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Interface (and other) game design lessons from a rental car
by Lewis Pulsipher on 09/09/12 07:11:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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Recent experiences with a rental car brought home to me the importance of familiarity in the game interface.

The word “intuitive” is often used in connection with interfaces.  As far as I can make out, intuitive in this context just means “familiar”.  There are certainly some things that are more natural to people than others, or at least that can take advantage of how people behave.  For example, if you put a button at the very edge of a video game screen it’s a lot easier to point at with a mouse or similar pointing device than if the button is not at the edge. [You really should read ]  But familiarity is what matters most.

I’m accustomed to driving Fords and Plymouths, but my rental was a Nissan Altima.  Moreover, it had a high-tech starting system.  Instead of a key it had a small American-football-shaped key fob that I first found inserted into a suitable port; and it had a start button.  And here is where lack of familiarity set in.  Neither the port for the fob nor the start button were in either of the two places I’ve seen ignition keyholes (either on the steering column or in the area between the two front seats).  The fob port is placed to the left of the driver and near the bottom of the dashboard, lower than the steering column.  The start button is on the dashboard to the right of and a little above the level of the steering column.

When I first tried to start the vehicle I pressed the start button after inserting the fob and nothing happened.  It turned out that I needed to have my foot on the brake to start the car.  I was accustomed to vehicles where you could not shift out of park without a foot on the brake, but not vehicles that required the brake to start.  There was an electronic note on the dashboard display that said something like press brake down, but by the time I noticed that I had already checked the quick start manual and discovered the right way to do it.  (Why the brake?  The start button also controlled auxiliary power, so something needed to differentiate Auxiliary Power from Start.)

Another interface problem was the wipers interval control.  In my vehicles there is a turnable control to set the length of the interval, with a series of lines from short to long.  But where the long line meant more wipes per minute, in the Nissan it was exactly reversed, with a long line meaning a longer interval between wipes which results in fewer wipes per minute.  This may make more sense, but was unfamiliar.

How does this relate to games, especially video games?  When the method of manipulating a game is unusual, it will get in the way, at least initially, compared with tried-and-true methods.  Interface is one of the few areas of games where innovation may be a bad idea, because the user will struggle with the unfamiliar.

Still, I’d only scratched the surface of the new car interface.  It wasn’t until I read the entire Quick Reference Manual - which I did after most of the above - that I found out the interface is “a lot more different” than I thought.  The key fob provides a radio signal.  You don’t have to insert it anywhere, you just need to have it close to the car.  While the key fob is in your pocket, you can lock or unlock all the doors from the outside by pressing a button on the door handle.  You can open the trunk by pressing a concealed button under the edge of the lid, which won’t do a thing if the key fob is not nearby.  You can start the car with the key fob in your pocket.  (Which also means, you can’t lock your “keys” in the car, because you can unlock using the handle button as long as the fob is within the car.) 

The drawback of all this is that without reading the brief manual it would have taken me some time, if ever, to learn how it all worked.  And when we translate this back to game terms, how many video gamers read even a 10 page manual for a game?  How many don’t even read the text within the game?  Even if your new video game interface is as slick as the Altima’s radio key fob, if people don’t know how it works, it won’t help them.

So what do you do?  For a video game, you make the first “level” (if it’s a game with that kind of structure) the tutorial that makes people notice the new interface methods.  For a tabletop game, someone has to read the rules, and you try to make sure that person reads about the new interface.  But we have to say, unusual and unfamiliar interface capabilities are much less likely to be in a tabletop game than in a video game.

I do wonder what happens when the batteries in the key fob run out of power . . .  There is a conventional keyhole in the door, but not an ignition keyhole.  Nor do I know whether owners, as opposed to renters, get a key.

And another thing I had to be careful of, in my motel room, was to put the key fob as far from the car as possible, out of range.  It was parked just outside the room door.  Unlikely as it may be, I didn’t want someone to walk up in the middle of the night and press the door handle button to unlock the car, as I’d left things in the trunk . . .

Another lesson.  The Nissan has a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) that I really liked.  It had no problem in cruise control going up or down mountains on my way to GenCon, even with a mere 4 cylinder engine.  All of my vehicles are old (1995-98), so not surprisingly I looked up the Altima online to see what people thought of it, in case I decided I might buy one.  The owner comments revealed how different opinions and likes can be about exactly the same thing, another reminder of how there is no "ideal" in games (as well as in cars), and of how much depends on what you're used to.  For example, some people felt the transmission (and the car in general) was much too loud.  To me, used to my old trucks and van, it wasn't loud at all.  But compared with an expensive luxury car, it probably was quite loud. 

Once again we see that what you're used to makes a big difference to what's acceptable to you.  This is why videogame companies that don't do outside testing are making a big mistake.  The people inside the company become accustomed to the quirks and oddities of the game they're working on, and they're not much bothered by them.  People playing the game for the first time may find those quirks and oddities quite objectionable, and I think this especially applies to the interface.

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