Archive for August, 2010

Simplicity in design

Posted in Random Stuff on August 25th, 2010 by MrCranky

The microwave in our office is quite annoying. I mean, it does its job: nuking food with radiation, but to actually persuade it to get that far is an unnecessary chore. It’s got a numeric keypad, plus another half dozen control buttons and a start button. If I want to get it to heat my soup, I have to press Time, punch in 3,0,0, then Power, then Start. To be honest, I don’t even know what those other 4 buttons do, and I’m a tech savvy person. We have that self same sequence written out in a note taped to the top of the microwave, since it’s exactly what you want to do 95% of the time.

Which is what bugs me about the whole thing. The product designers have added a whole mess of extra buttons, all of which adds to the cost of the product, to satisfy controllability that we really just don’t use. Even that last 5% of the time, if we didn’t have that extra controllability, we’d be able to just make do. It’s not a surprise to me that industrial microwaves have pretty much two controls: a dial for power, and a dial for time. Anything more smacks of designers trying to justify their own salary, or interference from people who don’t really understand their customers. To be honest even those two controls are overkill. A single button that adds 30 seconds to the clock and starts the microwave (if it’s not already started), and another to cancel. Simplicity.

This isn’t just a rant about our microwave. Okay, well maybe a little bit. But it’s a design principle that goes through everything, games design included. Understanding what your users want to do in the majority of cases, and give them just what they want, but resist the temptation to drown that out with other minor features. It’s not just user interfaces, it’s features as well. Even with the best interface in the world, games or tools that try to over-complicate things end up suffering. Not only do those features take valuable developer time to implement, they’re almost certainly going to increase the odds of those features adversely interacting with the important core features.

So why put in unnecessary features? Many reasons:

  • Feature matching: Some other competing product has these features. Doesn’t matter if the user values them, or even if they’re appropriate given your design, just that the designer thinks they need to ‘measure up’.
  • External requests: Maybe it’s not the designer asking for these extra features. Maybe it’s the manager, or the boss. Or the bosses wife. Who knows. Someone who isn’t responsible for the design, trying to ‘help’. And usually since they’ve got more clout than the designer, they get their way, even if it hurts the product.
  • Brainstorming: At the start of the project, it’s pretty common to come up with a big list of features. Sure, they get prioritised, but they’re still all in the ‘potential’ spec for the product. Features get cut because there’s not enough time to do them, but less often they get cut because they’re just not important enough. The designer’s not to blame for this one, because that’s the product owner’s responsibility. But still, they need to co-ordinate with the designer, and understand how the features improve the product vs. the cost of putting them in.
  • Notion of product richness: This one is squarely on the designer, and is about not thinking about your product from the customer’s point of view, but rather from the designers. Instead of building a product to meet the customer’s needs, they build the product they think should be built. This is good to a certain degree: sometimes users don’t know they want a feature until they have it. But it should be used sparingly.

Of course it would be easy to take this advice, and ship a project with only a few features, claiming to be keeping things ‘clean’ and ‘simple’, even though they omit the features the customer is really most interested in. As always there is a balance to be struck. The important thing is to understand both the product/game you’re making, and the people who want to use/play it.

So basically I’m pleading with the game and product designers out there: add features sparingly. Not only do you keep your development costs down, you improve your chances of making a cleaner, more usable product, that fits better with what your customers want.

RTW redundancies

Posted in Industry Rants on August 21st, 2010 by MrCranky

This week’s normal blog post has been supplanted, sadly, after news broke of Realtime Worlds going down earlier in the week. I was intending to write a post anyway, after the news that 60 people were to be trimmed as a result of their Project Myworld not finding an investor, but the urgency wasn’t really there. It looked that ostensibly things were being wound down in some kind of graceful way, which, while sad, is just the nature of the beast. Everyone knew that the large team that had been ramped up to deliver APB would be unsustainable, given the absence of a large income stream from that game, or anything else signed. It was always going to stand or fall on APB’s quality, and that was apparent a couple of months ago now. But we gave them the benefit of the doubt.

That was late last week though. Come Tuesday afternoon, news surfaced that there had just been a company meeting to announce that the administrators had been called in. And not in a graceful, let’s wind things down sort of way. In an almighty, we’re all out of money, and by the way you’re not getting paid for August sort of way. While that’s not unprecedented (when VIS went down, they at least had the courtesy to do so immediately after a pay-day so no-one did any work that wasn’t going to be paid for; but DC went down with unpaid wages), I don’t think it’s ever forgivable. But the difference was, those other studios had been operating milestone to milestone for a long while, burning through their cash. RTW had their investment up front, they knew what money was coming in, and when it would stop. To go under leaving unpaid wages (and word is, a bunch of trade debt as well) is to me a massively negligent failing of those in charge.

The whole affair smacks of senior management, knowing they’d burnt through all their cash (and let’s not forget, that’s over $100m), and yet continuing to operate. APB had run over its development timescale, that was public knowledge, but if they didn’t have enough money to operate beyond its launch, this mess should have been sorted out when they realised what was going to happen. I’m sure they thought that to do so would further damage the APB launch: who would want to invest time in an MMO if it looked like the developer was going to go bust even before launch. That doesn’t excuse screwing over your employees: they chose to gamble everything on persuading new investors to save them. And since they’d already failed to show that they could deliver on the sort of projects they claimed to have expertise in, I don’t know how they thought anyone would believe them.

I’m sure there will be more details and analysis from those who saw this mess from the inside. Even last week, this RTW person let go in the MyWorld redundancies put an insightful but damning post over on Rock Paper Shotgun. I’ll come back to this one once more of the details have become clear. Sadly, even if a phoenix company does ride from the ashes (again stirring memories of DC and their similarly resurrection), it will be a dim shadow of what RTW once was. While there are still several good businesses in Dundee doing alright, the heart has been cut out of the industry, both in Dundee and in Scotland in general. We’ll lose a lot of good talented people, because there is no-where else with the capacity to pick them up. Again, Scottish development will take years to rebuild, if indeed we ever manage it.

Next time, I think, will be a rant about development budgets, and how they’re hurting us all.

WordPress 3.0.1

Posted in Links from the In-tar-web, Tales from the grind-stone on August 9th, 2010 by MrCranky

It’s probably entirely escaped your notice (or at least it should have done), that we’ve upgraded to WordPress 3.0.1 recently. Everything should be exactly as it was before, externally at least. Please let me know if anything looks off of course. Doing that little bit of maintenance has reminded me that it’s probably time to update the website in general though. I have been meaning to make a little section for our iPhone games and applications, although probably that’s easiest done in the blog itself. More importantly however will be to update our About pages to include more recent endeavours.

In other, unrelated news, I’ve been answering questions over at the beta of the GameDev StackExchange site. It reminds me of all the reasons why I would get annoyed at gamedev.net et al; basically that since there is no barrier to entry, anyone can both ask stupid questions and give stupid answers. So you get people replying who aren’t professional game developers and have a very limited set of experience making ‘games’, but who have a very high opinion of their ability. However, since the original StackOverflow site has become a useful resource in its own right, despite the equally large numbers of “please help me with my homework” questions, and poor quality answers, I thought I would give this one the benefit of the doubt. I would heartily recommend any of my peers who have some free time to go over and contribute as well: while you can’t do much to begin with (new users can’t even vote good answers up), it only takes a couple of questions answered sensibly to elevate you from the rank of untrusted outsider to someone who can contribute. And as long as it’s people with real knowledge of the industry voting up the real solutions, I think there’s a good chance that there gets to be some content there that’s useful to the games industry in general.

MSDN

Posted in Coding on August 3rd, 2010 by MrCranky

Finally gotten around to putting VS2010 on this machine, and this time around I’m breaking with tradition and simply not putting MSDN on there, at all. It used to be a no-brainer, put the reference libraries on as you’re going to be looking stuff up all the time. But these days it was always more an exercise in frustration than a useful tool.

Many topics are just “not there”. Huge swathes of really basic stuff are just missing (basic date formatting string specifiers – that’s pretty low level!), so that when you navigate to them it tells you the page is missing. Go online to the MSDN reference there, and you’ll find the page, just not in the locally installed copy. I thought to begin with it was just because I’d installed it badly, but even from a clean install it was still just not there. I’ve since concluded that it must be the Express versions are just subsets of the full documentation, to keep the downloads small. It’s certainly not a functionality split – like they’re only putting in help topics for things in the Express editions – because the Express editions are really quite close to fully functional. No, this is stuff that’s core to .NET and the language.

So, since I’m having to fall back on searching the internet anyway, I figure I might as well have my hard disk space back. The online resources available now are fantastic anyway, and it’s rare that I’m not connected when developing. Most often it’s the online MSDN references that show up first in the search, so in the end it’s much of a muchness – except I don’t have to use the horrible HTML help interface which has been getting steadily worse with every revision of Visual Studio.

I guess this is just another nail in the coffin of the disconnected computer: so many things now expect/assume/require you to be connected to the Internet. Which wouldn’t be so bad, but even with 3G connectivity, a network connection while on the move still isn’t something that can be taken for granted. But I’ll stop grouching about it like an old man, and go with the flow…


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