Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bad Interface: Civilization IV

The game: Civilization IV

The background: Numerous times over the course of the game the player is asked to choose from a list technologies that determine the units and improvements available in play. Certain items on each list are emphasized through the addition of the word "recommended" right next to those items.

The problem:
The placement of the word "recommended" next to particular items introduces a bias toward those items. This is fine for new players, but for slightly more experienced players the game's recommendations can become an obstacle to uninhibited choice. After all, if the player thinks the game has selected the best of all the available choices, why should he pick anything different? This kind of player lacks the experience necessary to make the best choices on his own, and the game's interface hinders the player's acquisition of such experience by interfering with the free exploration of the game's technology tree.

The solution: One way to solve this problem is to separate the game's recommendations from the main technology selection interface, through the use of a second-level advisory interface. If that is not desired, another approach is to limit the use of such hints to the easiest difficulty levels, avoiding their use at higher difficulties.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Design Flaw: Zelda: The Wind Waker

The game: Zelda: The Wind Waker

The background: One of the islands in the game, the largest of the Mother and Child Isles, is impossible to reach on foot. A talking fish that's swimming in the area tells the player he may reach the island by taking "a ride on a whirlwind":
"They say that inside the ring of rock that makes up the perimeter of that island, there lives an incredibly beautiful fairy! But the thing is, nobody's ever met her. Supposedly, the only way you'll ever meet her is to take a ride on a whilrwind and drop inside that rock perimeter from the sky above. Doesn't sound easy, fry..."

The problem:
The fish's suggestion is potentially misleading. In certain areas of the game world the player can use his Deku Leaf to glide over cyclones and be lifted high up in the air, extending his gliding range. Recalling these experiences, some players will improperly deduce they're supposed to ride the small cyclone that's found in the immediate vicinity of the Mother and Child Isles.

In fact, the only way to reach the island is to play The Ballad of Gales, which players can learn by defeating Cyclos, the wind deity, using Link's bow and arrow. A player who has yet to learn The Ballad of Gales1 is unlikely to realize it's the only way to get to the island.

The solution: One way to solve this problem is to allow the player to enter the island using only his Deku Leaf. This approach is consistent with what the player already knows about the game's mechanics, and is therefore consistent with his expectations.

If that approach is not desired, a different way to solve the problem is to get rid of the small cyclone that's swirling in the vicinity of the Mother and Child Isles. This would eliminate the primary source of confusion: the presence of a cyclone that cannot be used to get into the island.

Finally, if for some reason the cyclone should not be removed, the fish's message should be modified to make it unambiguously clear that entering the island requires something more than just a Deku Leaf.


Footnotes:
  1. The only clue to defeating Cyclos is provided by the fish near Shark Island:

    "Tell me, small fry, have you ever been caught in one of those cyclones? The wind deity, Cyclos, uses those cyclones to fly across the sea instantaneously, or so I've heard. Could be just a rumor. Boy, if you had that power, you wouldn't have to spend so much time sailing back and forth across the sea all the time. Wouldn't that be nice, fry? But let me tell you, there's no way he'll give up his power easily! You can't get near the guy, so you'll have to figure out how to shoot him from a distance. Don't you have a weapon that can pierce things from a distance? You know, fffwip? FFFWIP, I tell you! You get my point, fry?!"

Remembering Goals

The issue: Certain kinds of games require that players keep one or more specific goals in mind as they play. Players who return to a game after a long absence may find it difficult to remember what they're supposed to do next, which may impede their progress.

Resolution: Provide some sort of reminder of the player's unfinished tasks. This may assume such different forms as a list of pending and completed goals (Psychonauts), an in-character reminder of pending goals (Dragon Quest VIII), or a video log of significant cutscenes (Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando). If any of the tasks require knowledge of specific details previously revealed in play, the player should likewise be reminded of those details.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Bad Interface: Dragon Quest VIII

The game: Dragon Quest VIII

The background: In a battle against a group of monsters, a player who wishes to attack has to first choose the "attack" option from within the game's "fight" menu, and then pick whichever monster is the player's intended target.

The problem: Once the player has defeated every monster except for the last one, the game no longer waits for the player to pick a target. The reason that's a problem is that the player, having become accustomed to performing two actions for each attack, is now required to adapt to a different mode of operation where each attack requires only a single action. A player who presses twice on the action button while expecting a single attack will be surprised to find out that he's actually chosen to attack twice (once for each player character).

The solution: Have a consistent interface that requires the player to always pick a target for his attacks. Avoiding inconsistencies is more important than saving the player a single button press. Consistency favors the natural tendency for routine behaviors to become automatic, and avoids player confusion.