Sunday, November 7, 2010

high stakes

I want to talk about some of the successes and failures of Fable 3, both from an interface design perspective and a game design perspective. Since this post got long enough, right now I’ll focus on the interface choices and next time I’ll look at the game itself. Before that can happen, we need to establish a few baselines.


Let’s say you’re in Microsoft’s position. You’re facing severe competition from the Wii. Even the Playstation3 has some degree of motion control. What’s to be done?

You can’t just mimic the Wii. First, you’ll never catch up to the wild success of Wii Sports. Second, you can’t fragment the controller tech you already spent years training developers and users on, by introducing a whole new schema. Finally, mimicry is already Sony’s game with the Move. You have to differentiate yourself, you have to take it to the next level. Motion control? Fuck that, body control. Regardless of how it works out, whether the technology has merit - it’s objectively the only business decision you can justify.

Now imagine you’re trying to redesign the RPG,  a genre famous for its menus upon menus. EA tried it with Mass Effect 2– removing the loot for which the genre is known, streamlining the entire process down to a few skill points and rarely-changing weapons loadouts. ME2’s fatal flaw, though, was trading poorly-organized information for virtually no information (just try and tell me how you were supposed  to realize one weapon was ‘better’ than another in the loadout screen).


I think that if your mission is to redesign the RPG, something Molyneux has long held as a goal, you don’t have a lot of choices but to try something big, and bold, and something that will more likely than not fail. It’s not “innovation” if it’s not a risk!

I think Corvus is largely correct that Fable 3’s design decisions were influenced by the up-and-coming Kinect (The press-and-hold-ring gesture is a dead giveaway when you compare it to the hold-your-hand-ring on the Kinect Hub).  The other part of this puzzle is the “natural UI” movement (Bill Braxton of Microsoft Research describes it in practice here – it’s something more easily explained in video than text, by definition). Kinect is, of course, one part of this movement. Fable 3 is also attempting to be part of this movement above and beyond some rumored Kinect integration.

Of course, there are plenty of criticisms to make w/r/t the design choices. Again, Corvus is correct that menus are largely remapped to 3d space. I don’t think this is an incorrect decision – the speed with which you can get to the sanctuary screen, and the d-pad shortcuts prevent this from being an undue burden. Seeing your wardrobe choices organized on mannequins is certainly better than seeing “Left Auroran Men’s Glove, Right Auroran Men’s Glove, Auroran Men’s Pants (Red)” on a menu screen (I haven’t played Fable 2 – I have no idea how it handled this situation).  The singular flaw in implementation is limiting how much shit you can see and interact with at a time.

“Natural UI” doesn’t mean “literally the same motions you would make in real life”, it means “using a metaphor the user is familiar with to make things more convenient”. A wardrobe for clothes is perfect! A weapons rack is perfect! Limiting your entire interaction with a weapons rack to “look at each weapon one-by-one”? Not only is it a pain in the ass, but it ignores the entire purpose of going to the weapons rack – to compare things you own side-by-side. To quickly see what progress you’re making on your upgrades. To check out new items at a glance and look at all the cool shit you own at once. That’s a lot of information you need to see, which the interface isn’t providing for. For all that screen space available, you can’t see two or three-level displays stacked on top of each other? You can’t compare two weapons side by side? Regardless of high aspirations, that’s poor design.