Usability is an integral part of software development and has been so for the past 20 years. For one reason or another, usability has not gained similar popularity in game development. This, however, is about to change.
There is an article on Gamasutra about usability in video games. A lot of the things mentioned are similar to the topics people have been talking about in the web design community for a while now, and I think it’s great that game developers are starting to put more emphasis on the user experience, by that I don’t just mean the gameplay experience but the game as a whole (menus, control, interface etc). That’s not to say every developer ignores it’s users but with more and more formulaic games being released (*cough* colour matching games … *cough*) more effort should be put into the user experience. This is one area that indie developers can excel in since all it costs is a bit of time and patience (and effort).
With my latest game (it still needs a name – I’ll refer to it as Bubble Game) I have actually attempted some simple user testing which is something I haven’t tried before.
My target audience with Bubble Game is people who wouldn’t normally play games. Those with young children, or people at work who want something to do in their lunch break. ‘Hardcore gamers’ aren’t going to be interested in another colour matching game so improving the usability for my audience is almost essential.
Since it is such a simple game to play, and they fit the audience I’m aiming for, I thought I would ask my parents, who don’t normally play computer games, if they fancied having a go. My Mum now plays it every night, and my Dad was overjoyed when I included his suggestion of an undo button. However, when they first started playing, I noticed they stumbled on a couple of ‘simple’ things that gamers, such as myself, tend to take for granted.
After watching them play for a while I made a list of small changes that would make things easier to understand and, hopefully, make the game more enjoyable for my potential audience.
One of my favourite new usability influenced features is a context sensitive mouse. Before testing the game the mouse was always a blue & white colour arrow, now it changes depending upon the situation. If you mouse over a button the mouse turns to a finger pointer, this is to mirror real life experiences with the internet. In game if you can make a move, clear the bubbles, the mouse turns green. Also if you are left with only bombs, a potentially game ending situation, the mouse turns red and the bomb count starts flashing. It’s all very simple but gives the user extra feedback about their options in the game.
One of the points in the Gamasutra article is that there is a lot of competition in games, so if the user has problems with your game they can quickly drop it and move onto the next one. This is particularly important in shareware games where you can download a free demo before buying the full version. Making the game, the demo in particular, as easy to play as possible is essential. If people don’t buy Bubble Game I want it to be because they didn’t enjoy it, not because it was impossible to understand!