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.

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

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

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

GameCity 5

I have just about recovered from the annual whirlwind event that is GameCity. I’d like to cover the highlights of this year’s games culture festival.

Guardian Breakfasts

Keith Stuart from the Guardian kicked off each morning with a discussion around video games, looking at the new technology, the most important games so far, emotional impact of games and the possible future of gaming. Despite my sleep deprived state these were so good that I still managed to get into Nottingham city centre bright and early and a big thanks to Broadway cinema for putting on a slap up breakfast to help me get started for the day ahead. Unlike me Keith however was lucid and spoke intelligently about each subject, and had a changing panel of guests from speakers at the festival to give their two pence worth.

Limbo

Limbo screenshot

The eerie world of Limbo

Often in games that move me the audio will affect me, even if I’m often unaware of the impact that it is having as it adds to the game without distracting from the game-play. Limbo is just such a game, and Martin Stig Anderson did an amazing job of the audio for the game. His discussion and demonstration of the audio work for Limbo was really enlightening. He detailed how he had created the sounds, rerecording them through wire in order to distort them until the source was no longer decipherable. As Anderson spoke about how the transitions were handled in the platform game, in order to give areas of the game an identity and atmosphere, it really opened my mind to the complex possibilities of audio in games as the usually linear nature of music is turned on it’s head if placed in the context of a nonlinear game where the user controls the journey both in time and space. In Limbo Anderson used the environment of the game to create the soundtrack, rather than overlaying the game with a piece of music.

He also spoke about how audio offers us the most “temporal nuances” compared to our other senses, which tied Jonathan Blow’s earlier talk in the day about Braid and learning the rhythm of platform games, such as Super Meat Boy in order to be able to play them. We can learn to play some games by ear.

James Hannigan

Photo of St Mary's church with choir for GameCity

Photo of the James Hannigan event at GameCity kindly permitted by zo-ii

This event was astounding and a fine example of what GameCity do amazingly well and you experience no where else; the convergence of cultures in a way that is both theatrical and emotive. Last year we saw Robin Hunicke perform Flower in a shopping centre complete with falling petals. This year we had Pinewood Choir in St Mary’s, the oldest church in Nottingham, performing soundtracks from games such as and Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, Warhammer and Harry Potter the Deathly Hallows, complete with live owls. There is something profound about hearing an talented choir perform in the reverberating acoustics of an old gothic church, but when the music they are singing takes to back to a moment in a game they combine in a way that gives a sense of grandeur to an often underrated part of the gaming experience.

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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.

GameCity Squared

I’ve been attending GameCity since its creation, and before that the Broadway’s Screenplay games festival that which ran from 2000. Each year it gets bigger and raises the bar. This year was no exception, with some amazing and large scale events.

This year saw the event take place mostly in the Council House and a large tent pitched outside in Market Square, so the event had its highest public presence to date, which can only be good for the festivals future.

Highlights

The best part of a games festival for me is in exploring new games and new ways of playing, which is evident in my selection of festival highlights.

Sandpit

This was my first experience of pervasive gaming, and I’m totally hooked. I only managed to register for two games due to demand, but this wasn’t really an issue because there were lots of other people waiting too so we were able to start an impromptu game of Werewolf (http://www.eblong.com/zarf/werewolf.html) which needs 7+ players. One of the things I loved was that the people had an open attitude towards play.

I played two games, Hipsync and Moveyhouse, which were great fun and interesting experiences. There is something elevating about reclaiming a space with play and people not taking themselves too seriously. http://sandpit.hideandseekfest.co.uk/events/

Gambling Lambs

Gambling Lambs is a monthly gaming event in Nottingham, which held a special event as part of the festival. There was a great atmosphere and in the same way as Sandpit having a group of friendly strangers willing to play games together is a great experience. It takes place the first Thu of the month and I highly recommend it. http://www.gamblinglambs.com/

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Indiecade

Each year Indiecade offers a selection of new games to play and explore. Each year usually holds a gem or two, last year I played the recently released http://machinarium.net/demo/ The indiecade was set up in the tent in the city centre, which means loads of lovely exposure for those games, but unfortunately there was no sound which is a big part of the experience.

This year a couple of games stood out; Papermint which is a colourful MMO had lovely art inspired by Parapa the Rapper. A surreal game based on Little Red Riding Hood called The Path that had a nice ethereal feeling about, with a dark twist. Moon Stories had some nice narrative based game play. Finally, Classic Night had a beautiful childish gothic art style, a bit like Invader Zim. To find out more any of the games from Indiecade check out their website: http://www.indiecade.com/index.php?/games

Night Blooms

Robin Hunicke played through the whole of the game Flower, to an audience in the arcade behind the council house, while the screen was projected on muslin hung from the ceiling and rose petals occasionally fell from above.

The experience was as close as I’ve seen video gaming come an art installation, and it was an amazing experience. It started off with everyone stood around, but as the performance progressed the audience became increasingly horizontal. The game is very relaxing and hypnotic, while the audio is amazing and the architecture made it all the more dramatic. It was really interesting to experience a game in a totally different context.

World of Wordcraft

This was a panel of (ex)games reviewers trying to create the perfect games review with musical interludes by Rebecca Mayes. I have to agree with one panellist who kept saying reviews were dead, although I suspect we were coming from different positions. He was looking at aggregated scoring, while I’ve replaced games reviewers with my social network. Rebecca Mayes was fun and I really hope she does play some video games too, but for niche marketing she gets bonus points.

Brickfactor

Playing Lego Rock Band in the centre of Nottingham on a Saturday afternoon in front of a crowd and murdering Katrina and Waves will be a lasting memory. Hehe.

15 Pixels

A pleasant surprise of an event, a lunchtime curry session with Alaskan Military, the guys that made the viral for GameCity and the Lego animation guys Spite Your Face – you know the ones that did Camelot , yup them. Entertaining talks about how they do what they do and their inspiration. Great fun and really creative, art and geekery combined is a sure fire win for me.

Masaya Matsuura’s Marching Band

Margaret Robertson held a brilliant interview with Masaya Matsuura, creator of Parrapa the Rapper, where we got to see some of his games that never got a UK release. This was followed by him conducting an audience rendition of Hey Jude on the Kazoo. Priceless.

The End

So when choosing how to spend Halloween, getting zombie make up complete with latex peeling skin courtesy of local make up students and trying to scare the hell out of people seemed like an excellent way to spend it. I was right and was delighted when my friend came as Zoe from L4D and kicked the hell out of the zombies.

GameCity

GamesCity festival happens every year and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with a playful soul.