Tuesday, December 4, 2012

MIGs 2012: Creating Efficient Tools

Amongst the presentations at MIGs, one of them was so simple and yet so well done that it had my attention the entire time. This presentation was"the Art of Creating Efficient Tools" presented by David Lightbown who had just recently joined Ubisoft Montreal to work on the exact topic he was covering. The presentation was coveyed not with heavy text, but with simple images and through enthusiastic presentation. You were paying attention to him the whole time and the presentation in the background helped to demonstrate his points nearly flawlessly. He even had volunteers to come up and gave a free copy of Assassin's Creed III afterwards. No other presentation I saw had volunteers at all.

Now the topic doesn't sound all that interesting, but honestly it's the core of usability. It's the core of ease of access for anything and everything relating to the creation of pretty much anything that requires software or even hardware. The point of this presentation was to be aware of how important making tools that are easy to use will help the entire process of creating something like a game. He pointed out an interesting system that we use in our everyday life when using tools.

Look -> Act -> Think

So what happens is we look at the tool and then we begin to act. But then we think about if we are doing the right thing, or wondering how I am supposed to do a particular task using this tool. It could be thinking about something as simple as finding out where the print button is or something like that. What is happening with complicated software that when we are having to look and think too much, we do not act. That means we do not get the task we want to accomplish with the software completed. What we want to happen is to maximize the amount of acting. Well the only way we accomplish this is reducing the thinking and looking time!

It's such a simple looking process and I have never thought about it because it just comes naturally. But it makes a whole lot of sense. From my personal experience, I have hard coded values to place a whole bunch of objects in a world. Now that works, I can get the objects where I want them to be but I have to think more to make sure I am adding the right parameters for each object, if it has health or what not. Instead of doing that I could use a PREFAB. A PREFAB would be an object that contains most or all of the necessary information to place an object where I want. So instead of 10 lines of hard coding per object, I reduce it to 1 line of code using this PREFAB, it makes it a whole lot faster. More acting.

The User Experience

The user experience is key. We want users to be able to have a streamlined experience that maximizes acting and reduces looking and thinking. Well he gave a few tips on how to best maximize acting.

Form and color was the first thing mentioned. Form and color are so simple and yet they can represent so much. A simple circle combined with a color provides a lot of information for us. For example street lights have red and green circles for stop and go. They are simple shapes with colors and yet they tell us information we need to make an action almost instantly. A good point was brought across that you should not only use colors though. There is still a large portion of color blind people and a green and red hue circle nect to each other would still be confusing for them. A combination of a different shape for each along with the different color will make it adaptable for more than one kind of user.

Which object would be more likely to represent STOP?

This shape idea ties into the next point which is interaction design. With the Mental model and conceptual model. These two models are essentially "How do we think?" vs "What it actually does". Essentially its like comparing two objects to be similar, so you say something like "Its as easy to learn as riding a bike". Typically learning to ride a bike is easy for most people so the message is essentially that the material will be easy to learn. This ties into how shapes have certain meanings. A circle is a softer shape and we think more along the lines of smooth, nicer objects. Meanwhile a hard edged square we might associate as more aggressive.

In the Real World

After pointing our some tips on how useful shapes and thinking are, he began to point out some very useful real world examples. So let's say we need to make a tool to help users build levels for a game. Well there is something known as the 80 vs 20 model (I THINK). Basically what you need to do is focus on satisfying the 80% of people using the tool because it will be near impossible to satisfy the other 20%. For example the earlier example of "Easy as riding a bike" would apply to 4 out of 5 people, except the 5th person who had great difficulty learning how to ride a bike. The analogy doesn't apply to that person, and the usability you provided in your tools won't either.

If there are 4 out of 5 circles that can use your tool efficiently already, forget about the 5th circle

Another point is that tools should be streamlined to do certain tasks. Don't make it a jack of all trades tool that does everything. Making it do everything makes the interface of the tool even larger and more cluttered which makes it more difficult to navigate and perform the tasks you need. If you are just making a level loader tool you don't have to give it the option to be able to create models either. It only complicates things even more.

This leads to the next point which was the statement that intermediate users make up the bulk of users for the tool. There are some experts of course but it's a small majority. There are also beginners who will be learning to use the tool. Now the more complicated the tool the harder it is to learn. Make it less complicated and there will be less beginners and more intermediates who know how to use the tool fairly well. You cannot expect all users to become experts, especially if its a tool that's very complicated. Even if they may know all the shortcuts that makes them very efficient, it won't apply to all users and the extra features will slow most users down. Overall the workflow will decrease due to the larger amount of users slowing down versus the expert fast user.

So how does this overall affect our workflow? Well like we stated earlier, more acting means more productivity. The easier we make the tool the more workflow we get and the more people we have working on making content instead of wasting time thinking on how they need to solve a silly problem. We can same hundreds, thousands of work hours by simple usability.

Do these apply for Game Design and Game Engines?

Well actually yes they do.. Game engines is the easiest to identify that this lesson helps because a Game Engine is in fact a tool. It's a tool that helps to make the game in a more user friendly way. The Unreal Development Kit is a game engine that tries to streamline the process for even non programmers. Ogre SDK provides plenty of functionality that we wouldn't want a weaker programmer having to waste his time figuring out. Point is that yes these lessons apply especially for Game Engines.

What about Game Design? This is much trickier to answer. Usability is a very important concept in games. No one wants a game that is extremely difficult to control and is a complete nightmare to figure out where to go. Usability and functionality attracts players because if they are able to do cool things with button presses rather than having to do crazy complex combinations to accomplish a lesser task, then there will be more of an audience. Just look at games that have simplified controls. A simpler fighting game such as Smash Bros has a lot more sales and more of an audience than a fighting game with crazy controls such as Blazblue or other complex combo fighting games. Even the shapes idea can lead into character design which reflects the game designer and etc.

Smash Bros used simplified controls to great success

The only way to debate this topic is the fact that some games actually want controls to be harder because thats just how the gameplay works. While some games go for simplfied controls, others want more complex interfaces. Take Lord of the Rings Battle for Middle Earth, an RTS that simplified the control scheme while looking at something like Supreme Commander, on opposite ends of functionality. And yet they both sold relatively on the same level anyways. That goes to show functionality doesn't always lead to better games but neither do complex ones either. So the conclusion for game design is that really, is that efficiency in being able to perform tasks in a game doesn't mean a better game. Unless its a level building game, then you want to be able to build levels easily like Portal 2 Level Editor.


Anyways going back to the actual presentation, it was great. It was simple, it was very well done and got the point across. Though I might have known most of this information before, the presentation really helped reinforce it my mind now. I believe it's stuck there permanently. What to take away from this presentation is that creating efficient tools reduces thinking time, increases work productivity which means more time to make stuff!

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