Monday, April 13, 2009

The Importance of Readability in Games

Several folks have been talking about The Design of Everyday Things in the context of games, and this excites me tremendously. I am a big fan of Norman's book, as evidenced, but what I'm really excited about is what interest in this book represents. I believe there is a growing interest in improving the usability in games, and more importantly, improving their readability.

Why does this matter? I believe that one of the most interesting aspects of games is the interactive system that emerges from the collaboration of the game's individual mechanics and dynamics. This is a characteristic unique to games (at least amongst activities we engage with for enjoyment) and perhaps the most emblematic of games' potential for true artistry. But there is an inseparable peril here as well, namely that being able to understanding the system is at least partially a precondition to enjoying it. E.g. there is a lot of time that needs put in before Dwarf Fortress becomes truly enjoyable.

This is a bigger problem than many people think.

Since their inception, games have been trending toward richer simulations, greater graphical fidelity, more varied interactions and more consequential decisions. But it seems a peak was reached and recently there has been a bit of pushback, calls for reducing complexity and making games simpler. I think this is really an acknowledgment, perhaps subconsciously, that we're becoming more aware of the readability issues in our games. By reducing the elements at play in our systems, we can expedite the player's internalization of a system's behaviours.

Certain studios are incredible systematic in their approach to readability and it shows. Oft-touted, but for good reason, Valve has demonstrated how much they value creating games that are as readable as possible. I asked my fiancée to give Portal a try, even though she basically never plays first-person games. Her tastes skew towards social games, be they intrinsically so (The Sims, Animal Crossing) or merely circumstantially (Mario Kart, Mario Party, Rock Band). I was curious how she would engage with Portal. The gameplay style wasn't particularly to her taste, and she found the controls a little wonky. But once the control issue was ameliorated, she was able to quickly parse and solve the puzzles, even though the game's interactions were almost totally foreign to her. Listening to the developer's commentary, in coordination with reflecting on Randy Smith's GDC talk, it's clear this is no coincidence. It's the result of a dedicated and thorough process that behoove most developers to emulate as appropriate.

Making these complex systems readable is important, and not just because it might save the world. Players need to understand all the inputs and all the outputs to make interesting, informed decisions. These are the mechanisms through which we express our will in the game. This is the machinery that transforms our medium from passive to interactive. It's what makes games interesting and might well be what makes them art.

This is a multifaceted (and as far as I'm aware, relatively unexplored) issue, but we can begin making inroads. Making games more readable begins with two things- empathy and data.

I'm going to discuss both in the next few posts, culminating with thoughts on how poor readability contribute to the adventure game genre more or less eating itself. I hope this will be of interest and, as always, I welcome your thoughts.

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Blogger Alan Jack said...

Interesting. I think in this area you're using the word "readable" in the same way I use the word "accessible" in my argument that " one way to measure the success of an art form, medium or piece of individual art is to measure its accessibility - in other words, how many people just can't 'get it'".

Could it be that your empathy/data approach could contribute to general society's acceptance of the interactive medium of games as an expressive art form?

Looking forward to reading your other blog entries!

April 22, 2009 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

There's a little bit of a subtlety here: it's not important that all games be accessible. But if they're inaccessible, that decision needs to be made deliberately and carefully. Far too often, it's not a decision that's made an all. It's a state that arises out of neglect.

Readability contributes to accessibility, I think.

And that being said, the industry isn't doing itself any favours with interactions like this either.

April 22, 2009 at 6:07 PM  
Blogger Reid Kimball said...

I'm also looking forward to future articles on this topic of readability. I also see it as different from accessibility.

By referencing The Design of Everyday Things, which I love, I understand readability to be the same as affordance.

April 23, 2009 at 1:28 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Reid It's similar, yes. The distinction I'd make is two-fold. One, affordance is usually understood as a property of an object, while readability is more concerned with relationships. Two, affordance is usually goal or task focused, i.e. how clearly an object communicate what its purpose is. Often, we want our system to be more "neutral," rather that directing interactions toward a single (or set of) predetermined purpose(s).

Now, game constructs with clear affordances contribute to making a system more readable.

Does that distinction make sense? Or is that just splitting hairs? ;)

April 23, 2009 at 2:06 PM  
Blogger Reid Kimball said...

Hi Nels,

I have maybe a 71.4% understanding of the difference. :)

I'd like to see you cover that difference in your future posts with specific tangible examples please.

As I understand it, if there's a door in a game with a lever, readability will help the player understand the lever's relationship to that door. A flashy, sparkling material on the lever will afford that the lever itself is interactive?

I'm not clear on why we'd want systems to be neutral instead of communicating the exact purpose of interacting with it? Wouldn't that make the system ambiguous and hard to interact with? If I understood what you meant by "neutral", that would help.

April 23, 2009 at 8:21 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Reid Yeah, I realize that I'm still being a little too hand-wavy. Worse, I'm blending world interactions with more system things, which I think is muddling this even more. I'll put together some (hopefully) understandable examples in the posts to come, but in the mean time, maybe this will clear things up a little bit.

The lever example is a bit of a red herring, since a lever (by the very fact that it's identifiable as a lever) basically affords pulling. Presenting something that appears like a "lever" has a bunch of affordances built in (which designers can exploit). But I understand what you mean and I think what you said is accurate.

Lighting, highlights, etc. of an object can convey that it affords interaction. While a readable door/switch system will convey how those objects relate. Now, we might not want that relationship to be readable (because it's a secret door or something), but that decision should be deliberate.

When I said, "neutral," I was referring to actions the player can take. E.g. I'd say it's rarely a good idea to create abilities or interactions that are only useful in very specific situations. Imagine if the Incinerate plasmid in Bioshock could only be used to melt ice, instead of melting ice, setting bad guys on fire, setting oil pools ablaze, etc.

What I meant by neutral is that designers shouldn't be ham-fisted and say, "Now it's time to use this ability." The abilities should do a set of interesting things and the players can compose those in ways the designers might have never even expected.

April 24, 2009 at 9:54 AM  
Blogger Reid Kimball said...

Thanks for the clarification Nels. I understand better and agree.

April 24, 2009 at 12:54 PM  

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