Thursday, January 22, 2009

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.


Charles Wheaton said...

I agree with you on the idea that it would be great to have the number of responses that the player can give. However, there is also another problem I see in this style of interacting with NPCs. I have not seen this in Fallout or any other games made by the company that makes Fallout but in the company that makes Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic who use a similar system of interaction. There is occasionally the problem of miscommunication with what I want to say and what the character actually says. For example, I want to say "I would not like to do that" but it comes out as "Go to hell and get out of my face".

Ian Schreiber said...

I wasn't on the Fallout team but I've worked on enough computer games that I can take a pretty good guess here.

Why not just expand the window to show all the choices? Because the window system / UI had to be designed before the content, and the designers did not know if there would ever be a point in time when they would have too many responses to fit on the screen at once (even if it took up the full screen). And if they ever DID use up too much space, well, then they'd need a scrolling interface anyway. So, may as well at least make the thing consistent. And yes, keeping the character on screen is important; a full screen of nothing but text makes for a poor screenshot on :)

Now, why not include the number of choices? Largely because adding a number there without explanation would likely be confusing. No one had ever done it that way before, so players are unlikely to intuit exactly what some mysterious number is (is it a bonus to my Charisma stat? The number of levels deep in the conversation? A bug in the UI where it's accidentally printing debug info to the screen?). Yes, after awhile it'd be obvious, but it would hurt first impressions.

Oh, and if PC or 360 was the lead platform, you can bet there were cost constraints on the PS3 port. It may have simply been there wasn't enough time to get the PS3 UI perfect. Especially since PS3 has a significantly lower market share than 360, and probably didn't warrant a huge investment.

Perhaps a better solution to this would be to add controls:
* If you use Up/Down on a d-pad to select individual choices, maybe the left and right shoulder buttons act as Page Up/Page Down.
* Pressing Up on the d-pad when at the top of the list takes you to the bottom, and vice versa. That way you at least only have to page through the list once to read everything (rather than twice).

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Seems to me, Ian, that these are practical considerations of production that may have been involved, but not good from a design perspective. So is the lesson, as usual, that you need to have enough time to do the game right?

Yes, putting something in the interface that is "not standard" is always chancy, but until someone tries, UI will not change from the conventional.

Adding controls might be more practical from a programmer's perspective, but forces the player to remember and manipulate more buttons on what is already an awkward control (compared with a keyboard).

It would be interesting to see if several other people had the same problems of wasted time and effort that my brother experienced.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

From a technical play point of view, Charles, instead of actual dialog the user could sometimes be presented with an alternative (No or Yes) and another choice to indicate the strength of enthusiasm of the response (representing from "no thanks but I'm glad you asked" up through "not only no, but hell no" to "got to hell"). Yet this would get in the way of the illusion of reality. I wonder if something like it has ever been tried in a well-known game.