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Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Design of Everyday Gaming: Feedback

Admit it: you are completely confused as to why there's a teapot on my blog, particularly such a strange teapot. It is, in fact, the "masochist's teapot", as borrowed by Donald Norman for his book The Design of Everyday Things, which I'm currently in the middle of reading. As to why I brought him up? Well, let's just say that I found the book highly enlightening so far, and it's spurred some thoughts on game design...

Topics of Design
Norman covers the topic of "usability", that is, how easy and intuitive something is to use. Usability can be one of the most critical factors for a tool, and it is something that's often sorely lacking. Norman posits that most users are disproportionately blamed for their mistakes, because the more important factor is ostensibly the design of things. An effective design can serve as a tool to help us arrive at the correct solution.

He discusses the idea that knowledge is not mostly in the head, but rather is scattered throughout the environment. We don't work most things by running through our mental databases, but instead look for cues in the world around us. Those things which are easiest to use are those things which most clearly give us clues to tell us how to use them. So, why not apply this to game design? It's clear that people more readily understand some games better than others, after all...

Feedback: Did You See That?
One of the critical areas of usability is the area of feedback: giving meaningful responses to user input. Feedback is the reason that telephones have key tones, and the reason why we have lights on electronic devices: they tell us that something's happening. When things happen in the physical world, there's signals of many types: we see the lights go out when we successfully blow out a candle, and feel the friction when we drag a box across the room.

You can apply the same thinking to game mechanics. There's a lot of mechanics out there which are drowned out by their subtlety. D&D and GURPS are two fine examples of this. Many of their character "advantages" and "feats" are (at face value) minor number-crunching. If you sit back and analyze them, they provide some really hefty (and even flavorful) benefits, but it takes that expert eye to pick out the difference. In other words, it's not an intuitive benefit. It's not obvious, and that hampers its usability.

We'll flip over, and look at something I recently had the joy of trying out: 13th Age. It's very similar to, say, D&D; it even has feats for characters to take. There's a big difference in some of the ones I noted, however. While a character in D&D 3.5 might get a feat to increase the square footage of a fireball, a character in 13th Age might get a feat that lets them roll d20s for their Sneak Attack, once per day. Dee. Twenties. Or a feat that lets them steal a thought, memory, or dream, because they're just that good of a thief. Flat-out: "you steal it".

Not only is this flavorful, but it's a very easy-to-understand mechanic. You're getting immediate and dramatic feedback from your investment. Sure, a less flashy mechanical bonus might be all-around better, but it's not giving off very strong feedback. It's not showing the player how awesome it is. So, give your games awesome-looking options. Make sure that every part of your game is giving your player a response, that they can see how it fits into the grand scheme of things. Then watch them go crazy.

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