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Learn Faster to Play Better: How to Shorten the Learning Cycle
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Learn Faster to Play Better: How to Shorten the Learning Cycle

November 8, 1999 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 5


Here comes an obvious recommendation. Great games do not follow the rules; they make up new ones, and this applies to all areas -- graphics, sound, and AI, but also the user interface.

Take, for example, the SCUMM interface defined way back by Ron Gilbert at Lucastarts. At its time it was strange, unusual, but re-invented the graphics adventure genre. Or the Myst-Riven gameplay system, or the real time strategy interface paradigm. All of them were new, and now have become industry-wide standards.

Moreover, sometimes building what may seem to be a bad interface according to the "textbook" will improve the overall game value. An interesting and recent example would be Independence War, by Particle Systems. This game has a really steep learning curve, and breaks many of the rules I outlined above. Still, it was a great success. Why? because its user-unfriendliness was exactly what the market niche it was designed for desired. The same philosophy guided the design of Third Reich, a strategy game published way back by Avalon Hill. If the manufacturer had built a easier to use interface, probably the game would have lost most of its interest in the hard-core strategy gaming community it was designed for. So, interfaces may be sometimes used as tools to approach your target audience. These games tell us not everyone wants standard interfaces, so all the rules I explained above sometimes can't be applied.

Figure 10. Third Reich, by Avalon Hill... gameplay is really straightforward... really!

The Future

User interfaces are complex software pieces, requiring a smooth intersection of art and usability. We need the art to give the interface its visual appearance, but we need to apply usability criteria to make our games easy to use.

In the past, the first part has been widely explored. All interfaces looked great, and really made the user want to play the game. The great deception comes when we try to interact. Usability has not been widely explored, and sometimes we end up with games that look great, but play bad. This is changing rapidly, and new games offer better and better playability by improving user interfaces. In the future, we will probably see art and usability balance.

Another idea I would like to point out is that most interface design techniques focus on making the learning phase as short as possible. As an example, only one of the strategies outlined above (adapting to the user) is specifically designed to improve performance in the steady-state. Games are getting longer and longer each day. Final Fantasies, Baldur's Gates, and so forth guarantee about one hundred game play hours each. Obviously, most of that time belongs to the steady-state phase, as these games are easily picked up. So, we are concentrating all our effort in around two hours of gameplay (the time required to learn to play one of these games). What happens afterwards? What strategies will game designers apply to improve interaction once the player knows all the game rules? Maybe we should do some kind of "player profiling," to adapt the interface to his or her gameplay, give tips on how to improve performance, and so on. This is quite an unexplored path, but is probably going to get more and more attention in the next few years.

Daniel Sánchez-Crespo Dalmau is a Computer Engineer from Barcelona, Spain. He teaches game programming, and writes monthly columns in the Spanish edition of PCFormat and Byte Magazine. His all-time favourite computer game is Privateer.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 5

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