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.