My latest nonfiction read was Donald A. Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. Norman's central theme is design - what makes good design, what makes bad design - and it essentially builds a picture of what makes a well-crafted object, room or item. The book is admittedly dated - he worked in a world of typewriters and VCRs - but the principles hold up: Good design is intuitive and easy for users to understand but is often clouded by the endless pursuit of "features."
He shares the story of one particular phone with a special, labeled button. None of the secretaries he knew could tell him what it actually accomplished. When he tracked down one of the phone's designers, the designer couldn't tell him what it actually did. The button got added somewhere along the way, and they couldn't take it out, because that would be reducing "features," even though it didn't actually do anything.
Or, perhaps, consider the phone in our own office. If you happened to call me looking for Joe, I would have to: 1, press the Hold button; 2, shout, "Hey, Joe, what is your extension?" 3, ask around the office to see if anyone remembers how to forward a call, as this isn't easy to figure out and isn't marked out on the phone, so we pass it on like nomadic herders sharing the mythology of their people; 4, assuming someone does, I'd have to press a random combination of buttons and digits - something like HOLD-HOLD-*-6-7-3-extension; and 5, hope. I only know if it worked if Joe picks up the phone and lets me know it got through, or if the "line in use" light winks out, which means we have to pray they call back. Norman's point is that the whole process - pressing a series of largely arbitrary buttons with no feedback as to whether or not you've accomplished something - is a case of stupid design, not a case of stupid users. Since basic phone functionality was decided long ago, companies now compete on features, and a lot of the fundamentals are lost.
And all I could think was, "No wonder we can't defend a goal kick or manage a clench."
Joe and I have acquired a soccer habit, and we recently purchased EA's FIFA 2007. We've managed to pick up the basics of the game pretty quickly, but though we both play on a near-daily basis, neither of us has figured out how to defend against a goal kick. A goal kick is probably the simplest part of any soccer game: One player, one goalkeeper, the ball and the net. The player kicks the ball, and the keeper defends the net. Mano a mano. And, yet, we've devoted hours to the pressing issue of making the keeper defend the net on a goal kick. After an entire evening researching this problem in the manual and with two teams on the field, we managed to make the keeper shuffle awkwardly to one side or the other, which does little good when Wayne Rooney has a shot roaring in at approximately a million miles an hour.
Indeed, FIFA is a feature-packed game. I can play all kinds of teams, run my own team, log in and play against players and soccer fans around the world, download a podcast to my Xbox's hard drive that tells me all the developments I could care about in the world of soccer, and more. In fact, one of the features is numerous selectable control schemes. You'd think one would make it easy to defend a kick, but we haven't found it yet. When Joe lines up for the game-winning goal kick after I've battled him into a shootout, my only hope is him somehow screwing up the shot. Fortunately, it's surprisingly likely, given that the formula for delivering a shot in our chosen control scheme - the least confusing one - is B Button + Left Trigger + Pray to God. Neither of us is sure how the ball got in the net when it winds up there. It's the closest I've come to faith since I stopped believing in Santa Claus.
For another view of the world of bizarre and confusing controls, let's turn to Fight Night. After seeing the latest Rocky movie, we found it absolutely essential that we play a boxing game right now. As a devotee of the Sweet Science, I keep the Fight Night series close to my heart - mainly because there's very few boxing options - and firmly think the first one is the best. I can overlook the hip hop thug posing for what is a sound game, before they got carried away with "NEXT GEN NEXT GEN NEXT GEN" (the last installment) and one-hit knockouts (the second installment).
We fired up the Xbox, found the least wonky control scheme, set up our fighters and entered the ring, whereupon we hit a stumbling block. I'd selected a longer-armed fighter, which meant I could pummel Joe's character and keep him at a distance. He could manage to work his way inside, but once the pounding got to be too much, he went for standard boxing strategy and tried to clench, which was when we both realized neither of us knew which button triggered a clench. Puzzled, we consulted the manual and flipped through the various control schemes, then went back to the fight and tried every button or combination of buttons we could think of, and still didn't manage to figure it out. Quite frankly, I couldn't tell you if it's even possible, but I can tell you there's a very lovely set of features in place. However, core boxing functionality is missing or buried under layers of exclusive rap tracks and obscure boxers.
For an example of great design, I'll hearken back to my E3 experience with Madden on the Wii. I was holding a strange new control in my hand, one I'd only heard about, never seen before. Following a single displayed help screen with very simple diagrams, I managed to boom a 60 yard punt more than once, something I'd never quite figured out in all the Xbox and Genesis iterations I'd played before. It was like alchemy before: Sometimes a punt was lead, sometimes a punt was gold. With the Wii controller, it was an actual function, not just pressing A on the high power end of the meter and hoping for the best. That's when I knew the Wii would be a success and that I would be buying one.
Even when controls are fairly simple, a lot of designers seem to eschew de facto standards - forsaking WASD for the arrow keys (hard coded and unchangeable, no less), using a right click instead of a left-click - not for any real reason, but simply for the sake of doing so. MMOGs seem to battle between a Diablo-style click-to-move system and an FPS-style key-based movement system. RTSes have come dangerously close to settling on the "left-click-do stuff" standard, except for those that are seemingly compelled to strike out on their own and bind everything to the right mouse button, not because of its superior functionality, but "because" ...
Why? Has anyone polled users to see what they want or is this just the usual "Well, it works for me!" reasoning? We constantly wonder why senior citizens, girlfriends, moms, dads and casual players don't want to indulge in the latest hardcore gamer hypefest, seemingly without realizing that very few people care to grasp the intricacies of a 15-button controller that may have three useful buttons, all of which do random and seemingly arbitrary things in any given situation. Even within a single series, we're unable to settle on a standardization scheme, or am I the only one who has to spend the first 10 hours of any given Final Fantasy game trying to figure out how they changed the control scheme this time?
Consider PC FPSes as an example of what can happen when a standard is set: Play just about any FPS manufactured after 1998, and it's a matter of jumping in the game and re-binding that game's handful of unique keys. It's possible to play without reading the manual or consulting the numerous keybinds hidden away in the options, and if it isn't, it's disconcerting. Other people have their own preferences, but here, again, FPSes are unique in allowing just about every key to be rebound, so if you're a hardcore UJHK player, a little bit of time lets you play just as your own preferences dictate.
Gaming design parallels the phones mentioned above: The basic genres are defined and the graphical threshold is less and less impressive, so now companies have resorted to competing on features, which results in flinging piles of you know what at the wall to see what sticks. When the focus is on features, a lot of the core usability issues are overlooked or ignored, as is the case with many advanced, cutting-edge games that sport hefty unique selling points, but are nigh impossible to play. And impressive rosters, futuristic graphics and podcasts aside, I just want to defend goal kicks.