Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Your Job is to Make Tasty Sandwiches!

I walked into a Subway sandwich store for the first time earlier today. After ordering, I was confronted by a lot of options that weren’t presented in an efficient way. There were approximately four steps where I had to make some choice as to what to put on my sandwich—four distinct phases where different ingredients were either added or withheld from the sandwich.

When the sandwich was completed, it has a total of 4 ingredients in it (bread included).

I ordered a sandwich that had a distinctive name that suggested almost every ingredient that would be present. “Sweet onion chicken teriyaki” leads me to expect the sandwich has onions, teriyaki sauce, and chicken on it, probably with lettuce thrown in because that’s how sandwiches are usually made. Instead, after ordering the sandwich, I was confronted with four different decisions, each with more than four options. It was not clear at all what would go on this sandwich or what should. Why is that? Because I am not a professional chef. I don’t go into the store expecting to be saddled with making myself a good sandwich. I went to the store so that I could buy a good sandwich that they had thoughtfully designed and put together.

This is a great metaphor for a significant problem application designers face: giving the user as few decisions as possible while allowing them to effectively and easily use the application to accomplish their goals. Subway failed at this basic design problem by saddling me with far too many choices, almost invalidating its primary reason for existing (to sell me tasty sandwiches as easily and quickly as possible so as to make a profit).

Aion makes an innocent but devastating mistake in an effort to simply make a tasty sandwich. They’ve streamlined their game into a candy-coated, artificially enhanced stream of purpose-built monotony. Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition falls into this trap as well.

When you log into Aion, you enter a world that is clearly made so that you can run around and effectively kill monsters. Everything’s arranged nicely for your viewing and killing pleasure. The ducks are lined up and a well-maintained rifle is put in your hand for an enjoyable afternoon of shooting—but the ducks are wooden and the rifle doesn’t shoot anything, a wooden duck flips backwards whenever you fire. The gameplay is directed; it’s so directed that, after 10 hours, it felt completely empty to me. My path through the game was perfectly clear. It was so well lit and nicely paved that I felt that I might try a different, dustier, less-traveled path. But there was no other path.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (4e from here on) streamlined the hell out of the tabletop roleplaying—or, perhaps more aptly, rollplaying—experience. Its predecessor, 3.5e, was asymmetric, arcane, and had a serious case of power creep. Wizards of the Coast apparently had enough of that and decided to finely tune the 4e rules to cut off all those rough edges and remove the arcane and less-trodden paths, to simplify the complex, and to run out of town all the rules but those that governed situations that could be vaguely described as combat. Suddenly the sprawling 3.5e is replaced by a very consistent, smooth 4e that has all the corners neatly rounded and all the danger areas surround in safety fences. 4e is a game system that is very obviously a game—it has clear boundaries that become quite obvious when you try to run a 4e campaign. All those fun utility items that abounded in 3.5e are gone. The unique and flavorful mechanics of each class are replaced by abilities that are minimal variations on a consistent framework. The abilities and, by extension, the classes, feel like repackaged and rebranded copies of the same few ideas.

Streamlining games can solve mechanics problems, but it ultimately rips the soul out of a game. When all of the interesting detail is stripped and all the excitement is paved over, it doesn’t matter if the game is perfectly balanced: it simply will not have enough flavor to be fun. You might leave the game feeling like it was well-balanced and complete, but you won’t find yourself excited.


Andrew said...

Clearly you need to go to Quiznos instead of Subway. No decisions necessary for your sandwich. =)

evizaer said...

Yeah, I know. I went to Quizno's once or twice a week for almost three years at college. Now that I'm done with school, there's no Quizno's nearby. Oh well.

Longasc said...

Cool, I am glad that I am not the only one who feels slightly annoyed when they start rattling down their checklist of sandwich ingredients at Subway. Often I just nod as I not always understand what they say if there is a lot of noise or say "whatever you want". :P

Aion gets a lot more options, we just do not get them served early or quickly. The disadvantage is that you really do not get a feeling for your class at level 10, I would say not even at level 20. I no longer play Aion, so I feel a bit bad always advocating for it.

And you are right that except the Stigmas you get fairly late there is NO CHOICE involved, you get the skills of your class and must make do with them.

WoW is going a bit the 3.5 - 4.0 D&D route. They want to reduce abilities and their power to the basic stats of strength, dexterity, stamina and throw stuff like MP/5, Spellpower and perhaps even special resistances out of the window. I somehow see them going Diablo style, but this is my speculation.

The problem is indeed that this not only streamlines things, but dumbs down stuff often so immensely that quite a lot gets lost, too.

In our ideal world we would have different choices, different paths to walk, and all would have their particular strengths and be viable.

I think stopping immense power creep, through levels and ever better gear, opens up possibilities that the "best build" is not dominating all others, that not everyone is basically told to pick this power or that power.

There will probably always be a favorite choice that tops others in many aspects and modes of gameplay, but as long as it does not totally overpower some fancy exotic skillsets completely, the game remains healthy and diverse.

In Guild Wars, ranger pets were rarely worth it. Now that they got a serious raw power buff and some extra abilities in the beast mastery line they are still not the perfect optimum choice, but pretty viable. People feel not totally screwed for "trying to make a pet build that only sucks and does not absolutely suck", now they can bring their pet without getting bashed, as the little buggers now really do something. :)

i think Subway needs a clearly structured and easy to view TREE like the skill trees in WoW. Bad analogy, ok. But I hope you get my point. :) You cannot make things more complicated without having people have to read research texts, which is another kind of fun or burden. In DDO I would not have felt comfortable making any choice without knowing the system behind it.

When it comes to character builds, the cool thing about Guild Wars is that you can respec freely and experiment, fiddle around in every outpost. Compare this to Champions Online. If you have to respec, your char goes broke or you have to go to the online shop and buy a respec.... eeeks!

WoW has dual specs, but in this game it favors the hybrid classes a lot. It also feels wrong to me for several reasons, but this is a matter for another debate.

I see a general trend to encourage players to experiment and make char build choices reversible and less punishing to the player and his char. Seems this is the modern take on how to retain many choices without overburdening the player with too many of them and dire consequences he cannot comprehend early on.

Jason said...

If you are looking for a chef designed sandwich, you are going to the wrong store. If I were to listen to chefs at sandwich and fast food places, every sandwich I buy would have mayonnaise on it despite the fact that I think mayonnaise makes every sandwich taste like crap. I go to Subway BECAUSE of the choices. I choose the meat, the bread, the cheese, and the toppings, I get the sandwich the way that I want it made and not the way some chef thinks I should enjoy it despite not knowing a single thing about me, like my hatred of mayo, my dislike of certain cheeses, or my love of wheat bread over all of the other forms of bread. If I want a chef to design my sandwich I'll go to a restaurant that had chefs, not a fast food joint with high school and college kids making the food.

scrusi said...

Like Jason, I like having the choice at Subway. What's important, I think, is that you also have the choice to not make the choice. I've gone to Subway a couple of times and just asked the serving guy or girl to put on that sandwich what she thinks is good. More often I've let them recommend a sauce, because I didn't know them all. I know my vegetables so those choices are easy for me.

Obviously you can run into somebody with a bad taste or somebody who hates the job and end up with a bad decision. Also quite obviously the guy or gal behind the counter won't know your tastes, so if you want the optimal sandwich you have to make decisions for yourself - but there's a perfectly acceptable "lazy" solution there for you.

That's how games should do it. In Civ IV I can choose to automate my workers, taking work of my hands and doing an OK job. When I started playing, the AI actually did a better job than I did. Now that I know more and play the harder difficulties, "good enough" isn't good enough for me anymore, so I do it by hand. Give your players all the options, but make the game playable without them.

The opposite is going McDonalds style. I hate eating there because they rarely put tomatoes on their burgers. I know a few people who always dissect their burger after getting it to take out the pickles. We want choice and we don't get it - that is the Aion way (or the 4e way I suppose. Haven't played it myself.)

Anonymous said...

You know Aion, as Longasc stated, really does open up at 20+, with more places to level, grind, gather, ect. But as there is a lot of focus via quest lines for every 5th level, you get a very active LFG channel. That channel is filled with as much spam as the gold sellers previously did, but instead for groups looking for more members. So as much as I can now (as of 25) level in the abyss or the thicket or mt. Musphel area or the thicket or the spider caves, I can also keep an eye peeled for groups needing more if I want a fire temple or ice claw village or lava caves run (the 22+,25+,and 30+ main 'dungeon' crawls respectively). This is important, because for the most part sandbox games and mmo's with enormous land masses usually offer extremely lonely environs for even a guilder character.

evizaer said...

Let me recommend those of you pointing out that Aion opens up after 15 hours/25 levels to my post about that nonsense.

Sure, Aion "opens up", but the game is still streamlined as all hell. The zones are relatively small and closed in with mobs placed so close together that it's hard to walk through the zone without grinding. Character build options are granted in an extraordinarily limited fashion through stigmas. Still, everything's safe. We've seen it all before. And all the stuff that makes it exciting and interesting is basically absent from Aion because it has been streamlined out.

@Jason "Chef-designed sandwich" means that someone who makes sandwiches for a living has concocted a sandwich that should be tasty. The ingredients should work together and taste well as a unit. I don't have a good conception of how things will taste together beyond the obvious so I don't freaking know what to do my first time in a Subway. It's more choice than is reasonable. I much prefer an exception-based decision-making scheme like Quizno's, where you order the sandwich and then specify any alterations you want made.

motstandet said...

I'm going to reference the post I made a few months ago: Choice is a Buzzkill

Anonymous said...

So you make a post about being confounded by choice, and yet you deride Aion for it's streamlined approach to levelling options. I find Aion's world to be just big enough. It has the most MMO feel of any MMO of the last few years. The towns and cities are busy and the LFG channel is constantly scrolling. It was obviously designed to accomplish that very thing.

evizaer said...

Mot made a post about that, not me.

Anonymous said...

Was actually referring to the sandwich metaphor. My point is Aion doesn't hit the Explorer button, but it makes up for that with a hustle and bustle and MMOness that I haven't seen in an MMO in a long time. Lacking in options at 10-20 oh yes. And 1-10 are a frustratingly pointless exercise. But compared to a wide open but largely empty world, Aion has found a good balance between 'feeling inhabited' and hugely unoccupied.

evizaer said...

There's a distinction to be made between unnecessary choice and a lack of choice.

The sandwich metaphor illustrates that giving the user too many options often confuses them and is counter-productive. The reaction to too much choice is to design a system that's streamlined significantly. Streamlining can solve some problems, but it tends to sterilize the environment and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Anonymous said...

So... you're saying that if Subway streamlined their sandwich-choosing procedure, they would inevitably end up losing the spirit of what makes a sandwich an unforgettable experience?

evizaer said...

Not at all. On one hand, an overly streamlined experience removes any choice I may have, rendering my presence almost unnecessary. On the other hand, too much choice leads to a loss of direction. Making a game is a complex balancing act. Depending on the audience and the goals of the game, a different degree of streamlining is necessary--I feel that Aion and D&D4e have gone too far.

Tesh said...

Might I suggest that there is considerable room for personal preference? I'm inordinately fond of the options present in Subway dining, and will not pay *more* for an experience where the chef makes decisions for me. To some, such choices can indeed be paralyzing, and paying for someone else to make the choices is money well spent.

To each their own, after all.

Tesh said...

I also submit for perusal an article I wrote a while back:

Autopilot Character Development

Wherein players are given an initial choice about how much choice they want in their character's development, and can automate as much of it as they would like. (Not unlike DDO's template builds.) This is a setting that could be overriden at will (Quiznos mode), and runs the spectrum from complete autopilot (haute cuisine) to minmaxer paradise (Mongolian Barbecue). Give players the choice to tune their experience, and you create a more welcoming environment.

evizaer said...

Sandwich ordering should be an exception-based system, with an option for a completely custom order.

You've got a menu with fifteen pre-configured sandwiches. You can order one of those sandwiches and it will be made exactly as is indicated on the menu. If you wish to change an ingredient, you can specify an exception or substitution (swiss instead of american cheese, for instance).

If you want to design your own sandwich, you can do so. They have a menu for that which is basically the ingredients from their other sandwiches laid out in a subway-like ordered customization process.

I shouldn't be forced to do either. I should have appealing choices presented straight away, AND I should be able, if I have sufficient knowledge and the will to do it, to create my own sandwich with the ingredients available.

The exception-based and ground-up approaches to sandwich design aren't mutually exclusive, and game design doesn't have to be that way, either, as Tesh mentions in his character development autopilot points.

Tesh said...

Aye, and you're right, the design probably should default to "complete sandwich" rather than "build it from the ground up". Let people play the game, and if they want to dig around and find the options, make it easy to find them, but don't force the depth, and don't make it a default. That's just going to put off customers who want to zip in and have some fun.

Anonymous said...

Sweet buddha I need to disagree with you about D&D.

See, in an MMO, you get what everyone gets; zones, mobs, classes, races... everyone picks from the same pool of possibilities.

In D&D, especially 4e, you are playing with a few people, and using your imagination. I've actually been impressed with how often the 4e DMG encourages thinking outside the provided rules. Yess, skill challenges needed (and recieved) tuning up, but by and large the clarification of 4e was thus:

'RPGs need well defined rules for combat, but not so much for roleplay. Let's make the clearest rules for versatile combat and let people do their roleplaying how they want.'

This is, in fact, true. When your DM is making up the games, it's their imagination, as well as the PC's, that creates the roleplaying.

'Rollplaying' (ugh) was far more prevalent in 3(.5)e with rules for all sorts of things that did not need any.

If all you do is roll dice for everything and say back and forth... 'I move 3 squares.' 'The goblin rolls a 20 and hits you. You take 3 damage.' 'I roll a 12 to hit the goblin.' ... you're robbing yourselves blind. Use your imagination.

MMOs don't have that luxury. All the setting and npc behaviors have to be laid out beforehand. The railroading in an MMO is amplified by the idea that alts will have to do the exact same thing. In D&D new characters have their own, completely different experiences every time.

Umm... I guess what I mean is that designer imposed railroading is totally unlike user imposed railroading.

And I order stuff at subway that isn't on the menu at all. Tuna and meatball ftw.

Ravious said...

Chipotle vs. California Tortilla. I like any posts re MMOs and food. :D