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.

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.

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

My fortnight affair with Nokia – a review of the N8

Nokia N8 handset

For the last two weeks, my HTC Desire has been off for repair, and Nokia very kindly sent me an N8 to try for two weeks, so I wasn’t stuck with the terrible handset T-Mobile gave me. The only condition…. this review.

So here it is the highs and lows of my first Nokia handset, from a user experience designer’s perspective.

I was impressed at first, the N8 offers some haptic feedback, which I think is very valuable when dealing with touchscreen interfaces, but in my opinion it’s too indiscriminate, as you get feedback for any action you perform, including scrolling. However the button feedback is very subtle and effective, with a down and up feedback, much better than other touch screen devices I’ve used.

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The handset itself ok, about the same size and weight as my HTC Desire, complete with audio jack, USB, camera and MicroSD expansion in a sealed unit like an iPhone. In addition it has a HDMI output, which makes more sense when you look at the camera on this handset.

The camera is pretty outstanding, it’s 12 megapixels and has a Carl Zeiss lense and includes a flash. The handset has a dedicated photo button, making it very easy to switch into camera mode. Although the case doesn’t offer a way to protect the lense cover, which is a shame, but would add bulk. The camera is so good that if that features heavily into your phone choice you should definitely consider this handset.

The problem for me came with the operating system, it does do a bunch of cool stuff, but Symbian is still feature rich at the cost of usability. Holding down call, allows you to open apps by voice, but you have to know what to call it, e.g. Internet got me nowhere, while it recognised Contacts and Calendar.

The biggest failing for me was the difficulty with which to get to applications. The desktop space, has multiple screens and is easy to customise, but you can only add widgets, not shortcuts to applications; an option called “shortcuts” just offering four pre-populated shortcuts and if these could be customised I couldn’t work out how. Instead accessing the apps requires I press the home button and navigate through a screen that looks like a slightly improved version of the old ‘mystery meat’ Symbian menu, to an application menu, where all the good stuff sits. It’s only saving grace is that it highlights which applications are open with a little green ‘o’ next to the icon in this menu, and that it is easier to close applications than in either IOS or Android.

It seems fair at this point to talk about the application ecosystem, Nokia has its own ecosystem called Ovi, in the same way Android has Google and the iPhone has iTunes and Mobile Me. You can buy apps and backup your contacts in the same way you can on any smartphone . The problem here is that with any smartphone the apps have a really important part to play. The usual suspects do make an appearance, so you can still play Angry Birds on your N8, but there will be less applications available for general consumption. The Ovi store works smoothly and is not unlike using Android’s marketplace, so it works well, but doesn’t offer anything new. A shame as I think the app stores are the areas that now really need reconsidering in terms of usability.

I did get frustrated when I couldn’t find the handset MAC address, so was unable to add it to my wireless network. Information like this can be well hidden, but it should be available somewhere, after a google I found out you need to put a code into the call screen, which for me is beyond obtuse.

The compact charger is a delight, much lighter and smaller than most, although why it isn’t a USB charger I don’t know.

Overall I did struggle with this handset a bit, but this may be largely because I’m already heavily invested into the Google ecosystem, so once I sync my phone with my Google account everything else comes to life. But I have no investment in Ovi and despite creating an account for this review, it’s unlikely I would ever use it in the same way – seamlessly across multiple platforms. I think that the hardware is pretty good, the camera especially is outstanding, but it needs an operating system that has been built from the ground up as a smartphone OS and Symbian still fails on that front.

Thanks to the great guys at WOMWorld Nokia for the loan of the phone, and credit should be given to Nokia for supporting a venture that engages with social media in a smart way. I expect this will be the first and last review I ever get to do thanks to Twitter, but it has been a great experience.

Games Based Learning: Alice Taylor

Alice Taylor, Commissioning Editor for Channel 4 (and Wonderland blog) talked recently at Game Based Learning, looking at how gaming enables Channel 4 to engage with their target audience of 14 to 19 year old. But also looks at how gaming mechanisms can be used to engage large numbers with an educational agenda.

Video of Alice Taylor

To see the full selection of videos go the the Games Based Learning forum. I’d also recommend Matt Mason’s talk on pirating and how it adds value to the original, touching on how game modding evolved.

Ada Lovelace Day: Robin Hunicke

This year I was really sad to see that the Women in Gaming conference has been cancelled due to low delegate numbers. I am an avid gamer and I think the games industry is sometimes behind other areas of technology, where it could really benefit from getting more women involved in games development. Often women go for the human focused areas of development, such as user experience or copyright, which are often sadly overlooked in games development. Instead there are a steady stream of churned out games like Imagine Babies and its ilk, lacking original gameplay and creativity. While I am glad that the games industry is finally realising gamers are girls and women too and I value a diverse set of games to choose from, I don’t think it all needs to be Barbie dolls and toy soldiers in electronic form. Obviously this isn’t just due to a lack of women, but by cultural stereotypes and an industry that has increasingly large budgets and monolithic development houses. Independant games development however still have a wealth of opportunity.

There are however some amazing women involved in games development, one of whom is Robin Hunicke who is a games designer and producer. While at EA she worked on My Sims and Boom Blocks and their sequels before recently moving to ThatGameCompany, who developed the truly awesome Flower. She combines this with academic study on Artificial Intelligence and Video Games, building bridges between the theory and the application. Her research on dynamic difficulty examines different techniques for representing and reasoning about uncertainty, to see how these approaches can be extended and combined to create flexible interactive experiences that adjust on the fly.

Robin Huckine and her cat Mika

I was lucky enough to see Robin talk at Gamecity last year and she spoke about how in order to be a better game designer you need to do much more than play games that you need to look outwards and experience as much of life a possible, reading and travelling. I think this is great advice no matter what your role, especially where you want to explore creativity. She also spoke passionately about using sketchbooks to capture ideas, to allow you to externalise ideas, and as creative people to capture ideas and work through some concepts, something which has definitely been true in my experience.

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One of the things I’d like to thank Robin for is her focus on making games accessible to a wider audience in creative ways that doesn’t just mean making games easy (and boring). Games like Boom Blocks use complicated physics engines and while it is really easy to get to grips with the gameplay, through the intuitive wii remote and game responsiveness. It doesn’t isolate gamers by being easy or hard, but very cleverly has levels which can be played at a diverse set of skill levels, providing enough of a challenge to keep the most hardcore gamer engaged. It is highly sociable, being a game that begs to be played with friends and one I always get out to play with the non-gamers who come to visit. In addition it allows me to share levels I’ve created online with my friends. All of this adds up to a very accessible and sociable experience that is quite different from most games on the market. I think this a real reflection of the kind of gameplay that should be encouraged in game development when they are looking to widen their appeal.

She said in her letter to Kotaku about her move to ThatGameCompany:

“All my work is united by a single thread. I want to reach new people, with new experiences, via the medium of games and the language of game design.”

Robin’s second area of research also reinforces this, by examining how to evolve game narratives to the next level. Something that I think is essential to help broaden the appeal of gaming and for games to engage their users and to really find its feet as an art form in its own right. She says on her website:

“I’m also interested in how notions of fate, meaning and consequence can be communicated via video games. I believe that consequence is the key to expanding their narrative repertoire – for without consequence, actions have no weight and choices can do little more than satisfy our basest instincts and curiosities.”

I think a great example of this is seeing how Robin moved the Sims franchise along with the MySims release. If you look at the original Sims games you spent your time trying to manage your time between needing a wee and going to work to allow you to buy more stuff for your house. MySims made it less about this sort of capitalist aspiration and more sociable, focusing on developing relationships and creating things to give away, to support a mayor who needs to attract more people to his town. I think one of the things we can learn from the success of Facebook is that if you want to engage a female audience in your games that to make it sociable is a really great way to do it.

Let’s hope we see more people like Robin in the games industry, working as advocates for the indie games industry, as well as growing appreciation for the more user focused aspects such as writers and user experience designers. I highly recommend her UX2009 presentation which really shows how she has exposed the UX role within games development. Thanks Robin.

Project Natal

Project Natal was announced by Microsoft at E3 as new interface peripheral for the Xbox 360, which removes the need for a joypad, instead body movement, facial recognition and voice are used for interaction.

We have seen similar innovations with the EyeToy for the PS2 and the notion detection in the Wii, but both have severe limitations. The EyeToy is a single lens camera, so it is easily affected by lighting and background, while the motion detection in the Wii is built into the joypad and has limited capabilities by default.

The demo shown at E3 is jaw dropping, showing seemingly natural interaction with a character called Milo, but anyone with any experience of Microsoft demos treats them with appropriate levels of scepticism. Since they haven’t beaten the Turing test there is certainly some smoke and mirrors going on, in the words of Milo’s creator Peter Molyneux “If we had, then applying it to a computer game would be the last of the solutions we’d use it for.”

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Other demos include a painting application and a dodgeball style game. They are relatively low tech examples but the dodgeball game has been demonstrated with journalists and celebrities, and has appeared to withstand their scrutiny. Interestingly Endgadget’s demo turned the lights down to see if it can cope with different lighting, and it had no problems.

Although shy on the details Microsoft have said it contains an RBG camera, an infrared camera, a multi-array microphone and a depth map. New Scientist among others suggested it is using the infrared camera technology by 3DV, an Israeli company that Microsoft purchased. This heat detection allows it to maintain a level of functionality regardless of light sources or obstacles.

Project Natal claims to have facial recognition and voice recognition, but we’ve only really seen this in the Milo demonstration, which could have been entirely scripted. So the extent of this capability is still not fully understood, although the voice recognition is based on Windows 7 functionality.

While Natal does recognise actions sitting down, a notable thing from the demos is the space of the room they were demoing in. When you use your whole body as a controller you need enough space to do so. A bit like Wii Fit, removing the traditional controller can pose logistical problems for the smaller household; for me my living room becomes more like an obstacle course.

Paradoxically playing a game with your body rather than your thumbs can be both more intuitive and harder work. I am old enough that can still remember my initial awkwardness interacting with a computer mouse or a console joypad, even though it seems like second nature now. However this hurdle is removed by Natal, making gaming and potentially all human-computer interaction much more accessible and intuitively responsive to an even wider audience, although it lacks the feedback a physical peripheral affords.

If I sat playing Burnout as it has been demonstrated with Natal my arms would ache after a while. But one thing I do know from marathon Guitar Hero sessions is that I will play through most aches for the right game. Interestingly a great many of the games we play allow us to explore far beyond our own physical limitations, so I wonder where the disparity is between simulation and escapism and what we desire from our gaming experience.

I don’t think we will be getting rid of the joystick anytime soon, but this definitely opens the door to new kinds of games and game play that we haven’t seen before. Its greatest potential is in the creative and imaginative hands of games and software designers everywhere.

Girl Geek Dinners is relaunched in Nottingham

At last the ball is rolling…

I'm really excited that at last I have managed to get the ball rolling and Girl Geek Dinners are back up and running in Nottingham. I have to say a massive and huge thank you to everyone who has been really supportive. I've never run an event like this before, but what I lack in experience I make up for in enthusiasm and a willingness to ask questions.

If you want to be kept up to date about these events then either email me or follow @NottsGirlGeeks on Twitter.

2008 Technology Retrospective

This is a personal retrospective on technologies that had a significant impact on my life over the last 12 months, that is to say they are not necessarily new technologies, or even new to me, but the way that I use them has dramatically changed or had a significant impact that wasn't there before.

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Podcasts

In 2008 I've got into downloading and listening to podcasts. The main barrier to entry for me had been finding the quality content, but I found the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast interesting enough that I made the effort to download it regularly. After getting an iPod it became a great deal easier to find interesting and useful content thanks to the iTunes store and for all its flaws it offers a nice hands off way of maintaining my subscriptions. While Juice can offer the subscription management for other players, it lacks a resource to plug into as a way of finding interesting content. The whole thing is disappointingly hardware centric.

Impact:

It makes better use of my commute time, and offers an additional way to take in useful information that can be easier to multi task than keeping on top of my RSS reader. However it is still very much about finding the right content and for me that is mostly covered off by the Guardian Tech Weekly, TED talks and Channel Flip Games (sadly this website fails to acknowledge their female audience).

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Twitter

This one is another late one for me, although I registered over a year ago I didn't have enough friends using the service and I didn't know how to find the interesting conversations. Two things changed over the course of the year; my brother became very active and offered me friendly face of whom I could ask the stupid questions (Twitter is not newbie friendly). Secondly I attended the #foct08 conference that actively encouraged participation through Twitter, by simultaneously projecting a live Twitter stream, thus offering me a reason to twitter and contribute whilst also finding those much needed contacts and conversations that make Twitter so engaging.

Impact:

It has already had a rather profound influence, since some of my usual bloggersphere haunts have become Twitter contacts, enabling me to have a much more direct conversation with those individuals than blog comments normally afford. Because of the very linear and immediate nature of Twitter I often use it instead of my RSS reader, I then get a direct link to the site, rather than seeing the content in sub-par experience of a reader. It has definitely altered my surfing habits and I am still finding new ways of hunting down other interesting people to follow, hashtags, MrTweet and Twitter Grader are proving quite useful.It has to be said this also offers the ambient intimacy (kudos Leisa) that appealed about Facebook, which is now neglected in lieu of Twitter.

Gaming

I got a Wii for my birthday this year and this was really the introduction of third generation console gaming into my home. Although there is a lot written about how the Wii has attracted casual gamers, the really interesting thing for me is the new way you can interact with the console and the new sorts of games that are being developed as a result. The most interesting games in my mind take advantage of these new kinds of interactions, without this the Wii is a poor relative to the other consoles, even with Nintendo's development powerhouse behind it. The other thing I like that Nintendo did was to explore mixing play with other tasks we would don't traditionally associate with gaming, such as learning or exercise, but it is interesting since as kids we learn through play.

Impact:

There have been a couple of games that although released across platforms have created a specific Wii version that utilises the controller, for me this is essential and can be the deciding factor in buying a game I would of skipped over on another console. The types of games I play has widened too.

Mobile Internet

At last thanks to the iPod and my HTC touch the mobile internet is mostly usable. It's not ready to replace my laptop yet, but on those occasions when I want internet access and I don't have access to my PC it fills the gap and works well for most sites. It has been increasingly useful when at work with restricted internet access, I can use my phone to check my email and sites like Facebook.

Impact:

Closer to ubiquitous computing. I can feed my internet addiction almost anywhere 🙂

Seadragon on the iPhone

Microsoft has released it's first iPhone application and its a good one. Some of the more interesting things that are coming out of Microsoft labs are Photosynth and Seadragon, you can see an excellent demo of this at a TED talk from 2007:

In brief Seadragon allows you to zoom quickly and smoothly through a great deal of visual information, so much information infact that when I originally saw the demo I assumed it was a little bit of demo magic being worked on a very high end computer. The zoom interface of Seadragon would seem like a natural fit with the multi-touch interface of the iPhone, but I had always thought that the iPhone did not have the necessary computing power to run such an application, thankfully I was wrong.If you are lucky enough to have an iPhone or iPod check Seadragon out and let me know what you think.