Monday, April 14, 2008

In which I explore the depths of my own geekiness

So I've been thinking a lot lately about how video game control schemes relate to basic usability, and how that can be applied to website usability.

For example, I've been playing Zack and Wiki lately. In case you haven't played it, a major game mechanic is you can turn these various animals into various tools, then you use the tools to solve puzzles. The controls for each tool is different and not spelled out for you. You can examine the tools and look for clues as to how to use it. For example, the umbrella has a button with a 2 on it, and if you push the 2 button on the wii-mote the umbrella will open. Some of them are pretty simple, like you just make a forward / back sawing motion with the wii-mote to use the saw. I haven't made it very far in the game yet, maybe half way, but so far the controls are smooth and intuitive for just about everything.

They're so good, in fact, it makes the occasional problem very noticeable. So far I've encountered two rhythm based mini-games that are terrible. I can't do them at all. My wife managed to get through one of them. There's a skeleton with a music box and you use the wii-mote to ring a bell in time with the music he plays. It should be dead simple, but apparently I swing my wii-mote too hard, or too soft, or something because he's never happy with my performance.

Seeing what I'm talking about may work much better. Behold the power of the internets:

Do you want to know something sad? Just hearing that music right now grates on my nerves. That's how scared I am by my poor user experience.

There's another point where you have to try to catch this huge fish. The controls for the fishing pole were easy enough, but I kept thinking I was screwing up 'cos I'd get the fish about half caught and the fish would spit out the bait. It turns out this is just part of the game and you're supposed to go get another worm and try again. It generally takes 2 or 3 attempts to catch the fish (maybe it's possible to do it on the first try, but I certainly couldn't do it). The problem here was there was no feedback mechanism to let me know that my progress on my first attempt would be saved for subsequent attempts. Considering the other times Wiki interjects an inane comment to point the player in the right direction, this would have been an excellent opportunity to offer some encouragement to try it again. In the absence of any encouragement or feedback that I was at least on the right track, I found myself feeling cheated. How could this not be what I'm supposed to do? Even the first time I got a 2nd worm and gave it another try, the fish's energy bar wasn't emphasized in a way that made it obvious to me that he was still tired from my 1st attempt. I eventually figured it out, and I guess that's part of the point of the game, but for a while my experience was flipped from quite fun to very frustrating.

I can't find a video with just the fishing part, but here's the whole puzzle. The fishing bit starts around 2:30 and at around 3:45 this guy fails at his first attempt too. The little grumble and black squiggles in a thought balloon is the same feedback you get when you do something wrong.

Apparenty you can also just blow him up, which is something I tried but I was attempting to lure the frog the wrong direction.

This all just serves to remind me how important user feedback is to a positive user experience. Even the most intuitive of interfaces involves a certain level of uncertainty, particularly in complex, multi-step processes. Providing a means of letting the user know s/he is on the right track can really help. In the mini-game, the example in the top right corner of the screen could show how to swing the wii-mote rather than just how to hold it (although some may argue this gives too much away) and that would save me a lot of grief on the mini-games. Since the mini-games are option, I really don't have an interest in "discovering" the proper method through experimentation. I'll quickly get frustrated and move on to more fun elements of the game (which includes virtually everything else). When the fish spits out my first worm, Wiki could easily offer some sort of feedback along the lines of "Aww, he got away! But he looks pretty tired." Instead, we get Zack giving us the same reaction we get when we do something totally off track.

Then I found this blog entry: Ramblings of a Colorblind Gamer. And now I'm thinking about how all these things tie back into web accessibility as well as usability.


Nancy B said...

Derek, have you read the Design of Everyday Things? MUST READ if you haven't...

Derek said...

Nope. But it's been on my to read list for a while now.