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David Sirlin: Keep Interface Design Simple, Concise, Efficient
David Sirlin: Keep Interface Design Simple, Concise, Efficient
November 17, 2009 | By Chris Remo

November 17, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC

"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."

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Jason Kim
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"Yomi, the Japanese word for reading the mind of your opponents." - Sirlin


It's pretty common practice in casual games that you want to have the least number of clicks to gameplay.

Brandon Sheffield
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Jason, trolling isn't really appropriate on Gamasutra. Thanks.

Bob Philhower
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Also consider whether the player has any way to recover from choosing the wrong menu option.

I played a 360 game with a large sequence of click-throughs to get to the gaming. It asked me the standard new-profile/load-profile question with the default of new-profile. This is, of course, the wrong default because players create profiles much more rarely than they use an existing one.

If one was rushing, as I was wont to, and chose the wrong option, there was no recovery possible. Backing out of the create-profile dialogs left one in a choice-less "you can't save if you have no profile" warning. The only way out was to exit back to the console & restart the game from disk.

E Zachary Knight
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Ouch, that is the killer of bad interface design.

As a web developer working for a state government, we have to constantly keep accessibility standards at the front of our minds when designing our interface. If someone cannot get back to the previous page or the home page anywhere in the site, it is bad for us. No one should have to use the browsers built in back button or reload the web site to get anywhere.

The same should be said for games. All games should allow the user to quickly get to the main menu at any time as well as have an easy to use back button to get to previous screens when in menus.

Glenn Storm
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Brevity rocks!

Chris Melby
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Kind of related, but I'm wondering who worked on the SFIV GUI for PC, if it was David?

This is more of a rant, but I have to ask, because that game's GUI doesn't even support a mouse and hitting escape is not back. Then on top of that, there's the part where I have to log into GFWL every time -- after I launch it from STEAM (Why couldn't they have just used STEAM for the online portion?) -- which has a completely different GUI than the game, so there's no cohesion.

Where I'm going with this, is that not only should a GUI be simple and to the point, it should also properly support the intended platform, so a PC game should ALWAYS support the mouse and escape should always be back. Also, what's with these newer games not letting me hit escape to get out of the game from the main menu? Now I'm generally thrown into the game's opening movie. With Assassin's Creed PC(Bought it for $5 on STEAM), I honestly could not figure out how to quit the game and I've been gaming since the seventies. I looked a couple of times and ended up using Alt-F4 to get to the desktop. That game's GUI and setup is one of the worst I've encountered in recent years and it has actually turned me away from even playing the game.

Anyways, I'm just venting, but I really hope that developers will not only keep things simple, but also properly tailor a GUI for a platform's given strengths.

My respect for Jonathan Blow has just jumped up several notches.

Matt Ponton
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First, Sirlin didn't work on SFIV. He did SSF2HDR. You can even go read his complaints about SFIV's GUI (
ghter-4.html). Specifically, he brings up the "button config" screen where a player has to select what button they want to do what. Here's a direct quote:

"The button config screen is 'the wrong way.' The right way is for the screen to list functions, then you press the buttons you want to assign. The wrong way is to list buttons, then you scroll through lists of functions to assign. The reason that one way is right and the other way is wrong is pretty clear when you watch people try to configure buttons. I've had to watch what must be thousands of people do this over the years in all the tournaments I've helped run (not to mention local gatherings). When the config screen says 'Jab' and requires you to press the button you want, you just press the upper left button on your stick (or whatever button on your gamepad). This is a one-step process. But if the screen lists 'X' and then requires you to scroll through functions until you find jab, it requires a two step process. You have to know which button on your controller is labeled 'X.' When this screen is the right way, no one has to know if the upper left button happens to be X or A or B or whatever else."

I have to agree with this, and if you played any of the Guilty Gear, Battle Fantasia, or Blaz Blue games you'd probably understand. It's so much easier for a player to say "I want this button I press to be function." God I hate the scrolling method.

As for the GUI for SFIV, I imagine it's because the build is basically nothing more than the 360 version. I mean all of the PC settings are done outside of the game itself anyways.

Sean Parton
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Dangit, another reason I need to play Braid. Curse that game and it's compellingness!

Also, I agree that the standards bullshinanigans is a pain. To get to Demon's Souls gameplay, I have to:

0) Load the PS3, scroll to and choose my profile (not my PS3, I'm not default), then scroll to and load the game while all the icons are loading and unlabeled

1) Watch a loading screen

2) Click through a dialog box

3) Wait for trophies to be checked (I think they're checking with their online server?..)

4) WAIT company logos for 5 (!) companies (each being unskippable and about 5 seconds long)

5) Click through a opening video

6) Click through the splash screen to go to the main menu

7) Press down and select Load Game

8) Click through another popup about online play

9) Select my character

10) Watch another loading screen

Seriously, all that start-up crap is one of the very few things I hate about Demon's Souls. It's like starting up a damn MMO. Blame is really half and half though; it's partly Sony's standards, and it's partly Atlus unstreamline design decisions.

@Chris Melby: Never buy any of Capcom's PC games. Their porting is god damn terrible. I ran into the same problem with Devil May Cry 3; I didn't know how to do pretty much anything in the gameplay, I struggled to navigate the menus, and I think I had to Task Manager it to kill it fully.

David Fried
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Couldn't agree more. One of the number one reasons I couldn't stand Final Fantasy XI was because of the GUI to get into the game. There were two account login screens, both with a myriad of useless menus to scroll through and silly options that made no sense. Having to log in to two different services to play one game is... Well it's stupid.

Sony and Microsoft both need to seriously examine their policies when it comes to GUI interface and some of their requirements for games to pass certification. Their certification requirements need to be streamlined just as much as any game's GUI.