UX And Game Design: “Keep It Simple” Is Stupid. Heres Why.
Presentation, Content, and Structure
Often when designing a UI, I stumble across blogs and articles that discuss it and focus far too much on the structure. Wordpress is terribly guilty of this and I see it fairly often in the game industry.
In web design you might use flexbox for a content-centric design and not worry too much about the layout, or css grid if structure seems important. But the broader question is why? Why is structure important and why is it wrong to focus on structure over content?
First, structure *comes* from content. Even where over many years, we've taken certain kinds of content, be they the various genres of games, or the sundry type of websites or apps, we've learned to take all the various patterns and categorize them, to extract the commonly repeating idioms into what we call structure.
But if you're experienced, and a fan of UI design in general, then I bet you that you can name a number of counter-examples, those that broke the mould, or broke the 'rules' of good design and still somehow worked. And that follows *because* structure is derived from content. This is the same reason idioms, patterns, and best practices change over time, as we codify exceptions into their "own" rules, new best practices emerge which mostly everyone follows, and then yet more exceptions break them. And so it goes.
So we see content before structure. But isn't there something to be said of style? Why yes, there is.
Style without content is also simply part of structure. Questions of style may even come *before* content and structure. But this is only a matter of curation-in-design of content and structure, and not in itself an indicator that style is as important as content or structure. Style is still essentially an element of content. And I say this because where the style of the structure doesn't match the style of the content, the content will seem out of place or will be laid out ugly. This of course often flies in the face of nostalgia, and it goes to show that culture supersedes content, style, and structure (otherwise we wouldn't have indie titles that throwback to messy and terrible UIs). Player and customer expectations override concerns of simplicity. People want things a certain way, and the absence of the expected is jarring, which is *always* the opposite of a good user experience. Again, unless the *intent* is intentional. Bad design and intentional design are not mutually exclusive, though bad design is rarely intentional.
Speaking of Nostalgia, a trend is to 'crapify' the design in general. Pixelate it, or do other 'damage' to both the content and the structure. It is surprisingly hard however to design something thats "intentionally bad but in a good way". Where I see this often applied is in *style* and *content*, but not interactions, providing modern mechanics and elements that have come to be expected in the given media or genre, in a way thats anachronistic to the designs of the time or era in question. (for example, steam punk dildos. Yes thats a real thing. Although the way boilers used to explode, its probably for the best that those aren’t included. For her pleasure…and physical safety).
What we see is that content informs structure, which affects and restrains the possible interactions/presentation (here distinguished from mere style). Again we may start, as with our best "rules of thumb" 'after the fact' as it were, with certain audiences in mind rather than the content or structure. Or we may start with the genre even. This sort of thinking tends to be artificially limiting, and it is why independent designers come along that eventually break these rules and form new audiences and new genres and designs. We see this in things as varied as *video games*, all the way to the creation of the first automobile for the general public: The Model T. "If I had asked the public what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse!”
The point is, sometimes people don't know what they want till they see it. For example, a survey was done and it was found many people who play skyrim *also like clickers*. Completely different games. Completely. And yet here is this bizarre connection. Like those people who continue to click on those shitty advertisements for explicit games. “Warning: your friends won’t be seeing much of you once you start playing this game!”
It makes us ask: Why is that?
Well if you're familiar with UI design for RPGs, and you're familiar with clickers, you'll notice they have something in common. They both rely on 1. text based lists, and 2. increasing raw numbers. In fact UI and inventory is so 'underrated' in RPGs, that designers have for years believed it’s simply "not a concern", and got away with all sorts of fugly font design and layout. When the truth is probably closer to this: It is the UI itself, the friction of seeing that text and numbers, parsing it all, and watching it change, that players enjoy. The very thing designers *ignored* because it didn't seem important, was in fact *very* important all along.
Hell, I bet you if we looked, there is a sizeable contingent of people who play games like fallout and skyrim, highly visual in nature, who are also big fans of dwarf fortress but haven't played much prison architect for example. Doesn't that seem weird? And that prison architect is less favored possibly than rimworld for example. I’m just iterating here, just thinking out loud.
Is it the depth of the simulation? Is it the setting? The core idea? All three, rimworld, dwarf fortress, and prison architect, are simulation games, that are basically base or colony builders/managers, not necessarily strategy games, but close to it. Could it be the *presentation* and *interaction* with information, and the *density* of information given *a particular content and presentation style*, is something that unwittingly attracts particular kinds of people?
If you look at the idea, you may even spot other potentially illuminating questions: Is there a clear boundary between people who play games like rimworld, and games like civilization? Overall these games have similar apparent complexities. Whats different? Different mechanics sure, sure, on the surface. Tech trees? Yes. Resource management? Yes. Unit management? Yes. A lot more similar than they first appear. And yet whats different?
The style, and the presentation. There is a definite information density difference, and simulation depth difference as well, between rim world, dwarf fortress, civilization, and say, crusader kings.
It would appear people gravitate to the level of complexity that
1. balances their intelligence against inherent difficulty (the careful tug between frustration and progress)
2. attraction to the information density of presentation is distinct from difficulty, even if difficulty is somewhat often related to depth.
What this says is there are different kinds of difficulty, based directly on interaction and presentation type. A game where you have to avoid an enemy, through dimly lit rooms, creates horror, see Alien: Isolation for details, yes, but more importantly the presentation, the darkness itself, creates a challenge, by intentionally depriving the player of the ability to see.
A minigame about fishing, like in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, creates difficulty based on *timing* mechanics.
And games like Rimworld and Dwarf Fortress create difficulty by sheer depth, and information saturation, creating a challenge by leaving the player with lots of considerations and concerns to follow, or keep in mind as they plan and respond to obstacles and events.
A game that is neither an RPG, nor a strategy game, but keeps track of more than a dozen factors and survival stats, in a roguelike fashion, is NeoScav and illustrates this idea nicely: It works for the same reason many clickers work. They overload the player, slowly ramping up the complexity and amount to take in as the player progresses.
This returns back to the idea of content vs structure, vs presentation. The friction of interface and joy of UI, is itself a thing. And we see often indies try to sand the corners off their UIs, (and modern studios with sequels, I’m looking at you State of Decay 2 and you guys at Naught Dog with The Last of Us 2!) to make them slick ,and this often falls flat, why?
It has often perplexed me how Diablo’s grid inventory included an autosort button. I always found a sort of primitive joy, perhaps deeply rooted in evolution, in packing my inventory just so. No doubt part of this is merely the decision loop of what to keep and what to throw out, balancing and maximizing utility vs value vs space, releasing dopamine with each decision. But why autosort? Perhaps to reduce friction a little bit. Perhaps for those who enjoyed the rest of the experience, but didn't enjoy being a packrat organizing their horde of treasures and trinkets. And I'm sure for those who *didn't* enjoy sorting, it perplexed them why *anyone* would sit sorting their loot when there was an easy-to-use sort button.
This is the idiosyncratic nature of what constitutes 'fun'. All tasks that create problems and decisions create a challenge, but not all challenges are what we call 'fun'. The nature of the problem is 'fun' inasmuch as the individual finds it fun.
I don't enjoy fighting games at all (with the rare exception of Tekken with my brother long ago), for others thats all they play. I enjoy Factorio. My brother doesn't. My father likes to play bass fishing games. I'd rather go fish for real.
It is simply down to what our environment, our nurturing, and genetics most predisposed us to enjoy solving.
Which goes back to content vs structure vs presentation. Because when you realize all of this, you also realize many designers start with a particular structure in mind (genre, medium, pattern, etc), without thinking about their content and presentation.
And that by focusing first and foremost on structure, instead of on how your presentation impacts the audience, a UI and UX inherently is limiting the scope of both presentation and content.
We can highlight this idea better by examining a game called The Escapists, arguably the inversion of prison architect, but I digress. For starters, the crafting UI. The designers intent is obviously to inspire curiosity, a sense of discovery, and possibility. A couple boxes where you can drop items add hoc, and press a button to see what comes out the other side. The intrigue. The mystery! It almost invites you to try it.
Part of this is thus *limiting* the scope in the crafting context, so players can begin, at a subconscious level, to model how the system works and what *might* work.
In the early days of minecraft this was surprisingly somewhat intuitive, even without the guide. Simple shapes made of simple materials lead to tools being made. (and I will come back to this in a minute)
Likewise combining simple items made new items in The Escapists. Here is joy for those who care to look.
But what if you wanted to make it more like say, rimworld? What if you added a ton of visual stats, a drop down bar to crafting for deciding between what you wanted to craft? Theres arguably a use case for this, but it would violate user experience: the joy of simplicity, discovery, and curiosity. But then in addition to this, what if you had UI boxes, not unlike rimworld, for every NPC, and the operation of the prison, showing everything that was driving them?
Instead of feeling like a simulation game, it would feel like someone had opened a bunch of debuggers. You'd immediately see behind the carefully crafted illusion of a busy little world that you're looking down into from a gods eye view, seeing the guards following simple pathing logic, the prisoners following rote paths and scheduling. Like a utopia for rats, to provide everything they need, eventually devolving into a hellscape burnt-out dystopic wasteland set in some ww2 sadistic lab experiment. I don’t think any authorities could ever be so twisted to do something so horrible.
Thats because the challenge is hand crafted, with some randomized bits, and the actions of the guards and prisoners are scripted to provide the illusion of complex systems and depth (or see amerian political institutions for another example). The Escapists is really a microcosm of RPGs, and much like that one NPC who endlessly walks in a circle in some games, once you have access to the internals, you realize not much is really going on. Games like majoras mask lampshaded this for the very purpose of gameplay, allowing players to become better by learning the motions of the world. Meanwhile Rimworld has a greater depth of simulation going on behind the scenes, one that The Escapists only tries to emulate rather than simulate. So being given access to the internals of a game only emulating depth like in TE, reveals the illusion or depth is shallow, i.e. that the addition provides no new challenges, decisions, or increased useful information density.
Games like SCUM, DayZ and Tarkov further support this idea, with their overwhelming focus on incredibly indepth stats, weapons and ammunition types, and other minute details. And these details matter.
And what we see is, rather than the current trend of simplifying games for mass market, there is actually a *huge* demand for games that are *more complicated*, not less. Even with the dirth of attention and time in today's world, people want bigger challenges to solve, not smaller ones. The opposite of this is of course games that are "deceptively simple", which is really just games that have emergent or hidden rules that you learn naturally as you play, but we won't go into that.
I mentioned minecraft and I want to return to that topic for a moment: Early on, you had to discover or look up shapes to craft items. This wasn't too bad for many items, and it was easy to guess at the shapes (although maybe they should have had recipes you could find and add to a recipe book after the fact). In any case, the addition of the recipe system made the crafting grid moot. It sanded off the corners, like lego bricks, corners smoothed off, or those terrible early 2000s knockoffs known as megablocks. You know the ones, the ones that never quite fit together because the corners were rounded?
The same is true with UI thats been 'optimized'. A certain amount of UI brings a particular amount of friction, where removing UI is like using too much lube during sex, it removes all the tactile sensation. In the same way games don't just have a "look" or a "feel", but a look-feel, which is roughly equivalent here to user experience.
This all goes back to content, structure and presentation. If you're deciding structure first, you're assuming a certain kind of content, before you even have content. You're assuming a certain kind of presentation, before you've determined if the content works with the structure. You've decided the user experience, before knowing the user, and nothing is more evident of the inherent truth of this statement than the surprising study already mentioned, that skyrim players also enjoyed clickers.
The truth is that genre, and UX, and design, don't have much, if anything, to do with what people really enjoy. And that in the case of content vs structure, the importance of each is established in exactly the wrong order: structure, content, and presentation, when it should be presentation first, content, and *then* structure last.
And that once we start to really look, there are vast overlaps in audiences and user types, and the kinds of user experiences people are looking for, are going unnoticed and untapped.
User Experience is not an afterthought for those who are focused on the users’ experience. Like footwear for dogs. Or glasses for steve buscemi.