Sunday, December 10, 2006

You say, "Manual." I say, "Treasure Map."

There's a post over at Terra Nova talking about "playing with a manual" vs. game experiences that are more "natural;" i.e., require very little explanation. Part of the issue is the idea of experienced game geeks not needing as much explanation, vs. noobs who don't know what HP, manna, skill-points, experience, levels, etc. are. Nate Combs asks:
I wonder how games and virtual worlds would look if their culture evolved with a less "seat of the pants" view towards knowledge acquisition?  What if players were brought along expecting to read  a manual, a really long one, before they could play?  I suspect there would be more freedom in what developers could design.
I have a confession to make: I've always enjoyed reading manuals, especially game manuals. Extra-especially big, fat, honkin' thick manuals with all the lists of spells, abilities, units, buildings, factions, etc. If I'm going to spend 50+ hours playing a game, it has always made sense in my wee haid that I RTFM for 30-60 minutes.

I'll tell you one thing that has always bugged me about most manuals for many complex and interesting games I've played, too: they are almost always insultingly apologetic to the non-manual-readers, with an included assumption that that is just about everyone. There's usually a line somewhere near the beginning of the manual that reads something like this:

We know that most of you hate to read these boring and long-winded manuals. We do, too! For those of you who want to jump right into the game, please read the "Quick Start Guide," and then play through the "Tutorial" scenario...

Nothing like the writers and publishers of a game you've just dropped $50 on to tell you that part of what you've just paid for is boring and long-winded and should probably be ignored. It always made me feel, well... betrayed to read that.

There's a fundamental flaw in that kind of thinking on the part of the game developers, I believe. And while I am intrigued by the heart of Nate's question, I think the separation of "manual" and "game" that exists in many Game Gods' heads is something that bears reexamining.

We are living in a much more technologically savvy time than even 5 or 10 years ago. And while there is still a steep separation between the true geek and the technophobe, we've moved well beyond the day when some people still said, with a kind of wry aplomb, "Oh, no. I don't own a computer. I've really got no use for one." Remember those days? The last time I heard that was around 1998. Now, saying, "I don't know how to work a computer," in that kind of smug, neo-Luddite way would be about the equivalent of saying, "I'm basically illiterate. I can read street signs... but beyond that, no. Can't read much at all. Never found it very useful."

Kids all have cell phones. Everyone has a computer. More and more of us have high-speed Internet access, etc. etc. My point being that it's no longer "normal" to be outside the computer circle. It's normal to be inside it. And so the idea of "writing for the non-geek" has to begin to mean something else. Because the circle of non-geeks, by the old definition, is much smaller. We all use software at work that is scads more complex than most computer games.

That being said, though... how much do we want our leisure activities to resemble having to program an Excel macro? Not so much, eh?

Here we get into the differences between:

  • complicated vs. complex

  • frustration vs. exploration

  • mastery of interface vs. mastery of game

  • technical help vs. game narrative

All those first things are not so good.

Complex vs. Complicated

Complicated means having to choose between many options with limited or incomplete data. Some games are, by nature, complicated. There is a joy to mastering a complicated game for many people. Most flight simulators (mentioned in the TN post) are complicated. Why? Because flying a plane is complicated. Some racing simulators are complicated. They are often differentiated from their less-complicated cousins by the term "arcade." If it's an arcade-style simulator, it means that there are fewer choices. For example, in a flight sim, you don't have to worry about fuel, ammo loads, guns heating up, weather, etc. All kinds of options that make the game more realistic, but also harder to learn to play well. In the time it takes to play a 25-cent (or, today, $1) arcade game, you can't expect a player to learn about 38 variables. Only 3 or 4.

Complex, on the other hand, refers to a choice among many like things. A "complex" (the noun, not the adjective) is a "conceptual whole made up of related parts." A shopping mall, for example, is a "complex." But most malls are not very complicated, once the concept of "mall" (not a very difficult one) is made clear. A mall can have one hundred shops and you can get to them all very easily. On the other hand, getting to a similar selection of shops in a non-mall geography -- let's say, a downtown area -- might be more complicated; it would require more steps, more intermediations, more options, more decisions. Do I need to drive? To take a cab? The subway? Etc. Etc.

Lots of choices is good. Understanding how to get to them quickly and for the appropriate reasons is good. Not knowing even how to get to the right information is bad. Being confused about the necessary data is bad.

Manuals are often thought of as necessary for clarifying complicated processes. Maps, tables, glossaries, indexes and lists are provided to help with complex choices.

Frustration vs. Exploration

We all know the good feeling we get when playing a neat game that tests our skills. That's fun! Right? Whether we're doing a challenging crossword or jigsaw puzzle or on a quest in an MMO. That's a feeling of exploration. Often, what we're exploring is the edge of our own competency. And hopping back and forth between exploration and frustration isn't unusual at all. Because getting a bit pissed off at ourselves or the game or the puzzle or the search is part of the challenge. If it was easy, or could be done the first time through... that's not much of a challenge.

But the exploration-edge-of-frustration should always come from within the game itself; inside the magic circle / 4th wall. You should not, for example, find a marble in your jigsaw puzzle box and have to wonder, "What the heck is this for?" Which brings us to...

Interface vs. Game

In real life, the interface often is the game. When you "play baseball," there is no difference between "how you hit the ball" and "how to hit the ball" and "hitting the ball." The bat is the interface is the tool is the game element. There is no intermediary. As WB Yeats said in, "Among School Children:"

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

We can't. We don't. Which is the point of much of real life. In some computer games, too, this is true. Tetris, Pong, PacMan, etc. and many other cursor or joystick-jerkers rely on reflexes and hand-eye coordination. What you do is what you do. On the other hand, most of the complex role-playing and strategy games rely on knowing "how to do a thing to make another thing happen." There may be an element of "move joystick left to move your character left." That much may be "the dance." But you may also need to know countless interface "rules" involving adding equipment to your inventory, equipping such for use, preparing spells, grouping units together, assigning actions to various keys, etc. etc. And those interface issues may require different actions for different games... to accomplish the same task.

Imagine if turning on a light switch had a different effect depending on what house you were in. That is... frustrating and complicated.

There are "interface traditions," of course. And Nate mentions that at TN: "Geekdom in a niche has at least one virtue: there is less to explain." For example, in most RTS (real time strategy) games, clicking and dragging around multiple units "group selects" them. In many role-playing games, health is measured on a red bar, and manna (magical energy) is measured on a blue one. There's probably a list of about 50 or so of these that die-hard gamers could go through for you.

None of them swing pine, though.

And, by that, I mean that none of them are, inherently, "game" related. There is no reason rooted in some universal game reality that RED = HEALTH, except it looks, I guess, like blood. But it might as well be green, because GREEN = GO for traffic lights, and GREEN = HEALTHY in nature, or white, because BLACK = DEAD.

Once in awhile, you get a game that tries to eschew the typical interface. Peter Molyneux's Black & White comes to mind, as do a few of Peter's earlier titles. In these, the interface was (more or less) embedded within the game. In B&W, you, as a god in the game, saw your own hand hovering in the game space, You cast spells and moved game elements (people, animals, trees, rocks) around by moving the hand. Deus ex cursor, writ large. It added a great deal to the sense of being "in the game," since the computer screen became more of a window on the experience than a dashboard. Which brings us, finally, to...

Technical Help vs. Game Narrative

In many computer/video games, there is a tutorial that leads you through the basics of navigating both the game world and the interface. The tutorial is almost always explicitly removed from the main "body" of the game. One of the neatest things about World of Warcraft is that the early, "tutorial" stages flow extremely smoothly into the next, "journeymen" phases of the game with nary a bump. But mostly, you get a stage (that you can skip) where a drill sergeant (or your butler, a helpful faerie or disembodied voice) prods you along a path full of obstacles where the buttons and menus are explained.

This is about as immersive a game experience as an ad for Miller Lite in a medieval setting. It has the benefit over a manual of letting you practice the interface in situ... but it is not, well... the dance. It's dance instruction.

None of this to say that it's a bad thing. It's just... not really "part of the game." It's technical help embedded within the interface itself, possibly with a bit of game narrative thrown on top to help the medicine go down.

The Challenge

Here's my challenge to the game industry: stop thinking about manuals and training and technical help as separate from the game experience. In fact, it's a challenge to anybody designing a user interface experience, which kinda makes it a challenge to me in my day gig, too.

Why shouldn't the "how" of getting to know a game be embedded in the game itself? Why should learning the interface elements of a game require a manual that is separate from the game? Why can't the map of the thing be the thing in many cases?

I'm not sure how to accomplish these things. I just know that I enjoy reading a good manual and finding out how to make a game do what it's supposed to do. That joy shouldn't have to be separated from the joy of playing the game itself. And if the discovery of how to play the game can be interwoven with the playing of the game itself... much cooler.

Why are we separating the gamer from the game? It seems to me to be much less beautiful when that happens.

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