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An addition to game interface heuristics
by Andre Gagne on 02/07/10 08:26:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Background and Analysis

If you don't know what a heuristic is check here.  The seminal list of UI heuristics can be found here 

I have just reached the 10 hour mark of Mass Effect 2; some good 4 hours of that has been spent in the game's scanning minigame.  After 4 hours I can only call the scanning system tedious.  I have also been playing it on the PC.  I found that after a few hours my right hand (mouse hand) gets tired, tense, and I get annoyed.

For those of you who haven't played it let me explain.  As can be seen in this video, the player controls a scanning object that they move with the mouse.  The scanner only scans when the player holds down the right mouse button and then fires a probe to gather resources with the left mouse button.  A typical planet can take me 10-30 minutes each depending on how thorough I am being.  Given that there are more than 40 planets in the game, that's a long time scanning.

When I started thinking about why my hand hurt so much I was reminded of a time when I played Okami on the Wii with a friend.  While I could successfully perform the brush strokes after a few tries they never could.  They repeatedly had to move too slow in order to make the precise brush strokes required.  They mentioned that holding down the trigger on the wimote while moving it was tricky.

Between these two examples it got me thinking.

The largest problem seems to be that both the act of scanning and the act of using the celestial brush requires one to hold down a button (right button for mouse, the trigger in the case of the Wii).  What happens physiologically is that in order to press a button tendons in your hand are pulled causing your hand and wrist to get tense; moving your hand around uses the same tendons or ones next to them.  The result is that by holding down the button, you have reduced your ability to finely control the movements of your hand.  An additional point in the case of the PC is that you have to deal with picking up the mouse in order to continue moving the scanner in one direction.

It would seem that bad control schemes diminish a player's ability to finely control their character resulting in frustration and annoyance.


So the heuristic that comes out from my analysis is this:

Do not have toggles on the same hand/device as movement

I don't have a 360 to test but the only way this could get through testing (provided Bioware did testing) is if the scanning trigger is not on the same side as the joystick you use to move the scanner.

What does everyone think?  useful, not useful?

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Germain Couët
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Definitely useful. But less relevant with a gamepad. I've been playing ME2 on PC as well, and have gone through dozens of planets. It seems that the planet scanning minigame has been designed with a thumbstick in mind (constant acceleration) rather than a mouse (precise but limited area of movement). The other thing that freaks me out is that they decided that scanning a planet with a normal mouse movement was too easy, so they reduced the mouse sensibility, which is a no-no IMO precisely because of the pick-up-the-mouse-to-continue problem. I wonder how many playtesters mentioned that problem and were ignored (80%? 90%?). Such a flaw could have been fixed easily.

Great game though.

Tyler Glaiel
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If there's a button that's nearly always going to be held down, why have it an option in the first place? Perhaps invert the effect, or make it a "toggle" rather than a "hold" button.

I found this the case with Super Metroid (although my hand didn't get sore). You're nearly always running in that game, so why have us hold a button to run? It's a pain on the snes controller when you need to run, jump, and shoot at the same time.

Glenn Storm
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@Tyler: Your suggestion made me think of a smarter control; one that acts as a hold until a threshold has been reached, where it's been determined that it is held for extended periods, then released for extended periods. (for this player control profile) At that point, a small indicator/popup/hint/whathaveyou simply gives a prompt to the player and with the option to switch it to a toggle control. Reverse option prompt could also be implemented. 'Been done?

Andre Gagne
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@Germain, I feel this heuristic is useful for a gamepad as well: have the movement on the left side of the gamepad while the toggle (trigger?) is on the right.

@Tyler, I fully agree with you that people have problems with super metroid but in the case of the SNES controller you are holding down a button as well as pressing other ones right near it with the same hand. Try seeing if you can have the run button on the left shoulder button to see what I'm talking about.

@Glenn, I like it, I wonder what it would play like? Also, one of neilson's heuristics is to give the user/player customization options so that players could remap buttons from the get go. I wouldn't have an issue with ME2 if I could remap the active scanning to the spacebar.

David Peterson
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Haven't played with the PC, but I can confirm that with the 360 the result is also pain, pain, pain. My thumb in particular is still sore, a couple of days later...

For the record, the setup is that the left trigger needs to be held down to scan, while the left analog stick is used to control the direction of the scan, and the right analog stick is used to rotate the planet.

This is further compounded by slow scanning speed, and the fact that you can move the scanner and the planet faster when *not* scanning. This encourages you to release/engage the trigger many times while scanning a planet, which compounds the RSI...

For ME2 specifically, I think the solution is finding another way of collecting resources/earning upgrades (which is what resources are really for). The current planet-scanning game is just not fun - definitely the least fun part of the game, which is great in general - regardless of speed/heuristics/etc. Planets should be fun to explore for other reasons. Also, was it just me, or was Palladium particularly hard to find enough of?

With regards to the general heuristic, I agree - having to hold down a trigger while manipulating with another finger (particularly the thumb in the case of the 360) will definitely make the experience worse. Tyler's point is definitely valid here. However, I think in this case, because of the amount of time required when scanning, you would still have sore thumb issues here regardless.

Dwayne Vogler
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@Glenn: "Been Done?" Yes, but not in a game that I can think of. Windows sticky keys works like that and is a general nuisance to most people. Another example is a CAD like app I was working with once where they did this for the camera control (default hold right mouse button), it was also generally a nuisance there. In both those cases the problem is that the dialog interrupts what you were doing and inevitably appears at the worst time possible. To make it worse, depending on your user, the time that you must hold the button to prompt the toggle is either unbearably short (constantly interrupting you when you don't want it) or unbearably long (wait forever to turn it on when you know you want it). It may be possible to implement it in a way that works well but it would probably require a lot of user testing.