Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Visual Search

United Kingdom
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Original Post (For the first time ever this post is better than the original, since I found some spelling errors while mirroring.)

Today we're going to talk about visual search. For the record I worked as a researcher for the best part of a decade at an institution that makes significant contributions to the field of visual cognition. On a personal level, I hated studying vision with a burning passion and learned as little about it as possible. So while on some areas of psychology I can reasonably claim to speak with authority, this isn't one of them. A lot of what I talk about will be things I picked up peripherally from fragments of conversation, so please take any claims I make here as being on a par with "My friend's brother's niece heard it in a bar".

Now that we've established I have no credibility in the field and all three of the intellectually careful people on the internet have gone off to search up some higher quality information, let’s start speculating wildly about visual search and how it informs game design. Visual search is an active scan of the environment aimed at retrieving specific information. THIS WILL BECOME IMPORTANT LATER. Some experiments in this field ask participants to identify whether a given object is present in an image and report the finding, the amount of time the participant takes to do this is recorded. For example a participant might be looking to see if there is a "B" present in the following:

The image is drawn from the excellent psychology wiki project. It should be pretty apparent that it's easier to detect the B in the second image than in the first, due to the lower number of distracters. There's a lot of research on what sort of distracters cause searches to take the most time and about all sorts of other factors that influence this task. So why should game designers care that some distracters are more effective than others?

Yesterday I mentioned that there was a difference between the setup photo and the individual component pictures for Wizard Academy. This is because I've changed a component after having trouble with a visual search task during playtesting. The difference can be seen here:

Event cards frequently reference rooms, but rooms can be at any orientation. Thus the search problem involves searching 68 locations for the target room. It turns out that since the task needs to be performed a couple of times per turn and the rooms sometimes move around making memorisation of their positions difficult it was taking up a significant amount of time. Spending time looking for rooms in a mess of text is not part of the core fun of the game, so as I wanted to eliminate it as much as possible.

Since upper and lower case letters are easy to distinguish, making the room titles upper case should improve the search time, letting the players spend more time on the game. Try scanning the second paragraph of this post for the uppercase sentence if you need to convince yourself that it's easy to spot an uppercase line amidst lower case text. There will still be 17 possible targets, but that means there will be far fewer distracters for this task than before. If it doesn't work ,then making each room title a different colour and having the cards that reference them always display the title in that colour should help too, but since I'm partially colour-blind I prefer to rely on shape rather than colour tricks.

I'm not sure that the designers for existing games spend a lot of time reading vision research, but I bet a lot of them think about how to cut down maintenance time with distinctive components. I suspect that the ease with which they aid visual search tasks is a reason that some types of components have proved more popular than others. I've no research to support it, but anecdotally I've noticed that there is a particular class of thing that's popular in game design and that people are very quick to sort or search through:

See you all tomorrow
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