Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Improving Usability In Games Pt. 1

Techniques of game usability ...

"What does it mean to be “next-gen”? What makes this generation of games different from the last? What does it mean to be a modern game? The answer doesn't always lie in graphics or fancy features, but simple usability.

It’s been almost two-and-a-half years since the Xbox 360 hit the market and we as an industry still haven’t figured out what to do with the new hardware. We seem to have gotten lost in the idea that being next-gen is related to the number of polys you can push.

FAIL.

We’ve seen beautiful Unreal Engine 3 games flop, while Wii Sports and Guitar Hero dominate the sales charts. PS2 games still sell strongly. We’re adrift. Big budget titles that miss sink whole studios and still we seem most concerned with graphical fidelity.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve praised games like Mass Effect for using modern graphics technology (including Unreal...) to raise the bar on emotive storytelling in games. I've lauded Bioshock for cementing the magic circle in a beautiful art deco façade, but I don’t think that is where the heart of this generation lies.

The heart of this generation lies in understanding that we’ve become a mass media. This generation it is our job to lower the barriers to entry while not diminishing what we can do with our art. If we are to justify modern budgets, if we are to rationalize focusing the amount of time and talent required to make a triple-A title on making games, then we cannot let stand artificial barriers to entry.

The heart of this generation lies in usability. It’s time we establish a baseline for what a player can expect when approaching a game. I’m not controller crusader, I’m not going to say we need to go back to having two buttons or that we should issue mocap suits with every system but I think there are 10 relatively pain-free things every console game should include.

Without further ado, the first five usability features every game should include:

Universal Pause

This one’s an easy one. At any time the player needs to be able to walk away from the game knowing they aren’t going to lose anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the middle of a cutscene or in the center of a Rock Band solo, if the player can’t go answer the phone without feeling like they are making a sacrifice, we haven’t done our job.

How best to do this changes from game to game. For example: if you are making a Guitar Hero style game you might give the player the option to resume the game from two measures back and let them ghost the notes without any penalty until they return to where they were at, if you were making an epic RPG you might simply be able to include a sleep feature where the game “pauses” if no buttons have been pressed for a few minutes.

This may seem like the basics (and it should be) but many games don’t follow the “lose nothing” mantra closely enough. I’ve seen plenty of games that attach an “hours played” tag to save files but not freeze that counter when the game is on pause. This may seem trivial but I’ve spoken to gamers who can’t leave their seat until they get to a save point or find some other way to stop the timer from ticking. This causes resentment. No one should ever resent a game."    (Continued via Next Generation)    [Usability Resources]

Pause / Timeout - Usability, User Interface Design

Pause / Timeout

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