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ABSTRACT USABILITY AND GAMEPLAY
The intent of this paper is to present an overview of the many aspects of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research and practices, show their relationships with computer games, and discuss the possibility of using some of the HCI processes, methodologies, and tools for game design.
Human-Computer Interaction, game design, usability, gameplay, user interface
Game designers face the challenge of creating games that can be easily learned, effectively played, and emotionally enjoyed by gamers. With very limited theoretical foundation and little research or data on gamers, they have to solely rely on their intuition and experience. This is why about 80% of games fail on the market each year . While technologies have improved rapidly, game design has evolved slowly. No guidelines or principles have been established to help game designers do their work. On the other hand, HCI has been a thriving field in recent years where a lot of innovative ideas have been generated. These ideas lead to a variety of processes, methodologies, techniques, and tools being developed and successfully practiced in other software industries. They have helped software developers solve many of their problems. Many of these problems are closely related to the problems of game design. Once they are learned and used by game designers, these processes and methods can greatly improve their work. However, little is known about HCI in the game industry, partly because of the prevailing culture of the game industry that game designers dislike anything from academia. They tend to think that researchers in the universities know nothing about games so that what they are doing or talking about does not matter. This is simply wrong! Researchers may not know games as well as game designers do, but they do know computer and behavioral sciences well. If we agree that computer and behavioral sciences form the very foundation of games, we should admit that game designers can learn a lot from their counterparts in academia. Let us, then, look at some of the areas of HCI, examine their relationships with the corresponding areas of game design, and see how they two can work together.
“Usability” has been a buzzword among HCI practitioners and enthusiasts in recent years. It is at the center of the whole HCI phenomenon - many of the HCI processes and methods have been developed around this concept. The practice of these processes and methods has had a tremendous impact on how users use software and how developers develop software. However, it is not easy to describe what usability really is. As Jakob Nielsen described , usability is not a single, one-dimensional property of a software product. It has multiple components as figure 1 illustrates.
Usability Memorability Learnability Satisfaction Efficiency
Figure 1. The multiple components of usability
Game designers may impatiently point out that, in the game industry, they have their own buzzword - gameplay, alias “playability,” which was coined by game designers and given extensive attention in the game industry almost 10 years before usability began gaining any exposure in other software industries. Since the mid 80s - the golden age of Nintendo’s 8-bit and 16-bit consoles – the enormous importance of good gameplay has been recognized by game designers, and thusly good gameplay has become the ultimate goal pursued by anyone who wishes to remain in the business of game design. But after all these years of hard work, can game designers give a clear description of what gameplay really is? Can they show what specific efforts have been made to improve the many aspects of it? No! Today “gameplay” still remains as a very vague concept. It is commonly known in software engineering that if you cannot define a property of a software product or process, you cannot measure it. And if you cannot measure something, you cannot improve upon it. Thus, game designers have failed to develop any useful methods or tools to evaluate and improve gameplay. By contrast, HCI researchers and practitioners have taken a systematic and quantitative approach to not only define usability, but also develop formal processes and methods to improve the many aspects of it, and create a large set of tools and databases that can help designers do their work. Game designers, then, need to first define what gameplay is and what attributes it has, and second, find ways to measure these attributes. Only after achieving these goals can they develop processes and methods to improve these attributes.
In fact. A few companies in the game industry are . because through it the gamer controls the character. This structure also forms the strategic framework that can be used by game companies to optimize their design processes and organize their teams. Here are two examples of the UIs from some popular games currently on the market. to play. as well as more fun and challenging – the gamer has to figure out the internal mechanics while competing with it through the course of playing. and significantly influences the player’s impression of the game.how high the character can jump. fights with enemies. The topmost layer is a highly subjective layer that deals with the nuances and uncertainties of gameplay. while level and magic systems are more critical to RPG (role-playing game) games. which is the huge button with an overlaying graphics on the extreme right. there is no such position as a “user interface designer”. Typically. As figure 2 shows. Usability layer Figure 2. USER INTERFACE DESIGN User interface (UI) plays an important role in games. The second layer includes game-specific attributes that make a game distinctive from other application software products. The shell is the UI.In order to do this. and ignore the UI altogether. a highly successful RTS game from Ensemble Studios. unit balance might play an important role in RTS (real-time strategy) games. a layered structure may help to represent gameplay as a complex property of games. it is not surprising that bad UI designs are everywhere in the game industry today. The core is the game mechanics. In most game companies. where they have most expertise. Both show that even the most successful games can have serious flaws in term of UI design. The third layer introduces the idea of game genre. receives directions and feedback. These attributes are genreneutral. Under these circumstances. in short. etc. which determine the rules of the game . no matter how well the core works. Most UIs are conceptualized by game designers and created by graphics artists. how many enemies he will encounter at a specific level. and click on the PLAY button. 16 of them could not recognize it and felt confused simply because the size of the PLAY button is different from the three normal buttons to the left. Most of the design flaws can be easily corrected with a little help from the expertise of UI designers. Gamers have to choose a server from the list. The balance of the information panel in Figure 3 could be improved by using a grid system. The confusion caused by the PLAY button in Figure 4 could be easily detected by a simple usability test conducted by UI designers before the shipment of the game. We can look at a game as a layered system with a core and a shell. Emotion layer traditional communication design or UI design. this layer details whether or not the gamer likes the game. which directions he can go. thus making games playable. An information panel of The Age of Empires. Of the 20 players we tested. The server configuration screen of EverQuest. Depending on different genre categories. an online fantasy/adventure game. the concept of UI design has been long neglected by the game industry. The shell is what the gamer actually sees. since usability is a universal property of all kinds of software. Genre layer Game layer Genre-specific attributes Game-specific attributes Usability attributes Figure 3. A layered structure can better represent gameplay This layered structure can help game designers better understand the many aspects and different levels of gameplay. this structure treats usability as the foundation of gameplay. and has fun. Also. Game design needs UI designers’ participation. However. the lack of a clear label combined with the misuse of a graphic and font makes it more like a logo than a button. It was poorly designed without a sense of balance – icons and labels are crowded over to one side. so that they can direct their efforts more effectively toward them. different attributes are introduced and studied. neither the game designers nor the graphics artists have knowledge or skills in either Figure 4. The shell hides the core from the gamer. most game designers tend to focus exclusively on game mechanics. For example. It corresponds to satisfaction in the definition of usability.
which are engineercentered approach.moving in this direction. Other game companies need to catch up. Game design is still at the designercentered stage . ITERATIVE DESIGN AND PROTOTYPING Most game designers use an iterative approach to designing games and are devoted to extensive testing. overall prototypes haven’t gained much popularity among game designers because they are too expensive to build and too limited in their usefulness. Second. evaluated and tested by game designers. This sounds ideal to HCI practitioners. Figure 5 and 6 show two examples. they have difficulties fitting the iterative design approach into the whole game development process.” to help them reach a solid game design . Although a few successful efforts. which means moving game design from a designercentered approach to user–centered approach.ideas are generated by game designers. Thus there are always contradictions. designer-centered approach. much easier to use. Some have expressed the belief that gamers should be more involved in game design. such as the “Miyamoto Box” . progress has been made by a few 3D software vendors to provide 3D prototyping tools to the game design community. a few good designs do stand out. First. Games are extremely time-critical and unlike applications software. have hired HCI graduates to work as UI designers in their game divisions. conflicts. A better synchronization scheme needs to be developed to address this problem. The clean and highly transparent interface does a great job of preserving a sense of immersion without disturbing gamers’ attention from the “virtual” game world. and most importantly. UI designers should use their talent and knowledge to create better UIs. especially the latter. have greatly impaired the effectiveness of the iterative approach taken by game designers. game designers face two major problems. However. require high fidelity prototypes – a slow primitive prototype made using Visual Basic or Director cannot faithfully represent the gameplay of the real game and its usefulness is questionable at best. Although bad designs prevail. game designs cannot be effectively evaluated and tested. GAMERS’ ROLE IN GAME DESIGN Figure 5. Also there are debates on whether or not game design should be completed before game development starts. The elegantly designed in-game interface of Neverwinter Nights. and inconsistencies among programmers and designers. have been made for some specific genres. The designers used the idea of pie menu proposed in some research papers in the late 80s to achieve natural efficiency in menu selection. Software development efforts can be classified into three categories. and usercentered approach. it is very hard to make prototypes for games. Figure 6. Microsoft. Without good prototypes. Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto. Larger companies such as Ensemble studios and its parent company. Game development runs almost parallel to game design. which they’ve dubbed “playtesting. Ideally. and yet they are powerful enough to create convincing game prototypes. arguably the most prominent (and successful) game designer in the world. or three generations. these prototyping tools are simpler. said in an interview: . Most of them also include embedded scripting languages that help game designers create more complicated behaviors of the characters and game mechanics. each game project team should include at least one UI designer to work with the game designers to help tackle on the UI design issues. Realizing the problem. Most companies use either a modified waterfall model or an incremental model to develop their games. then implemented by programmers. Game designer Peter Molyneux developed an innovative and intuitive gesture recognition interface for Black & White. stress the importance of UI through their work and across the game industry. an upcoming RPG game from Black Isle. Only after the game has been put into the market will the game designers know whether or not gamers will accept it. They may not all root from HCI research. Many game designers are now worried about this situation. Compared to the high-end 3D software used for animation movies and special effects. These two problems. but we can clearly see some connections.
FPS (first-person shooter) games are a good example. while others can be applied to a broad range of problems and domains of game design. how to record test data. This is where HCI can offer its help. Tech tree The tech tree should be broad instead of deep. Other game designers can examine their designs and judge Figure 7. First. and how to get the most out of the test data. casual to hardcore. when should gamers be involved in the game design process. from young to old. game designers will have a better chance to understand gamers’ needs and create better games. This scenario matches the idea behind the cognitive walkthrough very well. but most importantly. Due to the nature of FPS games. and reorganize their teams to reflect these new ideas. By getting gamers actively involved at all stages of game design. Table 1 shows a list of heuristics for RTS games . others are played exclusively by a small group of dedicated gamers at a very high skill level. are particularly helpful in these situations. Table 1. A partial list of example heuristics for RTS games. Many game designers have noticed that while some game genres attract a wide variety of gamers. to predict task performance times of different designs . For example. Their goal is not only to gauge the success of software systems with respect to measurable criteria. to guide redesign within an iterative framework. gamers playing them need to have . Peter Molyneux. As the walkthrough proceeds. They can build a list of gameplay heuristics for this type of game. but in two very different ways. how should gamers get involved? To answer the first question. USABILITY ENGINEERING METHODS its compliance – and thereby discover its relative worth – with those recognized heuristics. Description The rock-paper-scissors paradigm The number of building types should be limited under 15. game designers should ask themselves questions like. The usability test methods. redefine their design strategies. Game designers working on a specific type or series of games have accumulated a lot of knowledge of this particular genre. game designers cannot just sit mindlessly next to gamers and watch them play – that is not what the usercentered approach is all about. Of course. how to interpret their behaviors. says that he brings gamers to his company every week to test his design ideas. Name Balance Simplicity A major focus of HCI is in usability engineering methods . and second. The player has to explore a level to achieve that goal. Some work for a specific genre. the intent of which is to evaluate a design for its ease of learning through exploration . Game designers need to restructure their design processes. like Sega’s Seaman. Cognitive walkthrough can be used to evaluate the level designs of action games such as Mario 64. formative or summative. Resources Resources should be dispersed as equally as possible. game designers mainly focus on using simple cognitive models to create more realistic behaviors of synthetic characters in virtual game worlds. HCI researchers use cognitive models. game designers need trainings on how to observe users. Micromanagement Avoid complicated micromanagement. These are relatively inexpensive and not too intimidating to learn by game designers. To deal with the second question. a structured collaboration framework is needed. cognitive walkthrough can be used to evaluate level designs of action adventure games. “Will the gamer know what goal is to be achieved?” and “Will the gamer realize the actions and strategy required to achieve that goal?” COGNITIVE MODELING Cognitive Modeling – the technique to build models to simulate human behaviors – has been used by both the HCI community and game designers. Action adventure games consist of a set of levels with various goals. Another famous game designer. then proceed to another level for another goal. Therefore the heuristics become a general guideline that helps game designers share their knowledge. There are two basic questions that need to be answered in order to get real benefits out of the user-centered approach. This list was developed by game designers at Ensemble Studios. These methods can be analytical or empirical. the so-called “low-cost” inspection and walkthrough methods are particularly useful . A number of usability engineering methods can be adapted for game design. This would reveal when gamers could be most effectively used within the design process. such as the user-centered design (UCD) process . such as think-aloud protocols .“We design the games from the players’ point of view” . Among the usability engineering methods. and benefits the whole game design community by allowing designers to learn from the experience of others. Heuristic evaluation is a “discount” usability engineering method  that can be used to solve genre-specific issues in game design. which are principles that describe common properties of good designs of this genre. such as Model Human Processor and GOMS. By contrast.
2. Game Software Industry Report. W. Marc Saltzman. Mickey Kawick. An Interpreted Demonstration of Computer Game Design. John. are played in a more casual setting that mainly involves exploration and learning. B. John M. In AlienBrain product catalog. playing games becomes a routine cognitive skill.artificial life. Jakob Nielsen. Chuck Clanton. D.html 8. John Wiley & Sons. 7. Academic Press. San Diego. NY. Figure 8. TX. Real-Time Strategy Game Programming Using MS DirectX 6. GOMS can be used to analyze the efficacy of FPS games such as Half Life: Counter Strike. Mack. CONCLUSTION 12. We believe that by combining HCI and the raw experiences of game designers. Jakob Nielsen. and cognitive modeling . 237209. The effort to integrate HCI processes and methods into game design is still at a primitive stage and demands a lot of attention." Human-Computer Interaction. San Diego.ac. HCI lecture notes: think-aloud protocols. GOMS are designed specifically to measure performance issues.uk/~steve/HCI/cscln/trail1/Lecture 5. New York. Inc. Randy Angle. Figure 9. 3. Mack. E. to which GOMS does not apply well. Carroll. Inc. Wordware Publishing. and Robert L. ACM press. Thus it can be deployed to analyze the efficacy of FPS games. 5. 10. 2002. NY. For all the challenges facing game designers. NxN software. ACM press.. Gray. 2002. 3. Therefore gamers become skilled users. such as RPG. Usability Inspection Methods. But the Model Human Processor can still help game designers to improve the efficiency of their UI designs. 2000.0. Plano. John Wiley & Sons. 11. In Proceedings of Game Developers Conference. CA 1993. we can always find useful help from the many facets of HCI. 1994.to create a virtual sea world populated with synthetic characters. Available at http://staff. We have explored the many aspects of HCI research and practices and shown their close ties to the corresponding . speech recognition. Game Design: Secretes of the Sages. New York. and Robert L. 8. Sega’s Seaman made use of several cutting edge technologies .good eye-hand coordination and have fast reflexes. 1999. Effective Project Management. CA 1993. 9. REFERENCES 1. 4.gla. In Proceedings of CHI.psy. Macmillan Publishing. and performance issues become very important.. John M. 2001. Inc. 2001. Academic Press. Other genres. & Atwood. 1994. Usability Engineering. Carroll. E. Human-Computer Interaction in the New Millennium. 6. Jakob Nielsen. The game industry is so young that it lacks both sound disciplines and useful tools. Jakob Nielsen. (1993) "Project Ernestine: A validation of GOMS for prediction and explanation of real-world task performance. M. Human-Computer Interaction in the New Millennium. Usability Engineering. Usability Inspection Methods. 13. we have a great opportunity to create the tools of the trade for the game design community and establish disciplines that can guide game design in the new century. areas of game design. 1998. and William Dwyer.