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Subject: Game Interfaces - my philosophy on how to design them rss

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Brook Gentlestream
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In another thread, I started talking about the importance of game interfaces, but as it was somewhat long and off-topic, I thought I'd start a new thread for the subject instead. I invite you all to respond to this as you see fit, or to post your own contrasting philosophies on the subject if you so wish.

I think game interfaces are a fascinating topic, especially when it comes to expression/distribution of board game information.

There are various degrees to which the level of interface is desired by some people, as some people consider the skills required in learning a game's interface to be a necessary skill in the game itself. I recognize that "game" means different things to different people.

Since I tend to focus on games as a system for decisions, I favor a thorough 100% interface as much as possible, blending man and game into perfect symbiosis.

In my ideal "perfect" interface, I have instant knowledge of everything in the game worth knowing, including rules, but only at the time it is relevant to know that information, including the probabilities and scope of unknown variables, and I can execute all of my decisions at the speed of thought with my decisions, related activities, resources spent, and incidental consequences being apparent and clearly understood by all participants. The information must be filtered and/or presented in such a way that I don't have to peruse through worthless data to find the information I need. In a perfect interface, all of this should happen instantly and without any undue effort on my part.

The perfect interface is not possible. But in my game design philosophy, the purpose of board game layouts, and indeed any board game components whatsoever, is to come as close to this perfect interface as is reasonably possible.

Oh, and it should be artistic, colorful, thematic, and pretty.

On the other hand, I once had a discussion about video games where I said "all the button pressing gets in the way and takes too long - I need a perfect brain-to-game interface so that I think and my actions happen" and I was told by a fan of the game that pressing buttons and memorizing combos was part of the game, and was a necessary skill that took time to develop, and using an instant brain-interface-thingie would be cheating.

I'm pretty sure most people wouldn't agree with that, but regardless of whether or not its right, it was my first realization that I may be in the minority when it comes to wanting a "perfect interface" for all games. I guess you wouldn't want, for example, everyone in Scrabble to have their own dictionary that they could consult at will, would you?

On the other hand, maybe that's why I don't play Scrabble. It's not really a "game", by my narrow definition, or at least not the type of game I want to be designing. So maybe my "perfect interface" only works for my "ideal type of game", one which focuses on decisions and little else. Which makes sense -- in the same way that I strive to come as close to I can to the "perfect interface" without every reaching it, I also want the games I design to maximize their focus on player decisions without ever reaching the maximum possible focus.

It seems odd to be using Plato-esque philosophies from thousands of years ago to help me make decisions about designing board games.

I've always considered myself more of an Aristotle fan.
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Brad Miller
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Good luck with that...
 
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Mark J
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I largely agree with you.

I'd quibble that there is often information in a game which is supposed to stay secret. Like in a war game maybe I'm not supposed to know the strength of the other player's units. Maybe I'm not supposed to know the real strength of my own units until their first actual combat, e.g. a unit may turn out to break and run the first time the going gets tough. But assuming you meant, "make all the information that the player is supposed to have instantly visible", then I agree that that should be the goal.

Okay, this is BOARD Game Geek, but I'm reminded of a computer game I had years ago, a Civil War game called "No Greater Glory", that had some very interesting rules, but the user interface sucked big time. You had to move supplies from your cities to your armies, and each army consumed one unit of supplies per turn. Okay, fair enough. Except ... there was one screen that showed where the supplies were, and another that showed where your armies were. So you basically had to click on the menu for the "army" screen, then maneuver around the map to select a particular space on the board, then click a button to see how many armies where there. Then you had to click on the "supply" button, maneuver around the board to that same space, click a button to see how many supplies. If you were short you could then click around other areas to see where there were surplus supplies you could move. But how do you know they are "surplus"? You have to go back to the top of the menu and then back down through the "army" side to see how many armies where in that space. So you were constantly going up and down the menus to see supplies, then see armies, then see supplies, etc. The game would have been dramatically easier to play if there had been one screen that would show both armies and supplies at the same time. It was a stunningly bad user interface decision.

It has struck me that an advantage of board games over computer games is that a board game can show much more information at a glance than a computer game, and that you can "zoom in" on information in a board game by just moving your eyes, while a computer game may require scrolling or navigating menus. Just for starters, a typical laptop screen is, what? maybe 100 - 150 square inches? A desktop may be 200 - 300 square inches. But a game board could easily be double that. Plus you may have charts and cards and tokens and whatever scattered around the table. The typical play table is just way larger than the typical computer screen, and so can show much more information. In practice it is usually easier to pick up a card or turn over a token to see more information than it is to navigate a computer game's menu. Etc. I'm sure that as computer technology continues to advance, this will change, but that's how it is now.
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Holger Doessing
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I think you might be playing it wrong, if you don't find Scrabble full of taxing decisions.
 
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Russ Williams
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lordrahvin wrote:
IIn my ideal "perfect" interface, I have instant knowledge of everything in the game worth knowing, including rules, but only at the time it is relevant to know that information, including the probabilities and scope of unknown variables,


I'm not sure what you mean by "the probabilities and scope of unknown variables", but it sounds like essentially cheating. E.g. if the game automatically tells me the probability of winning given that I make move X, then the game loses all strategic interest and simply becomes a rote activity of "OK, the game has told me that this is the best move, so I do it."

Quote:
I guess you wouldn't want, for example, everyone in Scrabble to have their own dictionary that they could consult at will, would you?

No more than I'd want a chess game to automatically tell me how I can mate my opponent in 3 moves.

(But perhaps you are getting at something different with your Scrabble example, namely that the dictionary defines what legal moves even are, so it's in effect a several hundred page rulebook? Perhaps it would help if you would give a different example where this is not an issue. E.g. would you like your user interface for Qwirkle (a language-independent Scrabble-like game in which the legality of a move is simply determined instead of depending on a very long list of legal words) to automatically identify for you your highest scoring move?)

On the other hand...
Quote:
On the other hand, I once had a discussion about video games where I said "all the button pressing gets in the way and takes too long - I need a perfect brain-to-game interface so that I think and my actions happen" and I was told by a fan of the game that pressing buttons and memorizing combos was part of the game, and was a necessary skill that took time to develop, and using an instant brain-interface-thingie would be cheating.

I agree with you in the sense that the manual dexterity of using a user interface is an utterly uninteresting part of a game to me; I have no interest in playing real time video fighting games and so on, where that manual dexterity indeed seems to be part of the game.

I suppose that the person you were talking to would agree that when playing a typical boardgame, the physical manner & speed in which you manipulate the pieces is not really part of the game.
 
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Phoebe Wild
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holgerd wrote:
I think you might be playing it wrong, if you don't find Scrabble full of taxing decisions.


The ability to play Scrabble doesn't only rely on in-game decisions though. It requires prior knowledge of words, and a good vocabulary. It can't be a game in and of itself, relying purely on information provided by the interface, because it requires external knowledge.

Contrast to a different type of board game where all the information required to make decisions is available within the game itself. All players have the same knowledge (except for hidden information - but even then they know about the existence of hidden information), and the outcome of the game therefore rests only on how the players choose and interact within the game. Personally I enjoy this type of game more.
 
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Mark J
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MissJekyll wrote:
The ability to play Scrabble doesn't only rely on in-game decisions though. It requires prior knowledge of words, and a good vocabulary. It can't be a game in and of itself, relying purely on information provided by the interface, because it requires external knowledge.


How does "requires prior knowledge" lead to "can't be a game in and of itself". Who says that a game cannot require prior knowledge?

In a sense you could say that almost every game requires SOME prior knowledge. How many games assume that you are capable of doing elementary arithmetic? Or that you know that "Europe" is a continent?

In any war game, to the extent that it accurately depicts how real-life warfare works,, knowledge of the classic principles of war would surely be helpful.

In many games, a knowledge of probability and statistics would help the player. To take a trivial example, consider all the games where every turn you roll a pair of dice, move that number of spaces, and take some action based on the space you land on. Long ago I figured out that as the most likely number to roll on two dice is 7, that making decisions based on the assumption that you or another player will roll a 7 can give you an edge. I've played many games where taking some time to calculate probabilities can help you make better decisions. (By the way, I've played games where the winning strategy was to go through a ton of information and calculate scores of probabilities. I don't like games like that. I don't like to play a game that reward me for doing a bunch of tedious calculations, because that's forcing me to do something boring.)

Quote:
Contrast to a different type of board game where all the information required to make decisions is available within the game itself. All players have the same knowledge (except for hidden information - but even then they know about the existence of hidden information), and the outcome of the game therefore rests only on how the players choose and interact within the game. Personally I enjoy this type of game more.


But okay, the difference is that in Scrabble, an important element of the game is that you are tested on this prior knowledge.

But really ... not very often. It's very rare that I play a word in Scrabble that the other players have never heard before or vice versa. Obscure words are usually -- not always, but usually -- long words, and you rarely are able to play a word of more than 5 or 6 letters. The challenge in Scrabble is not normally to remember obscure words, but rather to examine the current state of the board and your available tiles, and to be able to think of a word that fits.

But in any case, take a game that really is a quiz of prior knowledge. Like Jeopardy or Go To the Head of the Class. I don't see how you could say that that is "not a real game". It's just a different kind of game. You may like that kind of game and you may not.
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Russ Williams
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saneperson wrote:
In any war game, to the extent that it accurately depicts how real-life warfare works,, knowledge of the classic principles of war would surely be helpful.

...

But in any case, take a game that really is a quiz of prior knowledge. Like Jeopardy or Go To the Head of the Class. I don't see how you could say that that is "not a real game". It's just a different kind of game. You may like that kind of game and you may not.


I agree with your main point, but it's worth noting a significant difference: in your examples, prior knowledge is necessary to play well.

In Scrabble, prior knowledge is necessary to even know if a move is legal or not.

E.g. someone with no clue about military strategy can still play a wargame, even if they make bad moves.

And we could play a quiz game with questions and answers in some foreign language we don't know, and we'd get terrible scores just guessing random answers.

But we couldn't really play Scrabble in a foreign language we don't know, because we wouldn't even know if a move was legal or not.

It would be like playing Mao - we'd be making stabs in the dark hoping we were making legal moves, and some other player who's in the know would tell us if the moves are legal or not.
 
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Derek H
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lordrahvin wrote:
I can execute all of my decisions at the speed of thought...

In many multi-player games that is an oxymoron - right up there with "military intelligence" whistle
 
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Drew Hicks
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In a video game, dexterity is a skill. Being able to quickly select and input the right sequence of button presses is a skill. I think the ideal interface would be one the minimizes or removes memorization (obviously very difficult) but retains speed/dexterity as part of the skill. Button pressing shouldn't be removed from fighting games any more than hands should be removed from Jenga.

Similarly, I don't think it's awful to have an interface which gives you a large amount of raw data. I do think it's awful for that interface to lead your decisions. For example: Scrabble shows you the letter distribution. I think it would be okay for an electronic Scrabble to use the available knowledge to show you the APPROXIMATE letter distribution left in the bag (i.e., minus your own letters and minus the letters on the board.) I don't think it would be okay for that interface to lead you in PROCESSING the raw data. The "only at the time it is relevant to know that information" leads to bad things, essentially the game auto-piloting you, because some interface designer decided what was relevant. For example, calculating the probability that your opponent has an S based on their last few plays, or something similar.

A big part of gameplay is making decisions based on data. I don't mind the data being more visible, but I would hate for the game to tell players what data is "important" because choosing what is important is kind of the basis of gameplay, in my opinion.
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Chris Hawkins
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Can you give a few examples of board games that have interfaces that meet most if not all of your criteria?
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Mark J
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russ wrote:

In Scrabble, prior knowledge is necessary to even know if a move is legal or not.

E.g. someone with no clue about military strategy can still play a wargame, even if they make bad moves.

And we could play a quiz game with questions and answers in some foreign language we don't know, and we'd get terrible scores just guessing random answers.

But we couldn't really play Scrabble in a foreign language we don't know, because we wouldn't even know if a move was legal or not.


Well, I don't want to get into a protracted argument about it, because (a) I'm not a huge fan of Scrabble, nor do I own stock in the company; and (b) It's a boring argument.

So okay, I see your point, but I think it's a very fine distinction. The rules of Scrabble specify a procedure for challenging a play as not being a real word. As I recall, anyone can challenge a word, and if the word is not found in an agreed-upon dictionary the person who placed the word must withdraw his tiles and lose his turn; if the word is found in the dictionary the person who challenged loses his turn.

So it's not an "illegal move" in the same sense that someone playing Monopoly and grabbing a $500 bill from the bank while no one is looking is an illegal move. There's a procedure built in to the game to provide for it and deal with it. I think arguably you could say it's in the same category as, for example, a war game where a player can say, "Okay, now I'm sending my bombers to attack your city" and his opponent can let it happen or he can say, "No, I send my fighters to intercept."

Which suddenly gets me thinking ... is it legal to bluff? Like, could I put down some random collection of letters that gives me a high score and hope no one challenges? And if they do challenge, just confidently say, "You know, a framulax, that gadget photographers use. I think that's how it's spelled. Do you want to challenge?" And then nonchalantly offer them the dictionary.

Usually if I play Scrabble it's with family, and the idea of bluffing on a made-up word just seems like cheating. But bluffing is a routine part of many games -- Poker is the most obvious example. I could certainly see doing something like this is a tournament where money was at stake. Is this considered cheating or unethical in tournament play? I don't see how you'd make a rule against it. If someone says, "Oh, I really thought that was a word, I must have been thinking of something else", how would you know if he was telling the truth or not?

But where I see your point is that, while the rules provide for challenges, in most games -- at least most games that I've played -- challenges are very rare. Indeed, when my family plays Scrabble we normally don't even follow the rules for challenges. Rather, if someone puts down an illegal word, we make him take it back, but then we just let him put down a different word. i.e. we don't impose any penalty for illegal words other than making you do something else. So in that sense, we treat it more like a mistake then like a part of the game. Like if in some "path" game someone rolled a 5 and then moved his piece 6 spaces, we'd all just say, "No, you rolled a 5, you should have landed THERE." And we fix the mistake and go on. (Unless the person is doing this repeatedly and we suspect he's trying to cheat and hope no one will notice, but that's a different story.)



 
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AnEvenWeirderMove wrote:
A big part of gameplay is making decisions based on data. I don't mind the data being more visible, but I would hate for the game to tell players what data is "important" because choosing what is important is kind of the basis of gameplay, in my opinion.


I see your point, but I'd really have to see concrete examples. I suspect in most cases what is relevant is fairly obvious. Presumably all the information in a game is, ultimately, relevant to every decision. But some information is more directly relevant than others.

Like, say we have one of those games where players can develop new technologies, where the list of choices at any given point is dependent on the technologies that you already have. The most obviously relevant information is then the list of things that you can work on now, and the list of things that each of those things will make possible. So if you decide that you want, say, long-range aircraft, it will tell you that you can start that now, or that before you can invent long-range aircraft you must first invent radar. (Or whatever, just making up an example.)

But why would you decide that you want to invent long-range aircraft versus some other available invention? Presumably it's because of something about the strategic situation on the board. Perhaps your enemy has very strong border defenses and you want to find a way to make these irrelevant or something.

So the IMMEDIATELY relevant information is the list of available research projects and the offshoots of those projects. But the HIGHER LEVEL relevant information is potentially everything in the game.
 
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Jeremy Lennert
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saneperson wrote:
Which suddenly gets me thinking ... is it legal to bluff? Like, could I put down some random collection of letters that gives me a high score and hope no one challenges? And if they do challenge, just confidently say, "You know, a framulax, that gadget photographers use. I think that's how it's spelled. Do you want to challenge?" And then nonchalantly offer them the dictionary.

There was an episode of CSI involving a murder at a Scrabble tournament. At one point it shows a game where the reigning champion plays a fake word and bluffs his opponent into accepting it ("a wine connoisseur who no longer drinks"). The opponent adds an "s" to try to pluralize it, and then the original player challenges it.

Personally, I dislike word games mostly because I suck at anagrams, but I would assume that if you want to play Scrabble at a tournament level that there is a lot of dictionary memorization involved. Kind of like how Chess involves very little memorization if you play it casually but tons if you want to play competitively.
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Mark J
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I think there's a huge difference between the user interface of a board game and the user interface of a computer game. And it is this: In a computer game, there can be many different screens to show you different subsets of the total information. But in a board game, there is only one display: whatever the layout of the board, cards, etc is on the table.

I'm hard-pressed to think of a board game where we re-arrange the table as we move from phase to phase in the game. That is, we don't say that when you're in the movement and combat phase we have a board with the map and combat units, and that when you're in the production phase we take this board away and instead lay out a production schedule. The very concept sounds rather unwieldy.

I suppose you could say that in a board game we might have different places on the table and we shift our attention from one to another at different stages of the game. Like we might have a map with units on it for the movement and combat phase, and then off to the side we have a production display showing units under construction and total production capacity and whatever. Then at some points in the game we'll focus our attention on one and at other points we'll focus attention on another.

But realistically, the biggest UI problem in computer games is usually that the screen I am looking at right now doesn't have all the information I need, that I want to see some other information that is on a different screen. In the worst UIs, it is not even possible to reach this other screen at this point in the game.

In a board game, the biggest UI problems tend to be, (a) The physical arrangement prevents me from seeing all the information. Like, some units are physically underneath other units so I have to pick pieces up and look at what's under them. (b) Perhaps comparable to the computer game issue I mentioned: There may be information that is off in a rule book that I have to look up. Like a unit is labeled "10-4-W" and is colored blue, and I have to either remember what those numbers and codes represent and what order they appear in, or I have to look it up. (I've played plenty of war games where there are a bunch of numbers on each unit and I'm always looking up, is the anti-air combat strength the number in the upper left or the number in the center bottom, etc.) Or there are codes that I have to look up. Etc.
 
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Gary Simpson

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Quote:
The perfect interface is not possible.


I'd disagree here, arguing that interfaces are just components that have universally become perfect over iterations.

The perfect interface of a card game is a card -- as it is the point where the game and the gamer meet. The information displayed has no inherent value. It is up to the gamer to critically think and apply the value himself.

Now, the most useful layout would be on that helps the gamer apply his value by putting the information into a hierarchy. But even this is moot, if the game has aspects of meta involved -- wherein it would fall back onto the already perfected interface. In a card game, a decisive move might simply rely on seeing that another player has a card.
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Derek H
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gsimpson wrote:
Quote:
The perfect interface is not possible.


I'd disagree here, arguing that interfaces are just components that have universally become perfect over iterations.

The perfect interface of a card game is a card -- as it is the point where the game and the gamer meet. The information displayed has no inherent value. It is up to the gamer to critically think and apply the value himself.

Great example! I think this is reason why, without always being able to parse the exact reason, I get "put off" by the layout of some cards... as the information that should be obvious - given the usual arrangement or layout of card in-hand or in-play - is often put in obscure places or presented in way that is too hard to read at glance (e.g. poor font size/type, or clashing color combinations).
 
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I'd be reluctant to declare anything to be perfect, as that implies that no further improvement is possible.

The standard playing card IS well-developed. It is easy to hold, and easy to view while concealing from other players. The idea of putting a shorthand identifier of each card in the corner makes it possible to hold cards in a compact arrangement while still viewing all the relevant information. Cards are easy to handle and deal.

Cards can be randomized in a way that is very good, but I wouldn't say perfect. If you combine an overhand shuffle to re-arrange large blocks of cards with a dovetail shuffle to break up groups you get a pretty good randomization. But still, cards can tend to "float" together through shufflings.

So all told, yes, I'd give playing cards a very high score on the UI index.
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