Kevin Cheng  

The Fight of Challenge vs. Usability in Games

July 12th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Usability is great when it comes to most applications - unless one of the criteria for the application is “challenging for the user”. Such is the dilemma of video game design. The designer wants to create a game that is challenging enough to be fun but not so challenging that gamers are fed up with the game before even starting. If you make something challenging, does that mean it’s unusable? Further, is unusable even a bad thing when it comes to games? How do we balance the two sides?When looking at challenge vs. usability, there should be no debate that some aspects of a video game can be usable without hindering the challenge: menu systems, for example. As obvious as this may seem, most games seem to enjoy making a game out of navigating the most basic menu functions. Are you sure you want to save a game? Yes/No. Which one is highlighted? The white one or the yellow one?

Then we have the games with obscene amounts of information and data to be manipulated. Role playing games (RPGs) are notorious for this. Inventory systems, character statistics, spells, upgrades, etc. can become difficult to navigate. My recent obsession has been with the World of Warcraft Beta test. Prior to WoW, I played Dark Ages of Camelot and Everquest and all of these games, to one degree or another, suffer from some interface issues. Everquest was probably the worst offender, with many windows actually interfering with play more often than not. I’m not suggesting they should all be using standard Windows interfaces but there are certainly a few things they could borrow in addition to the top right “X” to close a window. Blizzard, the makers of WoW, have the best I’ve seen out of the trio. What’s noteworthy is that in addition to their own UI, they permit custom modifications to the front end by anyone who’s so inclined in the gaming community. Although not ideal, they may be onto something. The gaming community is unique in that many of the users can create their own interfaces. Perhaps Blizzard understands that the usability aspects aren’t tightly integrated with the challenge.

Inventory systems, menu screens, and other such windows do not improve the challenge or fun of the game when they’re unusable. They detract from what could otherwise be immersive experiences. Simply put, they frustrate the users.

What about within the game experience itself? Here, the lines become more grey. At the extreme end, you could create a game that’s so “usable” that you can defeat the boss with one press of a button. Voila! Obviously, that’s not a challenging solution.

The problem then, is identifying where the challenge is. What does the designer want the gamer to immerse themselves in doing? In Splinter Cell 2 or Thief 3, the goal is usually to remain hidden and inconspicuous. Various tools are made at your disposal to accomplish this. Thus, controlling your protagonist to do what you want it to do and move how you want it to move, using the equipment available, and navigating save game menus should all be easy. The challenge is to use those things at your disposal and make something of it.

I think a great example of creating something truly intuitive is the game Donkey Kong’s Jungle Beat - a game which uses a pair of conga drums as the input device. Tycho of Penny Arcade describes it perfectly:

This is pretty much what I’m talking about when I say I want Nintendo to remind me what it is about these simple, pure concepts that is so compelling. Jungle Beat is a 2D sidescroller rendered entirely in 3D, so already I’m starting to feel warm. To run right, you roll the right bongo. Left, well, you know. Both drums jumps, hitting them again in mid-air bops. Clapping initiates an action, like grabbing bananas or punching a pig. So, with this basic palette of actions, you need to navigate comely jungle and arctic scenarios in ways that feel oddly intuitive. Now I’ve gotten ahold of some weird bird - it looks like each bongo is a wing on that bird, and I can fly where I want to with a moment’s experimentation. Now I’m being flung around after swinging on trees, or vines - when I hit the wall, I can hit the drum facing away from it to leap, left and right, up the corridor. Here is a boss, a gigantic ape, that I must box - swinging right and left - using the bongo controller.

Nintendo focussed on the challenge, and made everything else incredibly intuitive. Video games are an escape from reality - an immersive experience to put the gamer into the game. The less barriers there are for the gamer to become immersed, the better.

Although challenge seems like an antitheses of usability, it need not be. Taking a step back to evaluate and isolate where the challenge lies in a game can help create a more defined gaming experience. Aspects of the game outside of this space should support the gamer in meeting the challenges and that’s where usability lies.

2 Responses to “The Fight of Challenge vs. Usability in Games”
Josh Johnson wrote:

This is an especially interesting article for me, as I moved from the game industry into pure interface design about 5 years ago. One of the things I think the HCI community can learn from games is the fact that their interfaces aren’t just a means of reaching the game, but are a well integrated part of the gaming experience. I’m not advocating the introduction of mystery-meat flash-animated blinking menus, but merely the fact that game interfaces tend to be more engaging than most other interfaces.

Speaking of MMORPGs, I recently checked out Star Wars Galaxies. One of the interesting UI functions I found (and may exist in other games) was the fact that there are two distinct selection modes, which can be quickly toggled using the Alt key. This seemed like a very graceful method of addressing the multi-stacked menu problem noted in the article. You can edit and manage your inventory, and then with the click of a keystroke, you’ve switched modes and are ready for battle.

I was actually impressed with the level of interaction technology they had employed, including things like radial-context menus, defining of hotkeys using drag-and-drop, and even what amounts to an integrated and scriptable command line interface.

This isn’t to say they don’t have their problems as well (Maybe they could even use something like Expose on the Mac for better organizational control of inventory windows.), but it’s interesting to point out that just as the game designers have employed usability techniques while maintaining the challenge of the gameplay, maybe other UI designers could employ engaging game-like techniques while maintaining usability.

As noted, there’s a danger is pursuing usability blindly. There’s a balance to be struck, and it’s not always apparent where the balance point is, but that’s why they hire HCI/UI people. ;-)

JP wrote:

I’m a game designer, and I believe firmly that usability and “challenge” (whatever stuff the player is trying to accomplish) are mutually separable concepts. In Microsoft Word the user is trying to get something productive done, like writing a letter; in a game, the player is trying to do something meaningful, like solve a mystery or destroy aliens. In either case, the challenge the user faces comes from the task itself (that letter isn’t going to write itself, those aliens want to kill me too), developing a strategy then implementing it. The interface is just there to facilitate that. Any “challenge” that arises from poor usability is not a legitimate challenge, it’s poor usability - which can be anything from unresponsive controls to unclear / unreadable feedback to the wide awake nightmare that is modern MMORPG interfaces (Blizzard’s WoW excluded, they generally do a very good job). That doesn’t stop game designers from heaping it on though.

For instance: I’m amazed that console First Person Shooters continue to be made when the provided interface (analog sticks or a directional pad) is so poor and error-prone. Mechanically, taking aim at a target on-screen is exactly the same as mousing to locations on a desktop… and PC UI designers wouldn’t dream of making people click icons with a joystick. Any thoughts from the usability gurus?


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?