Below is my final submission for CTIN 401L: Interface Design for Games. It was a truly useful class and I highly recommend it to everyone.
Simplicity plays a pivotal role in video games. In an age where controls are not only complex but convoluted as well, and where there are a myriad of options to fine tune your game’s settings, there needs to be an element of simplicity in it all lest we find the industry totally and completely cut off from the mainstream. Thankfully, there was a recent shift towards the “casual,” towards ease of use and accessibility.
Ease of use and accessibility are two tenets in the Laws of Simplicity. In fact, the entire movement towards “casual” games could be told as following along the Laws. Designers now know that scope can make or break a game, and so they adjust it accordingly—more often than not, they narrow it. Last week Eric Nylund, the head writer at Microsoft Games Studios, told us about how MGS reduces their storylines all the time. Writers often a create a story and then producers will cut out three or four chapters. Writers then must rewrite. This allows for the design as a whole to take on specificity that it was lacking before. Interfaces in today’s games are becoming increasingly simple—if not nonexistent at times. Several first-person shooter HUDs simply just aren’t there. The interfaces of a game, its menus, charts, leader boards, and splash screens, are all becoming increasingly organized, intuitive, and easy to maneuver around. This is due to reduction—designers always reduce until they no longer can. Games with little to no organization are balked at, left behind, and reviewed poorly. Easy menu navigation is a huge part of video game reviews and players’ enjoyment—so much that companies will employ others to do research and evaluation on the best menu types, and then follow it up with usability testing.
The Laws of Simplicity could even be applied to the internal shift of the games industry. The games industry as a whole has become much more organized, with clear cut chains of command. Positions that seem superfluous or redundant have been subtracted, and those that really matter and play a prominent role in games design have been kept or added in. Furthermore, because everyone knows who to go to and what everyone else’s job entails, navigating the business is much easier and faster than before.
Organization is key in every situation—I have yet to hear of one that has been improved due to chaos—and I whole-heartedly agree with the blurb in the book that “organization makes a system of many appear fewer.” I believe I can best explain this through an example I encountered over the summer. My boss found me a copy of Fallout and Fallout 2 and had me play it. Most contemporary menus are fairly easy to navigate, and every setting I would need to change are usually presented under its appropriate category. Volume and subtitles belong under the audio tab, brightness belongs under the visuals tab. Menus nowadays are arranged in a very specific order. The early Fallout menus were not. Every single settings option was present on one menu, none of it divided by sections or type. Running speed was right next to volume which was right below the game difficulty. It was confusing, it was overwhelming, and it was an eyesore. Organization can definitely lend a clean and tidy feel to anything, and most especially game menus. It makes an otherwise tedious and boring task quite painless and quick. Organization pays off in efficiency.
Paul Rand was a graphic designer and founder of the Swiss style, a typographic style that emphasized readability with simplicity and cleanliness. He was a very strong follower of the modernist graphical style and simultaneously loved making the normal strange. This is best exemplified by his work for IBM, in which he replaced the first two letters with their iconic equivalents: an eye and a bee. To his students, he emphasized design as being a relationship between systems and components. It is a relationship between sizes, colors, shapes, and space. Images can convey the feeling of “wetness” with only circles. Design, in his eyes, was meant to convey emotions and relationships in the simplest way possible. He believed in beginning with something extremely complex and then reducing it until it was a simple end product.
The process of taking something complex and reducing it is a very necessary undertaking in interface design for games. Interfaces often begin with many elements—many of them unnecessary—that clutter the game screen and detract from the action taking place. By removing redundant and unneeded meters from the interface, it becomes clearer and the most important items stand out to the player. When rearranged for the perfect and most compelling positions, the player can now easily identify what conveys what type of data and, most importantly, players that have never played that type of game before can easily infer what each part of the interface is communicating to the player. The HUD has a relationship with the player—it must tell the player what is taking place in the game as quickly and efficiently as possible.