In the paper I wrote last year for the CHI workshop on user experience in games, I argued that bad usability can be a good thing if it is bad for the right reasons. An example could be the horse in Sonyâ€™s renowned Shadow of The Colossus; when the player is riding the horse, the controls are unresponsive and certainly not effective in the traditional usability sense. The designersâ€™ reason to do this could be two-fold: First, it makes the horse feel alive and real – not even a dressage horse responds mechanically to its riderâ€™s commands. Second, it frustrates the player into being annoyed with the horse, and perhaps even into whipping it repeatedly – imagine the guilt or remorse felt, when late in the game, your only companion, the horse, sacrifices itself to save you. That is a strong experience for a game to create, and it does so through bad usability (and nice directing). I do not know if this was Fumito Ueda’s intention, but for me it was the result.
My own current design approach is to create a list of intended emotional effects and try to build my design around that. More on this later.
I should get back to writing something interesting before this turns into a travel diary. I’m almost done with my thesis and will be posting parts of it here soon. Now though, I will critique the design of the soon to be released puzzler Elefunk. It’s for Playstation 3 and only available in the Playstation Store. With its low price point my critique might seem harsh, but let’s just forget about the price and look at the design. Elefunk is about building bridges for elephants. That is a fun and charming idea and letting a physics system evaluate the strength of the bridges is nice as well. In theory, this should give the player a lot of freedom to design a bridge she likes. The time based score system encourages the player to build the bridge as fast and fragile as possible, such that levels cannot be easily mastered by simply building a huge and very strong bridge.
But Elefunk is no fun, and as I see it, this is due to one big mistake: The player has limited access to the building elements that make up the bridge. This effectively negates the freedom offered by the physics engine and creates puzzles with only one solution (roughly). This was obviously done to create difficult puzzles, because with unlimited supplies of building elements the game would have been really easy. I believe there is a much better way to control the difficulty level though. What the designer should have done, is to increase the weight of the elephant and to add more elephants. This would make the bridges harder to build in the limited space available, even when the player has unlimited access to the building elements. Also, the game would still have the time challenge if one wishes to optimize the score and building process.
Lesson learned? Don’t add a physics engine if you don’t intend to use the freedom it will offer.
The second day at Nordic Game was pretty good too. It began with the guys from Harmonix showing of in Rock Band, before they told how they had approached the design of the game. Their simultaneous development of hardware and software was interesting, and I enjoyed hearing about their open company culture where nothing is kept secret from anyone.
Next I attended a session on designing games for children using either an existing or original IP. The difference did not seem to be that big. Both presenters agreed that children games should not be learning games. Learning is just a nice side effect – I completely agree, and finds that thought applicable to any game. Overtly trying to teach about a traditional school subject is pretty boring, but all games should teach the player something – even if that something is only usable in the game world.
The next session was the highlight of the conference. ICO designer Fumito Ueda and Forbidden Siren designer Keiichiro Toyama had joined a session on disruptive design. They did not talk much about that subject, but we all knew about their innovations anyway. The interesting bits was about their backgrounds. Fumito Ueda showed his early art exhibition design, and told that his first computer was an Amiga. He was thrilled to see the high amount of hands raised when he asked how many (former) Amiga users there were – in Japan no one knew the Amiga. His design philosophy was to affect people’s life, and he went about doing it by working on the visual side first. He also showed an early PS1 prototype of ICO, and an early multiplayer version of Shadow of The Colossus – three horse riders were battling a colossus together. Very nice and too bad it was left out of the final version! I was quite impressed with how much of the games Ueda himself had created – design and story are obvious, but he even did some of the character models and animation. Keiichiro Toyama talked about the new Forbidden Siren (New Translation) game, and how the sight jacking system had been improved using a split-screen setup. He also told the audience that he and Ueda was the only two designers within Sony who were allowed to do what ever they wanted. The last interesting bit from that session, was about Another World – apparently that game is an all time favorite and a great inspirational source to many Japanese game designers. Kind of strange that a western game has that position.
The conference ended with the usual panel discussion on the current state of Nordic game development. Apparently, the biggest problem is to get enough talent from outside our region. Peter Zetterberg from Microsoft also feared that Nordic developers would not reach their full potential unless they became more cocky and aggressive with their pitches. He could easily be talking about the phone conversation I had with him last year when he was with Codemasters…
All in all, it was a nice conference. Much better keynotes than last year, but the other sessions were not as good as last year I think – or maybe I just went to the wrong sessions.
I’m currently attending the Nordic Game conference in MalmÃ¶. A nice conference as usual. This is a summary of my first day conference experience.
The first keynote was with TT Games and about Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones. Their entrance scene was epic – Darth Vader, stormtroopers and dramatic lighting – never seen better. They talked about the company culture at TT Games; meeting free and surrounded by Lego they play their way to success. The main design philosophy behind their games seemed to be rich presentation above deep mechanics.
Next I was at a panel session on social MMO design. Legendary Richard Bartle was among the panelists, and brought along his deep historic insight and knowledge about what players do in a virtual world without games and content (they create it themselves). He also encouraged developers to not try to addict and imprison players – that way they will never return when they manage to take a break. The panelists seemed to agree that MMO-games should be a hero’s journey with your friends.
Then I went through a session showcasing impressive character art from the Furi Furi company, Heavenly Sword and a bunch of scrapped Rare-games – and some old and not that impressive art from Jet Set Radio.
Avalanche then revealed their pitch strategy and how they manage ideas internally. They had a small pitch group which worked to crystalize concepts that any employe could submit via a standard concept submission form. The best pitches was then taken to publishers – no demo was made before doing so, because they neither had the time nor the money to do so. Their strong internal technology was enough to convince publishers about their abilities.
Finally, the first day ended with an absolutely brilliant talk by Ste Curran. The essence was, that the best stories in games are the stories we tell about those stories. So he told some himself, and brought in people to tell other. I guess you would have to be there to understand how great and different it was. Maybe there is a video somewhere?
The final day was short for me as I had a plane to catch (and more than 400 stairs to climb, because I wanted to see the Duomo before leaving Florence). I attended the first and only full CHI session on games. Three papers were presented, and especially the first two were pretty interesting. The first speaker had created Game Over! – a universally inaccessible game. It broke every rule of accessibility and would to some seem like a truly bad game. As a serious game though, with the goal of teaching game designers about accessibility, it was truly great. I need to try that one.
The next speaker had created a list of heuristics for game usability evaluation. I like expert evaluation, but Iâ€™m just not sure heuristics are really needed for an expert to evaluate. Also, after the speak Rolf Molich commented, that evaluators do not actually use heuristics the way they are intended to be used. They spot problems, and then try to match the problem with a heuristic – it is meant to be the other way around. I also liked the comment from Florian â€œFloydâ€ MÃ¼ller, that heuristics are better used by designers than evaluators. I agree with that.
The final paper was about social gaming on the Nintendo DS. The information from the study did not seem new to me though, so I found it kind of boring. There was one good idea though; provide a spectator mode for Nintendo DS games. That would be really cool, and it might actually be doable using the wireless connection to stream the action to the Wii.
Day 3 has been a bit boring compared to the first days. I followed a session on multi and large screen techniques. Nothing was really neat, but a technique called ninja cursors was kind of inspiring to me as a game designer. It was basically a fancy name for using multiple cursors per mouse – all moving synchronously. The average mouse movement distance was reduced, but there were some problems of resolving ambiguity when two or more cursors had a target. In a game though, that might just provide a fun puzzle element.
Another session presented further fancy cursor techniques. The most promising seemed to be pie cursors, which utilized mouse movement direction for making selections on a pie shaped cursor – quite a clever way to remove regular selection menus and tool palettes. Autodesk is currently implementing it in some of their applications, so it should work for huge command sets.
I also joined a special interest group on the field of user experience (UX), discussing how a shared definition is missing. Unsurprisingly, no shared definition was reached. The preliminary result of a survey was promising though, and might provide some consensus once it is finished. The practitionersâ€™ view on UX differed wildly from the researchersâ€™ view – something which is also apparent at the conference exhibition, where UX looks like a big business dealing with very different things. Somehow the practitioners get user-centered design mixed up with user experience. At least that is my impression.