Friday, September 17, 2010

Jen's Meter

Today, an anecdote about my experience as a gamer, and how developers lean on it. Playing Tomb Raider with Jen, my familiarity with design tropes is an unsurprising advantage, but it surprised me how helpful it was in comprehending interface design.

The game features three meters for each character, for health, ammo, and a special attack. Health and ammo are red and blue bars, respectively. The special attack uses special iconography with runes that work their way around the perimeter of the health and ammo bars. Each rune slowly fades in and glows as you collect kills and items, and the last "rune" you happen to be on is orange, as opposed to yellow runes you've completely filled. When all the runes are full, all the runes glow, and you can use a special ability. The visuals confused her.
"Why do you have 3 runes and I have 2?"
"They just represent your progress to use a special ability."
"Wait what?"
"When all your runes fill up, you can use a special ability."
"How do you know that?"
"The game told us about it awhile back."
"But why do you have 3 and I have 2?"
While pointing to difficult to see blacked-out runes, "This is a meter, just like health and ammo. Just pretend your runes show how full the meter is."
"Why do I have 1 yellow one and one orange one, but you have 2 yellows and 1 orange?"
"It's just how they wanted it to look. It doesn't mean anything"
"Oh, maybe the orange is just the latest one, and yellow is the rest."
"They should have just made it a meter like health and ammo. :("
The conversation was more complicated and involved than this, with a lot of back and forth to convey what was going on, and figuring out how to slot inventory items was equally difficult. I'm disappointed whenever I notice advantages I have for playing so many games, and how much designers assume a certain familiarity with convention, most likely without realizing it, and often without caring.


  1. I have a similar experience playing with my wife. She understands the meter, or is starting to, but she just doesn't look at the meters very often. Maybe it would help if the relic meter visibly showed the outlines of the missing runes? She often asks why I'm killing everything even though she's shooting too and I point out that she's out of ammo, or still using the basic gun because she didn't switch back to a good one when she picked up some ammo. Really though, even I don't notice how low my health is sometimes on games with health meters; paying attention to meters is definitely a learned skill.

    But the toughest sell I've found with Keisha has been convincing her she needs to roll away when enemies are getting close to her. When we're going for getting her the new weapon with a high score on the level, I noticed that filling the relic meter is essential (you get something like 3x points for enemy kills when the relic meter is full, plus you have the relic ability which makes it easier). Which means she needs to avoid getting hit.

    I've also noticed that in games with puzzles like this and New Super Mario Bros. (DS and Wii), the puzzles are much easier for me I suppose because I view the levels from the perspective that virtually everything there was put there by someone for a reason, and given the possible interactions in the world it is a quick matter to narrow down what that reason could be.

    Incidentally I think that while Guardian of Light does provide some excitement and a bit of the sense of adventuring through ancient ruins (with scripted events and the well-realized environments), those same environments aren't very believable because they're so gamey. But it doesn't matter all that much because it is a lot of fun anyway. : )

  2. This is something I've noticed also as I've played fewer and fewer games in recent years. I don't understand the conventions that designers sometimes take for granted, but I also don't get excited by some things I see others drooling over in the games they're playing when I do play them. I wonder if I'm more similar to the standard non-gamer now in those respects, or if I'm in some weird category now because of my past design experience and concept-influenced tastes and tendencies. I wish I could say it's the former, but I'm afraid it's the latter.

  3. Something I thought to add that seems a little bit relevant: I also played the demo of the Legend of the Guardians (I think that's what it's called) game, and with that one my gaming experience actually got in the way of me figuring out the controls for a while.

    In that game you are a bird flying around and stuff, but for the most part the camera just stays behind and follows your targeting reticle (moved with the left stick, or by holding the left bumper (on the 360) to target something nearby). I wasn't really used to the idea of being able to target things that aren't already on my screen, though, and I kept trying to use the right stick to move the camera. But because they have specific actions mapped to different directions on the right stick, I ended up doing things I didn't intend. It was frustrating until I got myself to stop expecting the right stick to move the camera.

    I dunno, seemed like an interesting counterpoint: design that expects the player to already have certain gaming expectations/skills can be problematic, but design that ignores those things in players who do have them can be just as much of an issue.

  4. Awesome comments. I wish I had more to say, but they were just good reads. I agree that game conventions can actually hinder a gamer, and plan to right about that in a few minutes.