As the instrument of DOET I became responsible for their salvation
January 12, 2014 8:19 PM   Subscribe

The Cult of the Peacock. It’s easy to forget that at one time all videogames had manuals. I used to like reading manuals. Manuals were cool. Now, instead of manuals, we have interactive tutorials. They take about fifty times longer to produce, three times longer to consume, and players hate them so much that their highest aspiration is to become completely transparent. Currently I spend most of my waking hours developing them. It should come as no surprise that I hate them too.
posted by Sebmojo (48 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I'm developing the tutorial for my company's game right now and I agree with just about everything he said. It's a horrid feature and I hate it. It's 55 steps long.
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:31 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I realize that this can't apply to all games, but I thought the Sequelitis video on Mega Man [warning: language, possibly terribly annoying] was a good insight into how you can teach your players the rules of the game without making them explicit, popping up tutorials, or making them read a manual.

Admittedly, it works well for a side-scrolling shooter and not so much for a Civ-type complex beast, but still.
posted by komara at 8:35 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I paid $20 for X-Com on the ipad as much as a vote against fucking micro transactions as anything. Thankfully it's also an awesome game.

I, for one, read the manuals.
posted by GuyZero at 8:51 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's like a blast of hot air from the '80s! If a program was hard to write, it should be hard to understand!

As he doesn't seem to like Don Norman, I'd prescribe Alan Cooper's The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Programmers are highly detail-oriented, and they wrote the system; they don't see why ordinary people are baffled by their products. Too bad. Programs should be usable.

Manuals are horrible. No one wants to read them, and for good reason-- normally they're written as cheaply and quickly as possible by non-programmers based on design specs and half-working code. There is probably a way to write them to match the needs of the user, but who has time to figure that out? Instead you infodump all the controls and hope that the user can somehow use that to figure out how to solve their problems using your program.

With games, he's wrong: doing user-centered design doesn't mean you have to avoid sophistication and difficulty. One example is Civilization IV, which will take you months to master, and yet has a UI that's amazingly pleasant and informative. You have a huge array of possible actions, but a system of mouseovers and dialogs makes it manageable at any one moment. (Civ V didn't do this nearly as well.)

If your game is too easy, there's any number of ways to make it challenging. Making the UI harder should not be one of those ways.
posted by zompist at 8:57 PM on January 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

Yeah while I am sympathetic to the challenges I am also not fond of the school that says video games should be opaque and difficult to understand for the sake of keeping the dread CASUALS away. If Unity of Command can make a grognardy hex-based wargame about supply lines an interesting and fun (if devilishly hard) experience that's reasonably intuitive to understand even if you don't play through the brief tutorial, I'm not all THAT sympathetic.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:04 PM on January 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

On the other hand, he also talks about dealing with testers and bosses who make a point of not reading the dialogs, and who insist that something's wrong the minute they get bored or distracted or momentarily puzzled. So that breaks the Civ IV approach.

It sounds like he's dealing with people who have somehow interpreted "user-centered design" to mean "do not ever make the user put any conscious effort into anything."
posted by this is a thing at 9:16 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

In effect design has now been weaponised, and Art can’t really keep up.
As I disclaim any time I comment in a game thread, I don't play games much any more. I do, however, make software for a living, and there's a lot here that's worth chewing on.

Somewhere in this line of thinking, I suspect, is a useful framing for the set of ways that it feels to me like software has concretely gotten worse in the 20 years I've been using computers.
posted by brennen at 9:25 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Manuals are horrible? Really?

The manual for Arcanum was nearly 200 pages long, contains a good amount of material not directly relevant to gameplay, and it is glorious. PDF link here. I miss those days.

And yes I read the entire thing.
posted by trunk muffins at 9:30 PM on January 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

Great article. Argh I miss the old game manuals.

As an example, the old Simcity manual had about 11 pages at the end of it dedicated to exploring the history of urban design from Mesopotamian, Roman and Renaissance periods... the impact the automobile had on urban design... all the way to modern city planning, and discussing what was "good city form". With a long bibliography in the appendix, all references properly cited! Very heady stuff for the 12 year old me trying to play Simcity for the first time: it really made everything come alive. I spent my recess periods in class sketching incredibly detailed city plans over my exercise books, running across pages like a city roadmap.

Or even the F19 Stealth Fighter manual which had long passages explaining the physics behind radar cross section and stealth technology, flight aerodynamics and principles, etc. I learned about stall speeds at different altitudes due to different air density which also affected the speed of sound - before the age of 12! Also diagrams explaining how to execute standard pursuit and evasive actions and landing patterns. Long descriptions of various wars and rules of engagement. There were dozens of pages describing in great detail the military hardware each side had access to, even though you were only ever going to fly that one plane. It even had fan-fiction!

So much immersion!
posted by xdvesper at 10:03 PM on January 12, 2014 [18 favorites]

I loved the intro/tutorial for Little Big Planet. It was maybe five minutes long, tops, taught you everything you needed to know about playing the game, and was highly entertaining.

As an example, the old Simcity manual

Oh my god I loved that to death.

I guess what I'm saying is, horses for courses. Some games--the ones that require planning ahead and knowledge--work best when they have a manual. And some are better by just immersing you in the gameplay and leaving the manual as extra/supplemental material.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:11 PM on January 12, 2014

When I first downloaded the KSP demo many months ago their instruction wiki was very sparse; it has much more information now than I remember. I realize it was a Beta release, but at the time I despaired that having to search through fan made blogs and youtube videos just to learn the basic controls was becoming the new standard from cost-cutting development companies.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:19 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another difference between games previous to the current era beside missing manuals and frustrating tutorial is that completing them involved skill and persistence rather than mere capital outlay.
posted by mistersquid at 10:40 PM on January 12, 2014

It's not that he's advocating a return to unintuitive UI design. It's that he's complaining about writing games like, say, Assassins Creed III, where it seemed you spend the entire first half of the game in tutorial mode and/or with heavily restricted actions.

Even in a game like Civ, this pops up as the advisors who are always ready to tell you what to do next, should you ever be forced to make a decision you don't understand yet.

Heaven forbid the player should be expected to spend 30 seconds reading instructions rather than have their hand held through a two hour long tutorial spread over a number of missions doling out ever tiny possible action in micro, baby-food smooth morcels.

I actually find these harder to understand the game with because tutorial fatigue sets in - I want to do THIS, but the interactive tutorial is insisting on telling me how to do THAT - that, I already figured out how to do 20 minutes ago because it was sodding obvious. But I don't know HOW to do THIS specific thing yet, because the game hasn't hand held me through it yet, and there's no fucking manual where I could spend 10 seconds finding the magic key combination.

It's grinding games down to ultra smooth baby paste, so that players never have to actually take any effort to learn the basic mechanics of play. So instead of interesting and new discoveries and choices to make, we end up with 50 trillion near-identical fetch quests rubber stamped over and over on the pretty graphics, because that's all the designers had time for as they spend a massive amount of time railroading the player to being hand held how to play in a lengthy time consuming tutorial in baby steps, and making sure the player can't escape it by the many stupid things players will do because they immediately get bored and start shooting everybody in sight in the belief that will make it go faster.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:28 AM on January 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

I understand the complaint, but I'm not buying the existence of a bright line between games then and games now. Even in good old Warcraft 2, there were some units you couldn't build until the very end of the campaign. And in the older SimCity games that started your city in 1900, some content was portioned out over the course of gameplay. You couldn't build bus transit systems until 1940 or whatever. I completely agree that portioning out content means that either the rules of your game are a disjointed mess, or you're actively trying to stretch playing time. But hell, RPGs are basically a long exercise in portioning out content, and they seem popular enough.
posted by Nomyte at 2:57 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

The wall the author is up against was created by Valve, first with Half-Life and then refined and purified in Portal. All considered the greatest games of their era, possibly of all time, by core gamers. They're entirely composed of clever antepieces and subtle tutorial. That's the main reason they're so great! The development teams spent three quarters of their effort on those aspects of the games. If you want to attack that style of development, you gotta address the fact that those games are sitting on top of a pile of love and respect.
posted by breath at 3:30 AM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

On the other hand, he also talks about dealing with testers and bosses who make a point of not reading the dialogs, and who insist that something's wrong the minute they get bored or distracted or momentarily puzzled. So that breaks the Civ IV approach.

One of the more baffling stories I've ever seen about video games was somebody relating the tale of their friend who thought Fallout: New Vegas was the most boring, story-free game he'd ever played, with barely any gameplay or content. The poster telling this story was, of course, confused- New Vegas is a huge game, with a ton of well-written story and well-designed gameplay that it is easy to pour hundreds of hours into. Upon questioning, the friend revealed that he'd looked up the game's console codes and simply teleported from town to town, using the console to set every quest to completed as soon as it was handed in. This wasn't even after a completion- this was how he'd chosen to play the game from the start!

I get that games need to be friendly to the user and take into account a wide variety of personalities, but if one is not willing to put in even the least effort into understanding a thing, one should go fuck oneself before being upset that one doesn't understand it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:37 AM on January 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

Yeah, I liked manuals. Computer games were for playing at the computer: manuals were for something to read when you had to stop playing long enough to go to the toilet.

Now I play games on my phone and I never have to stop playing on the toilet.

Um, maybe don't borrow my phone if you are worried about germs, mkay?
posted by lollusc at 3:45 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think consoles and the increase of "casual" players are responsible for the change to in-game tutorial vs. manual but I also don't necessarily think this is a bad thing. Some games simply manage this better than others. My understanding is that the stand out POS is Assassin's Creed III which I luckily haven't played. Far Cry 3 had a fantastic tutorial/skill-gain system that saw you start out as having a very basic FPS skill set and eventually had you planning out jumping, sliding, multiple hand-to-hand skills stringed together for max XP gain. Same publisher, different approach and significant differences between the perception of the games.

Now I am actually going to be buying a PC shortly, mostly so I can play Skyrim modded into "Medieval Frozen Pauper's Death Simulator 2014" and the sheer depth of the mods I'll be adding will mean reading an awful lot of supporting documentation. Mods like Frostfall, Hunterborn, Realistic Needs & Diseases and so forth don't always come with tutorials in-game because they weren't built in to the game from the get-go.

As a result of this decision I've had to come to terms with the expected detail from reading the manuals (readme.txt in reality) as well as finding mods that will work together. Re-acquainting myself with the concepts of .esps, .esms, modifying .ini files and so on is way more complex than any manual could ever be (even Crusader Kings II). This is all part of the fun for me as I get to re-learn fun and interesting stuff whilst I work out which ENB will make the freezing north of Tamriel look as inhospitable as possible (hint - the Bleak ENB looks pretty miserable).

I'm not sure what the takeaway from all this is. Probably PC Master Race or something. I think PC gamers are more open to new and interesting concepts in gaming, although again I suspect this may be due to the ease of launching new concepts on the platform, where MS and Sony sometimes seem to actively squash innovation.
posted by longbaugh at 4:48 AM on January 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

I don't feel that the author is entire correct here. Yes, you sell more games when you pitch the games at the lowest common denominator, and repeatedly doing so has trained a legion of gamers to ignore manuals and info screens.

There is a counterpoint though, in that the interface should not be the obstacle to be overcome. You shouldn't have to consult the list of hotkeys every half hour (B to board a boat, but D to descend stairs and E to enter a door?) and you shouldn't feel compelled to read the long, tedious, badly written novella that the designers felt was the best way to tell players the backstory (out of curiosity, did anyone other than me read the entire manual for Master of Orion 3?).

This is the old Show versus Tell argument, and while Tell has it's uses, Show does tend to make for an easier interactive experience.
posted by YAMWAK at 5:19 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

games like, say, Assassins Creed III, where it seemed you spend the entire first half of the game in tutorial mode and/or with heavily restricted actions

Ohhhh, this explains everything--I literally just started playing ACIII last night (haven't played any AC games before), and I eventually found myself getting too frustrated. So restricted, with so many big cinematics linking scanty lockstep-actions together! I got discouraged and quit, thinking sadly that I might have misunderstood the game and it might not be the game for me.

However, if it's just that I'm locked into a giant extended babyfood tutorial, that perversely gives me a little more will to keep slogging through--if eventually I'll get to more of a, you know, game. That I can play.
posted by theatro at 5:30 AM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes keep going Theatro. It does turn into a game eventually. I've played all the AC games and I get what they were trying to do with the tutorial but wow that one just went on and on and on...
posted by Jalliah at 5:42 AM on January 13, 2014

I used to have Aces of the Pacific back in the early 90's (game was so badass) - the manual was spiral-bound and probably 200 pages long, the majority of which was full-color spec sheets on most (all?) combat aircraft used in the War. I used to carry that fucker around like a bible when I was a kid. One of my teachers even asked me where to get it, then bought the game just so she could give her WWII-buff husband the manual as a gift.
posted by stinkfoot at 5:48 AM on January 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

I just replayed The Last of Us, and the way that trains the player is largely nicely done, and does a great job in helping you to inhabit the characters and the game world. But it is also basically an action-adventure game, with very limited crafting and levelling, in which the player is almost always interacting with an immediate physical space and entities within that space. That kind of game probably shouldn't need a manual.

(Obviously, the best tutorial ever for an action game remains Left 4 Dead, in which every bit of information you need to start playing the game is contained in a short and gripping opening cinematic. Clear zombies off a fallen colleague before trying to help him/her up, don't shine a light on the Witch, fake care of the special infected as quickly as possible, regular zombies are attracted to high-pitched noises, keep your distance from the Tank. Now go!)

At the other end you have games like Dwarf Fortress, which are very complex at the user interface level, and which also have a very steep (and unbalanced) learning curve. Interestingly, these also don't tend to have manuals, in part because they are low-overhead, downloadable games rather than boxed product. Rather, they have documentation - which is often a joint enterprise between the creator of the game and its players, in which the players do the majority of the work of documenting the foibles of the game.

That speaks to what Vance is saying about affordances, and also about the value of writing manuals to some extent: it's possible to see a game like Dwarf Fortress (or the absurdly successful Minecraft as two games - the game generated by the code and the game where the player decides how much of that first-order game to puzzle out for him or herself and how much to look up on the web, and then how much to get involved in the process of exploring and adding to the information online about how to play the game. There's a broad agreement that it is almost impossible to play Dwarf Fortress without getting some sort of help from outside its developer - a tile pack and the wiki, essentially - and the developer is perfectly happy for these elements of the game to be handled externally.

Obviously, that's quite a risk to take when you launch a game, and free-to-play is going to be a hard market to take that kind of step with, because anything that would make the player leave the game window is going to be anathema.

As an aside, and largely unconnected to the issue Vance is addressing, I miss the beautifully produced manuals of yore, packed with incidental detail about the game world and background, but it's probably worth remembering that we remember the best (Arcanum, Fallout), and maybe forget the ones bloated with pages of terrible generic fantasy background churned out by the publisher's son in between bong hits.

One interesting development there, I think, is that sort of material finding other ways to market. There is a long tradition of tie-in comic books and novels to games, but in most cases they have been produced after and as a result of the game being a success. However, LA Noire and BioShock Infinite both had e-books released at about the same time as the game, which provided in the latter case some backstory on the world and one of the antagonists and in the other a sort of crash-course on modern noir styling and how it applies to post-war Los Angeles. These aren't manuals in any meaningful way, but they are an interesting product...
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:56 AM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I hate hate hate manuals. I hate bad walkthroughs,too, but I hate manuals more.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:26 AM on January 13, 2014

(that being said, still a good article. I actually like clear instructions and find most games inscrutable. I might just hate games. Or most of them, anyway.)
posted by clvrmnky at 6:44 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

The demise of manuals? Downloaded software rather than retail purchase. You can't ship a book with the box if there's no box. Yes, you could ship a PDF or whatnot, but everyone on the planet knows that the best way to make sure a file is never looked at by Joe User is to call it README.

And I'll take either over video manuals.
posted by eriko at 6:48 AM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Please turn to page 76 of your manual and enter the second word of the fourth paragraph to continue.
posted by bonehead at 7:43 AM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

I agree with running order: one of the most wildly successful games of the past 5 years is Minecraft, and Minecraft absolutely flies in the face of the design philosophy discussed in the FPP (less so as they halfheartedly add in tool-tips, but absolutely so in its initial stages when it was growing exponentially). Subsequent crafting sandboxes have taken a similar tack, with much of the game being contained in fan-supported online manuals, and gameplay largely revolving around having the game open in one window and alt tabbing out to a browser to look up some bit of obscure information every 30 minutes or so.

In fact, the popular video genre of 'watch my parent try to play Minecraft', often shows this, as the inexperienced player punches a tree for five minutes, says "this is stupid" and quits.

My main problem with this school of design is that it's really, really irritating to tab out of a program and check on something. It's also impractical, as eriko stated, to have paper manuals since 99% of all games I've bought in the past 8 years or so have been digital downloads. Instead, I'd like to see a move towards manuals which are as much fun to read as those paper manuals used to be, but which are contained within the game. For example Spelunky, while it does have a forced tutorial, could be played easily without it, as the game moves quick enough that you're constantly learning its mechanics through trial and error, and the automatically updating journal gives you some basic information and flavor text as you experience new things. Dark Souls also does this pretty well, with a very basic (and mercifully short) tutorial level, that's supplemented by semi-synchronous multiplayer aspects which provide information. There's enough to let new players go into it blind and still enjoy the game, while concealing a level of depth that still allows people to write hundred page guides to maximizing their stats.
posted by codacorolla at 8:00 AM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I remember the manual of Lords of Magic, which was 150+ pages complete with cosmology, mythology, world history and all kinds of minutiae. Not very original, but damn if these people weren't into their game. The game itself was like a slower-paced version of Heroes of Might & Magic.
posted by ersatz at 8:17 AM on January 13, 2014

The Portal series is really good at increasing your toolset without it being overwhelmingingly tutorialish or a drag - but Valve are pretty great at this sort of thing in general.
posted by Artw at 8:23 AM on January 13, 2014

Could you imagine if a new iPhone came with a manual you had to study before you could figure out how to operate it? Did you ever sit down and look at the operating manual for old personal computers? Software that teaches you how to use it is one of the best usability innovations of the last twenty years. Games are software.
posted by Nelson at 8:35 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some of the manuals back in the early days were really good. Someone already mentioned the one for SimCity. Another manual that I thought was good was the one for The Ancient Art of War at Sea. Just skip to Book III. That was my introduction to combat in the age of sail when I was 16.
posted by smoothvirus at 8:50 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Almost everyone I know who has played Minecraft has learned how to play by watching over the shoulder of someone else, either in real life or on Youtube.

I had a similar experience when learing to play both rogue and text adventures (now "interactive fiction"). I learned playing with friends.

Some manuals from the 80s and 90s were amazing (Civ II and Darklands were two of my favourites), but they were never the primary way I learned to play games. That was iterative (try something, fail, try again) and cooperative with friends and folks on fidonet/usenet. Quick reference cards were the most useful documentation, for learning to play, in my expereince.

I find the modern use tutorials mildly annoying. They can be useful to introduce gameplay elements, if done well. However, too often they're a drag on pace and fun, an artifical slowdown on getting to play.
posted by bonehead at 9:00 AM on January 13, 2014

/learned Minecraft from the wiki, squinting a bit so as not to get too spoiled.
posted by Artw at 9:19 AM on January 13, 2014

He reminds me of people who rant about how GUI interfaces make computer users dumber because they don't need to memorize countless non-intuitive command line abbreviations. There's that certain type of nerd that really craves the badly-written instructions to the badly-designed game because it gives them a false sense of mastery, when all they're really doing is picking up a broadsword and hacking at an ogre. It reminds me of the Mass Effect fans who hated the ME2 redesign that made a lot of things in the game easier and simply eliminated others, such as the inventory system; they liked having to fuss around with endless copies of armor and weapon mods. I was flabbergasted when I found out how to sniper-zoom the Mako's cannon, which turned vehicle-based combat sections from absurdly difficult to absurdly easy; if it was in the manual, it was buried somewhere in the small pages of grey type. The second and third games, by contrast, incorporated the tutorial tasks into the early part of the game itself, giving you a chance to practice each skill before moving on.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:21 AM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hmm. On the other hand the way that in modern games you are never allowed to discover anything for yourself feels like a real loss, because that's what games are about to me and worth any number of canned sequences.
posted by Artw at 9:24 AM on January 13, 2014

Minecraft is an unusual case in that the PC game is literally unplayable without the wiki. There's no way to discover the recipes in-game and there's too many recipes to memorize or learn by word of mouth. The console and pocket releases simplify crafting so you can pick stuff off of menus, but for the first two years of the game you had to have a third party website to even play it. Kind of crazy, really.
posted by Nelson at 9:38 AM on January 13, 2014

I feel like the author is conflating a number of very separate issues. Design-by-focus group is one. And yeah, that can get in the way of art, but that's not specific to video games, either. I figure TV and film have been stuck in that rift for years, as well -- focus-grouping, demographics data, etc., etc.

But he also seems to be decrying elegance of interface -- I remember that awful 26-key interface for Ultima, hating it, forgetting nonintuitive commands all the time, etc., etc. Much, MUCH prefer today's conventions for that, where you click X to interact with an object, and if it's a door it'll open; if it's a light you'll turn it on; if it's a book, you'll read it.

And he seems to be forgetting the key objective here is to sell games. All of these design decisions he hates are rooted in years of accrued experience on the part of the industry, which has established what people will buy and what they won't. Nobody's stopping him from making any kind of game his heart desires. But he can't be mad when nobody wants to play them.
posted by Andrhia at 9:42 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I started playing Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition a while ago, and man, you gotta learn the entire Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Rule Set (slightly more than the abridged version they ship with the game) in order to play the game properly. It is fun! But sometimes it's nice to just play something that doesn't require that kind of front-end effort!
posted by zscore at 10:09 AM on January 13, 2014

And he seems to be forgetting the key objective here is to sell games. All of these design decisions he hates are rooted in years of accrued experience on the part of the industry, which has established what people will buy and what they won't. Nobody's stopping him from making any kind of game his heart desires. But he can't be mad when nobody wants to play them.

I think that faux-Apple design "simplicity" in general, but also in digital gaming is probably a cyclical thing. An entire generation is coming of age where Minecraft, and all of its verboten complexity, is the dominant game. I was people watching on a boardwalk on vacation this past summer, and it seemed like a third of the kids had on Minecraft clothing - probably like you would've seen kids wearing Mario gear when I was that age.

You usually see the coming trend bubble up in art games about 2 - 3 years before it begins hitting the mainstream. The FPP mentions Liz Ryerson's Problem Attic as an example of this, but you can also see it in Goblet Grotto, and Crypt World, which consciously mimic the impenetrability and mystery of things like the Ultima series, Captain Blood or Rogue.

I don't really think he's angry that nobody wants to play these games, first of all because that's an incorrect statement (a sizable portion does, indeed, desire mystery and complexity), and second of all because he seems frustrated (and not even really mad, just exhausted) at the current PROCESS of game design, which takes a focus on transparent UX to be an unquestionable priority, even in the face of bad design and wasted labor.
posted by codacorolla at 10:44 AM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

It reminds me of the Mass Effect fans who hated the ME2 redesign that made a lot of things in the game easier and simply eliminated others, such as the inventory system; they liked having to fuss around with endless copies of armor and weapon mods.

Ha, I was about to use ME1 as an example of what I thought was good UI design! I wasn't aware of a manual for ME1. I have never seen it. The game is basically a squad shooter with cover ("chest-high walls"), a genre that I haven't played before or since. Compared to a lot of other games I've played, ME1 gives you a very limited set of tactical options, most of which are activated using mouse clicks. The "option wheel" gives you access to everything you need during action sequences, except for character management options, like inventory. The inventory is the worst aspect of the UI because of how stripped-down it is. Identical items don't stack and everything is sorted automatically, so decluttering becomes an actual task for the player.

It helps to keep in mind that the game was also available for the XBox and all the controls fit on the XBox controller. It's a game with an extremely limited set of inputs. I have seen a player fail to discover the zoom on the Mako's cannon. But since it's activated by pressing in on the analog stick, I can only assume this person didn't try experimenting with pressing various buttons. FWIW, the cannon zoom makes vehicle-based combat dull and unrewarding. I found it a lot more fun to get out of the trundlecar and snipe the Geth on foot, or stay in the car and try to run over the Geth armatures.
posted by Nomyte at 11:23 AM on January 13, 2014

MetaFilter: if one is not willing to put in even the least effort into understanding a thing, one should go fuck oneself before being upset that one doesn't understand it.

I'll get me coat.
posted by glasseyes at 11:27 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

UX design desires simplicity and ease. Games often rely upon being challenging. There is some ambiguity in how far you want to let one bleed into the other.

If you're doing UX for something real, like an online shop, you are restricted by the products for sale, and the fact that people need to pay for things. You don't get the option to streamline the process by reducing the number of products for sale. In a game, it's an option to simply make those products unnecessary. (This is making me think, now, does anyone remember an Apple II game where you went on a space adventure, and at the start you had to stock up on supplies in a store that was filled with all sorts of products, many of which had amusing descriptions but were probably irrelevant? And you actually had to navigate the store to different aisles to find the things you needed for your journey? Which I think is relevant because the manual had a map of the store.)

The simplest game would be one where you click a button and you win.

Chess is a complex game to play, but you would like the act of moving a piece to remain simple. Imagine if instead of a board, chess was played with 64 cards, which you place on 16 spots in front of you, each spot represents a piece. Each card has a list of rules about which cards you could exchange it for if it's on the bishop square, which cards you could exchange it for if it's on the rook square, etc. etc. Even if the underlying mechanics are the same, it would be very confusing to learn.

Conversely, imagine you couldn't play chess with a full complement of pieces until you'd won a version of chess with just rooks. Then you have to win the version with just rooks and bishops. Then a version with rooks, bishops, and a queen. etc.
posted by RobotHero at 11:38 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

if one is not willing to put in even the least effort into understanding a thing, one should go fuck oneself before being upset that one doesn't understand it.

"Hmm. Have you tried turning it off and on again?"

"Hang on… [noises] …nope, still not working."

"Okay. Let's see. Have you tried fucking yourself?"

"Gimme a minute… [further noises] …oh, now I understand what's going on!"
posted by this is a thing at 11:42 AM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nomyte: Even if there aren't that many buttons to push, the need to try just about every control on the controller to see if it does anything useful (and possibly in different situations; the controls do different things when you're in the Mako) kind of makes the point about bad game design. This isn't a trivial detail, either, it's one that changed my mind about playing the first game through more than once. (I still hate the stupid lock-opening minigame on the 360, though; it requires absurdly fast twitch reflexes.) When the second game introduced the Mako's successor, the Hammerhead, the first mission is a simple obstacle course with screen prompts for the different things that you can do with the vehicle.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:42 PM on January 13, 2014

UX design desires simplicity and ease. Games often rely upon being challenging. There is some ambiguity in how far you want to let one bleed into the other.

This is something I talk about a lot, actually. In a good game, the challenge is using the (hopefully near-invisible) interface to solve a problem -- clearing a level on Candy Crush, figuring out how to get from one place to another in Portal. A simple interface can still give rise to incredibly complex underlying game mechanics. Civ is a good example of that.

The challenge should not be figuring out how to work the interface at all, or working out how to make the interface do what you already know is the correct action. This is why I find Escape-The-Room games tremendously frustrating. Often the challenges involve pixel-hunting and randomly trying combinations of items to see if any of them happen to work for you. Ni No Kuni bothered me because the challenge was mostly navigating the menu system quickly enough during combat. I also seriously dislike twitch games, shooters and platformers, because in my mind I've solved the problem, but the interface makes executing it too difficult.

However, as with all things, much of this is more a matter of taste than of abstract correctness.
posted by Andrhia at 2:57 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

However, if it's just that I'm locked into a giant extended babyfood tutorial, that perversely gives me a little more will to keep slogging through--if eventually I'll get to more of a, you know, game. That I can play.

You do get there eventually. I won't spoil any of the story as I don't know how far you've gotten, but the main game starts at about sequence 5 on your return to Boston, which is about 6 hours in, I think. Even then there's still a number of training sections. For me, it didn't really feel like the training wheels properly came off until several segments later, when you get the Aquila. And it is an important one to play probably, as it wraps up the overall story arc that's been going since the very beginning of the first one.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of 3 though; it felt very Forrest Gumpy, where you're inserted into far too many famous events in a prominent role. Plus, the time period of the American Revolution wasn't as engaging as the Renaissance period of Ezio in AssCreed 2 plus sequels for me. I'm actually playing and enjoying AssCreed 4 at the moment, which is basically AssCreed: pirate simulator edition, and possibly the best one so far.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:21 AM on January 14, 2014

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