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In addition to the game’s viewpoint, there is also the consideration of other information the player will need to know and the actions they will need to take. This might include points or progress in the game, status of other units, communication with other players, choices that are always open to them, or special opportunities to take action. How will you incorporate this information in or around your main view? This “interface” to the game, as mentioned previously, works together with the controls and viewpoint to create the game experience, and needs to be extremely understandable.
Just as with designing controls, the tried and true method usually works better than innovation. Once people become accustomed to a certain type of interface, it’s difficult for them to adjust to even small changes. This is a paradox that has plagued designers—and not just game designers—since the beginnings of industrial design. How can we design something new and innovative that is also intuitive and easy to use? The ideal interface would be fresh and new, but feel like something you’ve used a thousand times before. Is this possible? The answer is yes, but it’s not easy. There are no short cuts to good design, but there are some ways of approaching your design process that can help your games reflect both original thinking and sensitivity to user expectations.
You may have heard the phrase “form follows function.” Louis Henri Sullivan, the architect who introduced this comment to popular culture, was making the statement that the design of an object must come from its purpose. If you’re going to build a building, ask yourself about the purpose of the building before you design the doors. If you are going to build a game, ask yourself what are the formal elements of the game before you design its interface or controls. If you don’t, you wind up with a game that looks and acts like every other game.
Today, many designers simply revert to saying things like, “My game is Halo but set in a maximum security prison, where you have to escape.” In most cases, the designer will borrow the interface and control scheme from Halo, and then design the content to fit within these parameters, with perhaps a new feature or two thrown in. That’s fine, and it may be a fun game, but it’s never going to be very unique. The key to avoiding producing nothing but clones of existing games is to go back to your original concept and ask yourself, “What’s special about this idea?”
In the prison example, the concept was to escape from prison. The conflict is clear: the prisoner must outsmart the security. Now how can you do this in a new way? What does a prisoner need to do to break out of prison? What types of tools and weapons and obstacles are there? As designer, you should play with how to represent these onscreen. Don’t just copy existing games. Experiment with new ways of visualizing these elements, assign them properties, and allow them to interact with one another. As you can see, the interface is coming from the game, not vice versa.
The best approach is never to design the interface first but let it evolve from the necessities mandated by the function of the game. In other words, form follows function.
Visual interfaces are at root metaphorical. They are graphical symbols that help us to navigate the arcane universe that is the computer. You are probably most familiar with the desktop metaphor that both Microsoft Windows and the Macintosh operating system share. File folders, documents, in-boxes, and trashcans are all clever metaphors for various system features and objects. This metaphor is successful because it helps users contextualize the experience of working with various objects on the computer in a way that is familiar.
When you design your game interface, you need to consider its basic metaphor. What visual metaphor would best communicate all the possible procedures, rules, boundaries, etc., that your game contains? Many games use physical metaphors linked to their overall themes. So, for example, the objects a character can “carry” in a role- playing game are placed in a “backpack.” Just like in our discussion of premise in Chapter 4 on page 91, interface metaphors take the dry, statistical facts linked in the computer’s memory and display them in a way that fits with the experience of the game.
When creating a metaphor, it’s important to keep in mind the “mental model” that players will bring with them to the game. This mental model can either help players to understand your game, or it can cause them to misunderstand it. Mental models include all of the range of ideas and concepts that we associate with a particular context. For example, if I were to make of list of concepts that come to mind when I think about a circus, I might come up with something like this: the ringmaster, the rings, clowns, high wire, barkers, side shows, animals, popcorn, cotton candy, master of ceremonies, etc.
If I were making a game that used the metaphor of a circus for its interface, I might decide to have the ringmaster be the host or help system. The rings might be different game areas or types, popcorn and candy might be power-ups. Using this metaphor helps to visualize this information in an entertaining way.
However, if you are not careful, your metaphor can also obscure navigation. Each of the concepts we listed has its own range of associations as well, and sometimes the mental models we bring to a metaphor can cause more confusion than clarity.
Exercise 11.4: Metaphors
Generate a list of potential metaphors for your original game interface. They can be anything: a farm, a road map, a shopping mall, a railroad—you choose. Now, free associate on each metaphor for five minutes. List any concepts that come to mind.
In the midst of a game, players often need to process many types of quantitative information very quickly. A good way to help them do this is to visualize the information, so that a glance will suffice to let them know their general status. We are all familiar with visualization techniques: the gas gauge in your car sweeps in an arc from full to empty, the thermometer bar rises as the temperature goes up. These examples both use cultural expectations to cue us as to what they mean—the arc sweeping left or down means the amount of gas is declining; a rising bar means that something is going up. This is called “natural mapping,” and game interfaces can make good use of them.
The Quake interface we’ve looked at before is actually a great example of using natural mapping to visualize an aspect of the game state. The face in the center represents our health—when we start the game, the face is angry and snarling, but healthy. As our character takes hits, the face becomes bruised and bloody, letting us know our status in a glance.
President, Shiny Entertainment, Inc.
Project list (five to eight top projects)
Enter the Matrix
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
How did you get into the game industry?
I started getting paid to make games before you could buy games in stores. Back in those days, you bought special magazines or books filled with games written in a programming language called “BASIC.” The reader would have to type the entire game that they wanted to play into their computer by hand. Sometimes it would take them hours, then when they tried to actually “play” the game, if they had made one single typo, the game would likely break and they could spend another hour just looking for their mistake. So that’s what I did, I wrote tons of games to be printed in magazines and, finally, books. Once games were sold in stores, I was offered a job to start making a “real” game, and that is what hooked me. So I left school at seventeen (without a degree) and never looked back.
What are your five favorite games and why?
Battlefield: 1942 and Grand Theft Auto III because you feel you can do anything. The world is your oyster. You can choose to play the way the game wants you to, or choose to just have fun and entertain yourself. I think that’s a great option for gamers, because some of them want to be entertained right now and some of them are very creative and are quite happy to entertain themselves. I like Halo and Max Payne for their action sequences you feel immersed in their world and can really get into the action. I like Command & Conquer for the strategy depth it offers, as you find yourself managing lots of things at once. The more you can handle, the more it can give you to handle. When you think you are good, go ahead and challenge others. Very rewarding.
What games have inspired you the most as a designer and why?
I think the games that kick me up the pants most are games like the ones Peter Molyneux or Warren Spector do. Basically they think big right out of the box. You can take it to the bank that whatever they do next will be interesting and challenging. I like that, and I wish more people did it.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Over the last 21 years, I have taken a lot of risks, and luckily enough of them have paid off. As a result, I’ve had my share of #1 hits, but I’ve also had games that even I hate. I think I am most proud of the fact that through very difficult times, I have managed to keep Shiny not only alive but as a really cool place to make games where we are willing to try new ideas. (Shiny turned ten years old in October 2003.)
What words of advice would you give to an aspiring designer today?
I have a free web site called www.dperry.com to help new talent get started in this industry. All I can say is please help me make it better by making sure your questions are answered, or share your experiences with people that you know are going through the same things. Overall? Passion is key. If you feel interested in getting into the industry, that’s not enough. You need to be willing to put everything else aside (including sleep) if you plan to compete in this industry. Those with the passion will go far; those without will end up frustrated. Is it worth it? Heck yes!
Exercise 11.5: Natural Mapping
Are there any opportunities to use natural mapping in your original game interface? If so, sketch out these ideas to clarify how the designs might function. You can use these ideas later when you lay out your full interface designs in Exercise 11.8.
When you organize your desk, you probably sort things into similar groups—all the bills go together, all the business cards together, all the pens and pencils together, etc. Designing an interface requires the same kind of thinking. It’s often best to group similar features together visually, so that the player always knows where look for them.
Don’t move your features from one area to another when changing screens or areas of the game. As Noah Falstein counters in his Game Developer column “Better By Design,” consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but it is also important in establishing a usable interface. Have you ever played a game in which the exit button moved from the upper right on one screen, then to the lower right on another? If so, you have experienced the frustration of inconsistency.
Letting the player know, through visual or aural feedback, that their action has been accepted is critical. A good designer always provides some sort of feedback for each action the player makes.
Aural feedback is very good for letting the player know that input has been received, or that something new is about to happen. It is not extremely effective for giving precise data like the exact status of a player’s resources, or letting the player know where their units are. In this case, you’ll need to come up with a method of visual feedback.
Figure 11.11: Quake health meter in three states
If you have several types of health meters, for example, don’t put them in different corners of the screen—group them together. If you have several combat features, you can make them more convenient to access by putting them on a single control panel. Or, if you have communication features in your game, it will make sense to group these as well.
Exercise 11.6: Grouping
Take a stack of index cards and list one control from your interface on each card. Sort the cards into groups that make sense to you. Try the same exercise with three or four other people. Notice the similarities and differences between each person’s decisions. Does this exercise give you any ideas on how best to group your game’s controls?
Exercise 11.7: Feedback in Your Game
Determine what types of feedback your game needs to communicate effectively to the player. Decide how best to present this feedback: auditorily, visually, tactilely, etc.
One of the best ways to convey your interface design to your production team is to create wireframes. Like an architect’s blueprints, wireframes are basic outlines of the structure and functionality of your interface. Wireframes don’t have to be artistic. They just need to be well-thought–out and complete. You may find as you work through all the screens that you need to go back and change the ones you did in the beginning. This is precisely why we do wireframes, so that we can find and solve issues of metaphor, grouping, and consistency before involving the artists and programmers. Figure 11.12 shows a sample wireframe.
Noah Falstein, “Better By Design: The Hobgoblin of Small Minds,” Game Developer, June 2003.
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