I work in the game industry as a technical artist. I’m somewhere between a designer and a “real” artist, and my college degree (Bachelor’s of the Fine Arts) was in computer animation, where I specialized in animation and rigging. I’m sort of a “left and right brain” artist, and I wind up doing a lot of different things in any given production.
In college, I used Autodesk’s Maya for 3D work. It’s a solid, if expensive, program that is used professionally in the film and TV industries. My first job in games used it, too… but now I work at a smaller studio that uses 3DS Max. It’s also a solid, if expensive, program, but three years of using it, and I’m still running into mental and physical tics where I want to use Maya workflow or keyboard/mouse functions that have no parallel in Max or are handled differently.
One particularly egregious dysfunctional keyboard shortcut in Max is the almost omnipresent CTRL-S. In almost every single Windows program that’s the shortcut for “Save”. That’s even true in Max… unless you’re editing UV layouts, which is pretty common in my work. Then, CTRL-S toggles the “Snap” setting. This tripped me up more than once, as I thought I was saving a file, only to find that I was turning Snap on, which messed up what I was doing with the UVs. I’ve also lost work when I thought I saved a file before walking away from my machine, only to have it crash while I was away. My reflexive CTRL-S didn’t save the file, so I was out an hour or so of work.
I consider this to be Bad Design. When user expectations are based on muscle memory and mental habits, there need to be extremely good reasons for going against that grain. That’s not to say that changing things up is always a bad thing, just that it needs to be carefully done and actually make a user’s experience better, not worse.
We see this in game design, too, from the FPS glut to MMOs. So many games look very similar and play very similarly that players come to expect that a new game that fits the mold will offer a similar user experience. This can run as shallow as pressing the same button to advance dialogue trees (a problem between SNES and Playstation era RPGs, where “cancel” was “accept” on the other controller and vice versa) to camera control (games really should let users flip the X and Y axis controls) to actual moment-to-moment gameplay.
I have an XBox game called PURE, an offroad ATV racing/stunt game made for the SSX mentality. It’s full of crazy stunts and absurd tracks, but it’s a lot of fun to play. My wife and I play SSX3 on occasion on our PS2, and we love playing together. PURE doesn’t offer a single-screen multiplayer game, which is a bit annoying, but much more annoying on a subconscious level is that the default controller setup asks the player to hold down the right trigger button to make the silly vehicle move. This winds up making sense as the face buttons (A, B, X, Y) are used for stunts, but going from SSX3, which uses the shoulder button (more or less the same thing as the XBox trigger) for a turbo boost which must be used carefully to the trigger that is almost constantly held is a bit of a jarring transition.
This has nothing to do with how the game itself plays or looks, except inasmuch as those taint player expectations. It’s not a game design issue, it’s a User Interface issue. Yes, that’s part of the overarching “game production” pipeline, but it’s not a function of the core game design (the game mechanics). Good UI design is crucial to making a good game playable, but it’s not something you can just toss a game designer or artist at and hope it works. It requires a bit more thought and study. That not to say that a designer or artist (or programmer) is incapable of good UI design, just that it’s a specialty in itself that needs attention.
Similarly, the Star Trek Online that I’ve been playing lately plays a lot like World of Warcraft in some crucial ways. Holding both left and right mouse buttons down makes a character jog in the direction you’re aiming the camera. Right button dragging moves the camera, left clicking selects targets, right clicking tells your character to attack the target, combat abilities are in a clickable hotbar that can also be activated with the numerical keys on the keyboard. At the same time, ALT-Z doesn’t turn off the UI visual elements that would allow a nice clean screenshot. It’s just a stupid little keyboard shortcut, but I find it annoying every time I want to take a screenshot… and that’s pretty often. STO is a pretty game. Apparently, the UI is automatically turned off for screenshots… but what then if I *want* the UI in the shot? There’s a command for it, but the default function is different from what I’m used to. I’m also not given any sort of feedback to know if hitting the Print Screen button actually takes a screenshot like it does in WoW. That’s not to say that WoW is perfect, just that there’s a difference.
That’s not a problem by any means, it’s just a little annoyance. Those tend to add up, though, even if they are subconscious. Players might find that they aren’t liking a game any more, not because the game itself isn’t good, but because they keep fighting their own reflexes and assumptions about how it’s supposed to work, and that tension is a constant low-level irritation. Something like Star Wars The Old Republic or Guild Wars 2 might find itself in a bad position between wanting to innovate and being stuck with gamers in a mental rut. (That rut may not even be a bad place, for that matter… even if it might hold back the potential of the genre.)
Another example is the vestigial jumping of Wizard 101, which has absolutely no function. It’s purely cosmetic… but because players have come to expect that the space bar makes your character jump in a PC game, by gum, it makes your wizard jump in Wizard 101. As I noted in my original article on it, I think that’s a smart business move, even if it doesn’t make sense within the game itself.
This can also run deeper and run into game design territory. STO has a vague (thankfully not strict) combat trinity of tank/healer/damage dealer with a few tricks thrown in, like WoW or any of a dozen other MMOs. That’s a little odd, but hey, it works for what players are used to, so it makes sense to use it. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the game itself, and almost certainly not for the Star Trek IP, but it makes sense to gamers who might be coming to the game, so it’s a smart move. SWTOR will almost certainly be a “reskin” of WoW with many of the same core mechanics and UI. That’s smart business, even if it isn’t actually anything innovative or even evolutionary. Players don’t want to relearn how to play a game that they are expecting to play like their old favorite.
By the way, Firefox, why in the world did you move the “home” button to the other side of the address bar? It’s one thing for different programs to change UI, it’s more troubling when a given program changes things between versions. Don’t get me started on Photoshop and its spawn, or the barely-incremental changes we see in other big software packages in an effort to sell a new box each year, not only adding to the cost (since previous versions no longer get sold or supported) but also decreasing usability. That’s not really a good pairing.
But so what? Why does any of this matter?
Well, if your audience is likely to have developed expectations, whether mental habits or actual muscle memory, you need to be aware of that and design your product accordingly. Automobile designers don’t arbitrarily switch the accelerator and brake pedals in an effort to differentiate their cars from the other guys. DVORAK keyboards still aren’t the dominant model. Single-button mice are still a dumb idea for Mac users who may be using PCs during the day. Americans still don’t use the metric system and we drive on the wrong side of the road.
Maybe the alternates are better for those who don’t have expectations, but how often is that truly the case? Designers don’t always have to cater to expectations, but flaunting them in ignorance or spite is a bad way to do business. And perhaps sadly, games are still business. Big business. We need to understand our customers. We still might have the courage or bullheadedness to do things our way instead of the “standard” way, but we shouldn’t do it from a position of ignorance.