Extensibility in Board Games

March 20, 2008 at 3:02 pm (Game Design, User Interface)

Many board and card games have an interesting design challenge:  they need to create special playing pieces.  This may not seem like much of a challenge if you’re creating Checkers or Sorry, but more complex boardgames like HeroQuest or Arkham Horror can produce a multitude of customized figures, chits, cards, dice, and other pieces used to play the game.  And while the value may not be immediately apparent, you should really pause to consider how well all these custom pieces can be used for things other than your original intent.

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What Does This Do?

February 6, 2008 at 7:06 pm (Game Design, User Interface)

In order to play a game (or, in the age of computers, maybe just in order to play a game well), you need to know how.  In an ideal world, you’d simply dedicate some time to learning whatever you need to know–read the manual, play the tutorial, peruse a FAQ, or what have you–and then you’d remember it all.

Unfortunately, most players have neither unlimited patience nor perfect memory, so that typically doesn’t happen.  Players who want to play your game will generally want to start with as little time commitment as possible, and they won’t remember everything you tell them.  So in order for them to play the game, it has to be possible to learn at least some things as you go along.  The game has to be self-documenting: the game itself needs to contain the information necessary to play it.

This doesn’t mean that you should have a button in the game that brings up the player’s manual (though perhaps you should), but that players need to be presented with context-sensitive help giving them information relevant to their current situation.  If the player wanted to simply hear everything you want him to know presented in the order you think is best, he’d be reading the manual.  What he probably actually wants is precisely the information that will get him safely through the next ten seconds of his game.

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Conspicuously Absent Controls

January 8, 2008 at 6:36 pm (Game Design, User Interface)

Making good user interfaces is hard–harder than many people realize.  There are a lot of trade-offs.  How do you balance the need for an indicator to be easily visible against the other demands for screen real estate?  How does one weigh the advantage of making it easy to do something against the risk that the player will do it accidentally, with disastrous results?

Video games have come up with many creative user interface designs, which are often copied or adapated by similar games.  The pieces of a user interface become better as they’re used, because players become more familiar with them, and can use them more easily.

Yet I’m continually surprised that many games refuse to implement some simple interface improvements, even after they become widely known.  Here’s a few things that I think should be included in pretty much every game:

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Rant: Player Control

December 13, 2007 at 11:48 pm (Game Design, Game Mechanics, User Interface)

 This rant was originally a forum post written late on the night of December 3, 2007.  It has been slightly edited.

I’m noticing this in more and more games, and it’s really starting to get on my nerves: otherwise well-designed, well-implemented, professional games still have stupid, trivially fixable mistakes that make the game way more frustrating than it ought to be.

I’m not even talking about bugs. I’ve done a good bit of programming, and I know that bugs can often be subtle, hard to find, and hard to fix. I’m talking about clearly intentional features of the game that make you go “wait, did they even play this game before releasing it?”

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