July 13, 2007

Forging The Seal: When beating the game is beating the interface

Breaking the drake's will was the easy part.

The dragon "Emberstrife" faltered before her, his wings flailing in the air, struggling to support his massive and broken frame. Ichor fell from his wounds, sizzling into the water below him in a crimson torrent.

"Use the orb! Control his mind!" yelled her comrade, the hunter.

It was time. She had to do as the mystic instructed: now that the dragon's will was broken, she must use the Orb of Draconic Energy to claim dominion over his mental faculties, and force him to unleash his breath on the Unforged Seal of Ascension, heating it in the Flames of the Black Dragonflight and forging it into the seal that would open the gates to Upper Blackrock Spire. Only then would she be able to walk the dangerous path to her final enemy.

With a deep breath, she lay the unforged seal in the water and activated the Orb.

Suddenly, she could see through the drake's eyes. Before him was the unforged seal, and at the bottom of his vision lay the key to all his powers.

"Blast!" she cried. "It's a toolbar."

Time was short. She had to act quickly, for the Orb would only hold sway over the Dragon's mind for a matter of seconds.

The hunter sighed. "Does it at least have tooltips?"

Scanning over the toolbar's buttons, her eyes—or rather, the dragon's eyes—were immediately drawn to the icon of the flame. As she focused on it, a small tooltip of text appeared above the picture, identifying it as an ability called "Flaming Breath".

That had to be it.

She activated the ability. A cascade of fire erupted from the dragon's maw, just missing the unforged seal. She adjusted her aim and tried again, but the seal remained unaffected by the fire's searing heat.

Was his breath defective? Did the seal need more heat? What was going wrong?

In desperation, she tried again, but to no avail.

"Hurry!" said the hunter. "The tooltips!"

She scanned over the other icons on the toolbar, hoping to find some other useful ability in the dragon's skill set. Finally, she focused on the enigmatic squiggly yellow icon on the far left. A tooltip materialized to reveal its true purpose: The Flames of the Black Dragonflight.

Moments later, the seal was forged, and the dragon lay motionless before them. In time, songs would be sung in their praise, for it was they who broke the will of the great Emberstrife, mastered his treacherous toolbar, and forged the Seal of Ascension.

The above story wasn't made up—it's actually a quest from the game World of Warcraft. A quest whose primary challenge lay not in defeating an enemy, but mastering a graphical user interface in a high-pressure environment.

When did playing a video game become so much like using a really bad operating system?

When I was a kid, mastering a game like Super Mario Brothers was about using the right gameplay strategies and tactics to overcome obstacles. But these days, it's increasingly the case that winning a game is about mastering an inhumane user interface, rather than using a humane interface to master gameplay. And at least for me, mastering an inhumane interface isn't much fun.

Most of yesterday's games were simple enough that their user interfaces were easy to make humane: there's only so many ways one can design an interface when the only abilities the player has are to move left, right, jump, and possibly throw a fireball.

A lot of today's games are still humane. Nintendo, for instance, continues to create innovative experiences that offer a lot of gameplay depth while presenting a very simple interface to the player. The category of casual gaming promotes a similar level of simplicity and accessibility. This is eminently user-friendly game design.

Yet other games—especially those played on personal computers and console systems that have controllers with lots of buttons—are so complex that designers are turning to inhumane GUI paradigms as a basis for interaction. This means that the frustrations of using a GUI quickly become part of the challenge of playing the game itself: such games are rife with unnecessary modes, preferences, inscrutable icons, and even third-party usability enhancements. As anyone who's played World of Warcraft for more than a few days knows, a core part of playing the game today lies in researching and determining which of the hundreds of community-created addons one wants to install, locating said addons on the internet, installing them, and dealing with upgrading them when the game is patched and the addons break. This is all aside from configuring one's in-game preferences, assigning custom hot-key combinations, setting up macros, and a number of other tasks that should be the burden of a user interface designer, not the player of a video game.

All of this wouldn't be so bad if the out-of-the-box experience were humane to begin with, but it's not. The aforementioned configuration activities are, in fact, a requirement for taming the game's interface: for example, if one wants to be able to scroll through a field of text without targeting tiny buttons, they have to install a third-party addon that allows them to use their mouse's scroll-wheel. In essence, just as software designers often misuse preferences as a way to shunt interface design decisions to the end-user, providing a mechanism for third-party developers to programatically customize the user interface allows the lazy designer to take this philosophy one step further: don't even worry about creating a humane interface—just have your customers create one for you.

Ultimately, many of today's video games are quickly descending into the morass of usability that is the modern graphical operating system. My hope is that the designers of these games learn from the mistakes of the GUI, rather than reinventing that old wheel and inheriting all its problems—because overcoming an inhumane user interface shouldn't be a requirement for mastering a video game.

Note: The above post was originally published on the now-defunct website for Humanized, a start-up I co-founded in the mid-2000s. A somewhat readable version is available on archive.org.

© Atul Varma 2020