I was invited to speak at the Montreal International Game Summit, which happened earlier this week. My topic was called Every Click Counts. The idea is to OMIT NEEDLESS CLICKS wherever you can.
A video game is a system of rules that are codified in the form of software that runs on hardware. A player is a human being, a separate entity from the game. That player's experience is heavily influenced (even defined?) by the interface--the thing crosses the gap between game and player. We spend millions of dollars on some games, focusing on the development of their systems and their software, but somehow the part where the player actually presses buttons or clicks through a non-terrible menu often slips through the cracks.
Can you imagine if instead of games we were talking about writing, and writers were so busy telling their stories that they ended up with goofy, semi-unreadable fonts and page layout so terrible that you get annoyed just looking at it, much less trying to read it? Somehow the magazine and newspaper industries have figured this stuff out, yet in our industry, I still see lots of wasted clicks in games that should know better.
I started my lecture explaining that I would take the unusual path of telling the audience what they already know. I mean, we all know that making the command to reload a weapon be 5 clicks would be a terrible idea, right? It's like when you go to the dentist and he says, "You really should floss your teeth more." You probably already knew that. So the point of my lecture wasn't to tell you floss more, it was to get you to actually floss...so to speak.
I explained to the audience who made me "actually floss" when it came to concise writing: Professor Strunk from The Elements of Style. I went over many things that annoyed Strunk, things he hated, things he thought showed that a writer didn't understand the craft. Don't say "the question as to whether," instead say "whether." Don't say "used for fuel purposes," say "used for fuel." That's only a savings of one word, but more than that, it shows that you understand your purpose as a writer: to deliver a message cleanly, efficiently, and vigorously. Vigorous writing is concise.
When I see a sentence that's a just a bit bloated, sometimes I think, "maybe that's ok." Then I see my mental picture of Strunk and he says "No! It's not ok." He's a constant reminder to me that in writing we should all try harder. He reminds me that the reader is "floundering in a swamp," as Strunk says, and that the reader needs all the help he can get. If he can be confused somehow, he will be. If he can be annoyed somehow, he will be. Strunk's contempt for bloated or ill-conceived prose keeps me on track, so I prosed to the audience that my contempt for extra clicks could be their tool to do better. Picture me (or Strunk if you prefer) with head-in-hands, or quivering in revulsion at whatever tragic UI decision or game mechanic is at hand.
Armed with that, we were ready to look at examples. I showed an extra click in Burnout Revenge every time you want to restart a mission, then compared it to the same situation in Tony Hawk 4, which has no extra click.
I made the audience suffer through several MINUTES of clicks, more than 20 of them, just to get to actual gameplay in the game Psychonauts. (Standard disclaimer: I love Tim Schafer despite this transgression.) I compared this to Braid, a game that pulled off what no other game in our entire industry could, on the console side. You start up Braid and there is no menu, you are playing right away. No middleware logos, no company logos, nothing. And in case you don't call that first map area as gameplay, if you move your character up a ladder and through two doors you reach the proper level 1-1. That still beats the hell out of any other game out there. Why is it that Jonathan Blow, a lone developer with a shoestring budget, can pull off a better user experience when starting up a game than those with teams of over 200 people and deep coffers?
I then repeatedly hammered Resident Evil 5, though I feel it necessary to say that I really like that game. My letter grade is A and my recommendation is "buy it," but still it suffers from painfully many clicks. A reload "trick" (which you absolutely must do to be competitive in the competitive multiplayer mode or the single player mercenaries mode) turns reloading into a 5-click affair. Yes, 5-clicks to reload because an expert can do that way faster than the usual method that forces you into a reload animation. You must pay an "8-click tax" to setup this 5-click reload in the first place, and it's worth it to do so. At the start of every round (3 to 4 minutes) you pay that 8-click tax again. Also, when playing the 1p mercenaries mode, you often have to start each round with an even longer tax of 16 clicks to get rid of certain weapons so that you only get ammo for the weapons you still have in-hand. Finally, even using the 9-space menu at all for switching weapons is atrocious. I compared it to Shadowrun's well-designed radial menu that accomplishes the task of weapon switching cleanly, quickly, and elegantly. (Dear bad interface apologists: you will claim that the inventory menu is intentionally clunky because it builds tension. How about a good interface instead of a bad one and building tension through gameplay tuning, rather than by making the player fight the menu? Specifically, designing weapons with long reload times that you can't use the 5-click tax to bypass would increase tension. No bad interface needed.)
For a non-game example, I showed that when I type a URL into Safari, the auto-complete appears in the URL bar itself. That means I only have to press return to go to the URL. But in Firefox, the autocomplete suggestions only appear below the URL bar, and require me to press the down arrow button to get to them. The number of times I want the browser to autocomplete for me is dozens of times per day, so Safari's method saves on all those clicks. The number of times that Safari auto-completes when I don't want it to (so that it takes an extra click to go to a shorter URL than it's guessing) is rare for me: maybe once per week. I think Safari did that bit of UI right.
I showed in excruciating detail the difference between fighting games that do button config "the wrong way" and "the right way." When it's the wrong way, buttons are listed on the left and you scroll through functions you want to set on the right. The problem is that this requires an extra mental link from the player. You know that you want the upper left button to be light punch, but you can't PRESS IT to assign it. Instead you must know the name of that button, whether it's X or Y or who-knows-what on your particular joystick and then find that button name in the left column, then scroll left/right to get to the light punch function. It's just an absolutely horrible way to do things compared to listing functions on the left and allowing the user to PRESS THE BUTTON they want to assign. Just press whatever your upper left button is--without even having to know if it's called X or Y or who-knows-what--to assign it to light punch.
I had a few more examples, but this gives a pretty good idea of the lecture overall. I guess I won't post the videos because the gaming public isn't really ready for such radical ideas as fixing bad UI choices and I don't want to see their comments on the videos. I made the videos for game developers. Anyway, I got a positive response from the lecture, and many who wanted to talk about it afterwards. Someone from Ubisoft told me that my lecture spawned more discussion (amongst their group at least) than any other lecture at MIGS. All that from a simple presentation on omitting needless clicks? Who would have thought. ;)