Microsoft: The

Microsoft: The "X" Men
The Perception Engineers

Spanner | 28 Nov 2006 11:04
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This idea of a more collaborative effort between the User Research Group and the game designers proved invaluable during the development of Halo: Combat Evolved. The development team worked hard to make the game consistently fun throughout (no small task in such a huge, free-roaming game), though it turned out to only be fun if the users played as the designers intended. Which, of course, they didn't.

The Group's solution to this problem deviated from normal error counts and pass/fail criteria by bringing the actual game developers into the procedure to simply observe the tactics employed by users. The game had been designed with the assumption that players would be combating enemies in close quarters, but the shrewd users immediately discovered the targeting system allowed them to remain at a distance and pick off the enemies from long range.

Not only did this circumnavigate the deliberately designed "fun" aspects the developers had worked so hard to create, it also left the players bored and frustrated as they never actually saw the combat and felt their weapons were highly inaccurate from being used at such a long distance.

This time around, it was effectively the developers who were undergoing evaluation as they observed an unquestioned usability group. Their task became finding ways to encourage users to play as intended without forcing decisions upon them. This was achieved by adjusting enemy intelligence to dodge shots taken from long range and by advancing on the player to a position within the intended "fun zone." The targeting system was also adjusted to have a range limitation, thereby influencing users to discover the enjoyment of close-quarters combat.

Spending their days examining the workings of a gamer's brain provides the Group with a unique insight into the behavior and habits of those of us who dabble in the electronic arts; most of which we don't even realize ourselves. Tim provided me with an inside glance at the psychologist's perspective: "It's always interesting to observe gamers perseverate on a usability problem in a game build. So often, gamers will bang their heads against a wall repeatedly, trying to figure something out. This may be different from non-entertainment software, because gamers have an expectation (learned over time spent playing many games) that difficult tasks in a game environment are part of the game, that these tasks have findable solutions and it will be fun to finally uncover that solution."

And who among us can say they've never actually found themselves in exactly this kind of scenario?

The "power up" is almost reachable if I can just balance on this minute piece of scenery long enough to do a double jump in exactly the right place ... damn it!

I'm happy to hold up my hand and admit I've jumped, double jumped and thrown away life upon life trying to get that damn power up, only to succeed in attaining severe thumb cramps and a bitter taste of defeat.

The difference between a difficult, yet deliberate puzzle and an unsolvable discontinuity in gameplay is not something I have ever really considered, but the process of trying to ensure our perceptions are guided in the right direction is an art form in itself, one best suited not to a game tester or a programmer, but someone trained to understand the volatile inconsistencies of human nature, just as Tim explains: "When the difficult task is intentionally implemented by the game designer, this is the case: There is a challenge, and it's fun to overcome the challenge. (For example, think of the time when it finally all clicked in your head that one particular weapon used in one particular way would make a boss fight much easier.)

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