Why Your Game Is Broken

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Why Your Game Is Broken (WYGIB) is a series of articles written by VinceTwelve on what mechanics can break adventure games. The first article is about cursors, the second about interface and interactions.

Part 1-Cursor Confusion

What's this?

I love adventure games, I love the way that fans of the genre are keeping it alive with their own homemade creations. And a lot of that is thanks to Chris Jones’ Adventure Game Studio.

AGS makes it so easy to make an Adventure Game, that anyone with an idea and an inkling can do it. Of course, I don’t expect each game to come out of the amateur community to be of high quality. But I do think there are a lot of great ideas that are wasted because whatever potential they had is hidden behind some terrible and frustrating usability issues.

I’m not an expert on usability or Human Computer Interaction, but I did work for nine months with several people who were and some of it rubbed off. I was hired as an independent contractor at the Gallup Corporation doing Flash development and eventually was assigned to GUI design. While doing this, I had to learn lots of things about usability in order to make the software we were working on as easy and intuitive to use as possible. After months of designing, user-testing, and incremental development, I can no longer look at any piece of software, including games, without evaluating it from an HCI standpoint.

I’ve been thinking for a long while about writing some articles about usability as it applies to the creation of amateur adventure games. I’m planning a few different articles each focusing on a common usability slip-ups that I see in adventure games. Each article will discuss the issue and why it’s a mistake, show examples, and suggest how to fix or avoid the issue. Hopefully, reading these articles will help at least a few amateurs such as myself to avoid these usability pitfalls and allow their true intentions as a game designer to shine through.

Ok, on to the issue at hand: your broken cursors!

Ugh. I have no idea where I’m pointing! I have to click four or five times just to use the key on the door. This game is broken!

This is an issue that I see very often in a lot of people’s first games. Doing this usually draws a lot of criticism and thus the problem is usually fixed by the developer’s next game. But I’d like to address it to try and head the problem off before it squeezes into any more games.

When playing a point-and-click game, I absolutely must know where I’m pointing and clicking!

Look at the mouse cursor on your computer. It’s a simple arrow. It points up and to the left and it’s very clear where you’re pointing. The hotspot (the point on the cursor that the computer uses to decide which pixel you’re pointing at) is the obvious pixel right at the tip of the arrow. Usually the arrow points up and to the left, but can be changed on most computers to point up and to the right for left handed mouse users.

The standard cursors

Let’s look at AGS’s standard built-in cursors:

AGS's standard cursors

These cursors come packaged with AGS, so anyone who starts a new game with the standard template, will be using these cursors unless they change them. A lot of first-timers don’t bother changing them, and some who do just repeat the same problem that these cursors have: no clear hotspots.

None of these default cursors have well-defined hotspots. Well, maybe the look cursor has that little white pixel in the middle, but generally, you never want the hotspot to be in the middle of the cursor sprite, since it makes it really hard to line something up to the pixel.

The use and talk cursors are the biggest problems. What are you clicking on? Is it the index finger of the hand? Middle of the palm? Is it the top-right white dot coming out of the guy’s mouth? Right at the mouth? In the upper left hand corner at the part of the hair? None of those are very good options.

In general, you want the hotspot to be clearly pointed out and usually in the upper left hand corner of the cursor. This is familiar and comfortable to computer users and is usually what I try first in the absence of a clearly defined hotspot.

It should be noted that this applies to any cursors, not only the Sierra standard cursors.

Inventory cursors too!

Inventory items often have even bigger issues in games, since inventory items aren’t designed to be cursors, they’re designed to be easily recognizable while sitting in the inventory. I remember playing the first demo of Prototypical which was rocking this issue pretty hard. You had very large inventory items, which were convenient and easy to recognize and click on inside the inventory, but very difficult once they became cursors. You basically had no idea of what you were clicking on. Candall quickly fixed up this issue, however, much to the game’s benefit.

When games do this, I sometimes find it easiest to change to another mouse mode, aim, then right click back to the inventory item and click. This is not good. If this applies to your game, your game is broken.

For inventory items, you really should use AGS’ built in hotspot marker settings, which will allow you to automatically place a little cross hair, or a dot, or even better, use a little arrow sprite, to point to the hotspot. This will make it very easy to see where you’re pointing. And again, big easily identifiable inventory items are A-OK in my book. But using those same inventory items as cursors is unnecessary. With some very simple scripting, you can use one big attractive sprite to represent the item in your inventory and one smaller, iconic sprite (preferably with a big arrow pointing to the upper left hand corner) as the cursor.

An example of bad practice

Let’s look at a recent game that used these custom cursors to frustrating effect: Flux World. In Flux World, you have to do a lot of clicking on little 3-pixel wide dudes. Not a lot of wiggle room. Compounding this issue, the author tended to place the hotspots in the middle of the cursors, so you can’t see where you’re pointing at all. I was pulling my hair out trying to talk to these little guys.

A cursor in Flux World is larger than the characters

Take a look at the screen clipping on the left and know that the hotspot of the talk cursor is approximately the pixel below his side-burn. Yeah, I got a lot of “You can’t talk to the ground” messages.

A broken inventory cursor from Flux World

Now lets look at some inventory cursor misuse from the game. That huge circle thing in the image on the right is the cursor for the inventory item called The Golden Mirror(TM) and you have to use it on the little red guys. The hotspot is somewhere near the center, giving you absolutely no visibility. Good luck.

Since the writing of this article, the author released a new version of the game that, based on some of my bitching, added a few pixel hole in the middle of the mirror. It does indeed make it much easier to aim, but there’s still no reason for it to break with the the ideal upper-left corner consistency. Having a hole in the middle of something still leaves you with a big blind spot while you move the cursor towards what you want to point at, so you may be searching some pixels until you found what you’re looking for. And, of course, there’s absolutely no reason for the thing to be so big.

To sum it all up…

This flaw is found in an unfortunate number of games. It prevents people from seeing the designer’s true intentions because the player is too busy fighting with the interface.

Since the point-and-click adventure formula is based around the same kind of pointing and clicking we do every day on our computers, it absolutely makes sense to keep this consistent with the computer and always make the hotspots in the upper-left-hand corner of the cursors. And always, always have an arrow or some pointy thing helping to show you the exact pixel. This goes double for inventory items.

There are exceptions to anything, of course, for example a crosshair might work better than something with an arrow or pointer in some situations, but in general, these rules should be followed.

And as a final note, some kind of mouse-over indication, like having the cursor change color or animate when you’ve found something, or having some label somewhere show you the name of what you’re moused-over really helps as well. These indications can, at the very least, turn a click-everywhere-on-the-screen pixel hunt into a much more stomachable point-everywhere-on-the-screen pixel hunt.

Now get out there and make some games!

Update 2008.06.25

After posting this article on the AGS boards, I got some really good feedback. Some of which I wish I had incorporated into this article. Instead I’m just going to add this little addendum to the end here.

Poster Le Chuck keenly pointed out that large, easy to click on, room hotspots, objects, and characters can mostly compensate for poorly-defined cursor hotspots. A large object doesn’t require pixel-perfect pointing. And he’s quite right. Really, I think there are three major considerations here:

1) Well-defined cursor hotspots 2) Mouseover indication 3) Large room hotspots, objects, and characters.

I’m not sure if there’s some set rule we can put in place here where a game needs at least two of these to not be broken, but one thing is for sure, if your game has none of these (coughFluxWorldcough) your game is most certainly broken.

Part Two-The Sierra Operating System

In this edition of "Why Your Game is Broken," I'm going to pick on something near and dear to many adventure fans' hearts: the Sierra and Lucas Arts interfaces. These two interfaces, Sierra much more than Lucas Arts, are used in an overwhelming majority of the games that come out of this community. This is largely because the Sierra interface is used in the default template provided with AGS.

Unfortunately, partially due to the inherent flaws of these interfaces, and partially due to the developers' sloppy use of them, nearly every one of these games are broken.

The Sierra Operating System

Imagine you're using a computer. Shouldn't be too hard. Now imagine it's a completely different operating system – a new one you've never used before. There are four items on the desktop: a folder, a video file, an mp3, and a word document. There's also a little image of a man in the bottom corner.

The Sierra Operating System

Let's open the folder. Move the cursor (with its well defined hotspot) to point at the folder and double click. Nothing happened… Oh wait, the little guy is walking up there. That's strange. Try the movie. Same thing. The little guy just walked over there.

Obviously something about this new OS works different from the ones you're used to. You'll have to learn how to use it. Oh look, pointing at the top of the screen reveals some buttons, let's see…

The Sierra OS's icon bar

"Browse," "Watch," "Listen," "Read"? Oh my god… I know what this is… It's the dreaded Sierra Operating System!!! Dun dun duuuuuuuuuun!

In this nightmare OS, you have to change your cursor mode depending on the type of file you want to interact with. Instead of simply double clicking on any type of file to open it, you now have to change your cursor to the appropriate mode depending on the filetype you want to open. Want to watch that video? Mouse to the top of the screen, click the "Watch" button, and notice your mouse turns into an eyeball. Now go and click on the video. Want to open the word document next? First mouse up to the top of the screen again and click the "Read" button. Alternatively, right-click to cycle through all the modes until the cursor turns into a pair of glasses. Oops! Clicked past it? That's alright, just keep right-clicking, it'll come up eventually.

Sound horrible?

Well it is! But probably not for the reason you're thinking. The Sierra interface, and for the same reasons, the Lucas Arts interface would make terrible computer operating systems. After posting the first "Why Your Game is Broken" article in the AGS forums, a number of people mentioned how generally annoying the whole Sierra system is. I've also seen a few other threads and discussions about the problems with the Sierra and Lucas Arts interfaces, but none of them have gotten to the real heart of why these interfaces are broken. But before I get to the real issue, let's talk about the most obvious problem with these two interfaces.

The obvious problem: they're annoying!

The Sierra and Lucas Arts interfaces are annoying. Anyone who can manage to take off their nostalgia-tinted glasses should be able to see that these interfaces are irritating. Sierra has you mousing up to the top of the screen, selecting a mouse mode, then mousing back down to the object you want to use that mouse mode on and clicking a second time. Arguably more annoying, the Lucas Arts interface has you mousing down to the bottom of the screen and choosing from a list of around 8 (the number changes depending on game) verbs and then mousing back up.

We may be used to mousing away from the action to select menu items in any software, or to select tools in graphics programs like Photoshop, but when I'm trying to identify with a character and lose myself in a story, making me fight with the interface is going to take me right out of the game.

The standard Sierra implementation also allows you to right-click to cycle through the modes, but as illustrated in the Sierra OS hypothetical above, this often leads you to miss the mode you were looking for and have to click through a second time.

One recent game, Ben There, Dan That, gets rid of the buttons at the top of the screen and relies solely on right-clicking to change the cursor mode. I've seen other games do this as well, but it always results in a frustration. I hope from the few comments in the game's thread about this issue, that they've realized their error and will remedy it in their next game.

It could be argued that a well-implemented verb-coin GUI, which lists your available interactions when you click on an object, is a far more elegant solution than the Sierra and Lucas Arts interfaces since it doesn't require your mouse to go flying all over the screen when you want to try multiple interactions on an item. However, the Sierra interface tops the verb-coin interface in one area: mode permanence. If I click "Use" on one item and it doesn't work, I can quickly go and try "Use" on another object without changing modes. With the verb-coin, you need to select "Use" with a second click each time you want to try an object. Lucas Arts interfaces sometimes lack this mode permanence as well, which is another mark against it in my book.

An interface with mode permanence – left-click on anything to use the previously selected mode, right-click on an object to bring up a verb-coin and change the mode that you want to use on the object – might be a better solution. This would require fewer clicks than an interface without mode permanence (verb-coin), and require less mouse movement than an interface with fixed mode buttons (Sierra/Lucas Arts). I haven't tried this out, nor do I know of a game right now that uses it, but it might be a workable interface. Just throwing that out there.

Another way people can improve the Sierra/Lucas Arts interfaces' annoyance issues, also mentioned in the forum thread responding to the first article in this series, is to add keyboard shortcuts. These can be useful to players who don't mind playing with one hand on the keyboard rather than relaxing and using just the mouse (no jokes here as to what your other hand may be up to). However, this fix still has problems. There are no "Use" "Walk" "Examine" "Inventory" or "Talk" buttons on my keyboard last time I checked, so the developer will have to decide which buttons would be the most intuitive. Do you use (U)se or (I)nteract? (L)ook or (E)xamine? Giving the player more options like also using the 1, 2, 3… keys to represent the verbs can help, but regardless, until the shortcut keys become ingrained into the player's brain so that he can hit the right one without thinking, they're still acting as a barrier to immersion.

I have yet to play a game with either the Lucas Arts or Sierra standard interface that I didn't feel was annoying. I don't like having to fight with the interface, and I don't like having these things get in the way of my immersion in the game. I think that some games manage to be great despite using these interfaces, but I almost universally think that these games could have been more enjoyable with a better designed interface.

However, I still think that the whole "annoying" thing is a minor issue with these interfaces when compared to the second issue which is my real sticking point.

The real problem: They're completely superfluous

I'll admit that much of that last section dwelled on opinion and personal preference. Some people may, for some reason, love either of these interfaces despite (or because of?) these issues. However, what I'm going to discuss next is not opinion. It's the hard truth. If your game is using one of these interfaces, I can almost guarantee that your game is broken. It's broken because your interface is completely superfluous.

What do I mean superfluous?

One of the defenses that I always hear for using the Sierra or Lucas Arts multiple-verb interface over, say, the simple left-click to interact/walk, right-click to examine interface is that having multiple verbs gives the player more control over the player's actions. Let's see how this argument holds up.

I'm playing a game with the Sierra interface. I have four verbs, Walk, Look, Use, and Talk. My character is in a room. There's an elevator with a button and a man standing in the corner. We know "Walk" doesn't do much. It's usually only useful for helping us see the other end of a long scrolling room or for moving through an exit into the next room. "Look" doesn't usually play into puzzles unless you need to examine something closely before you can do something with it. It's usually only used for helping the player understand his surroundings and adding to immersion. So the only real verbs that we have for gameplay are "Use" and "Talk."

Let's try "Use" on the man standing near to the elevator.

"I'm not touching him! That would be sexual harassment!" quips my quirky character.

Oh, right. I'm supposed to use "Talk" on him.

Let's try "Talk" on the button next to the elevator.

"I don't think buttons are very good conversationalists."

Thanks, quirky character! I've now learned some valuable information. I suppose I should try to "Use" the button instead.

With very little exception, every single game that I have ever played using this interface has used the "Talk" on people or other characters and "Use" on everything else. Let's show that in a handy Venn diagram:

Diagram of broken Talk and Use interactions

If the set of things that I need to use "Talk to" on is completely separate from the things that I need to use "Use" on, and trying to use the other verb just results in a useless "I can't do that" comment, your game is broken. There's no puzzle in it. No thinking required. Person equals talk, thing equals use. That's it. It doesn't make me feel more "in control" of my character. If anything, I feel less in control, since my character systematically refuses all my commands that don't fall in line with the above diagram.

If you're going to make two separate verbs, there had better be a reason for them. That is, the set of things that I can use one verb on had damn well better overlap the set of things that I can use the other on otherwise there's no reason to ask me, the player, to specify which verb I want to use.

Think back to that Operating System example at the start of this article. Remember how terrible it sounded? Each file had only one obvious use, but I still had to change the cursor mode to tell the computer how to use each file. Your game works this same way as this system. It's pointless.

If, on the other hand, you design your game with the peculiarities of the interface in mind, the Venn diagram would look more like this:

WYGIB Venn2.png

Considerable overlap means that there is good reason for me to have different cursor modes. Imagine if that Sierra Operating System had only one file on the desktop called "Resonance data" and using the "Watch" mode on it would open up the movie files contained therein. Using the "Read" mode would open up any design documents, or maybe code. "Listen" would play any mp3s contained within the data. Now, this OS has good reason to have these cursor modes. (It's still annoying… but at least it's justified.)

Games using the Sierra interface that fit the second Venn diagram are not broken. At least not for the reasons I'm discussing now.

However, 90% of the games that I've tried that use the Sierra interface (and that's a conservative estimate) more closely resembles the first Venn diagram than the second. And if the sets are distinct, then there is absolutely no reason for you to inconvenience me with the previously discussed annoyances. Combine the separate verbs into one cursor and be done with it. This has two big benefits. One, I don't need to right click through an extra cursor mode, and two, you don't have to write so many "I'm not gonna do that, ha ha" messages.

One game that I worked on, Spooks, fits into this 90%. I can only remember one time in the game where you have to use the hand cursor on a character, and that was before you realized he was a character. After that, you must always use talk on him. Every other object/character fits into the two distinct "Use" and "Talk to" groups. I didn't realize it back then, but I do now: Spooks is broken.

Let's see if the Lucas Arts interface does any better:

WYGIB Venn3.png

Nope. Pretty much all the items are distinct in most games. Small objects can be picked up. Big objects can be used. Characters can be spoken to. Things with hinges can be opened and closed, and things that are movable can be pushed and pulled. There may be some overlap here and there (a mechanism that you can use and also push aside to reveal the plug behind it), but for the most part it's all completely superfluous. Even though the open/close and push/pull circles overlap, you can usually only use one at any given time on an object, for example, open on a closed door, close on an open one.

Again, this doesn't require any real thought by the player. It doesn't give me more control. It just makes my character refuse my commands more often. All you're doing is adding this overcomplicated barrier between me and the game, and if I have to struggle with this slow and unnecessary process just to give commands to my character, I'm not getting immersed, I'm being cut off.

This is just the Sierra Operating System with even more verbs.

So, combine the superfluous verbs into one cursor mode. Let the computer figure out what I'm trying to do. It'll usually be right. If I clicked on a closed door, quite likely I was trying to open it. If I clicked on a crowbar lying on the ground, yeah, I was probably trying to pick it up. Clicked on Jerry the bellhop? Fair chance I was trying to talk to him. The system works and it works without wedging an interface between me and the character I'm trying to connect with.

As such, I am a strong advocate of the two button system. A left click interacts with whatever I clicked on in whatever way is likely my intention. If I click where there is nothing to interact with, that's a walk command. A right click examines whatever I click on. This system doesn't require taking my mouse away from the action, it doesn't put a GUI between me and the story, it has mode permanence, and it doesn't require any keyboard shortcuts or other tweaks to make it bearable. Moreover it is fast and easy for me to communicate my intentions to my on-screen character.

If I were to convert your game over to this simple system, I would have eliminated pretty much every issue we discussed in the section about the annoyances of the Sierra and Lucas Arts interfaces AND if your game matched that first Venn diagram (and seriously at least 90% of them do) I would have managed to do it without sacrificing any of the gameplay or puzzles that you had in your game.

I could do this because your game was broken.

Choosing an appropriate interface

You chose to use the Sierra interface in your game, either because you like that interface or because it came prepackaged with AGS and was the easiest option. Or maybe you managed to tack on the Lucas Arts interface because you're aiming for the nostalgic value of those old classics. However, an interface should be tailored to the game, not chosen because of nostalgia value or ease of implementation. I really like Photoshop's interface, but I wouldn't want to slap it on Firefox, that just wouldn't work. I really like cover flow in iTunes because it's fun to flip my albums using it. However, I think it makes a shitty file browser in OSX Leopard.

Your game is broken because you chose an interface for reasons other than how it would lend itself to the gameplay that you designed.

Before you choose an interface for your game, you need to know if it's going to be appropriate for your game. I think a lot of us amateurs just pick up AGS and go, "Yay, I can make games. Ok, let's see, default template… It has an inventory! I'm going to have my character pick stuff up!" I mean, working within your limitations is an important skill for an amateur game developer, but don't impose limitations on your work that aren't there. Inventories are fine, but you don't have to use one. Lots of great AGS games don't have inventory items. Likewise, you don't have to have multiple verbs just because they're there.

You don't have to use the interface that comes with AGS. You don't even have to use an interface that you've seen on any game before. Figure out the kind of game you want to make, and then figure out the best way that you can let the player interface with it. Nanobots, for example, has a very unique gameplay style and an interface that, I hope, lends itself to that gameplay. Anna also has a very non-standard interface that I think works really well for that type of game.

Before making your game, take a long look at your design, be it on paper or in your head. What is the best way for the player to play this game without even realizing that he's communicating with the character through an interface? That's the interface you should be using. If it isn't, your game is broken.

Reactions to WYGIB

Because the articles are originally posted in the forums, many members post their reactions, agreements, disagreements, and comments to the articles there.

To read them in their entirety, go here for part 2.

In the future, this section of the Wikipage will contain some of the more valid comments from the forum threads.