Game design analysis

Helping the player: advice from a gamer

I can’t help but notice features in a game that could have been thought through a lot better. I wasn’t completely suprised when I heard that both Bungie and Blizzard have hired interaction designers for recent games to help improve the experience of playing games using user testing and research.

That said, if I had the a say in the way games were designed, here’s some what I’d improve, and what I’d like to see more of.

Logical subtitle support

It seems like a simple thing – but developers should try to make sure that in-game text is readable. Modern HD games can make text and icons extremely difficult to read on SD televisions. Place simple coloured text (ideally black or white) on a readable background. Or provide an option to amend this. All games should have an option for subtitles as a basic standpoint, this improves the playability (avoiding bad voice acting or weird audio levels) but also improves accessibility for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

And another important point – all option and menu screen text should be in plain English. Games that have to be localized are a text book example of using the most complicated set of words to explain something relatively simple. Resident Evil 5 uses “authorized game session” to describe “an open co-op game”.

An unhelpful Resident Evil 5 screen asks you to switch to an authorized game session.

A camera that works

One of the major gripes about 3D games – this is definitely one feature where it’s best to stick to the known conventions. Games in the 3rd person are vastly improved by the option to center the camera behind the player with a quick button press (which is partculary helpful for handheld games). The second analogue stick should remain (as with other games) the primary method to look around. Developers need to try trust gamers with camera controls more rather than placing it under the control of the game. A good camera system should be unnoticeable, and the moment visibility is hampered it should be easy to address.

The camera can also be used as a narrative device. Crash Bandicoot 2 used different camera perspectives on bonus and secret areas to indicate the increased challenge of certain moments in the game, a fixed front on in the “chase” areas to increase a sense of panic.

One of the familiar side-scrolling sections of Crash Bandicoot 2.

More engaging tutorials

As gamers increasingly abandon reading the manual we begin to rely on in-game tutorials more, particulary in sandbox games where the controls are becoming more and more context sensitive. A good tutorial should allow the player to explore the introduction of the game in a safe enjoyable area. If the beginning of an game has suceeded in both helping and encouraging someone to move forward then it should be looked back on as a particulary enjoyably moment in the game. This is often why the starting levels of games are often our most fondly remembered moments, so do not force the player to pass a in-tutorial test before they can reach the rest of the game.

Abe’s Oddysee made the tutorial part of the game proper, as the context of why certain moves were needed helped you to learn them. You begin to learn the key elements of the game as your start your escape from Rupture Farms, with helpful signs and billboards present to give you clues. Also one of the most well-remembered features of this game was the Gamespeak mode on the title screen which allowed the player to experiment with Abe’s various conversational combinations before trying them for real in the context of the game.

Abe on the gamespeak screen of Abe's Oddysee.

Bigger and better visual cues

More visual cues should be used in-game to help direct the player, these need not break the forth wall, even a recognisible object or differently coloured point of focus can help draw the eye without revealing the player is lost. Valve frequently uses good lighting, identifable areas and landmarks to subtley suggest the next step, but some games take give a little extra optional help.

Final Fantasy 7 had a useful feature to highlight all of the exits on a particular screen, which was useful given all the murky background environments. This “help screen device” also extended out into battles screens to provide an explanation for each of the spells and attacks used in the game. Above all though it was an optional tool providing a moments of hand-holding in an otherwise enormous game – it proved particularly useful for those to whom which FF7 was their first role-playing game experience.

Cloud in a bar in Cosmo Canyon with help activated.

Loading screens that explain the downtime

Loading is a natural part of gaming and we’re well accustomed to waiting as long as it’s justifiable, and this means explaining what is happening or giving the player something simple to do or watch. The most recent Elder Scrolls games have used these moments as a chance to impart helpful tips to the game, a useful feature that is starting to become very widely adopted in other games.

Mass Effect notoriously “hid” it’s long loading times in lift sequences, but developers shouldn’t be afraid of giving gamers the chance to pause and reflect. Loading screens are a chance to chat, eat, discuss tactics or just have a little fun. The best loading screens avoiding stating the obvious (now loading).

Namco had a little fun when developing the original Tekken, the initial loading screen boasts a mini-game to play while you wait.

A classic Namco title that plays as you load up Tekken.

Better designed maps

Use clues to help the player realise where they go next, and points to recognise where they are now. The player shouldn’t have to struggle with spacial awareness because the in-game map is so badly designed, or even worse, there’s no map at all! If maps are left out then a level should be designed with key focal points to jog the memory of where the player is, and there they should be heading.

Make sure the full map is available somewhere – ideally mapped to it’s own button so it is accessible quickly. A map in the corner that turns as the character turns are always helpful, and help the two types of map-reading brains.

Final Fantasy 12 has a near-perfect gaming map, and it’s usability is down to the fact that is is well labelled, easily understood, and it also reveals more of the current area as you explore it. It also includes a journal at the bottom that reminds you where to go next – a critical feature if you return to the game after being absent for a while.

A map of Rabanastre from FF12 with journal help at the bottom.

And lastly design for the player not for the gimmick

Most games released today have a unique selling point, whether it is Borderlands “bazillions of guns” or the ability to start a family in Fable II. These features provide a unique gaming experience, but developers need to include these new ideas into their games with a full understanding of how best to present them.

The simple ideas really are the best. If we can see the game properly, and experience controlling it without difficulty, than the unique selling points are given a proper chance to shine.


How to be a greener gamer

As a gamer my hobby poses a conundrum. I describe myself as green but I also partake in one of the most ungreen and consumer-focused hobbies I can imagine. So I started to try and think up some small practical steps myself and others could take to start to improve this aspect of our hobby.

Gaming is my last big luxury – the one thing up to now I’ve not compromised on. But that needs to change, and here are some of the first steps you can take.

Try to reduce your energy use

Use only what you need

Do you really need your entire console collection plugged into the mains? Be more selective about what you’re going to play on and unplug what you’re not using. Standby modes on consoles and TVs quickly sap up power – as does leaving games on pause while you go AFK. (It also causes damage to your DVD drive too) so avoid both at all costs.

You’re probably already using socket adapters to plug in multiple consoles, so set them up a little smarter, make them easy to reach and completely unplug everything at the mains when you stop playing. Even devices that are plugged in and not on still take power from the grid. If you need to leave your router plugged in 24/7 choose an energy efficient one and stick it in it’s own dedicated socket so that’s no longer an excuse for you not unplugging consoles and TVs. Even turning your router off when you’re out or on holiday will make a massive difference and give your device a break.

Use LCD screens rather than plasma

Of the three main TV options, that old CRT screen you’re using for your retro games is definitely not the helping. But when it finally bites the dust opt for an LCD TV over a plasma as it uses slightly less energy, and should cost you less money to run in the long-term. Read more about the LCD or Plasma debate.

When HD gaming, try to go for a smaller screen where possible – but if that’s not an option at the very least choose a highly-graded energy efficient TV which should also save you money!

Use green electricity

Gaming simply isn’t a green hobby because of the amount of electricity we use to fuel it, and more often than not your gaming habit is being powered by fossil fuels and other brown sources of energy. By using a renewable energy provider for your electricity you help to remove the biggest energy problem surrounding our hobby and actively do something to help stop climate change.

Make sure you choose a tariff that’s actually green, not one provided by a big energy company that’s not actually improving the situation. An ideal green energy tariff should be creating new sources of green energy rather than buying up clean energy generated by everyone else. Read the small print for each energy provider and make an informed choice!

Use rechargable batteries

Most handhelds use rechargeable batteries these days. But even then don’t forget to remove a fully-charged device from the mains to save power and prevent battery damage. You should also try to use rechargable batteries for your controllers, wireless guitars and other devices. Rechargeable batteries have come on leaps and bounds in recent years and should last you almost as long as regular batteries if you follow the instructions – and all it takes is a little preparation.

If you’re still using normal batteries – did you know you can recycle them rather than send them to landfill? Ask your local council for your nearest battery recycle bin.

Buy greener electronics

Of the three current gen consoles, the Wii tops the board as the greenest using the least amount of energy with the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 lagging behind in second and last place respectively. Read more about the energy use of game consoles.

If you’d rather not choose between the three main consoles. Make sure that you choose energy efficient TVs and other devices such as DVD players and monitors for your next purchase. Remember using devices that do multiple things use up using more energy than the equivalent standalone product. e.g. watching a DVD or Blu Ray movie on your console rather than a seperate DVD or Blu Ray player.

Recycle and repair

Make your games last longer

If your discs no longer work clean them with an anti-static cloth and some cleaning fluid (for a cheaper option use some stuff you can find easily around the house – furniture polish should do the trick!) For those really scratched, unplayable discs try taking them to be professionally fixed using a disc cleaning service at a local gamestore. The kits you buy in the shops just don’t compare, as industry machines remove the scratched layer off of the disc, making it playable again. Old retro cartridges can be saved in much the same way using cleaning alcohol and cotton buds.

Your current gen systems should still be under warranty, so you’re already making the most of this year-long period. If you must buy a console try to get a second hand one – and even if you opt for a brand new console avoid repair bills by picking out the ones with the newer chipsets. These are more energy efficient and less likely to break down. Find out how to tell a Jasper chipset Xbox 360 from the rest

Buy second hand

As gamers we already buy a lot of our consoles and games secondhand but there are other benefits to doing so. By buying a game second hand you don’t have any of the wasteful packaging that arrives with the game first time around, and the same is true for second hand consoles. You’re reusing the product that someone has already bought meaning the need for more to be produced is reduced!

Dispose of your electronics responsibly

When consoles and games are beyond repair or you simply don’t want them anymore, give them to friends or sell them on. Even broken consoles can be scavenged for parts, and empty game cases or manuals used by those who are missing them. Most public disposal areas have designated areas for electronics – and this is where your consoles should end up rather than in landfill, that way all the harmful chemicals used to make the consoles are disposed of safely in accordance with EU or other international regulations.

Remember that it’s not a case of out of sight out of mind – even if you give things to someone else, are you sure that they’ll dispose of the stuff you’ve given them responsibly too?

Reuse game stuff

And that means everything that you receive through buying games. Cases, leaflets, console boxes, cables – the lot. The excessive packaging for every peripherial can be reused as packing material, storage materials or a helpful part for someone else. Everything that you’re able to reuse again should be leaving the bare minimum for the bin.

Change the way we play games

Take the campaign to the console manufacturers

The process of making consoles and games also uses a lot of power, and on top of that minute amounts of toxic chemicals go into the plastics and metals that compose a console shell and motherboard if you disagree with this (and I hope you do) – take it up with Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft using the Greenpeace site.

Spread the word

Hopefully some of this blog post has given you some food for thought, if it has let other gamers know what they do to improve matters and suggest new ideas, as my post is by no means authoritative. With more and more of the world becoming aware of the threat of climate change gaming runs the risk of falling behind with our part of what we need to do – and that’s going to reflect badly on our community.

If someone challenges you about the impact of your gaming you should be able to list some of the actions that you’re doing to try and improve things, can you honestly admit to that now – and if not, is there something about your gaming behaviour that you can change?