Thursday, 8 December 2011

I got published in Develop Magazine

You can read the article here. Enjoy!

I'm also going to start re-publising/linking some of the other articles I've written that are scattered throughout the net. Watch this space...

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Change blindness and Plants Vs Zombies

For all you following my twitter feed (it's @GameUXTwit by the way) you may remember about 3 months ago I posted about an issue I found with the Plants vs Zombies tutorial:
Found a UX issue with the tutorial whilst showing it to the GF's Mum. Strangely pleased to find fault in a masterpiece.
The problem

Below is a screenshot from the iPad tutorial:

It's fairly clear what you're being asked to do. As it says, tap on the seed packet to pick it up. Then the below screen appears:

Quite a significant change yes? Once more, it's obvious what's needed... but is it? Only if you know where to look. Both sets of instructions are placed in the same position in the screen. Unless the player specifically looks to see if the instructions have changed they may not realise. This is what occurred when I showed the game. The player suffered from change blindness.

Change blindness is where people fail to spot large changes in their visual field simply because they are not paying attention to that area as the change occurs. Essentially if you're not looking directly at the area in a screen when it changes, it gets very hard to see these changes. You can see some change blindness examples here, but the most famous example is this exercise here. For all you who are passe with this, here's a more modern version.

This means that unless the player is aware the instructions have changed, or chooses to look/reread the instructions in the second screen there's a risk they may not notice the change, and so be unsure what to do next.

The solution

There's actually a fairly easy fix - remove the potential of change blindness occurring by deliberately moving the location of the text between each message/screen. See the mock ups below:

The text moves between screens, highlighting the change in instructions. Simple - but the issue should be resolved. Further testing would ideally be performed, to ensure the solution does fix the issue, and to ensure no further issues have been introduced by using this fix.

Additional - apparently as well as change blindness there's such a thing as change deafness. Game designers take note! In fact I'm sure you could take advantage of both in a horror game.

Thanks for reading! :)

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Assassins Creed Brotherhood game usability review

I've recently got into Assassins Creed Brotherhood in quite a significant way. So much so I played it all the way to the dreaded red ring of death! It's official I liked a game so much I played it till my XBox killed itself.

This has meant I've not really been able to pull my thoughts together as completely as I should have done, as the game's no longer available to me. In spite of this, here's my Assassins Creed Brotherhood game usability findings:

  • Confusing story
  • In some missions the game adds arbitrary additional rules that restrict the payers freedom and control
  • Clumsy introduction to controls
  • Poor combat
  • Poor map icons/controls
Still as I say - I killed my XBox for this game, it's great. I can't wait for November - bring on Assassins Creed Revelations! 

Confusing story
One of the main reasons I play games is for their (admittedly often poor) stories. Assassins Creed Brotherhood (ACB) left me totally cold. It carried on directly from where AC2 left off, and having had no contact with AC2 I was baffled by what was going on on-screen.

There was a very short, confusing attempt to get players up to speed, but I feel it was very much aimed at previous players picking up this game after a break. No help for newbies! There could have been an option to see an extended version for new players, as it was they were left in the cold.

The end result was that I really couldn't have cared less about the characters - I didn't even understand who half of them were, what their relationship to me was, or why I should care what happened to them.

It also meant that I avoided the missions which advanced the story like the plague. I couldn't be bothered to do these people's busywork and it didn't entertain me as much as the rest of the possibilities available to me in Rome.

Arbitrary additional rules that restrict freedom
One of the complaints I've heard regularly about the previous games is the repetitive nature of the missions. I really didn't think it suffered from this too badly, but I did object when the game decided to apply arbitrary rules.

I'd be given a mission, say, go kill this man, but the game would then also apply a new restriction - for example don't kill any other guards. This restriction wasn't auditory, but was flashed up in small text to the side of the screen. Instructions placed away from where I'm attending (the center of the screen) are hard to notice, so it took me a long time to realised these restrictions were there. I only discovered the problem when I was forced to restart the mission after popping a nearby guard for fun.

It's was a real irritant, as it placed a seemingly arbitrary restriction on the game. If the story provided some explanation for these restrictions I would have been more willing to accept them, but they really just gave the impression of arbitrarily increasing the difficulty.

Strangely, the game sometimes offered these types of restrictions in a way that worked very well - as optional added achievements in a mission. Note the word 'optional'. For full marks ("full synchronisation") the player can complete the mission whilst fulfilling this secondary mission, but it's not mandatory. This is a much better approach to take, highlighting the more difficult 'route' for more skilled/committed players.

Clumsy introduction to controls 
The game introduced the controls remarkably badly! There's no denying the complexity of the controls, and the game just a few half-hearted attempts to introduce them before throwing the player into the deep end. Once more this could be a symptom of assuming the player had played the previous game.

An example - the 'leap of faith' (a signature move for the game), where the player jumps from the top of a building and landing safely (usually in a haystack). I was asked to perform one as Desmond, before the game explained how it was done. It was explained later in the game - too late! I'd wasted quite a bit of time doing a little dance precariously over a drop, sitting, standing, jumping on the spot, swinging at thin air, etc. Must have been very entertaining,

The game really needed more care to be taken in introducing it's controls to new players.

Poor combat

This is a complaint that the Assasins Creed series generates regularly. Fighting really felt a bit like a duck shoot. I'd be surrounded by enemies, and they'd all queue politely take turns to fall on my sword.

I think the designers should have a close look at Batman Arkham Asylum to see a game that handles combat really well. It felt more responsive, and free flowing than that available in ACB.

Poor map icons/controls
A more minor issue - but an irritating one for me. When wandering Rome I often had to go through the menus to look at the map. When I say often, I mean 'once every 10 seconds or so' (I'm pretty poor at pathfinding). 

There's several issues with the map, the first with it being so hard to get to. To open it up you need to pause the game, move to the third item down, select, and then zoom in (about 6 button presses). I was just looking in the manual for a suitable button for a shortcut and I've just realised there is one, the select button... doh!

Even some of the map icons are poor - the same icons are used to show unsold locations and locations on a different level. I spent a long time trying to find mysterious unpurchased locations.

The maps also quickly get covered in an array of icons - 90% are not useful at any one time. It could be useful to give the player the ability to hide groups of icons at a time (for example hide all the purchased locations), but keep the unsold. Or hide all the icons except missions.

When ACB was released there was a massive marketing push, suggesting Ubisoft the publisher hoped to market to new players. However, the game is quite difficult for new players to use. I don't feel these issues I've highlighted would sit well with the new players picking up the game for the first time. This could have been easily addressed with a few small changes. Much more attention should have been paid to the usability of the game, especially it's initial introduction to both the story and controls. 

Having said all this - I really enjoyed the game. It's great fun and gives you so much freedom. I'll certainly be playing the next one (especially now I've worked out the controls...). 

Sunday, 16 January 2011

iPhone Scrabble apps

Round 1... FIGHT!

A quick review on the difference between the big 2 iPhone Scrabble apps - Newtoy Inc.'s Words With Friends and EA Nederland's Scrabble.

The 2 Scrabble games have surprisingly large differences in the game modes they offer.

Words With Friends offers:
  • Online play (either with friends or with a random stranger). Notifications are sent to the phone to let the player know when the other player has played.
  • 'Hotseat' play with another person on the same phone. 
Both of these modes are 2 player only.
Scrabble offers:
  • 'Hotseat' play with up to 4 other players.
  • Single player against the computer.
  • 2 player multiplayer, using a local wifi. 2 separate iPhones with the Scrabble app are required to play this mode.
Both offer useful game modes. In fact my Scrabble habits mean I keep both on my phone for the differing modes offered. Words With Friends online remote play is great. It means I can play with friends no matter when/where they are (I'm having an exciting game with a friend in America right now). The notifications are a nice touch as it means it's hard to forget about a game (even if it does play havoc with my work!).

Scrabble's ability to play against the computer is great for when I just want to play several turns in a row then and there. Words with Friends must be played with another person... making it a slow game (much like real scrabble really). I also make heavy use out of the 'hotseat' play, as it means many people can get involved at once.

One of the more surprising inclusions is Scrabble's 'online' play, needing a local wifi connection and 2 phones. This is very restrictive, and even when this is the case, it's just easier to use the 1 phone!

While both apps have advantages and disadvantages with regards to their functionality, there's 1 clear winner with the user experience of the apps.

Words with Friends is so much more engaging than Scrabble. This is apparant throughout your interation with the app:
  • The most obvious difference is the responsiveness of the touch controls. Using Words with Friends the pieces flow around the screen responding to your every touch. Scrabble seems sluggish and unresponsive in comparison.
  • Words With Friends allows you to have several concurrent games being played at any 1 time. I'm not what the limit is, but I've never hit it. Scrabble, on the other hand only allows 1 game to be ongoing at any one time. Half way through playing against the computer, but want to play hotseat with your friends? Which do you want more?
  • In order to continue a game using Scrabble required 3 'clicks'. Words with Friends needs 1. It's so much quicker to pick up a your phone and get playing. This is particularly unforgivable as Scrabble can only save 1 game at a time anyway, it's pretty obvious what game I want to play!
  • Both offer the 'shuffle' ability - shake the phone to see your pieces jumbled up. The aim is to give you inspiration for your next move. With you shuffle using Scrabble you need to shake the phone fairly hard (I thought the app didn't offer the feature at all at first!). The pieces drop off the screen, returning in a different order. Removing them from the screen is a mistake. When this first occurred I thought I'd swapped all my letters! Words with Friends shuffles much more easily, a small flick of the wrist is all that's required. During the shuffle the letters remain on the screen. Significantly reducing the risk of mis-interpreting what's occuring.
  • Finally, the visibility of Words with Friends is is so much greater than Scrabble, which has tried to stick with the 'Scrabble' style. While this works with the board game. It's less successful on a small screen.

Which is easier to read?
  • It's not a one-way street though. Words with Friends MUST have signal before it can be opened. You can't plan your next move on the tube. A real irritant. I'm surprised it doesn't save your move for when signal returns... or at least allow you to look.
  • BONUS NEW FACTS - Another finding I couldn't reproduce earlier. Blank tiles. To place a blank tile using the Scrabble app the user must scroll through the alphabet using left and right arrows. This may take some time. However using the Words with Friends app the screen is replaced with the alphabet. 1 press is all that's required.
     Much faster = happier player.
1 app requires 1 click, 1 can take up to 26!
    Of the 2 applications, Words with Friends is a much better experience to play with. Throughout the whole interaction, it shines with a polish Scrabble can't even approach.

    Saturday, 11 December 2010

    Lobby process fail

    I was reading a (rather old) review of Castlevania: Harmony of Despair. There a very telling paragraph that comments on the porcess players go through in the lobby to play online:

    "For a multiplayer-focussed game, the lobby system is a bit of a mess. There's no way of searching for games by what level is being played - or difficulty for that matter - and it's largely due to the fact that the game makes you lock a party in before you can even set up what you're going to do. This invariably leads to most online jaunts being one of two thing - getting booted out of games when everyone wants to play the last level on Hard and you're not there yet, or being on the other side and having to guide beginners through early stages again."

    Assuming this is true, this is a real significant usability issue. The process for players to get online, and get playing should be as painless as possible - but they also need control over WHAT they're playing.

    The only reason I can think of for the process to be set like this is because the designers were unsure of the numbers of players who would be playing online, and so thought it best just to put everyone online in 1 group.

    The solution

    The paragraph says it all really. This is the current process:

    Join group -> Select difficulty and level -> Play (or drop out if not to player's liking/can't play)

    An alternative process could be:

    Select difficulty -> Join group -> Group vote on level -> Play

    The initial selection (difficulty) is essentially a filter, so players looking to play at the same level filter out the other players. Once the group is formed, there's no point selecting a level that not all the players can play (so they group must split immediately), so only levels available to all the players
    should be offered.

    Ideally the initial filter would also include level choices, but if there were concerns around the numbers of players this could be removed/left out to ensure sufficient numbers of players could find each other.

    Thursday, 4 November 2010

    Great quotes from a lame developer

    Logo still needs work...
    I've just read a great mini-article interviewing former Crystal Dynamics programmer Bradley Johnson. In it he says:
    Making iPhone games is quite a bit different than console games, if the audience can't pick up your game and figure out what's going on in 30 seconds then you've probably already lost 95% of your audience. 
    This man speaks the truth... He then goes on to say:
    That's why playtesting has been so important, so that we can recognize how people play the game and fix the problem areas
    What quotes, two real gems there. Couldn't have out it better myself! Go check out his game here.

    Wednesday, 3 November 2010

    Fable 3 game usability review - Part 1

    I've just picked up Fable 3 and I thought I'd sling down my early thoughts in a quick game usability evaluation for you all to enjoy (I haven't reviewed any of the other Fables here, so I'm taking some series staples and talking about them, as well as new features).

    Some positives

    Quick! After that fairy!
    The trail

    Everywhere the player goes, a golden sparkly trail leads out from the player to their next quest location/objective, meaning the player knows where to go at any point. This trail is a great way to ensure the player can wander off and explore - safe in the knowledge that they can find their way back easily afterwards.

    Genius! For 2 reasons - it encourages exploration and ensures players don't waste time looking at maps, getting lost and generally not playing/doing what they want to do.

    Some players might feel that they're being handheld, that it removes some of the challenge. However you could counter this by saying that struggling with maps isn't one of the challenges the game designer planned, so anything that eases the pain should be encouraged.

    The RPG lite

    Fable 3 uses a simple levelling/skill tree process, avoiding the use of stats. This fits with the casual approach the game takes to the whole RPG genre.

    Most RPG games are very statistics heavy ("Take this 6-7 damage +3 poison damage thimble"). Fable 3 has taken an alternative approach. All levelling up is handled by opening chests which improve your various powers along the 'Road to rule'. This keeps all levelling simple, encouraging players to not think too hard about what to unlock next.

    One negative aspect of having physical chests is that they are spread out in this 'Road', and if left unopened can be a real trek away. I had a bit of a journey to get back from halfway down the road to the first set of chests (to unlock a spell I finally decided I needed).

    The pain is eased in 2 ways -
    • Short cuts are offered back to where you've reached on the 'Road' (but this only goes 1 way, you still have to trek all the way back to the chests you need in the first place)
    • Chests aren't reliant upon players opening previous chests first before giving them access to the next level (e.g. you don't have to have opened pie making level 1 to open pie making level 2). The game simply rolls the costs of the 2 levels together, so the player can essentially unlock them both at once. This means the players don't have to hunt for the missing chest before they can open the shiney new one.
    Sense of humour and feeling of life

    Boiled egg anyone?
    The game has a very good sense of humour. This feels right, and fits with the game world. It has the added bonus of allowing much greater variety in the side quests, ensuring the quests remain fresh (the role play game and bickering ghost brothers being particular highlights so far).

    This is supported by an excellent voice cast. Notables include Dame Judy Dench, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross, Mark Heap and Julia Sawalha, among others... I could go on! Quality voicework can be found throughout the whole cast, and it complements the writing wonderfully (Although as a big radio 4 fan it's slightly disconcerting to hear voices from Nebulous and the Museum of Everything!).

    Friends' stats

    During loading screens, your statistics are displayed, alongside your Live friends stats.

    I know several other games do this, but this is the first time I've played a game at the same time as a friend. This creates surprisingly compelling pressure/competitiion to keep up/get ahead of your friend. It's sucked me in, that's for sure!

    It's always entertaining to see how many children my friend has spawned in this play session...

    The 'Sanctuary'

    The sanctuary is essentially the pause menu - the central hub where you can change weapons, game settings, join an online game, etc. The novel approach is that these options are controlled in physical 'rooms' - rather than through a menu.

    It's certainly... different. I remain to be convinced by it's gain in the user's experience.

    It takes longer to do anything, it's particularly difficult to change quests/missions, but at the same time I think it will be more easily understood then a system of menus by players new to the RPG genre.

    Conclusion part 1

    In short a very good game. Quality throughout, with some nice touches which could help new players pick up the game and get playing more quickly and painlessly than other games.

    Coming soon: The BAD. Poor design/development choices that I feel will interfere with people's enjoyment of the game.

    Monday, 25 October 2010

    You're not welcome at Home

    Home isn't where my heart is
    Just a quickie - I've recently treated myself to a PlayStation 3. I was looking forward to trying out PlayStation Home. An interesting concept, rolled out to great fanfare a while back, not really knowing any PS3 owners enough to really find out more about it I recently downloaded it to see where it had got to.

    My impression

    I'm amazed by the poor introduction of Home.

    The avatar creation tool was limited. Home come I'm able to make pretty good versions of myself using a Wii and an Xbox, but not using Home. 

    After a very brief hello, that really didn't enlighten me as to Home's purpose, I was taken to an empty apartment, told a little about it before returning to the main screen once more. I really felt I'd been left adrift by Home. Not welcome almost. If Home isn't going to show me around, explain it's purpose or make me feel welcome, I really fail to see why I should bother with it.

    I've now had my fill of Home, it failed to ignite my imagination. I recently read a great article about effective ways to make a tutorial, the introduction to Home (I can't even bring myself to call it a tutorial) definitely isn't one. The Home intro needs to:
    • Explain its purpose clearly
    • Show users how to do the purpose
    • Offer access to further tutorials about each aspect of Home, that players can access whenever they want
    As it stands Home expects players to invest precious time and effort learning what Home is for and how to do anything.

    I've got no plans to be going Home any time soon.

    Thursday, 19 August 2010

    Gaming Grandmas

    Prepare to see more of this
    An awesome blog post from Belinda Parmar. In it she describes some unexpected behaviour by over 55 female smart-phone users. What was most interesting to readers of this blog is their use of games:
    When it comes to downloading apps on their smart-phones, one in five women stated that their favourite app was a gaming app
    Gaming Grandmas? Oh yes. It's great to see, it really is.

    Many of those over 55 smart-phone gamers will probably be discovering electronic games (or at least game genres) for the first time. It's safe to say the majority aren't going to be classed as 'hardcore gamers'. They will need user friendly, welcoming (casual) games.

    If you want your target audience to include these older smart phone users, then a big focus on game usability and game usability testing will be needed. As the article points out, 1/3 of the UK population is over 50.

    The baby boomers are starting to play games in real numbers. Here they come.

    Thursday, 15 July 2010

    Torchlight - Game usability quick review

    I’m playing Torchlight. I’m stuck.

    Not because it’s too difficult, quite the opposite, it’s too damn easy.

    Right at the start of the game I was asked to select a difficulty. I didn’t want to be taxed too much – this was to be my “switch off in the evening after a hard days work” game so I decided to select ‘Easy’. I now regret the choice.

    About 3 hours in, the game is literally a breeze. I heal faster then the bad guys can damage me. The only way I realise I’m in a boss battle is that they take more than one hit, and can cause me more than 1 point of damage. After realising the game wasn’t even a small challenge any more, I decided to ramp up the difficulty – only to find I couldn’t. The difficulty I selected at the start – before playing any of the game – was final.

    Why? Why force the player to decide the difficulty at all, especially before play?  And then – why not allow them to change it later? That’s poor design.

    There are many excellent examples of game difficulty adjusting to player skill/level (a la Oblivion), or perhaps Torchlight could take a leaf from Call of Duty 4’s book (A mini level to assess the player’s skill level). This could also allow players to try out the different character types before making a commitment.

    Giving game difficulty control to players is rather dull, it’s not sexy or glamorous, but it does need to be implemented well, or it can ruin a play experience.