David Sirlin: Keep Interface Design Simple, Concise, Efficient
"Vigorous writing is concise."
That axiom, espoused by The Elements of Style author William Strunk Jr., applies just as strongly to game design, argues designer David Sirlin.
In a brass tacks-focused session at the Montreal International Game Summit, Sirlin (Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix) implored developers to keep their interface design as streamlined and intuitive as possible -- particularly when it comes to reducing the number of button presses necessary to accomplish simple tasks or even get into the game.
"If your player has any chance of being confused, they'll be confused," Sirlin warned. "If they have any way to be annoyed at something, even if you don't think they will be, they will be. Maybe it's because they're stupider than you. Maybe it's because they're smarter than you. In any event, that's our job: How do we get this player out of the swamp? He needs our help in every way we can."
Sirlin came with a litany of poor user experience examples, most of which were from games he considered of high quality, demonstrating that unnecessary clicking is a sin committed even by developers who should know better.
Those examples ranged from the minor to the particularly grievous. To restart an event in Criteron's Burnout Paradise, the player must hit Start, then cycle down to the third menu option -- passing by the infrequently used volume options -- then sit through a lengthy loading screen. The combination of the unnecessary scrolling, the loading, and the potentially very high number of times a user might restart a race in order to get a high score, makes for a whole lot of wasted time.
"The game itself is really fun. It's just unfortunate that's what a lot of the Burnout experience turns out to be," Sirlin said. "It's one extra click -- what's the big deal? The big deal is that you have to keep doing that extra click over and over and over."
Neversoft's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, on the other hand, includes an ideal implementation of the same player need. To restart an event, the player must only scroll past the mandatory "Resume" menu option to reach "Restart," and reloading is completely instantaneous.
Considering how many dozens or even hundreds of times one might restart a particular event, Sirlin pointed out, "You'll be really thankful for how fast that is."
Another frequent interface affliction is unduly lengthy introductory scenes. From switching on the console to actually playing the game itself, Double Fine's Psychonauts requires some 20 clicks spread across numerous cutscenes, menus, developer logos, prompts, save game screens, and profile creation tasks before the player is actually in the game world and in control of his character.
"I appreciate the story, but I just want to see the gameplay. That was really excruciatingly long from when I started this up to when I got to the first level," Sirlin admitted. "There's got to be that way to get that down to one, maybe two [clicks]."
As it turns out, there is. Sirlin started up Jonathan Blow's Braid, which famously requires next to no input from the player before the character is being directly controlled in the game world. From there, it's only a few button presses before the player is in the midst of solving a puzzle.
Braid is "the best example of this in the entire game industry," Sirlin claimed. "I know of nothing that can match this. Notice there's no middleware logos or company logos or anything like that. It's amazing how few clicks this was."
"This is almost unheard of," he added. "Your game should be like that. You just turn on the game, and you are immediately playing."
Tragically, that user experience is in direct opposition to Microsoft's own certification requirements.
"Any company cowers in fear of Microsoft's standards," said Sirlin. "If there's any question about whether you need another dialogue box, you put it there, because you don't want to fail, and every company is paranoid about failing submission. One company I worked with had confirmation boxes everywhere because they were so worried about this. Jonathan Blow really went against the grain there by saying, 'Microsoft, your standards are stupid, and I should be able to start my game immediately.'"
In the end, Sirlin said, developers should strive never to be satisfied when they see interface elements that are more cumbersome than necessary.
"Whenever I see a piece of bad language and I think, 'Maybe that's alright,' I think of professor Strunk, who should say, 'No, it's not alright,'" he said. "Whenever you see something in the development of your games, and you think, 'Maybe that's alright,' think about this."