The Brainies

I don't know if this is a puzzle or an insult.

The Brainies is not really a game; it’s a naked mechanic.  Put the coloured balls on top of the switches of the same colour, in 30 seconds.  Balls cannot move through other balls.  Run out of time, game over.  Done.  That’s the game.  It’s impossible to play for someone who is partially colourblind, like myself (or more specifically, I am an anomalous trichromat, according to my girlfriend).

But more importantly, each level begins with a direct top-down view, and when you hit a button it fades out, and fades into a Mode 7, diagonally-tilted view.  Now, at this point, you may move your cursor around and pick up and drop the coloured balls.

I could see the purpose of such a conceit, if it allowed you to survey the field and make your plan before you start the timer and begin to interact.  But no, the timer is going the whole time, and the top-down view offers no advantage in your examination of the level.  It’s just a waste of 3 seconds where your timer ticks down and you can’t actually do anything.  It’s another click between you and interactivity, a completely unnecessary, unintuitive, and frustrating one.

David Sirlin gave a talk about unnecessary clicks at the Montreal International Game Summit, which was in November of last year.  I think this is a crucial idea, and every big-budget game has its extra, annoying clicks – even if only at the logo screens at the beginning.  You have to click or hit return or escape to skip them, and everyone wants to skip them. Of course, you could make them unskippable, if you’re an jackass. It turns out that whoever did those logo screens for Ubisoft’s games is a master jackass, because there are usually three unskippable, very long logo splash screens at the start.  That is INCREDIBLY FRUSTRATING and it immediately makes me want to return the game.  It’s no wonder that the Ubisoft team was intrigued by Sirlin’s talk – maybe they are aware of their offenses.  Let us hope that it penetrated their design philosophy and will have resounding effects throughout their careers.

Interface design is an absolutely crucial aspect of game design.  It will make or break your game.  You could have a brilliant, fascinating game, but it will lose 90% of its sales if your interface is ugly, clunky, unintuitive, or arcane.  Take a look at Solium Infernum – a brilliant indie turn-based-strategy with a confusing, cluttered, unhelpful interface.  I guarantee that at least half the people who tried the demo took one look at that main interface window, brow furrowed, and closed the game, deciding to spend their $30 elsewhere.

But it’s more than that.  The distinct importance of interface design is far beyond the vulgarities of crass commodity and consumerism.  It is a philosophical and aesthetic and ludic distinction.  What makes a game different from another form of media?  What distinguishes it from other ways of transmitting information and engaging with what you’re watching, reading, playing, doing?  Its interactivity – the immersion, the play, the controls, the interface. The interface of a game is the vehicle for the entire experience.  It is not an afterthought or a superficial veneer to be thrown on top at the last minute.  It should be central to the entire design of the game, because it is what the player will be manipulating and engaging during every single naked second of their experience with the game.  If you want to make a good, or fun, or powerful experience, the way to get there is with an interface that smoothly and intuitively connects the player to the game, without frustration or confusion or hitch or glitch. This means menus, HUDs, GUIs, whatever – there must be dedicated attention to these things.

Every time you add a click to a game, think about the Brainies.  Think about whether you really need that click.

There is nothing worse than a challenging section of a game where you are forced to click through several menus and wait through loading screens and essentially turn a slow, shrivelling body of seconds or, god help me, minutes into empty and useless time, where you stare unblinkingly at the screen through a slowly darkening red haze of frustration and choke down curses that lodge in your throat and strangle you like the grey-green fingers of some ancient timeless corpse, its death-mask frozen in an eternal, mocking grin and you just want to murder all of them.

All of them.

Don’t ever do that to me.

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