As the new heralds the old let us take a moment to ponder online video game interfaces

Twitter is great!  I was laying in bed this morning thinking about why 3D MMO video games including the best selling World of Warcraft have limited mass market appeal because of bad user interfaces.   Then “beedeep”, my iPhone notifies me that Twitter user venturebeat has posted a link to a story on the 40th birthday of the Mouse and its introduction to the world by visionary Doug Englebart.

User interfaces are the root problem that holds back 3D MMOs from mass appeal – as in 300 million people playing them.  Today’s interfaces were designed by 1st generation gamers who had limited research to support their designs and that have since been incrementally improved and expanded.   After 30 plus years of graphics and input device innovation in video games we still have a user interface for 3D video games that, when placed in front of someone who has never played an online game more complex than Solitaire, Bejeweled, or Diner Dash, is quickly overwhelmed with a non-intuitive and overwhelming mash-up of military tech wish list hand me downs and sci-fi movie memes.

Now maybe there is a case to be made for military derived interfaces in a game with Warcraft in its title, but sci-fi in a Tolkien inspired fantasy world where the most advance technology is spring loaded?

We have to get out of the box and do something bold to take 3D game interfaces in a new direction.   A developer should start by putting themselves in the shoes of a 3D novice and start by matching expectations of user with the actual content of the game – then start work on the interface.

For example, lets wind the clock back to the early concept days of Tabula Rasa the much hyped Sci-Fi MMO by famous game creator Richard Garriott.   We have a Sci-Fi theme, traveling around different planets, fighting military actions and other standards of the 3D MMO playbook.   Ideal it would seem for our favorite military/sci-fi mash-up user interface.

Now leave what we know about 3D game interfaces behind and step into the shoes of our 3D game novice who hears about a sci-fi adventure that includes interplanetary travel, combat, and hundreds of hours of entertainment.   What would such a novice really expect to see when they are transported to our world?

Here are a few of many things I think that our novice would not expect to see:

  • Any point of view outside of first person.
  • Peripheral vision that is less than the 120 degrees that a normal human experiences unless the character happens to be wearing something that would alter their view like a mask or goggles or if the character is not human and would be expected by the average non-fan of the genre to have different capability than a human.
  • Heads up displays (HUDs) that would not normally be integrated into whatever the character would be wearing.  Considering that the average computer screen is a rectangle and humans see in a half sphere viewpoint, HUDs and other information displays off in the corners of the screen are not realistic in most cases so their presence along with the information overload they present is a great way to get off the wrong foot with a new 3D gamer.
  • Any reason to touch the keyboard or the mouse or game pad, unless my character is actually using a computer or Xbox in the game.   Now this one may make a few heads hurt, and there is the rub.  If we want to reach the mass market, we have to meet their expectations.   So WASD or arrow key movement is out the window, and mouse point and click are too.  Lacking some new physical input devices – like one of those cool brain wave readers, maybe we need to leave the whole concept of player controlled character movement off the table and focus on other more realistic input controls like voice interaction and game play that supports them.   There is no reason a first person shooter can not have a light gun or a more advanced motion sensing version – Rock Band has proved that a costly add-on or two is not a deterrent to selling a great game.
  • Inventory management screens are out.  Things the character owns need to have their proper place, and a natural way of managing them.  If I want to change my boots, I expect to reach down and change my boots. If you think this will add a tedious element to game play – then ditch management of boots.

We can go on.  But hopefully the point is made.  Out of the box means out of the box.  We have been resting on the mouse and keyboard for 40 years, last time I looked in the toy box I saw a lot more interfaces to fun, it is time to move on.

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Comments 1

  1. Dale wrote:

    Interesting ideas Ron! I found this the other day and thought I would share in case you have not seen it:
    The progressive leaning forward until you “jump-in” is something new to me.

    Posted 09 Jan 2009 at 9:39 am

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