of the cast. But in gaming, the game is defined by interactions that the player controls. Whether it is shooting, fighting, flying, walking or talking, different games draw on different actions, but it is the the player that performs these actions.

So in creating a test suitable for video games, I am less concerned about women talking to each other, but rather the actions performed to, with or by them. As it’s through these actions that we experience the game.Read More »Updating the Bechdel Test for video games

GameCity 6

Another amazing GameCity, we are in year six now and I’ve attended every year in some form or other. Each year the festival grows and develops in new and interesting ways and this year was no exception. There is no other event like this one, it offers a unique experience to explore and celebrate games, playing, art and their cultural significance. As such it draws a diverse audience from all over and it is these amazing people that really make GameCity the highlight of my year.

So here are some of my highlights and feelings about this year:

Journey and Robin Hunicke

Robin Hunicke presents the development of Journey at GameCity

One of the most profound moments in GameCity history was when Robin played Flower in the arcade behind the Council House, then her talk on creative minds in the same year inspired this blog post. So I was elated to hear she was joining us again this year to play Journey, the latest game from That Game Company.

This year we had beanbags in preparation, with the addition of consoles set up around the tent to play along. Given the collaborative nature of Journey this seemed a great idea and was a natural progression from observer to participant.

Beforehand Robin spoke of the process of creating a game that allowed and encouraged co-operative play, and how to encourage the desired behaviour, instead of griefing and competitive play, so often found online. I always enjoy this insight into the design of the user experience in games.Read More »GameCity 6

User Interfaces in Games

Games UI Series

For some time I have written about both my professional and social interests on this blog; covering user experience and gaming, but I want to combine them and look at user interface design in games. I think this is an oft-neglected part of games, especially with the usual budget and time constraints, however as with any software design the usability of the user interface can have a profound effect on the user’s experience.

World of Warcraft screen with massive campaign detail

An advanced user experience on World of Warcraft

Usability in games is not restricted to on screen interactions, there is a such diversity of ways to interact with your gaming platform of choice; be it joypad, keyboard, touch screen, or no controller at all. This makes the platform and method of interaction a key part of the user experience in games, as such I will explore the strengths and weaknesses of these human-computer interfaces.

Some games designers and developers think that creating games is completely different to creating other software, because they are creating entertainment rather than tools. However recently as we have seen an increasing overlap between games and applications e.g. Epic Win we can see that these lines are far more blurred than previously considered. Software development has only recently realised the commercial value of user experience, but games developers often consider themselves the audience as well as the creators, failing to realise that their familiarity with their game hampers their ability to see their product impartially; perhaps more frustrated by the focus groups that require them to “dumb down” games than they are in the issues that may cause that confusion in the first place. While games do need to offer challenges in order to evoke a sense of achievement, these challenges should be designed and deliberate and not a hurdle of a poorly designed interface.

I was delighted to see that Edge has added to its staff Graham McAllister; the CEO of Vertical Slice, the UK’s first usability testing company to focus solely on games. This recognition of the need for usability in an industry leading publication can only help raise the profile of the value of understanding your users.

I’m hoping to write a series of game reviews, which look specifically at the UI and give a heuristic review on their strengths and weaknesses as well as offering possible alternative solutions where appropriate.Read More »User Interfaces in Games