Monday, June 25, 2012

Game Usability as a Kitchen

This is a pretty straightforward thought that seems to relay a complex design issue in games. Very often, game designers construct a beautifully elaborate experience, only to have it all go to hell once it gets in the hands of the audience.

Who is to blame for those problems? Is it the designer that is so stuck in his or her thoughts that only after daily practice in their own system do they understand it? Is the audience so attuned to gameplay of other games, you pretty much have to shrug your shoulders as a designer and go with the flow?

For the audience member, that may seem like it is the only solution to do what audiences feel is familiar, but this does come with a cost. If we were to make a FPS game, most likely we would make the control scheme and feel of the game very similar to Call of Duty. Why? Because chances are if you are near electricity, you have heard of Call of Duty. It was such a large hit that it becomes a simple way to educate the audience for any other FPS. Didn't play Call of Duty or didn't like Call of Duty? Well too bad, because if we only do what the audience is familiar, then expect a whole lot more of the Call of Duty experience. You will never get a Portal, Bioshock, or TF2. Just not in the cards. Game design then becomes a cliche machine.

So somewhere there needs to be a balance, or else game design is a dead art. And this is where the kitchen comes in.

Nearly everyone's kitchen is different. Kitchens come in various sizes, shapes, and colors. The components in them support what kinds of cuisines or normally cooked. Different people come from different backgrounds, and make different foods, so on and so on.

However, if we dropped an average person into just about any kitchen in the world, they would be able to identify fairly quickly that they are in a kitchen. It doesn't matter whether it is in Japan, Russia, or the U.S. It could be a commercial kitchen or part of a home in Nicaragua. We are able to identify very quickly key elements in the room that must have something to do with the cleaning and preparing of food. Usually some food storage and something that generates a lot of heat next to each other is a pretty good give away.

Now go into a kitchen that you've never been in before. Find a glass to pour yourself a beverage. Chances are you will go to the approximate location you are used to in your own kitchen. And chances are there will be anything but a glass or cup at that location. Somewhere in this space is the implement you need, but now you need to learn this space.

Game design does not have this luxury. If a player goes to the spot where they expect an ability (similar to looking to a glass in a different kitchen) they immediately go into frustration when it does not work as expected. This is not because of some stunted tolerance for change, as I'm sure many baby-boomers will point out. Instead it is a problem of context. We play games to enter a state of flow (read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) so that behaviors in game that in all other context should be work, instead is an enjoyable experience. Failing to enter flow brings the task at hand back into work, which is exactly the opposite reaction we desire from games.

For game designers, we need to design our kitchens so that most people can go into them and begin using them at a near-expert level immediately. They should not wonder where the cups are. Instead we should make cabinets with glass doors so you can see where the cups are. If the player is used to a gas range but we only have electric, provide some quick UI that helps translate what the difference means. Can't find a specific ingredient? Well that's okay too because we are going to give you big arrows that point to suggested alternatives in the specific moment you need them.

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