essay: Testing for the fun factor
flipsockgrrl @ gmail .com
21 October 2004
Games are designed experiences on many levels, says Andrew Stapleton. They involve social, cultural, learning and emotional elements that can be tested and evaluated using many of the techniques in any HCI practitioner's toolkit.
At CHISIG Victoria's evening seminar in October, the Swinburne University of Technology researcher outlined how usability testing was done for one highly-successful computer game, Microsoft's "Halo".
Games are firmly based on satisfying the designer's intent, rather than the user's higher-level goals. In a 'productivity' application, such as a word processor, the user has goals that don't relate directly to the software: she wants to write and print a letter, and the computer application happens to be the tool she uses for the task—she could equally use a pen and paper instead.
In a game, the user's goal is imposed by the designer, who creates challenges and gives subtle clues to help the user solve puzzles, move forward through levels of difficulty and complete a journey through a virtual world.
In this scenario, the focus of usability is "shifted from user goals to the designer's intent," said Stapleton, "but the players aren't allowed to feel as though it's a scripted experience."
The in-game prompts and guidance can be subtle: letting the player see a destination in the distance, but no clear path from here to there; placing 'virtual walls' as barriers or pathways so that the way forward is obvious; or using objects as a breadcrumb trail for the player to collect or follow.
The games developers at Microsoft have a large in-house usability group, second only to the Windows XP team, and "All of them play games. It's a prerequisite for getting into the industry," said Stapleton.
The "Halo" developers use participant observations, surveys, heuristic evaluations and playtesting in small groups of six to eight players. The playtesting looks not at software bugs or other programming and systems issues but at whether people enjoy playing the game in the manner intended by the designers.
"Halo" is a first-person shooter, in which the player takes the role of a character moving through a landscape and using a gun or other weapons to kill enemy attackers. In playtesting for the first version, players tended to fire their guns at long range—they didn't move close to the enemy attackers, as intended by the game's designers.
Accordingly, said Stapleton, the designers changed two elements of the game before its release: gunsights only worked at closer range, and enemies in the distance simply hid until the player moved within optimal firing range. Reaction times shortened, excitement increased, and "Halo" became a remarkably successful game for X-box and Windows platforms. ("Halo 2" is due for release shortly, and has been through similar playtesting.)
The average age of computer-game players is 29, and 39 per cent of players are women. In 2002, Australians spent around $2.3 million per day buying computer games, about the same as we spent going to the movies.
Around 40 Australian game development companies employ 700 people, about half in Victoria, says Stapleton. The annual total industry turnover was $100 million in 2002, and the industry mostly produces games for export. These statistics exclude people working in related areas such as animation and special effects, marketing and so on.
Andrew Stapleton is research leader of the Multimedia Group at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. He came to games research via an undergraduate degree in physics, followed by postgraduate study and professional work in science communication. His PhD examined the uses of play in learning, particularly for designing games to promote conceptual learning in physics.
Microsoft's playtesting group www.microsoft.com/playtest/
"Halo 2" developers' blog www.bungie.net/Games/Halo2/ (look for the weekly update)
X-box resources for developers, content creators and publishers www.xbox.com/en-us/dev/default.htm
Australian Game Developers' Conference www.agdc.com.au/
Game Developer magazine www.gdmag.com/
Gamasutra for news, reviews and jobs www.gamasutra.com/
XEO Design, a company that specialises in usability for games and entertainment systems www.xeodesign.com/home.html
Multimedia at Swinburne University of Technology www.swin.edu.au/hed/mmedia/mmedia.htm
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