Thursday, May 21, 2015

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons... Heck of a User Experience

Was reflecting recently on a panel I participated on at SXSW this year. I was asked what User Experience means in the context of games. Of course, I said "everything." I was only being slightly facetious.

The basic point I was trying to make was that the creators of games have experiences they want their players to have. When I started in the business, the UX group I worked with focused on "fun". This was always the last question on any benchmark survey filled out to assess game quality. Our goal was to get games to be "very fun" by providing user feedback data to teams throughout the iterative process.

A reasonable strategy.
A profitable strategy.
A boring strategy.

My sons (aged 3 and 4) recently watched me play through Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Might not have been the most appropriate game for kids that age. But what an experience. Difficult subject matter. Scary creatures and situations.

And, inevitably, tears.

The Charlotte's Web Moment: Narrative User Experience

I won't spoil the actual Charlotte's Web moment for the 17 folks who haven't yet played it (seriously, go play it...) but part way through the story I had to pause the game and console two tearful toddlers who were invested in the character and distraught to see it pass on.

Of course, that experience really had nothing to do with GAMEPLAY. We have those moments from time to time with books and movies. Sad things happen. Kids get sad. We talk about it. Just so happens that the narrative design of the game was done well enough to achieve this emotional reaction.

The Final Moment: Gameplay User Experience

For the first 95% of the game, the game play wasn't super interesting or compelling to me. The controls were reasonably intuitive but never felt fluid. In such a short game I never really mastered them, but the game was balanced so as not to punish me too harshly for failure and the challenge curve was shallow.

What I didn't realize was that this was actually just a long setup designed to deliver an incredibly emotional experience at the very end of the game.

The transcendent moment occurred when I had to reimagine how I needed to use the controls in order to finish the game after a major plot point kind of... well... broke them. (sorry for the vagueness, but spoilers...) And after reimagining them, I got to play the new control scheme. And boy-howdy was it ever a satisfying game play experience.

The emotional connection between the brothers wasn't just driven through narrative events. It was reinforced and magnified through the deliberate design of the control scheme.


And as elated as my sons were when we "beat" the game (narrative experience), they really only got to experience part of the elation that I experienced as the player (gameplay experience).

Monday, March 16, 2015

And another thing about RTFM...

Just saw this today in my Facebook feed:

Was posted by someone who is trying to edit his rules for learnability. He's getting feedback by playtesting the game with newbies (great!).

My only suggestions:
  • Test earlier without instructions. It might turn out that simple edits to your board and pieces might help make the game easier to learn and allow you to trim your rule book.
  • Develop a "learn as you play" scenario. Quick start to teach the core mechanics.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Playtest your GAME, not your tutorial...

Was delighted by a link a friend of mine sent me the other day:


Made me think of a couple of things...

Thing #1: When should I start adding my tutorial/onboarding?

There's always the temptation to start testing this early. Especially in the Free to Play space there is huge concern over immediate drop-off. This can be due to player confusion, lack of perceived differentiation, lack of clear aspiration, technical issues, etc.

So the usual solution is to carefully map each click or tap for the first few minutes (or longer!) of the first time user experience.

Aside from this not being very fun (not just to me, but to many people I've watched play games) this works at cross purposes of shipping a fun, polished game play experience. Why?

  • First, you end up spending too much time testing and fixing and re-testing the tutorial. Time that could be better spent working on, well, making the core game play more accessible, engaging, and fun!
  • Second, you end up with a herky-jerky and often non-playful method of explaining the game to a player who just wants to... wait for it... play the game! But, but... the player might not understand X, or might not complete the core loop, or might not get to the key aspirational moment that hooks him/her and compels a return session.
The thing is, it's much better to focus on making the game more approachable, usable, and fun WITHOUT having to resort to a tutorial. This means testing the experience WITHOUT a tutorial. Yeah, it means that the player might stare at a game screen and not be able to do anything or figure out what the game is about. But this is likely more a problem of how the game board and game shell are set up for a first time player, how controls are mapped, and how feedback is provided to teach players what they can and cannot do.

Set micro goals for yourself. What should players be able to do in the first 10 seconds (tell what kind of game it is, start mashing around and learning controls), minute (come up with some kind of goal to achieve), 5 minutes (make some progress and start "getting" the game), and 10 minutes (feel some accomplishment and be interested in playing on or returning for a second session).

Players will FAIL at each step of the way. And at each step you will need to tweak the game board, game pieces, controls, feedback, challenge, etc. to get the player to progress further.

And you know what? Depending on the kind of game it is you'll likely need to add a few prompts here and there. Maybe a small handful distributed across 10 minutes of play instead of 30 scripted clicks in the first minute or two.

It takes a deft hand at running the usability sessions (need to guide, but not lead, the player to find out how best to fix the game to make it more usable) and the willingness to iterate on core features.

But it makes for a much better onboarding experience.

Thing #2: Game usability lab exercise: Board games!

The Penny Arcade comic also made me reflect on an exercise I've tried a couple of times with students. I break them into small groups and give them a wide range of German-style board games (like Cartagena, Schotten-Totten, Qwirkle, etc). I give them NO instructions (or German-only instructions if I'm feeling mean).

Then I tell them to figure out how to play the game.

It's amazing how far players get in some games, and how much they struggle in others. Sure, a main determinant is how complex the games are. But it's amazing how well (or poorly) game pieces and board can teach game play.

If the core game, itself, is usable then players need to spend less time reading the instructions and can spend more time snacking, drinking, and playing.

Settlers of Catan provides a great example of onboarding with its "Quick Start" variant. The board is set up in a balanced fashion in terms of resources and player starting villages. All players are well poised to harvest wood and brick to start, so they can engage with key features (road building!) right away.

Imagine how little fun it would be for a first time player to place an opening village on an Ore/Robber vertex? So, don't let it happen!

I borrowed heavily from the Quick Start mode when I designed the onboarding for Catan! (the XBLA version). And I think we were fairly successful at bringing Catan to a new batch of players.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Two handed games... Also, Crossy Bird RETRO

Quickie post from the floor @ GDC. Was trying out Ms. Pacman and overheard a player beside me who was trying out Joust for the first time.

She was using the joystick but complained that she couldn't "make the bird go up." It was explained to her that she needed to press the button to flap its wings.

Her response: "Oh, it takes two hands to play..." And she stopped playing.

Welcome classic arcade game to the one-handed gaming world of mobile :)

Also, got to play Crossy Road as originally created on both cabinet and Atari console.


And, yes, a pitiful score. But I did achieve a daily high score (as of 10AM) in Ms. Pacman

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why are games "too difficult to play?"

Been some talk recently that maybe games are "too difficult to learn to play" for newcomers. [EA execs talk...]

Too often we feel like the need to vomit "differentiation" (HEY CHECK OUT WHY WE'RE SO AWESOME AND TOTALLY DIFFERENT THAN THAT OTHER FRANCHISE) at the feet of the player, which results in crummy board, mission, and level design that is stilted by in your face prompts. None of this is good for "learning to play" and it's certainly not fun. 

Doesn't matter if you're developing a 10-100 hour console game or a social/mobile game designed to support 5 minute sessions, the best way to solve "too difficult to learn how to play" is by aspirational board/level design, intuitive game play controls and feedback, a simple way to convey "what should I do next" for the player who wants a hint/suggestion, and a game shell UX that educates the players about core systems. 

That said, I don't know a good solution for the ultra hard games that require serious reflexes and muscle memory. Was never able to progress through games like God of War because it felt like taking a day or two between 1-4 hour sessions meant I backtracked too far to keep up. Maybe more encouragement to re-grind the last content I mastered to warm up before starting a new session?

Having a progression system that allows (and encourages!) players to practice until they feel comfortable in a fun environment definitely helps. Think about random map games that allow players to set their own difficulty, competitive multiplayer games that offer co-op vs. AI, and providing additional rewards for completing previous content (extra practice at a challenge level that the player has succeeded at).

I also think it's worth studying games that turn player "failure" (e.g., "death") on its head and build frequent failure into the game design. Many of these games are super hard core and not directly applicable to broader appeal franchises. But it's worth considering ways to allow players to fail gracefully, figure out why they failed, have fun doing so, and not be too burdened by the experience. Or, have failure be delightful and use that delight to drive player desire to progress further.

Will be thinking about some examples to write about in the future.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Business Cards!

Liza has been (correctly) hounding me to get business cards together. She did a great job with a reluctant client. They aren't perfect, yet... Don't have a business name, slogan, identity, contact info is too small, etc. But they're sharp and provide the relevant information.

I chose the name "Jason Schklar Consults" for horrible reasons. It's a reference to The Office (British version) and specifically to a segment where the unlikable Gareth Keenan is charged with investigating some office malfeasance.

The actual copy I gave Liza was "Jason Schklar Consults!" (with the exclamation point) but she wisely cut it. Fortunately Liza doesn't have login credentials to my Facebook and LinkedIn accounts where I keep the "!"

Friday, February 6, 2015

So... I had kids. And "updating my gaming PC!"

Last post was September, 2010.


  • Zynga imploded (left days before they shut our doors in Baltimore)
  • Disney Mobile Austin/Prague imploded (first time in an almost 15 year career I was part of a layoff)
  • I'm back to consulting!
Oh, and also I managed to have two kids. Boys, now aged 4 and (almost) 3. I've been busy and both gaming and writing habits have changed.

But more on all that later.


Now that I'm consulting I actually have more time to play games, so I plan to write more about my gaming. And now that I have non-mobile game clients, that means I need to dust off the old machines and probably buy some new ones.
  • Got the Wii U for me and the kids. That is one complicated mofo to setup. Thankfully I have two toddlers who seem to figure it out with few problems whatsoever. I love to listen to them discussing the best way to navigate the game shell or in-game menus. I'm proud when they figure out how to set up the projector, video splitter box, and Wii so that they can have it all ready for me to join them mid-session. And I cringe when the older one slams a controller over the head of the younger one for stealing his power up. Let's just say I have a LOT more content to draw from now than ever before :)
  • Tried to revamp the gaming PC (purchased in 2008 to support my work on Kingdoms of Amalur) so that it could run some newer code for a PC gaming client of mine. Meant getting a new video card (obviously) but figured I'd also upgrade from 32 to 64 bit to better support the build process. I'll post about THAT process in a separate entry... I'd forgotten how frustrating and exhilarating it was to upgrade a PC. 

The plan is for me to actually spend time writing again. Look forward to new games, new experiences with my kids, and working with friends on games.