Sunday, October 24, 2010

super meat boy & signalling

if we're going to talk about games as software then yeah, super meat boy is exceptional. it's very obvious the team had a clear vision about what they wanted to do. It's designed from the bottom up to be a platformer. Not a platformer-RPG,  not a puzzle-platformer, not a monochrome-with-sad-piano-music-platformer. Just a platformer.

The team also had a wonderful idea of how to do it. The controls lend themselves well to muscle-memory, so once you figure out a tricky bit you can blow past it next time. When you die, you respawn before you can even think about throwing your controller across the room. When you finally beat a level, the tiny parade of failed attempts lets you laugh at your failures and celebrate your eventual success. Wonderful design! Brilliant design! 

You can’t play Super Meat Boy without the knowledge that this is supposed to be a “true” platformer, a “hardcore” title. Ten or fifteen years ago, there was no “hardcore vs. casual”. There was “RPG vs FPS”, there was “PC vs Console”, and maybe there was “I beat it on easy with cheats vs I beat it on HARD”, but there were no Facebook games to rage against. There weren’t Bejeweled clones to sniff at.

No pandering here.

Super Meat Boy is an homage to a different time, sure. A natural extension of that homage is the signaling contained within the game. The game itself, as a response to “casual” games, seems to be a shot across the bow – true gamers are still here. We are still a force in the marketplace.  This isn’t a game for Halo or Call of Duty meatheads / bros. This is a game for people who grew up in the SNES era – demonstrated by the warp worlds which gave you everything from Atari 8-bit to Genesis 16-bit callbacks. And this is definitely not a game for the Farmville crowd, demonstrated by the fact that your character is a disgusting ball of meat that leaves a blood trail, navigating piles of needles and rivers of – you guessed it! – blood.

I mean the game starts off with the female character getting punched, in the face, repeatedly, by her kidnapper. Even if you ignore the "it's humorous to depict women getting beaten and aren't you the real sexist for even bringing it up" element (Up next: T-shirts saying "Robotic fetus abuse survivor"?), there’s a pretty clear underlying signal here: This game is By Us, For Us. This game is Part Of The Club of True Hardcore Gamers. The unlockable characters are probably shit you’ve never even heard of, unless you happen to know Mighty Jill-Off, Gish, and Bit.Trip. At minimum.

There’s nothing wrong with a little in-crowd nudging. There’s nothing wrong with calling out other authors who you have respect for. And, to be clear, there’s not anything wrong with making a platformer designed to be difficult. But when you make a game that calls back to 1996 in 2010, I can’t help but think of what’s changed in that time. This is a personal preference, not a reflection on the quality of the game – but I’ve played platformers from 1996 quite extensively. I look forward to something new, not a rehash of the old. Apparently that makes me quite unique in the hardcore gaming sphere.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Comparing interfaces


It seems impossible to criticize design without seeming like you are nitpicking. Obviously the entire issue of design is one of small nitpicks that pile up – for every small decision made, especially in a computer system, someone said “Well, this should behave in this way”. Good design guides these small choices. Bad design might “ship the org chart”, or more commonly, fail to provide any guidance at all.

Let’s talk about the Xbox360, and the PS3. They’re both pretty mature at this point, they can handle it. I’m leaving the Wii off these discussions since its iPhone interface is pretty boring to me – it’s well executed, simple, and neither flawed nor innovative in any instructive way.

The scenario in our apartment is “no autologin” since the gf and I share both consoles, so let’s look at the just-turned-on experience (sorry for the dubious quality photos):



Both screens are trying to solve the same problems: Trophies/achievements, online stores, and friends lists require a user to be logged in even for playing a game. The PS3 chooses not to show you what capabilities it has until you login, where the Xbox shows you what’s possible, what game is in the tray, and defers forcing logon until the user actively chooses to do something.

You can also see some of the basic design aesthetics at work: Sony is no-frills. Xbox is colorful and uses a whole bunch of visual tricks to give you an intuitive look at what elements are movable – the faded type, the use of depth to stack tiles in the background, and always the legend at the bottom to tell you exactly what buttons do what. See that at the bottom of the PS3’s screen? Of course not. Sony expects you to know “X” means “accept” and “O” means “cancel”.

Now logged in:



This is a fairer picture of  Sony’s interface. Aside from the use of vertical and horizontal space, there are gorgeous custom overlays for every game - when you’re on the game “blade”.  The game icon is also animated to give you a few action shots. The interface for Xbox doesn’t change too much when you login – it’s consistent with the logged-out experience. Game icons can’t be animated on the Xbox, and custom themes are generally something you have to purchase. However, there are a few gripes I want to share about the PS3 screen:

  • If you look closely, you will see that Flower is on my games blade twice – once in a little capsule that is just the downloaded file I got from the Marketplace, one is the actual way to launch the game. Duplicated information is pretty sloppy, especially when you’re first using the interface and you have no way of knowing which is which.
  • On the “top” of the blade (Above the horizontal line of parallel blades) is a bunch of meaningless stuff about save files and import utilities. What? Xbox puts these in the “Memory” section of My Xbox –> Settings, which seems a little bit more logical. Why do these utilities exist here? Some of them are related to the PS2 – but my playstation can’t play PS2 games! (This will lead into a digression later)
  • Xbox uses the top right corner to show my avatar, gamertag & gamerscore. Sony uses it to scroll ads, which I never read.
  • And finally, most egregiously - THE ICONS HAVE LOAD TIMES. LOLWTF. I consistently get 2sec of load times on the fucking icons? Look, human perception is a capricious thing. The absolute boundary of our perception is about 1/10th of a second. 1 second is noticeable. 3 seconds is perceived as very noticeable, to the point of distraction (5 seconds is boredom, 10 seconds is the limit at which you switch tasks – in case you were curious). But for a primary input on a common function… Could you imagine if your mouse took 2 seconds to register every click, or your keyboard had a 2-second delay on every stroke? Plus, you know, they’re fucking ICONS! You’re telling me the PS3 couldn’t spend the 6 kilobytes of memory to keep that speedy?  It drives me up a damn wall because anyone with any expertise in user experience or interface knows those perception limits off the top of their head – to ship a flagship console with that problem? I can launch a damn web browser faster than I can select “Play Game” on a gaming console.

Still, despite these gripes  - at first glance, the two interfaces don’t look that different. How many ways can you make an navigation pane? There’s a horizontal element, and a vertical element. When I said the PS3 was “no-frills”, though, I wasn’t kidding. Its dominant metaphor is pretty clear:



By the numbers: 10 icons when the PlayStation is online (The PSN icon is not shown when the console is offline, as above; Xbox has 9 blades, with 1 being quite simple to disable). Sixteen menu options under “settings”. My particular PS3 has thirteen menu options under “games” (Xbox has 9…ish under “My Xbox”, which is the biggest category).  And of those sixteen menu settings, all of them are hiding 5-6 individual settings beneath that single category. So the PS3 interface is hitting the same problems as the old Office interface. 

Here’s the 360 settings screen in comparison:


Okay, still a ton of options hidden in these menus. But there’s text stating exactly what settings are contained within, which I think the PS3 needs pretty badly after I spent too much time hunting for specific options.  And the settings are organized in much more concise categories.

Editing a profile:



Yeah, good luck trying to figure out what you’re editing in the PS3 screen. And look – my achievement icons are fucking loading. And every time you enter this screen, you have to sit through a progress bar as “trophies are syncing”.  Don’t bother trying to figure out what exact trophies you have from this screen, or how you got them– you need to exit out completely and go back to the Games menu and find “Trophies” sandwiched in between the twelve other icons.  Absolutely terrible interface here on the PS3’s part, while Xbox is concise. Also, speaking of trophies:


See that little toast? If I hit the center jewel on my controller (it looks exactly like the icon on the toast!) , it pulls up my friends screen to show me who just logged on! If I hit it when an achievement pops, it shows me the achievement I just popped! If I hit it normally, it pauses the game I’m playing and brings up  an extremely compressed interface that gives me a very efficient overview of what things I can do:


Here’s the PS3’s “jewel screen” when a trophy pops, a friend logs on, or whatever else is going on:


As with a lot of my other criticisms of the PS3 – it’s not really a flaw in the interface. Showing the same menu screen is consistent(although this triggers the god-damn loading icons). It’s just the Xbox experience seems really well thought out: “When a user sees a new achievement, they will probably want to know what it’s for”, “When a friend logs on, the user might want to interact with their friend” , “When the user is in the middle of a game, they might want a compact, lightweight interface”. In contrast, the PS3 interface doesn’t really seem “designed” as much as “plopped down into place” – when apologists say it has a “functional design”, they mean “it has some functions and it shows you what those functions are”.