Given how popular both of these games are in the blogosphere, even suggesting something negative about either one makes me think that something like this will happen to me in the near future.

But as a designer, I’m constantly faced with people suggesting (often quite obscurely) that software should be more like a video game. There was even an article in the New York Times last year to that effect.

So here we are in 2008, and Spore and Super Smash Brothers Brawl are two of the most anticipated games of the year. What can they tell us about UI Design? My first impression is that they are each taking on quite a bit, albeit in different ways. Software designed this way is sometimes referred to as bloated, suggesting that the scope is too broad and not user-focused. Bloated software often falls victim to slipping on its release date, as well (Cough. Cough).

Time to scope out these games. Is the future of video gaming aligned with the future UI design? Or are these games falling victim to the same usability issues that UI designers have known about for years? I’m diving in after the jump.

Super Smash Brothers Brawl: 27 Modes of Play

Smash Brothers Brawl, like the two Smash Brothers games that have come before it, is a fighting game. As with other games in this genre, the core element of game play involves 2-4 classic Nintendo characters fighting one another.

From the beginning, Smash Brothers has tried to break away from the genre, from using a percentage system to convey character health to their variety of single player modes. These changes added something meaningful in the first two games (an interesting new element and structure around individual play, respectively). But with Brawl, it seems like they are getting carried away.

As of the writing of this article, there are 27 entries in the Game Modes section of the Brawl website. One, released just a couple weeks ago, showcases the various modes, because (emphasis mine):

I’ve introduced quite a number of game modes to you here on the Dojo. However, the sheer number of modes is such that I worry I might have confused some of you with all these explanations. So I decided to rig up a short movie that showcases each mode. There are so many modes that the video moves at a rather brisk pace, but it lets you absorb everything in one quick shot.

… …Or it might just confuse you further.

Sorry about that, but there’s just so many modes in here, you know?

Brawl is definitely stepping up the number of modes from Melee, the last Smash Brothers game released. And Melee offered nothing innovative in terms of information architecture. One primary menu…

The primary menu in SSB Melee: a simple,  5 choice menu

… each with a series of submenu choices underneath.

Since the Wii is point-and-click now, Brawl increased the size of the primary menu choices (just like Fitts’ Law says you should)…

The menu for SSB Brawl

…but ultimately it’s still the same menu structure, just with added complexity.

You might be thinking, “Big deal. I play a game to play it, not to navigate the menu.” And you’d be exactly right. But the same can be said for any system out there. Nobody enters a system to navigate a menu, they go in to accomplish a goal.

Navigation is the necessary structure in order to get you to the right content, and wanting your system to be designed like a video game doesn’t change that. In fact, pushing the envelope too far on that front has been known to cause more harm than good, as was the case with the 3-D mailbox application.

Spore: 5 games in one, or one fluid game?

Spore has been getting a lot of buzz for years. In fact, I remember the day in Game Design two years ago when we watched one of the first videos showcasing the fledgling ideas for this game.

My first impression wasn’t far off from Zack Stern’s: The individual phases looked interesting as stand-alone games, but it was the integration between the phases that struck me as having the greatest potential to be interesting, from a design point of view anyway.

After reading the latest round of reviews, this point is still a little vague. Do you just throw a switch (“Congratulations, you’re the strongest creature. Do you want to enter tribal mode now?”)? Will a new round of commands suddenly become available? Or will players be gradually introduced to new phases when they’ve reached the appropriate level?

Regardless of how these elements are implemented, there are two elements that pique my interest (and set Spore apart from Brawl):

  1. Different elements and modes are integrated through a consistent interface. You could make the argument that there’s a lot going on with Spore, such as the capability to post your creature to YouTube. And that point is certainly valid. But all of it is centered around the creature builder. There’s even been an announcement of a Spore: Creatures game for the Nintendo DS.
    A screen shot of the Spore Creature builder in the Nintendo DS
    Image taken from the Joystiq article linked above
    This consistent entry point to all of the content helps disguise the fact that there is so much going on. Unlike Brawl, you don’t have to navigate a complex menu to do what you want. You just play
    the game
    .
  2. Elements are exposed gradually, creating a difficulty curve that advances at an even pace with players understanding of the game. If there were one video game quality that software should try to emulate, this is it. Both video games and software often come with an instruction manual or help document, but video games that capture this element well don’t need one. Players start with only a few choices, and as their understanding of their choices grows, so too do the number of choices.

I haven’t seen enough details about Spore to say that it’s the game that UI designers should aspire to when they do their own designs. But early indications suggest that it’s making some good design decisions, and these decisions are based on principles that are generic enough to be applied universally.

Imagine software that supports exactly the right task at exactly the right time. Imagine if that software knew how users would enter the system, and if their initial experience was built around a simpler system with just those parameters. Video games have been designed this way for ages, yet the same can’t be said for software. Why is that?

Conclusions?

Both of these games look phenomenal, and you can bet I’ll be in line to buy them both. (Incidentally, Spore releases just before my birthday this year… if any of you are so inclined…) This article probably won’t dissuade you from getting either game, and it’s not meant to. Instead, I really wanted to see what two of the most anticipated video games of 2008 had to say about UI design.

From a very high level, video games and software face a similar problem of getting users / players to the content they want. In simple cases, this is straight forward. Start heaping more information / content / gaming modes onto the pile, and suddenly it’s a tough problem.

The answer lies in rallying around a common area or theme. For Spore, its the creature builder… but you don’t need something fun or even remotely video game like to apply this to your design. Figure out the core of your design, and ask yourself: If I’m adding something, how does it relate to this core element? Can I integrate it with that core element? When that starts happening with software en masse, I think we’ll finally start to see the benefit of software behaving like video games.

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