I Like-Like You! Happy Valentine’s Day!

My sometimes-yearly tradition of making store-bought-style Valentine’s Day cards based on things I like… continues! This year I went with The Legend of Zelda for NES. Personally I prefer Zelda II, but it’s hard to deny the cuteness of square-aspect-ratio-3/4-pseudo-isometric-view Link from the original.

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Tutorial Mode

Cheryl Platz (writer of the excellent blog twenty-sided woman which you should all be reading on a regular basis WHY DON’T YOU GET ON THAT) wrote a post today describing the antiquated state of iconography in user interfaces that got me into a UX sort of mindset. She describes how Windows is moving away from such abstracts, preferring more straightforward tiles containing text descriptions. But I started thinking about another source of iconographic inspiration that I think she and the rest of you might find interesting…

Even in the most modern of word processors and spreadsheet editors, most of the button interaction is represented by vague analog metaphors. The last time I interacted with a floppy disk, I was using them as coasters for a Hackers-themed movie night! (long story short, you missed out) And as Cheryl mentioned, clipboards aren’t an obvious analogy for applying duplicated information, so why did it become the standard for something as frequently evoked as “Paste”? Microsoft’s solution, as outlined in their previews for Windows 8’s Metro UI, is to replace those tiny icons with large, touchable rectangles detailing the contents of each application and service. Go ahead and watch the video:

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Not too shabby! Metro looks very touch control-friendly and the icons clearly communicate their purpose. But I want to take another brief look at the tiny icons that have served us in the pre-post-PC world and think of another way to utilize them:

A video game-style tutorial mode.

Video games have been trying to deal with relating digital actions to real world analogs for at least as long as productivity applications. In fact, games have it a lot tougher: while you may perform tasks somewhat resembling saving and cut/copy/pasting in everyday life, you’re far less likely to find yourself, say, controlling the actions of a hapless family of avatars as they seek out lives and careers.

A game has to get the player familiar with a wholly alien interface in a very short period of time if it wants to keep said player engaged. As technology advances and games increase their capabilities, control schemes necessarily become more complex. Soon a large portion of the screen is devoted to complicated button layouts, and there isn’t always space for textual descriptions explaining the functions. Let’s look at this screenshot from The Sims 2 (click to enlarge):

(The Sims makes for a good comparison since it, like a word processor with a toolbar, is a largely mouse-driven interface)

See that dial on the bottom-left corner? It’s loaded to the brim with icons attempting to communicate functionality with simple pictographs. And you know what? It’s not always succeeding. From my past experiences with other user interfaces and societal conventions, I can probably figure out a few of these buttons; the plus/minus and curved arrow look like they could be related to camera controls, the sun/leaf/snowflake/tulip pictures presumably correspond to the seasons. Random clicking will probably yield more information about the other controls.

But what if I’m not the type of game player that wants to take risks by random clicking? Or going back to the original point, what if I’ve just finished typing up my very first Microsoft Word document, and I don’t inherently know that a picture of thirty year-old data storage technology that most computers don’t even support anymore represents the action of saving my work? Am I expected to click wantonly until the desired result is obtained?

How, then, do video games overcome this problem? Since their inception, most games come with instruction manuals detailing how to perform all the actions you need to get started, but who in the Word or Sims scenarios really reads a manual? No, the real way for a game to instruct on these behaviors is with a guided, in-game tutorial. Almost every modern game has the ubiquitous “tutorial mode”, handholding the player as it painstakingly describes each essential button and refusing to proceed until we apply their instructions and repeat the stated actions. The game teaches you what a mouse click does, then patiently waits for you to click that mouse button.

What would users think if Microsoft Word 2012 came with a tutorial mode? Before you write your Great American Novel, out comes Clippy with a mandatory walkthrough describing the functions of all the most commonly-used buttons on the toolbar. Users would painstakingly be guided through the concepts of copying and pasting, of right-justification, of embedding hyperlinks. Every person that ever used Word would have this shared educational experience (unskippable, of course), giving all users a much-improved baseline of knowledge and self-sufficiency.

At this point, it wouldn’t matter what we put on the icons. The floppy disk becomes no more useful a graphical representation than a National Geographic photo of a panda chewing on bamboo. It would be a wonderful opportunity to immediately phase out all this outmoded imagery and replace it with more interesting and timeless abstractions. Since everyone did the tutorial, the panda button would be a self-evident representation of saving our work. Clippy said so in the walkthrough. By applying a button’s function within the context of the action, we effectively remove the abstractness from the abstraction.

It should be noted that this is actually a terrible idea. But if some up-and-coming developer implemented something like this in his indie word processor, I’d certainly give the tutorial level a go.

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A Life Well Wasted

It’s been a long time since I used this blog for its original purpose of writing about video game things that tickle my fancy. I don’t have much to say on this front, except that I honestly haven’t been playing a lot of video games for some time now, and have had a correspondingly dwindling interest in game news sites. However, I’ve been trying to get back in the habit of reading said sites, and I was glad to see a splendid payoff in the form of a podcast recommendation!

The show, titled “A Life Well Wasted”, takes a page from the excellent radio show This American Life in its format: each hour they choose a theme and deliver a variety of stories on that theme, only in this case the themes focus more on the gaming community and culture. I’m currently listening to the first episode, focusing on Electronic Gaming Monthly’s demise. I strongly urge everyone to give the show a listen.

As far as I can tell, the host, Robert Ashley, does all the writing and production for the show on his own, which explains why he’ll be making about one episode per month. Hopefully he starts assembling a staff to ease the workload and help increase the rate of production, because this is a brilliant idea that we need to see more of! Hey Robert Ashley, you looking for any writers or production assistants? I’m game.

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Wii Storage Solution. FINALLY.

I’m sure everyone’s excited about the DSi and the new Punch-Out!! and the Chibi Robo Wii port and all, but the big news I took from Nintendo’s recent flurry of press releases was Iwata’s announcement that we will finally be able to play Virtual Console and WiiWare games from external storage!

This is the best thing that could have happened for my Wii.

See, I haven’t been playing much Wii these days. In fact, I haven’t been playing any Wii for the past few months. It’s not for lack of desire either. I’m extremely eager to pick up Mega Man 9 and Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People and play them all hours of the night, I really am. But my Wii’s 512MB of internal storage filled to capacity a long time ago, and I really didn’t care for Nintendo’s original “delete old stuff” recommendation. Now we’ll be able to use SD cards to offset internal storage woes! And with 2GB cards being so cheap nowadays, this is going to solve my problem quite readily.

So I guess I’ll be playing these newfangled VC games some time around Spring ’09. No spoilers please.

(courtesy of Wii Fanboy)

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The Gamer's Bill of Rights (kinda like the other Bill of Rights, only it doesn't mean anything)

Figured I’d be a few hours late to the party instead of a few weeks (like normal): Stardock (developers of one of those OS X Dock hacks for Windows and probably other stuff) and Gas Powered Games (developers of the technology to end games’ names with “Siege”) have teamed up to pen a Gamer’s Bill of Rights. Edge Magazine ran a piece by Stardock CEO Brad Wardell, who lays out his mandates in a clear-cut manner and goes into a little detail on a few of the juicier declarations. The document is basically a laundry list of complaints both old and recent regarding the PC gaming environment (the consoles are largely devoid of these grievances). Though I try not to make a habit of reposting large chunks of others’ content, I feel having the entire body of work will help the discussion along (go check out the article as well, of course):

The Gamer’s Bill of Rights

We the Gamers of the world, in order to ensure a more enjoyable experience, establish equality between players and publishers, and promote the general welfare of our industry hereby call for the following:

1. Gamers shall have the right to return games that don’t work with their computers for a full refund.
2. Gamers shall have the right to demand that games be released in a finished state.
3. Gamers shall have the right to expect meaningful updates after a game’s release.
4. Gamers shall have the right to demand that download managers and updaters not force themselves to run or be forced to load in order to play a game.
5. Gamers shall have the right to expect that the minimum requirements for a game will mean that the game will adequately play on that computer.
6. Gamers shall have the right to expect that games won’t install hidden drivers or other potentially harmful software without their express consent.
7. Gamers shall have the right to re-download the latest versions of the games they own at any time.
8. Gamers shall have the right to not be treated as potential criminals by developers or publishers.
9. Gamers shall have the right to demand that a single-player game not force them to be connected to the Internet every time they wish to play.
10. Gamers shall have the right that games which are installed to the hard drive shall not require a CD/DVD to remain in the drive to play.

Personally, I would have liked it if such an important document had been created by some sort of gamer legislature, instead of a missive from above (you know, a series of laws instead of a pair of stone tablets), but it’s hard to argue against any of the points made. The efforts on the part of game companies to curb piracy has resulted in an environment that hinders the average legal game owner’s ability to actually play the game they paid for. I love The Orange Box, but it feels awful weird having to connect to Steam whenever I need a quick offline Portal fix.

The saddest part about this whole document is that it had to be made in the first place. Most everything listed (except maybe having the physical media in the drive to play; it’s an effective anti-piracy measure that every owner of the game should be able to easily comply with, so quit yer whining) is common sense.

Of course, I do understand the needs to stop piracy, and a company blindly accepting these as policy without coming up with alternative means of protecting their assets is just asking for trouble, but it’d be nice if they gave some thought toward their customer’s… well, I wouldn’t exactly call them rights. More like ideals. In any case, I’ll readily support any company that supports such a bill (printing it on the box would be a nifty gesture). Speaking of which, this is apparently a picture of the document, possibly as seen at PAX?

(courtesy of GamePolitics)

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E3 2008: Duke Nukem Trilogy trailer: what the hell were they thinking?

A trailer was released at E3 for the Duke Nukem Trilogy. Watch it please!

As far as I can tell, Apogee had nothing to show for their efforts but felt they should at least release something for the big show. Too bad that something was so completely devoid of content as to be almost four minutes of the titles of the games jumping around to a metal track. And why did they linger so very long on Duke’s crotch at the end?

I suppose we won’t soon forget the names of the games, seeing as how they featured the titles so prominently. And repeatedly.

This trailer just makes it look like another Duke Nukem Forever, doomed to development hell for all eternity. I don’t think it helped their case to make a trailer with absolutely no game content, gameplay information or release dates. Do they think the killer Duke Nukem license is enough to hype up the product? Because they’re mistaken. Duke Nukem’s time as a game-seller has long passed.

But at least the trailer is freakin’ hilarious in its utter lack of substance. Won’t you laugh along with me?

UPDATE: Friend Matt just showed me this, and I thought you all should see: Burger Time trailer!

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Mega Man 9 Appeals To My Unfounded Sense Of Nostalgia

Anyone else hear about this Mega Man 9 news? Game news sites across the Web basically exploded a few weeks ago when it was learned that the new entry in the series would be presented in a style akin to the original games on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Anyone who knows me should be aware that this prospect excites me to no end (to those who don’t know me: this prospect excites me to no end). I figured I’d wait to talk about it until some kind of fancy official trailer was released to drool over, and IGN delivered!

Neat, huh? I realize they very well may not be treating NES-style graphics and sound as the legitimate art style I consider them to be, and that they likely are depending on old-school gamer chumps like myself to fork over hard-earned cash on something that may have taken them very little effort to complete, but a guy can certainly dream. There do seem to be some indications that they put some good time into this title. I’m no Mega Man aficionado, but I don’t recognize the music from past entries in the series (Die-hard fans, please correct me for likely being wrong). They lay claim to having created like a million new enemy sprites for the ninth entry in the series, and I suppose I can buy that.

But the most important thing is, they made a retro sequel to a classic game series! New Super Mario Bros. was fun and all, but this, for all intents and purposes this is a new NES game, and that’s something very special in an age of fancy Mode 7s, breathtaking full-motion video intros and advanced spline reticulations.

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