Capacitive Buttons Must Die

Capacitive buttons… They are those easy to touch little buggers that register a press simply from being brushed against. I hate them. So very much. This is one of my biggest pet peeves in the world of mobile device design. I’m continually surprised more people don’t complain about this. Maybe it’s just me. But every time I have to use these things, I get annoyed.

I had a Samsung Focus for quite some time and it sported these little demons. I’ve been using a Galaxy S3 in order to become more familiar with the world of Android. I’ve been playing with the Surface RT, to get acquainted with the new Microsoft platform. I’ve played with countless other Android devices on and off and played around with the Lumia 920. In each of these devices, I universally hate those buttons.

But why?

Well, to summarize: accidental taps and poor physical feedback.

Capacitive buttons image. Filled with the hate due to those stupid buttons.

Be very careful tapping anything at the bottom of the screen.

Capacitive buttons send a mixed message in the world of mobile design. People generally say that it’s best to put frequently used controls at the bottom of the screen, in the magical “thumb zone” where things are easily tapped. It’s no wonder that every platform places their keyboard in this space, since plinking away at keys is clearly easiest there. But you never want to put something in that zone which could either be destructive, or could significantly change your interaction state. For example, on iPhone, there’s a reason the send button for email is in the upper right – that’s a very, very intentional tap. It’s also quite final, so you don’t want to accidentally hit it.

Capacitive buttons violate all of these design considerations.  Many of them remove you from your active context and can sometimes be destructive (depending on how well someone implements their app’s state management). But worst of all, they rest within that mythical thumb zone and are surprisingly easy to hit on accident, due to their proximity to the screen.

Windows Phone actually doubles down on the proximity flaw. While sending text messages or emails, not only do they have capacitive buttons below the keyboard, they also have charms right under the keyboard. These charms can add attachments, send the email, cancel it, etc… And are only a few pixels away from the spacebar button. I can’t tell you how many times I accidentally hit the attachment button when sending text messages, back when I was on Windows Phone 7.

A screenshot of the spacebar button, next to cancel... It's a brilliant image.

Go ahead! Put the spacebar button right next to cancel! I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Oh, and what about accidentally putting your thumb on the Windows button, while using the Surface? I frequently rotated that beast and accidentally hit that thing. Or the back/menu buttons on Android? I have accidental taps less on Android, generally, but it still happens.

So yeah, accidental taps… But let’s not forget the physical feedback issue. Capacitive button feedback is so poor, most devices kick off their vibration to let you know you actually pushed a button. If it weren’t for this, they would be even less usable. Microsoft spent a lot of money advertising the satisfying “click” that their Surface RT makes when connecting the keyboard cover. But they figure a soundless vibration is ok for their home button? What ever happened to the satisfying feeling of a button being pressed?

But here’s the thing I don’t understand about these buttons… Why do they exist? What advantage do they have over physical, push buttons? I’ve never once thought “Oh man, I really appreciate this little flat surface that I can touch as a button.” Are they just supposed to be cool? Is it just for aesthetics and a simpler visual form? I am seriously baffled why anyone would make this design decision.

And I’m not the only one.

So yes. Death to capacitive buttons. Please. They have no reason for being and I’m sick of them.

UPDATE:

So, I wrote this long ass rant. But my friend Nathan Rabe sums the whole thing up in two little tweets:

Physical buttons have 3 states: normal, touched, pressed. The third state is where the user commits to their interaction.

By removing the pressed state, capacitive buttons preempt the interaction, and assume every touch is the intent. I hate them.


Advice for Younger Designers

Advice for Young Designers (Of Software anyway…)

Not too long ago, some high school students visited the company I work for, TechSmith, to learn about how our mobile teams work. Naturally, this sent my brain spinning, thinking about what tidbits of wisdom I might have to offer a young, developing designer. (If there’s any specks of wisdom to be found in me at all.)

So far, I’ve come up with a few things and thought I’d write ‘em down. I may think of more, but don’t hold me to that. And I may end up disagreeing with all of this in a few years. In fact, I probably will.

Not Being as Good as XYZ Designer

So, you’re browsing around on Dribbble and finding that there are many people out there who are just WAYYY better than you. Some of them might even be your age. Some may even be younger. It may baffle you, but one thing is for sure – you’re not as good as they are.

Well, count yourself lucky! Hold on to that feeling. As long as you can spot someone better than you, it means you can grow. As long as you are seeking out things to aspire to, you’re going to have somewhere to go. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ll never be as good as XYZ. You will be that good if you keep working at it.

Besides, atleast you can tell you aren’t as good as some other designer. Some people are clueless. Those poor souls are doomed. But even worse than being clueless are those who rationalize why being good isn’t actually important. “Oh, impressive graphics aren’t all that they are cracked up to be.” Sometimes that’s actually true. But sometimes that’s just a rationalization from an insecure person who’s given up. Never be that person. If you become that person, you might as well quit.

Get Used to Negative Feedback

Learn to harvest valuable feedback from those around you. Feedback is just as important as great ideas – it’s a designer’s lifeblood. So when someone comes to you and gives it to you straight, count your lucky stars you found someone who is willing to be honest and open. Hold onto those people – their feedback will guide you well.

It’s going to hurt. You’ll want to impress people, you’ll want to be awesome. You aren’t always going to be. That’s OK. Being wrong is a step along the way to being right. Bad ideas are the kindling that light the bonfire of a good idea. Try as hard as you can not to take it personally. Getting negative feedback is vital to your growth.

Most importantly, find the people in your life who are brave enough to tell you the truth. You’ll be surrounded by people who are willing to be nice to you. Being nice is easy. It’s rare that someone cares enough about you or is brave enough to be direct. When you find those people, don’t get angry when they lay out their feedback openly. If you do that, you’re pissing away one of the best resources you’ll ever have.

Bottom line: never become a delicate flower. It’s your job to find value in the people around you. It’s not their job to figure out how to interact with you. You can’t control others, but you can control yourself. Find the gems in the rough and dig down to the meaning of the feedback you are hearing. Figure out how to encourage people to share their thoughts even more openly. The people around you are one of your greatest assets.

If you act overly hurt or defensive when receiving feedback, people won’t share with you as freely. If people aren’t sharing with you, you’re screwed. Whiny, overly sensitive designers hold themselves back and they often hold great teams back. Don’t ever be one.

Stand Up for What You Believe In

Not listening to feedback is a sure way to fail as a designer. However, listening to ALL feedback and caving into every single idea will also lead to poor design. Finding a healthy balance is a hard thing to do. I’ve screwed it up in the past. It took years for me to get to the point where I felt confident enough to make a call on what feedback is actually valuable and which ideas are worth pursuing. Even now, I probably screw it up.

But one way to certainly screw up is to just cave in to all feedback offered. Some ideas are NOT good. Some feedback is NOT valid. You can’t make everyone happy. If you know something is right, trust your gut. Put in the extra effort necessary to defend your idea. Prototype things, mock things up, test things… Don’t discard the ideas of others, but don’t roll over at the first sign of disagreement. If you do that, you’re not designing anything, you’re just pushing pixels.

One way to make sure you are making a good call is to understand why someone is providing feedback. Don’t take feedback at face value or directly interpret it. If they are suggesting a change, make sure you understand the problem they intend to solve or the benefit they are trying to provide. If you have that understanding, you may come up with an even better idea. You may find a way to integrate the value of their idea without compromising your design. Or you may decide that the benefit isn’t actually much benefit. Regardless, you’ll be armed with the value behind the feedback and more able to decide what to do with it.

Be Flexible

A designer that can figure out how to quickly adapt to changing environments is a designer that is always learning and proving their worth. If you require that teams bend to YOUR needs, then you will always be falling behind the world around you. Technology changes, processes change, times change. What worked 5 years ago doesn’t work anymore. The best practices of yesterday are the laughable blunders of tomorrow.

Keep an eye on always producing the best work you can, but learn to bend to the needs of the situation you are facing. One day you may be working in agile, the next in a startup environment, the next in some big crazy complex waterfall process. Good design can happen in any process. Keep an open mind. Besides, you are more than process – don’t ever let process define you. Tools are just tools. A designer is so much more than the sum of their tools and techniques. As long as you are making awesome experiences that customers love, that’s all that matters.

Don’t Put Limits on Yourself

Coding isn’t as hard as you might think. In fact, it can be downright fun. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Always push yourself to learn new things – every experience is valuable ammo in your problem solving belt.

Should you be able to write code? Yes. Should you be able to make graphics? Yes. Should you be able to do interaction design? Yes. Research? Yes. Why is it that you can be expected to do all these things? Cause you’re a human. You’re the brightest, most adaptable thing on Earth. Don’t underestimate yourself.

Don’t Forget What You’re Here For

You’re a designer. You’re here to make amazing products that people love – things that solve real problems and are crazy desirable. A lot of things go into making products that people love: fixing bugs, testing, research, marketing, development, going to trade shows, talking to customers, etc… Every aspect of software creation is important for you to know and be involved in. Not so that you can control it – but so that you can understand and appreciate it.

But don’t forget what you’re here for. You’re here to make amazing things. This can be surprisingly easy to forget when you are staring at a wall of tasks. At the end of the day, though, you’re not around to check boxes on a task list. Checking those boxes may be important, but you don’t sell your checked list to customers. Customers don’t buy user stories, they buy great software. Never lose sight of your goal and constantly push harder and harder to achieve it. If you don’t, you may just find yourself trapped in a downward spiral of mediocrity.

Your task isn’t complete until your users are absolutely in love with your product and you are unspeakably proud of it. It takes a LOT of time and energy to get there. So keep your eye on that prize.

Make Mistakes Quickly

Don’t be afraid of screwing up. The second you have an idea, share it with someone you respect. Have them throw rocks at it. Break the idea, fast. You’ll find better ideas.

If you think an idea is dumb, say it anyway. Someone else might have the key to unlocking your bright ideas.

Don’t stress about people who judge you for making mistakes. They are either idiots, or playing political positioning games. Life is too short for either.

It’s always easier to spot flaws than it is to create brilliance. It’s easier to have a bad idea than a good one.  So have your bad ideas – and tear them apart. Have people around you tear them apart. Always remember, nothing matters but the final product. It doesn’t matter how many mistakes happened along the way. It doesn’t matter if the final idea was someone else’s. All that matters is that your product is AMAZING. If that’s true, you’ve done your job.

In Conclusion

Those are just some philosophies I consider important… If I think of more, I may write them down. I’m curious what others think, so please chime in. There’s always more than one path to success and finding your own way is vital. But the above philosophies have served me well and turned into core aspects of my life as a designer and human. So, I figured I’d share it out and see how wrong I am. :)


Diablo 3 Tribute

Diablo 3 Tribute

A work in progress… I can’t play the game for another couple days, so this is the next best thing.


Brink

First, I have been playing Brink on the PC. Not too long ago, I decided to play all FPS games on the PC, if possible. I know FPS games can be a lot of fun on consoles, but they really shine with the keyboard and mouse. If that weren’t the case, they’d more actively let the two co-mingle in online matches.

The quick summary of my opinion: Brink doesn’t deserve some of the negative reviews it’s been garnering. The overall Metacritic score of 71 for the PC version probably just about right. It’s worth nothing the disparity between the console reviews and the PC reviews, however. Joystiq and 1UP, whom I usually rely on for decent reviews,  both gutted the game. But their reviews focused on the console gameplay, which I have not taken a look at. I’m tempted to buy a copy, just to see if there’s as large of a difference as I suspect there to be. And why do I expect there to be a large disparity in gameplay? To me, the game looks and feels as though it was designed to be played on the PC.

First, the gun control and aiming takes finesse. There’s no spray and pray and you have to adjust your aim rapidly. The sniper rifle CAN get 1-shot headshots, but the speed of the characters running and jumping around requires you to be a helluva shot. There’s even a perk you can get in the game, which allows you to shoot your own grenades to make them explode early… So much of the gameplay seems as though it would be greatly watered down with the slushier movement and accuracy of controllers…

Second, the gameplay mechanics are already greatly familiar to PC gamers. While not quite as refined and brilliant as Team Fortress 2, Brink does take a page out of the TF2 book. The objective based, class based gameplay is something the PC audience has grown into, while I don’t know that the same love for these mechanics exists on the console. But Brink also adds some fresh ideas into the game, especially with how rapidly you have to change classes, the weapon and body styles and the specializations you can unlock within each class. So I don’t mean to imply that Brink is just the same old, same old on the PC – there’s some freshness there. But it’s not entirely alien, or irrelevant.

Third, I don’t even know how I’d play the online version of the game effectively on a console. Someone will have to share with me how this works – but I’d have to assume it works much differently than the PC version. But before I got into how I now play the game, I want to share the story of how I got that far.

In the PC version, I played 3 solo missions and all of the challenges before deciding to go online. Once I did go online, I tried using the mission selector, which would automatically connect me with other people looking to play that mission. This went fairly well, I think. I’m pretty sure I was playing with and against real people and it wasn’t TOO laggy. It did take a few minutes to get the session going, but we won our match and it was fun. So after that worked out ok, I decided to check out the last game-mode in the menus: Free Play. That’s where I discovered how the game really shines – but I’m also not sure how it would work on a console.

Free play is basically the same thing as the server browser in TF2. You can update the list, find a server with low latency, connect and play. The lag is minuscule this way (25-35ms pings ftw) and you can be sure to find a server with a good bunch of people. So, after getting settled into using the Free Play browser, I’ve not revisited any other game modes. And I’ve now logged about 4.5 hours of multi-player game time, which I feel is enough to have a good sense for the game.

However, it’s definitely not a perfect game. There certainly are flaws. The largest drawback is the amount of content you get for the amount of money you have to spend. Team Fortress 2 is, without a doubt, a better game. Even after all these years. However, it only costs $10 and, even when it first came out, I don’t think it cost $50… Brink feels a little light for what I spent. The 8-9 maps do seem like they would have high replayability, but they certainly aren’t enough to warrant the high price tag.

The next drawback is the somewhat bland gameplay itself. It’s not TERRIBLY bland, but it’s not quite inspiring either. The freedom of movement promise from the early trailers, showing players jumping around on stuff in parkour’esque moves, is only partially delivered. The truth is, the maps aren’t exactly designed to encourage this sort of movement. Instead, most times, it’s more effective to play Brink like any other FPS. Sure, there are times when I have jumped into a space where I could guard something effectively, which I would not have been able to do if I couldn’t climb my way up there with the freedom of movement features. But I didn’t feel like a ninja, bounding across the rooftops. I felt like a heavy dude, slowly climbing up a box… And that “sliding across the ground is a good way to avoid enemy fire” tip that I read when a level was loading? It’s a lie. Sliding across the ground is a great way to look cool just before getting your balls shot off.

But one thing I have to strongly disagree with, in regards to the Joystiq and 1UP reviews, is that the maps are unbalanced. I’ve played most of them, from both sides, and won both ways. It depends entirely upon how well your team can gel together, work as a team, and push through or hold back the enemy. I’ve yet to experience any “draws” as they were described in the reviews I read. In fact, I’m not sure how you even have a “draw” since there’s no way for the game to end in a tie. That being said, I’ve also been very lucky so far, as I’ve only lost one match. So maybe that’s indicative of something.

So, overall, I’d probably give Brink an 7/10. It’s fun. I don’t feel entirely ripped off (only slightly) and I intend to keep playing it. The harsh reviews are a surprise to me, but I’m guessing the largest reason for them is that Brink may not translate well to the console. It’s a fun game, with tried and true mechanics that have a few new twists added to the mix.


The Importance of “Why” in UX

This is my first attempt at writing a UX centered blog post, but I believe it’s likely long overdue.

Recently, I ran across Dan Willis’ blog, UX Crank, which I immediately fell in love with. Specifically, I was impressed with the relatively recent post of his, Build a Strong UX Foundation. It’s a topic I’ve thought quite a bit on recently, as I’m entering that phase of my career when I’m thinking more and more about how I can help newly christened designers be successful.

I enjoyed how he nodded to the issue of “UX” being a sort of wastebasket diagnosis of a profession, in regards to how our field loosely encompasses just about everything related to design. That inflammatory comment of mine could perhaps lead someone to think I’m dismissing my entire profession, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Though strongly worded, I must admit, the analogy seems sound. (and yes, I know how dangerous analogies are, let’s not go there…) We, as a group, are continually stumbling around, trying to get a grip on what it is we do, why we need to do it, why people should listen to us, etc… And we can’t resist putting a label on that struggle. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I do the same sort of stumbling every week as I figure out how best to fulfill my role in a sea of overlapping disciplines. But despite that continual struggle, I believe we’re coming ever closer to an understanding with blog posts like Dan’s there. Specifically, I have to call out this statement:

Our real value has never been about picking the right template for the right challenge; our value is to fully define a problem from the user experience perspective and then to craft practical solutions that address that problem in specific and measurable ways.

-Dan Willis, UX Crank

This paragraph gets to the core of UX for me. It’s something I’ve personally thought on for some time now, actually. The real value isn’t in picking a template. I would take it further – it’s not about picking a tool or a process. Instead, our value is exactly as Dan says – “to fully define a problem from the user experience perspective.”

I have to admit, I feel a temptation to leave off the “user experience perspective” bit and just focus on the definition of the problem. But doing so would remove what makes us special, what makes us unique. It’s what separates us from product management. We take business goals and needs and focus them through the lens of a user’s needs. And we do this in order to enhance them and increase the likelihood of business success. That’s the “secret sauce” that’s not really all that secret.

But I was tempted to leave all of that out because, frankly, that first part is complicated enough on it’s own! Fully defining a problem is a hard thing to do. And this comes to the topic of my post. (Curse you, verbosity! I shall defeat you another day…)

If fully defining a problem is the foundation of a UX practitioner – which I believe it is – then there’s a very specific aspect to defining a problem that I would call out for any burgeoning designer. And that specific aspect is:

Why?

It’s a simple question and a simple concept, but also one of the easiest concepts to overlook. It’s the most important question to have an answer to, in any undertaking, and the most valuable bit of information to communicate to any team of knowledge workers (which we ALL are). It’s at the very center of our entire profession.

Yes, there are other details of a problem that are important. The regulars: who, what, where, how – those details are all very important. But they are all crushed under the imposing weight of why. Why? Because answering “why?” gives us intent, purpose, meaning… The rest is context. Useful, but greatly diminished without a foundation.

Years ago, a brilliant colleague/designer I work with, Sylvania Dye, first revealed to me the power of understanding why. She introduced various root cause analysis techniques, one of which was the 5 why’s, which was a quaint but wonderful beginning for me in my analytical adventure. I’ve since grown beyond that simple technique, but the essence remains. In any of my undertakings, I simply must have an answer to that question.

The true power of why is that it provides a simple, quick escape from the perils of shallow thinking. I define shallow thinking as any situation where you aren’t being deeply critical of yourself and your activities, not to mention the activities of those around you. For example, perhaps you are only designing solutions to symptoms, focusing more on aesthetic than experience, or simply trying to put lipstick on a pig. In each such scenario, simply asking why can easily break you out of self inflicted doldrums and unearth real design problems worth solving.

But here’s the kicker – asking why isn’t always easy. There’s SO many ways to ask such a simple question. Let’s say you’ve been asked to implement a big circular button. Asking “Why don’t we have a big circular button” isn’t going to get you very far. Asking “Why do users need this button” will. And from there, hell, ask whatever questions you need in order to get to that core WHY. You can be sure that something kicked off the desire for this button and you, as a designer, need to know what it was.

I can guarantee you, if you don’t know why you are implementing that big button, you aren’t going to be able to deliver the best possible solution. And it’s your job, as a UX designer, to really know why. You can’t take things at face value. You can’t make assumptions. You have to do your best to really analyze the problems in front of you and understand why they are problems and why they are worth solving.

To unearth those oft elusive whys, you may have to ask the question quite a lot and ask quite a lot of people. But you have to do it without making people look stupid. That’s vital, because I can also guarantee that someday, someone will ask you that all important question and you’ll respond by smacking your forehead, ashamed that you don’t have an appropriate answer. (Which is fine – when that happens, search deep down in your gut and find the answer. You’ll probably find one. There’s a reason good designers have instinctual reactions/ideas. But be willing to kill your babies if you find out they are just fluff.)

The main point is that it’s NOT the job of a UX designer to just implement what they are asked to implement and make it as shiny as possible. As Alan Cooper frequently points out, users don’t know what they need. Likewise, neither do your teammates in many cases. Hell, I don’t know what I need most of the time! It’s a normal thing. But it’s our job to make sure our team has done that digging, to find real needs, to get to the core of it all. Until we do that, our ability to deliver amazing designs is a crapshoot.

And I’m not saying that asking why is the one tool that will get you there. But I strongly believe it’s the start. And if I could encourage any budding designer to start doing one thing well, it would be both asking and answering that question. (For starters, you could ask “why would it be useful to ask why?”)

Of course, next up, you can ask ask all sorts of other crap. “What problem am I really solving here?” “How far do I need to solve the problem?” “How do I know if I’ve solved it effectively?” etc… But that’s all for another overly wordy blog post…


Dragon Age 2: Bi-Polar Hate/Love Rollercoaster

BS Rating with arbitary numbers: 6/10

You can now read further if you want to know why I didn’t particularly care for Dragon Age 2.

So, I can’t say my DA2 experience started off on the right foot. I was expecting to continue playing my previous character in some way, rather than being forced to play a specific character/storyline. This can probably be attributed to the fact that I’m just too busy to keep up with what’s going on in games, these days. So, rather than experiencing that major disappointment months ago when I could have read about their change in direction, I experienced it while reading the manual while the game installed. Needless to say, I went into the game with a skeptical eye.

Not many games can overcome a wave of early onset Alan hate. So it’s a huge indication of the quality of their writing and design prowess that BioWare was able to turn my disappointment around within that vitally important 5 minute period when I first start playing a game. But I remember my reaction exactly, when I finished designing my mustachioed mage hero. The story was intense and the gameplay was fantastic. Instead of a typical “go kill rats” story, it was a full blown James Bond opening, with epic battles and brilliant dialogue.

So, the writers at BioWare got to me again. Man, those guys, they are crazy talented…

After that, my high lasted quite a while. I’d say a good 4 hours of solid gameplay as my party explored Kirkwall. The characters grew, I learned new spells, met new people, got new loot. It was your typical wonderful BioWare RPG and I was thoroughly in love with it.

I ran all over town making money and building a reputation, so that I could invest in the grand expedition to the Deep Roads. I knew the Deep Roads from the first game and I really wanted to go back there – back where things actually mattered. I was so excited to get out of Kirkwall and start doing REAL things. The kind of real things with real impact on the real world (well, the real fantasy world anyway…). I was looking forward to seeing my impact from the first Dragon Age but also making new impacts with this character.

After much playing, I finally finished all the quests I could find and had more than enough gold to get to the Deep Roads. I was thrilled. We got in there and started killing Dark Spawn and it was fabulous. Treasure and glory awaited! 45 minutes to an hour later, it was done and we were back in Kirkwall, back where we started.

That’s when I got my first real glimpse of Dragon Age 2: Kirkwall Adventures. I wasn’t off on some glorious journey and I wasn’t going to see different parts of the world. Instead, I was going to take a brief romp in an uninteresting part of another world (which really is just repurposed graphics of the dwarven areas but I won’t go there… yet.) and then head back home. It was like taking a thrilling vacation to rural ohio, staying there for 4 hours, then driving back to my apartment to spend the rest of my weekend in my basement.

Except, now that I’ve returned to Kirkwall, I get to go into different buildings! And these buildings are entirely new, right? Not so much. Actually, they are all exactly the same, but some have doors that don’t open. Or sometimes I start out in a different place. Perhaps the designers hoped I wouldn’t notice?

And I’ve also grown, right? My character is a few levels higher. He has some new spells, some new gear. Yep. But the bad guys I’m fighting are more powerful too. Which is good, I don’t necessarily want to be a sadist who just runs around one shotting weak squishy things. But unfortunately, the meager amount of variety provided by new spells is counteracted by the balance between the enemies. Because they are stronger, the gameplay is identical to the last time I was in Kirkwall. And the bad guys look identical. So basically, I’m doing the same stuff, in the same place. Over and over and over. This continued until the very end of the game, more or less, and was the only thing preventing it from being a great game.

The saving grace for Dragon Age 2 was the writing and the characters. They were the only thing keeping me going through to the end. The storyline was interesting. even if the setting was not. The characters were engaging, even if what they were doing was not. If the writing was poor and the character interactions were dull, then I’d not even have finished the game and I wouldn’t be writing this long article. I’d have just posted “IT SUCKS” and moved on.

The writers at BioWare are brilliant. They need to be put up on a pedestal. I’ve actually read the Mass Effect novels, too, so I think that points out just how talented their people are.

But unfortunately, the writing can’t make up for the fact that the game itself was a miserable mess of content recycling. I can understand the motivation to re-use a few well designed environments over and over, but there’s a limit to how far that can go. The well designed environment quickly becomes normal and then even more rapidly becomes boring, when you have to repeatedly run through it in order to get to the story bits. Other companies have figured out a better sweet spot for content recycling – such as Bethesda with their Morrowind/Oblivion/Fallout games. Environments can look similar, that’s OK. But being identical makes things grueling. And trying to make them different by just locking doors – that’s insulting. I can see the map. I know there’s rooms on the other side of that door. I saw what you did there.

What made it worse is that the game consisted of 3 different chapters of the SAME content. I thought I had beat the game on multiple occasions, only to realize I had further to go. Which would have been great, if the environmental design matched the quality of the writing. I remember being sad when I beat the first Dragon Age, because I wanted more. When I beat Dragon Age 2, I felt relieved.

So, overall, Dragon Age 2 was a roller coaster ride, bouncing me between love and hate and leaving me with an averaged feeling of “meh.” The writing and characters were wonderful and the initial gameplay was brilliant. But unfortunately it was followed up with far too much repetition. A little repetition is fine, but they definitely crossed the line. I think the level of content recycling that they tried was a worthwhile experiment – they did find how far was too far. But unfortunately, it leaves me in the position of not being able to endorse this game. Not, at least, until it costs $25 or less.

So, that beign said, I must also point out that BioWare also wins a major respect points for standing up for minorities when it comes to the love stories in their games. I actually loved the fact that my mage could have a budding romance with the other male mage. Heck, it even got me a cheevo. Of course, my mage also had a romp with the lusty pirate lady. What can I say? Those characters… I loved ‘em.


The 5 Minute Rule

For those who may read my upcoming dissections of the games I play, there’s a vital theme which will be repeated throughout. I call this my “5 minute rule.”

The rule is very simple:

If I am not engaged within 5 minutes of starting playing, the game is crap.

I feel I should explain my reasoning, since many people have disagreed with me, or even pointed out how many great gaming experiences I have passed over because a game failed this rule.

Games are entertainment. Specifically they are interactive forms of entertainment. But primarily, they are entertainment. As such, I expect one primary result from engaging with them: I expect to be entertained.

Unlike some gamers, however, I am a hard-ass about this expectation. I expect a well designed game to come out of the gates swinging. To capture my imagination and have me in awe of the creativity of the development team, right off the bat. If any game does not present a glorious bounty of fun in my initial experience with the game, then they already made a fatal flaw. How many more flaws will I find later? Time is a finite resource – I have other games to play, not to mention actual work to do. (And I’m pretty sure that at any given moment in time, my wife wants me to do the dishes.)

So, this rule has some slide to it and it’s not my ONLY rule. I can be partially engaged in the first 5 minutes and if minute 10 provides some sort of amazing gameplay experience that knocks me on my ass, you can be sure I’ll finish the game. I could be thoroughly engaged in the first 5 minutes, but find that hour number 2 is absolutely grueling, which leads me to give up on a game. However, if the first 5 minutes of a game is grueling and boring, then it’s CRAP. PERIOD.

So, let me give you an example of a game that failed this rule. This is the game that I consider crap and many people disagree with me. It’s a game that many people loved and I’ve been assured that I missed out on a really great game because of my 5 minute rule. Perhaps I should have paid some kid to play the first 10-15 minutes so that I could eventually get to a good game. Wait, no, that would be stupid as hell.

So what’s that game? Super Paper Mario. Why is it shit? Because I start a new game and have to deal with this crap:

That’s 5 solid minutes of bleeps, bloops, shoddy dialogue and absolute torture. I don’t need to endure such horrendous crap to be able to get to a good game. Oh, and you can’t skip it. You can’t say “Hey, designer who should have been a crappy kids novelist – I’d rather not have to look at your bullshit. Please let me play the GAME that I paid to play.” Nope, you’re stuck there. You can speed it up a bit, but that just further enraged me.

Besides, I have other good games I can play.

Zelda: Twilight Princess was similar. The first 30 minutes of that game was full of me NOT DOING COOL STUFF. No, lady, I don’t want to find your cat. I want to hit stuff. With swords. That’s why I’m here.

So there you have it: The 5 Minute Rule.

You have 5 minutes, game developers, to prove to me that your game is worth my time. I’m not willing to give you more than that.


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