Game Design: The Importance of User Experience & Interfaces

Wednesday , 18, February 2015 Leave a comment

Redmond Simonsen was an under-appreciated genius; he was cantankerous and was half of SPI when it founded, and one of the handful of people desperately trying to patch the financial holes when the iceberg of changing market conditions rent it asunder.

Ad Astra LogoRed worked as the marketing director, editor and in-house graphic designer for most of SPI’s titles. He coined the term “game designer” and he may have been the first person to focus intensely on user interfaces for high information data displays, because the maps SPI published, and the counters, represented a leap in information density even over what the Vietnam-era military was using.   He passed away a decade or so ago, and Greg Costikyan’s eulogy about Red is still heartbreaking, even if you only know Greg as a customer.

I met Red briefly when I lived in Austin, and it was an honor to meet him.  I got to show him the fifteen minute table demo for Attack Vector: Tactical, with the tilt blocks and the box miniatures and saw him give, as Greg says, not a smile or a grin, but an acknowledging nod of “this is a great solution to a problem.”  In some ways, it felt a lot like a torch had been handed to me.

This post isn’t about Red’s contribution to the field in the particulars, but is about how game design and graphic design are intertwined, which was an obsession of Red’s for his entire career, and an obsession I share to a large degree.

Everything in games with physical components is driven or hampered by graphic design. For example, counters that are square put on hexagonal spaces on a map convey both the unit information and, if sized appropriately (or information on terrain runs to the edge of the hexagon), the terrain information underneath it.  This is one place where BattleTech standees/SJGames Cardboard Heroes are cool- they pop the counter off the map.  Columbia Games’ wooden block pieces give the pop up effect, let both players see the terrain of the hex, and allow the controlling player to conceal information from his opponent, greatly enhancing the “fog of war” of the game.

The primary purpose of graphic design in games is to convey information to the player as quickly, compactly and thematically as is possible.  It comes from information layering and color choice, and deciding on information prioritization.

When I worked at Amarillo Design Bureau on the Federation Commander launch, I tried to convey this information to Steve Cole. Some took – some didn’t.  Steve took the idea that color coding boxes by their function type, and using the same colors on the Federation Commander damage allocation chart was a good idea.  He didn’t like any of the pastels I chose, because “they weren’t manly enough.”  He also laid out the play aids in Excel 5.0 for MacOS 9, and was limited to a color matching palette of 56 colors…

As a result, the Federation Commander ship cards are garish, and hard to read.  They’re not unusable, but I sigh about what they could’ve been otherwise at times.

One component that I had a greater influence on was the map panels.  When he handed them to me, the hex grid lines where thicker and bolder, the hex numbers were larger and in blockier fonts, and everything was solid white against a black (starfield) background.

I asked him which was more important – the hex lines or the numbers?

He didn’t have a good answer, so I showed him two mockups – one with his layout – which was jarring and caused eyeball jitter via a large-spot Moire effect.  One where I’d made the hex lines thinner, a little bit off-white, and make the hex numbers much smaller and gray.

The second one won the case.  However, it’s a good example of information prioritization and using color and contrast to indicate what’s most important on a visual display – use your highest contrast color to indicate maximum importance, and use complementary colors in the same color range to build a hierarchy of importance.  (I’d’ve done the same thing with the color coding of Federation Commander SSDs and Damage Allocation table if I’d been able to.)

I’m going to be self-indulgent here and use one of my play aid designs to highlight user interface decisions, because user interface decisions, done right, aren’t obvious to the user. They’re just…there.  So, open up the Squadron Strike Move Card in another browser tab and keep it in easy eyeball reach.  I’m not going to explain how these play aids work save peripherally.  I am going to show why they’re colored and shaped the way they are to highlight certain design “rules” I follow.

The top of the card is a set of boxes, numbered, counting down, from 1 to 20. These are for recording what Action Points are spent on – no ship can have more than 20 Action Points, most have ten or fewer.  I regret that the label for them had to be sacrificed to make space for the second row.  A player will fill in the boxes in excess of the APs his ship generates and fill in codes in the other boxes as the APs are spent through the turn.  I personally fill in codes going right to left rather than left to right because this means I always know how many APs I have left to spend without doing mental arithmetic, but it’s a recommendation, not a mandate.

Those AP boxes are filled with text that’s 20% CMYK gray (0/0/0/20), which is the lightest gray that shows up readably on a white background.  It’s also the same gray that makes up the lighter of the two background colors.

Underneath them, we have the AVID, which uses color coding in two ways.

First, the color of the rings of the AVID correspond to pitch angles, viewed from the top of a sphere.  Purple (in the center) is the north pole, amber (at the outer edge) is the equator.  Green and blue are intermediate pitches (30 degree and 60 degrees, respectively).

The color of the hexagonal background is used to key the AVID (and by extension the card) to a side of the map.  The first page of the file has AVIDs where direction “A” (on an A-F hexagonal rosette) is at the top of the card (or on the left of the 90 degree offset AVID) and the second page has AVIDs where direction “D” is at the top or left edge of the card.  If the AVIDs of the same color are placed on the same side of the map, and different colors on the opposite side, everyone knows what direction “A” is in.  Red and Blue are also the colors the tilt blocks come in, so there’s a natural human tendency to match colors that I’m taking advantage of.

The arrowheads around the AVID (and underneath) show color prioritization:  White arrowheads are for how much your vectors will move your ship this turn, gray arrowheads are how much you’re changing your movement by for next turn – since white is higher contrast than the darker gray (about 25% here to let white text show up) it’s more important – it’s what you have to deal with right now.

The Move Cards are built around information flow. The AP track is checked repeatedly throughout a turn as you choose to spend the resource they represent, so it’s at the top where it’s easy to find. The AVID is where most of your important decisions get made, so it’s top-and-center, and it’s used as the very first thing you write on during the Sequence of Play.

Underneath the AVID, we have the Vertical Plotting Grid, where you plot out your full speed (Mode 1 movement) or thrust (Mode 2 movement) by circling a box in a color band corresponding to the color ring the ship’s Nose points in – and then cross referencing the two scales to the right and up or below to determine how much of that translates into vertical movement/vector changes and how much of it translates into horizontal movement and vector change.

Once you have the horizontal movement, you move to the Horizontal Plotting Grid, and circle a hexagon corresponding to what came out of the Vertical Plotting Grid – the hexagon you choose is where you’ll end up (Mode 1), or determines which directions other than dead ahead you squeeze a little lateral thrust into.

The AVID and the plotting grids are used at the beginning of each turn, and the convention is that you draw an arrow on the AVID, go to the Vertical Plotting Grid and then Horizontal plotting grid. You’ll do some record keeping in the gray arrowheads matching the kind of movement you’re using (the ones sticking out of the AVID are for Mode 2, the ones to the side are for Mode 1), and you’re done.  The tedium of recording your orders is meant to be minimized.

This card is a prototype of something that isn’t in the boxed sets yet – I have a few hundred of a prior printing in the component bins, but this will be the new card when it’s printed.  One of the changes is that target bearing diagram. While I won’t go into it here (we’re already over what I thought I would write), it’s  a way to record what bearing angle you see the target at, and compare to the firing arc diagrams that are used for 3D fire.  That was a suggestion from someone at a game store demo that happened five years after the game was published.

Underneath the diagram, there’s ECM and ECCM boxes – so you have a place to record your ship’s values that’s close to where you’re looking at “shooting stuff” and at the bottom edge, there’s a place to record which weapon mounts are firing at which enemy ships for secret and simultaneous fire – no more scribbling notes on notecards.

For the Sequence of Play, there are four Phases: Plotting, Movement, Combat and Crew Action – and the way this card works, you’re reading from top to bottom, left to right and following the steps of the Sequence of Play as you go.

Next week, I’ll have a book review, and the week after, either more information on the Kickstarter I hope to launch, or a deconstruction of another Ad Astra play aid.

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