Developing Thoughts 19

Shall we interface?

Have you ever picked up your joypad or approached your keyboard and found that you struggled to play the game that’s in the machine because the interface felt wrong? Have you ever given up on a game simply because you were fighting the interface more than playing the game? When the interface creates these feelings in the player, it acts as a barrier to enjoyment of the game, instead of a means by which players can immerse themselves into the game world with ease.

The development of a set of interface mechanics can be a major concern. If you don’t get it right, the whole perception of the playability of your game will be judged by how the interface affects the player’s enjoyment. It’s likely that most projects go through a period where the interface doesn’t feel right or needs improvement – the trick is to discover the problems before the game is released.

It is at this point that some of you may be wondering about the interface problems in Broken Sword – The Sleeping Dragon. For many people, the keyboard interface on this game was a major barrier to their enjoyment and is actually a powerful lesson in the dangers of taking things for granted.

Revolution Software was clear from the outset that the game should move away from the point-and-click interface that was the trademark of the adventure. Many reviews of other adventures or articles about the adventure genre often talked about the point-and-click interface in a derogatory manner. It was felt that such a PC-specific interface was holding the genre back from moving to a wider range of gaming platforms. With this in mind, the development of The Sleeping Dragon was geared towards a lead on the PS2 and Xbox consoles with an interface that matched the joypads that the two machines used.

The joypad-based interfaces worked very well and suited perfectly the aims of broadening the genre. However, this success blinded us to the problem of the PC interface and here was where we took for granted that on the keyboard it would just work. Moving the player character around the game environments in a screen-relative control mode simply isn’t as easy on a keyboard as it is with a joypad.

Perhaps it’s the nature of the keys themselves; perhaps it’s something about the difference between using fingers instead of thumbs. Whatever the reason behind the difficulty, it should have been seen earlier so that something could have been done about it. Giving an additional option to switch to character-relative control may have been all that was needed, but it was something we missed and it’s certainly a lesson I have learned. Unfortunately, a lesson learned the hard way.

Of course, it could be that the worry over the point-and-click interface led to a slight over-reaction, particularly when you consider that other games use this type of interface. PC based RPGs regularly use a point-and-click interface with no worry about whether it’s outmoded. Even Doom 3 uses a variation for when the player wishes to interact with objects he comes across in the game world.

When looking at the interface for your game, be aware of what other games are doing and learn from approaches that work well. You can also learn from interfaces that make mistakes, by ensuring that you don’t make those same mistakes.

The interface should be the player’s means of connecting with a great game, not a barrier to having fun.

© Steve Ince, 2004