Communication Breakdown

Women will be acutely aware of this phenomena but men do not follow instructions. I’d argue that this is because the male mind is hard wired to problem solve, we get a big kick out it. This means that when faced with a new toy the last thing we will ever do is read a manual.

It would be disingenuous of me to say that “Gamers” also do not follow instruction. For example there are a great deal of female gamers who in my experience will pour over the manual for a game before they even install it. Gamers are also very good at following tutorials because they are a form of interactive feedback loop.

The “How to Play” screen is the Indie games equivalent of a manual. They are incredibly important but they never get read by the majority of players.

Let’s play Geometry Wars 2 (This isn’t me playing FYI).

This is a prime example of a communication breakdown between the Designer and the Player. A How To Play screen is displayed and swiftly buttoned through without even a cursory glance. For most of the video the Player isn’t even aware that they have a gun or what they are supposed to be doing.

Lets look at the tools that the player is expected to understand but in this video clearly doesn’t.

  • The player tries to collect the enemies thinking they are pick-ups. He repeats this behaviour with the Spinners because he was invulnerable when he first tried it making him believe that they didn’t hurt him.
  • He discovers bombs first and believe them to be his primary weapon. No doubt this is because he is used to FPS games where the triggers are used to fire weapons.
  • He doesn’t connect how many bombs he has left to the info on the HUD (I’ve long believed that putting important info like this on the edges of the screen is a terrible idea as it’s not where the players attention is).
  • He is unaware of his main weapon until he starts pressing buttons at random.
  • In Deadline you have infinite lives. The player in this video doesn’t notice this (In the second episode he still hasn’t and he’s been practicing quite a bit since then).

When the player doesn’t know how to use the tools at their disposal best then that can be considered a lack of skill and in time they will develop it. When they are completely unaware that they even have any tools at their disposal then that becomes a design problem.

It is worth noting though that he doesn’t get frustrated with the game and I have to take my hat off to Mr Cakebread as by putting Deadline as the only available mode when you first play the game it means the player has a 3 minute sandbox to play in where they aren’t punished with game over for being new.

Granted this is an extreme example, the player is clearly unfamiliar with the genre and doesn’t know much at all about the game he’s playing. This is something you should always consider though. If 1% of your players are completely new to the genre and you have 5000 players then 50 people are going to have a pretty rubbish time when they first play your game. That’s more than enough people to mug you in an alley so you should probably do what you can to prevent that.

Everyday Shooter has none of the problems that Geometry Wars 2 has. During the first level you are given all of the information you need to be able to play the rest of the game and you are given it in a way that is intuitive, difficult to ignore and doesn’t interrupt flow.

One of the best things about how Everyday Shooter communicates with the player is that everything it tells you is in context. It’s like each element in the game is talking to you with little speech bubbles saying “I am this and I do this!”.

It’s important to note that the game doesn’t explain the chaining mechanic at work in each level. It only ever explains the tools the player has immediate control over; the buttons they press to be able to interact with the world. This leaves something for the player to discover and learn on their own that is actually interesting while learning the basic controls is not.

So why am I looking at this stuff? Well Waves suffers from a degree of over complication in a few mechanics. While I was submitting a build for the IndieDB UDK competition I had to write some instructions for the people who were going to play it and I found myself actually dreading having to explain some elements.

When you actually dread explaining one of your more important mechanics it’s time to both re-examine the mechanic with an eye to how you will explain it within the context of the game. I am happy to say that I think I have since found a way to fix my problems and the changes should be in the public demo.

While I’m on the subject of the demo build (which I’m calling Alphawaves) the chief bottle neck is the UI which I don’t have an estimate for yet but I have some gameplay changes; mostly minor, that I want to get in as well. I’d hope to have it out before the end of the month but it’s more likely to be in February.

7 thoughts on “Communication Breakdown

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  2. I’m not entirely sure that you successfully sidestepped disingenuity there, what with your claim that men are less likely to read the manual than women :).

    Studies of ‘serious’ applications show that the number of people who read any kind of documentation is so small that any disparity between genders can’t be much more than a rounding error. Oddly enough, though, people are much more likely to claim that they read documentation than they are to actually read it. See this graph from Novick, Elizalde & Bean, 2007:

    I don’t think it stretches credibility too much for me to assert that these findings broadly apply to games, too. That is, players are far more likely to work stuff out for themselves, ask a friend, or just give up, than they are to read a manual.

    I also don’t think that it’s fair to assume that people ignore instructions because they somehow want to create an extra problem for themselves to solve. If that were true then the logical solution would be to build games that satisfy that desire by giving no instructions and letting players figure stuff out for themselves. I’d want to see a lot of evidence before advocating that :).

    Any psychologist will tell you that people are very bad at knowing their own reasons for doing things, and even worse at accurately reporting those reasons in the context of a study. Nevertheless, if you ask people why they ignore instructions, they come up with a fairly consistent set of reasons that, I think, are borne out by the facts.

    What it boils down to is a lack of focus. In a problem-solving context, most people are reluctant to read large blocks of text because they perceive, usually correctly, that the bulk of that text will not usefully apply to them in the context of what they are doing. The majority of almost any instructional text will be either redundant or baffling, depending on the experience level of the reader. Actually, a similar effect applies outside the context of problem-solving too, although much less pronounced.

    Relatedly, people are much more likely to read a short block of text than a long one. Subjectively, I know that, given a sufficiently short piece of text, I will read it immediately without even thinking about it – and I’m pretty sure that the same applies to most other people, too.

    From this point of view, Geometry Wars 2 doesn’t do too badly. The instructional text is concise, probably as short as it could be, and it’s arranged to facilitate scanning. But in an interactive context I agree we should be able to do much better than that, and the approach taken by Everyday Shooter is superior because it displays short snippets of instructional text exactly when it’s relevant, not in advance. Most people will read the text in Everyday Shooter without expending any conscious effort – although I would argue that it could and should be made shorter.

    By the way, discounting the ones that aren’t any good, the total number of games that I’ve developed and finished is zero, so you can take the above with a large pinch of salt. OTOH, I build user interfaces for a living, and I like to think I’ve picked up a few tricks here and there :).

    • As always my evidence for a gender difference is based on what I’ve observed not what studies have been performed – Of all the girls I’ve watched playing games the majority will read long pages of instructions carefully when presented with them and in some cases will stop gameplay to look things up if they get confused or have forgotten some information.

      Some men will do this but generally only if they aren’t confident in their problem solving abilities in the first place. As most men are very confident in this (often misplaced) they will ignore large amounts of text and dive in. If you have played alot of videogames then this will be even more pronounced even if you are completely unfamiliar with the genre.

      To use an example from the real world rather than videogames: My girlfriend will refer to the manual for the microwave if she has to do something with it she’s not familiar with. I will press buttons until I figure out it out. This may again be more to do with confidence with technology than an innate gender difference but men tend have more technological gadgets and will fiddle more than women which gives them additional confidence in their problem solving abilities when faced with new technology.

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  4. In geometry wars the design of the player’s ship was “C” shaped with sort of an open mouth design. People might try to instinctively relate it to be able to “eat” stuff.

    In-game tutorials like in the case of EDS might only work when the initial pacing of the game is slow which allows for learning to take place.

    • In Deadline the spawn rate starts off pretty slow; certainly slow enough to provide contextual help with the first 2-3 enemies. If memory serves the spawn rate in Deadline is actually tied in part to how quickly you kill the enemies so new players should have a more sedate start than experienced ones.

      In Waves I’m considering adding a “level 0” which is relatively slow paced and after your first level up (which is proof that you have at least mastered the art of shooting something and collecting the experience from it) the game will then start you at level 1 from that point on.

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