Games, Graphics and Barbarians

In the work-a-day world, I’m a technical consultant for an interactive media company. That’s not as fancy-pants as it might sound, but sometimes it can be pretty interesting. One of the things I get to do is talk to business owners who have under-performing websites and help them figure out why their online stuff sucks.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the appeal and artistic grace of lovely ponies-and-rainbows website designs. Unfortunately, the dialectic of business analysis is rather like setting Conan the Barbarian loose with his big sword to run wild in the ponies’ multi-hued pasture. Business is about making money. Ponies that don’t make money need to be “recycled” and sent to the glue factory.

Think about it this way: A business website is an online graphical user interface (GUI) that connects customers to a business. There’s no separating the “graphic design” part from the “user interface” part. They either work together, or they don’t work at all. The skill of coupling attractive design with maximum usability is what sets a professional web designer/developer apart from Cousin Ned sitting at a PC in the back with his copy of CoffeeCup.

Graphic design in wargaming is a lot like business website design in that respect.

The schemes of colors, artwork and typography that overlay a printed wargame (or a game’s digital counterpart in VASSAL or Cyberboard) are really nothing more than a GUI that allows gamers to physically manipulate the game system to produce some sort of outcome. Game graphics are thus an important element of the design’s total user experience (or “UX,” as we say in the trade). Excellent graphic production can seldom salvage a poor game system (although it can certainly help generate sales), but poor graphic production can quickly kill an otherwise good system.

Ever read Don Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things”? Norman, former Director of the Institute for Cognitive Science at the University of California and now a principle at the Nielsen-Norman Group, has a pretty simple theory. When a designer designs something without understanding how people want to use it, he screws it up nearly every time. The important thing isn’t how the designer wants it to work; the important thing is how the people who use it want it to work.

When users approach all but the most alien of gizmos, they have an expectation of how it will work. An online poker website will have information about poker. Links on web pages are underlined and colored differently from inactive text. Doorknobs should rotate. You hold a screwdriver by the handle. The movement allowance is never listed first on a wargame counter.

Here’s a simple guideline, which works as well for wargame graphics as it does for any other type of GUI design: It’s better to meet user expectations than to deviate. (Credit for that guideline to Jakob Nielsen, also a principle of the Nielsen-Norman Group.)

What’s the goal of a wargame design? Is it supposed to sit there and look nice, or is it supposed to be USED?

Whether or not game artists and designers like it, the cold, hard fact — the bottom line, to put it in perspective — is that games are systems, which have users, who in turn have expectations of how the things should work. Game design and art “standards” may not be always written down, but they exist just as surely as website design standards exist. Game design standards arise generally from the expectations of the gamers who buy the things.

Game designs seldom hew exactly to these unwritten standards. By the same token, wargames that deviate successfully usually diverge from the standards in only a few respects and adhere to expectations in many others. Games that violate expectations in too many areas may, in fact, still be quite good (as some have been) — but discarding a large number of design standards reduces a game’s usability and threatens to limit the number of gamers who care to put forth the mental effort to “grok” all of the differences.

By definition, games are intended to be played. Game systems are often complicated enough in themselves; layering on top of that a GUI which requires additional effort to comprehend simply makes no sense when more intuitive graphic options are available.

Over a few of my following blog posts my ambition is to take a closer look at some of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly in wargaming GUIs.

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