Thursday, January 22, 2009

Why Design Games?

I failed to point this one out when it was published earlier this month:

"Why design games?" Game Career Guide. You can click on the title of this post.

Design lesson from Fallout 3 (PS3)

I don't often talk about specific video games here, but there are aspects of games that are much more common in video games than in non-electronic games, and one of these is the user interface. Yes, non-video games have a user interface, but it's very different from the on-screen and control interface of video games. In this case, I'm talking about the PS3 version of Fallout 3.

Fallout 3, more or less a role-playing game, is first and foremost a PC game. The PC keyboard provides far more options than the PS3 controller, hence inevitably the game will be more awkward to play on the console unless it is substantially redesigned.

I recently watched my brother play this game (on a 46" hi-def screen, no less). I can see why people might like it, though it seemed a little tedious to me (the buying and selling and walking from place to place) compared with paper RPGs, as well as lacking in the essential ingredient of paper RPGs--comradery with other players. However, I'm not here to review it, just to talk about one interface failure.

When you (your character) "talk" with another character, the game shows that other character's mouth movement and you hear a voice actor speak the words. You're then presented with three or more choices to "speak" back to the other person. Here's where the problem is. Even if there are more than three options, the on-screen display shows only three, with a little arrow to indicate when there are more than three.

My brother (and I) did not initially notice the arrow, so habitually he would hold down a button/joystick to scroll down using the PS3 controller to the bottom of the reply list, then work his way back up reading the possible responses. This was time-consuming in any case, and he was in the habit of trying to scroll down even if there were only three responses. We'll avoid the question, "why not show all the responses at once"--I'll suppose that for aesthetic reasons the designers didn't want to cover up the picture of the person you're talking with, though I personally would much much rather see all the responses at once because the graphic doesn't tell me anything I don't already know.

No, my question is, why didn't the designers put a number on that initial screen that showed exactly how many possible responses there were? This would not only have been more obvious than the little arrow, it would have carried additional information to the player. The player wouldn't have to just hold down a button or joystick to get to the bottom of the list, he'd know how far he had to go. This would have saved the player time and aggravation, in comparison with the arrow. In some way, the designers took the easy, "ordinary" way of dealing with scrolling lists in computers, instead of thinking about the specific situation.

And that was completely unnecessary. I wonder if playtesters pointed this out, or if the designers just ignored the question.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why I "don't play"

Many people find it strange that I don't play lots of different games. This is partly a matter of time (I only have time to play my own new designs), partly a matter of interest (I don't like to play games "against" other people), partly a matter of point of view (I like to play my favorite games, and have no interest in *playing* "new" games, though I spend lots of time watching people play them.

TIME: This is my avocation, not my job (which is teaching). I try to make at least one new game a month. Each of those games must be playtested solo ("alpha test") by one person, me. On average I probably play each one that is halfway successful about four times. That's the equivalent, in multi-player games, of playing the game about 16 times. How many of you play any given game that many times?

INTEREST: I more or less quit playing games against other people when I was 25. (So I played D&D, which is not against other people, it's a cooperative game.)

POINT OF VIEW: In a sense, my favorite "game" is the "game" of designing games. For me, the interesting and meaningful challenges, in Sid's phrase, are to make games that interest a variety of people. I have had only a few favorite games over the years, and I prefer to play the really good ones rather than the "new" ones--I have no interest in what seems at times to be the "cult of the new".

I don't like to play when my games are playtested by other people. I don't play as well as I ought, because I'm trying to see how the design as a whole is going, and I don't see how well the game is doing if I'm distracted by playing it. It's widely known to those who study multi-tasking that when you multi-task, you don't do any of the tasks as well as you would if you concentrated on it. Further, the designer playing in his own game skews results, as players tend either to think "he's the designer, let's gang up on him" or "he's the designer, I don't mind if he wins" and acquiesce to this. (In fact, a designer isn't likely to be the best player, or necessarily even an especially good player, but not everyone realizes that.)

Why don't I play my games after they're published/"done"? Because I'm not designing games for me to play, I'm designing games that other people will enjoy playing. If I were just going to play a game "for me", I'd play first edition D&D. And I've never tried to design a role-playing game, because I'm satisfied with D&D--with options/house rules/character classes/monsters that I've devised, of course . . .