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An Actual Heuristic Analysis of Mass Effect 2
by Andre Gagne on 03/09/10 03:10:00 am   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.


For those of you who haven't read my previous post on the Mass Effect 2 planet scanning system, you can find it here.

In this one I will give a short heuristic analysis of the interface and offer up a prototype I developed with a colleage in two days.

For this analysis I will use a video found here.

First off, the good:

  •  Visibility of system status:
Just about everything about the scanning system is presented to the user, they can see how many resources they have, the location of their scanner, the probes they've put down and the current scanning strength of any element. 
  • Error prevention: 
The user can only scan or launch probes.  The user cannot move the scanner off of the planet thereby breaking it.
  • Recognition rather than recall:
In the area to the right where the scanning strength is displayed lines up nicely with the element names bellow so you don't have to remember which spike represents what.
  • Feedback:
One of the most brilliant things about this interface is the sound;  as your scanner gets closer to a resource node a sound associated with that element increases in frequency.  Creating a beautiful mapping between the frequency of a sound and the amount that you are going to get from probing it, when this is coupled with the visual feedback on the right hand side of the screen it creates a nice multi-modal experience.

 And now, the not so good:

  •  User control and Freedom: 
More a complaint about the entire game, Bioware does not allow you to fully configure the keyboard layout.  This also violates standards of First Person Shooters on the PC.
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design:
The UI is increadibly crowded.  It looks like two different teams designed it: the first one did the planet, and the second the scanning feedback.

The overall problem I found with this UI is that there are two places for a player to focus, the planet and the location of the scanner (which is important to determine where to put down probes) and the right hand side and the scanning feedback (which is important to determine how much of an element you'll get when you put down your probe).  The result is that I (I can't generalize because I haven't ran user studies with eye tracking data) spent most of my time focusing on the scanning feedback while simply trying to feel out the location on the planet.  This could be because I was on a PC and not 10 feet away from my screen.

I decided to build my own prototype to illustrate the problem with the UI and did so with the help of a colleage.  We started with combining the planet and the scanning feedback into a single location, changed up the input system in accordance to my last blog post and also flattened the planet to make it easier to use a mouse on.  Currently we're still working on putting sound in but we've got most of the other functionality working.

The prototype can be found here.


I'd like to thank EA and Bioware for making an increadible game and Natalie Funk for helping me with the prototype.

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Game Designer


Christopher Braithwaite
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The most enjoyable feedback from scanning is the vibration through the controller which varies both frequency and amplitude. This allows a player to feel both the kind of mineral found and its amount. The graphical component of the interface then provides context for the physical vibrations. This coupled with manipulating the planet and scanner with the left and right thumbsticks creates a very different experience from the one you described with a mouse and keyboard.

Bart Stewart
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Interesting project. Here’s another data point regarding the resource scanning minigame.

Playing on a PC, I adopted the tactic of running my mouse horizontally across each “latitude” line from the top of the planet to the bottom, once for each quarter-turn of the planet. As I did this, I listened for any change in the default sound effect, and also tried to be aware of any spikes in the visual display.

Some consequences and observations on this approach:

1. I agree that the sound effects were very helpful. However, I found the effect for Element Zero was pitched much too softly -- it was very hard to hear when any substantial concentration of eezo was found.

2. I also agree that separating the planet image and the scan results into separate areas (on my widescreen monitor) meant that I had to attempt a weird “defocusing” of my concentration. While looking at the image of the planet in order to make sure I was mousing along each latitude line, I still had to be aware of any visual changes in the scan output area. I was able to do this, but it did feel a bit annoying -- surely a ship as advanced as the Normandy SR-2 would have a more effective user interface for monitoring probe scan results?

3. I was surprised that every planet was rendered at exactly the same size in scan mode, regardless of whether it was an enormous gas giant or a rocky moonlet. It would have felt a little more believable if small worlds had had less surface area to scan for resources.

4. I was also a little surprised that players were not allowed to sell resources for credits. This would have made the resource collection game a little more interesting -- should I hang on to my big stockpile of palladium, or should I sell some of it for credits in order to afford a new weapon or armor piece even at the risk of not being able to do some research?

5. Something that often gets overlooked is the text that describes the various planets of ME 1 and 2. Whoever is responsible for writing these little snippets (including the numeric data) deserves some positive notice. Not only are the stories interesting, it’s clear that the writer is at least trying to provide plausible science. They didn’t have to, but they did, and there’s at least one person out here who enjoyed ME 1 and 2 more because of that effort.

6. Regarding the UI of Mass Effect generally, there still is no better analysis of ME1’s UI than the three-part detailed breakdown presented by Krystian Majewski ( Highly recommended reading, especially since some of the same issues raised for ME1 also apply to the sequel.

Andre Gagne
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@Christopher: Interesting, sounds like the visual feedback isn't as important on the 360 than on the PC. Which makes this more of an analysis of the port than the original design.

@Bart: thanks for the article, I'll definitely take a look at it. oh and I forgot one other point about the UI:

The bars that grow as you gain more resources are somewhat odd. Why do they cap out at 30,000? the largest upgrade takes 50,000 units or more. By having a status bar that fills you give the impression that there is a maximum amount that you can gather/hold in the ship, which isn't true.

An interesting part would be if the game automatically converted anything gathered over a certain amount (say 100,000 of a given element) directly to credits.

Ted Brown
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My complaint with the mineral scanning was that no "analysis" could be brought to bear: elements were placed randomly. Thus, I could not go "prospecting" in search of a specific element, much less a huge cache. It seemed to be random, and that made it a terrible grind. If there was a second layer of planet data that I could use to identify potential sources (even something as simple as density, elevation, rock types, etc), I would enjoy trying to figure out the system and target only potential caches. That doesn't prevent people from scanning the entire planet with a bit of drool coming out of their bored faces, but, hey, to each his own. =)

Bart Stewart
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Ted, the resource-collecting minigame is one of those tricky design decisions that also affected the original Mass Effect: how far can you go in adding features to the exploration game before it starts to interrupt the dramatic drive of the main story-based game?

I'm a hardcore Explorer-type; I'd have enjoyed resource-hunting in ME2 much more if it had been enhanced so that it was less of a grind and more of a puzzle. I’d even have liked to have the characters on my ship play a more active role in the resource-gathering game.

But looking at ME2 (and ME1) from a whole-system perspective, I have to acknowledge that maybe it was wiser to keep resource-scanning as a relatively simple minigame. I definitely would have preferred something less grindy -- I literally dozed off numerous times while scanning -- but how to make it less grindy without letting it draw too much attention away from the main game is, I think, a fair question.

That said, is there any way the UI could have been improved to make the actual resource-scanning game more fun without changing its design too much?

Andre Gagne
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It's funny you should mention that... That's actually something I was contemplating in my design. by collapsing the visual scanning feedback with the image of the planet you can get everyone to focus more on the features of the planet leading to a much more puzzle-like environment. (If I work on this UI any more that's going to be next after the sound).

That said, perhaps the problem with the original was that there were simply too many planets that you could collect resources from than was actually needed?

Sarah Johnson-Bliss
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Personally, I think many of the UI problems would have been resolved if they had overlaid colors on the planet instead of using the meter to the side. Keep all attention in one place. More importantly, an overlay of color could be remembered. You could find a cache without worrying about losing it simply because you didn't realize you ran out of probes...

I personally really enjoyed the game, but the necessity to scan planets for ore keeps me from playing it extensively again. This is really primarily due to the UI flaws, as I really like the idea of prospecting for ore. I find that I want to play through the game again, but I keep getting disinterested once I run out of the freebie ore.

One final comment - The mouse controls for the PC version on this scanning system inspire RSI. They desperately need to be changed. My arm still isn't up to 100% from my play through.

Marko Muikku
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If you haven't read this short article, please give it an eye. It compactly sums up the fundamental usability questions. Might come handy as a guideline when starting to ponder these questions more thoroughly.

Andre Gagne
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I have read that already. I contemplated putting the results of the scanning diegetically on the planet (as per Sarah's suggestion) but wondered if the completion would be too fast to be a game?

If the scanning system gets too fast then why even have it? Why not go back to the first game's system? I feel it's secondary design could be to give ME2 a bit of down time between the combat missions.

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1234 jones
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By having a status bar that fills you give the impression that there is a maximum amount that you can gather/hold in the ship, which isn't true.

thesis help