Legendary Ease of Use

This month the Official Xbox Magazine included a demo of Jade Empire, the upcoming RPG that Bioware has been developing since they passed the KOTOR franchise to others. I mention this because for the last year or so I’ve had the following conversation with Pete a few times:

Me: This Jade Empire looks cool, but I don’t know about this “real time” fighting system.

Pete: Don’t worry, this is Bioware. Every game they ever made has a battle system that is turn based underneath but animated in real time. I will bet a case of beer that exactly the same dice rolling is going on behind all those kung fu animations.

Me: Well, I guess you know more about this than me, but those gameplay movies really look like a fighting game to me.

Pete: Nah, it’ll never happen.

After playing the demo, Pete came to me this morning and said “I might have been wrong. It really is real time, and it’s like a fighting game, only no fun.” I could only reply, “Yeah, but at least they tried something different.” These days, trying something different is as thankless a risk as one can take. Whether you develop consumer software, games, or just the interfaces to every day devices, you stand to alienate everyone who currently loves you by making even small changes to how the user operates your product. The world is full of users disgruntled by arbitrary and gratuitous changes to tools that already met all their expectations. Consider:

1. In the 1990s, modern electronic cameras evolved interfaces that were very fast to use, still provided total control over focus and exposure and only used three easy to reach dials. Of course, disgruntled old timers never figured out how these interfaces were better and continued to pine for cameras with tiny hard to reach dials on the top of the camera. A lot of people still think that the Leica film loading system is a great idea.

2. Every major update to the Mac user interface brings howls of outrage from the hard core contingent. Dozens of times now, the Mac faithful have declared that Apple has lost its way, and that they should just bring back the Classic interface from System 7 or whatever, which represented the Platonic ideal for graphical desktop user interfaces. Google for “the spatial finder” to see what I mean.

3. Getting back to the gaming context, one recent game which was excellent on many levels but derided by the hard core fans was The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Why did people make fun of this game? Was the design flawed? The story too short? The gameplay awkward? No. This game was hated because it was cell shaded, and to use the modern vernacular, a lot of people thought this was gay. Why did they think this? Because they wanted it to look like the old game, only with higher resolution textures.

What all this points to is the fact that the opinions of the installed base of users is a major factor behind the relative lack of innovation in user interfaces. Innovation is rare because users do not want it. No matter what users say, what they want is interfaces that work in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Which brings me back to my original story.

Pete and I both found the Jade Empire demo disappointing, because what we were hoping for was KOTOR but with Kung Fu. That is, we didn’t really want Bioware to innovate in any way. We would have been most happy if they had just done the same game they have been doing for a decade, and pasted a new Kung Fu skin on it. We might bitch and moan about how no one makes innovative games anymore, and how everything is just a recycled franchise, but the truth is that this is what we want. We don’t want exciting new gameplay. We want the gameplay that we know and love so that we can have another 40 or 60 hours of bliss on the console beating stuff up and increasing R. We want this in the same way that grizzled old Unix hackers still cling to Emacs key bindings, focus follows mouse and X11 style middle button paste, while most of the rest of the world has moved on.

This is why truly new interface mechanics rarely gain a wide following, while interfaces from existing and widely used applications live on forever. Users in general will inherently prefer awkward interfaces that they are familiar with to new interfaces that are unknown, unless the new way is incontrovertibly superior, which it usually is not. This is true for games as well, and as a result, most long running game franchises clutch on to their archaic conventions and gameplay like zombies to live brains. Whenever you are playing the license tests in GT4, or backtracking through an entire level to pick up a critical item that you missed, or find money in a plant in Zelda, or fight the ludicrous top down camera angles in Metal Gear Solid then just remember that it’s like that because someone wants it that way. The next time you are watching the 30 second animated unskippable game-over scene for the fifteenth time because the current boss is too hard, you can thank the existing user base for your misery, because those are the people that would be complaining if the scene and/or the boss were taken out of the game.

The good news is that even though things change slowly, they do change. Every year more gamers enter the pool and force us to reconsider whether or not our beloved conventions make sense. Over time, this has the effect of improving things for everyone even if the hard core fanboys sometimes deride it as “selling out” or “dumbing down” the games. I haven’t seen too many unskippable cut scenes, or annoying, drawn out game-over screens lately. Even the cameras in third person games are improving. This makes me uncharacteristically optimistic about the future. I’m even hopeful that Bioware figured out a way to make a real time combat system fun, rather than just button mashing.

Until then, I’ve got some Team Slayer to play after I kill some more Sith.