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  • Should Players Buy Their Own UI?

    [05.07.20]
    - Sebastian Long
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons drops players onto a near-deserted island, with empty pockets and dreams of a self-made paradise.

    For the first few hours, players are tasked with organising their new tropical home by crafting and using handy tools: spades, axes, fishing poles. Axes chop trees and yield wood; shovels unearth fossils and buried treasure. Players have to swap between tools continuously to tidy their space.

    It's a slightly laborious process to open the in-game inventory, move the cursor to your desired tool with the d-pad, and double-tap to ‘hold', to then resume weed-clearing or hole-digging. And so, when the in-game shop is constructed, it's a welcome surprise to find a purchasable ‘Tool Ring': a radial quick-select menu for speedy access to those essential tools.


    Animal Crossing's purchasable Tool Ring upgrade. Image from NintendoLife.

    It's a radial menu: One press shows the menu, one push of the analog stick in the direction of your desired tool, then another press to select that tool.

    The Tool Ring is one of several upgrades that players can buy from infamous in-game shopkeeper Tom Nook, but so far it's the only upgrade that's purely for quality-of-life rather than unlocking some new mechanic or progression.

    The Tool Ring's only job is to reduce the players' need to access and scroll through the inventory to access their tools.

    But until the Tool Ring is bought and unlocked by players they must use the inventory, despite it being slower to complete tasks, more error-prone, and more visually overwhelming.

    Why would designers force players to use a clunky inventory when a perfectly good shortcut exists?

    And to unlock this quality-of-life feature, AC:NH asks players to save up and convolutedly buy it. Surely it could just be unlocked at the beginning?

    Why wouldn't quality-of-life capabilities unlock for players automatically? Why should players buy their own UI?

    Like many seemingly counter-intuitive choices in game design, the answer is: to shape player behaviour.

    Let's discuss why player experience benefits by players buying their own quality-of-life improvements like the Tool Ring in Animal Crossing, and see if this might be a mechanic that benefits your title too.

    Ramping Complexity

    All games struggle with teaching players, particularly those targeting audiences with little gaming experience or little time on their hands.

    If games can reduce the complexity of interfaces then there's less to teach or become overwhelmed by. As such, it's common for games to progressively reveal UI elements piece-by-piece through the first few minutes or sessions of play. This approach leads to a more gradual ‘learning curve'.

    Putting the Tool Ring in the in-game store gave players that extra learning time. But also the opportunity to pre-empt its introduction: to read the written description and understand the utility of an item to be introduced later.

    Any design pattern that can encourage players to concentrate and absorb information has huge value

    Providing quick access to tools might be necessary to pacing in AC:NH, but that doesn't mean the resulting radial menu is easy for players to understand or interact with. It's deceptively complicated: it's the only radial menu in the game, and is populated by tools that're abstractly ‘favourited' inside the inventory: one of the most visually-dense and variable menus in AC:NH.


    The Tool Ring avoids players having to visually scan and navigate this colourful, complex UI. Image from ACW.

    Delaying the addition of complex ideas can also empower teams to introduce more complexity than might otherwise have been tolerated or appropriate for a given audience, had it been introduced all-at-once.

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