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Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Making jrpg "more usable" has long been on my todo list. Recently I've read some articles about usability. Especially useful was one of the articles, which listed many usability heuristics for games. Let's see how well does jrpg do:

  • Controls should be customizable and default to industry standard settings: No customizability, but they're standard enough.
  • Controls should be intuitive and mapped in a natural way: I thinks it's doing fine here.
  • Minimize control options: jrpg has very simple controls
  • The interface should be as non-intrusive as possible: Doing OK
  • For PC games, consider hiding the main computer interface during game play: This is true for PC games (like those played with mouse + keyboard). But as jrpg is not a PC game, but a pseudo-console retro, and played without a mouse, it doesn't really apply.
  • A player should always be able to identify their score/status in the game: The score/status is always there, but not the information about the current quest.
  • Follow the trends set by the gaming community to shorten the learning curve: jrpg is a retro game, it ignores the current trends by design. But it's not doing anything particularly bad here.
  • Interfaces should be consistent in control, color, typography, and dialog design: Close enough
  • Minimize the menu layers of an interface: done perfectly
  • Use sound to provide meaningful feedback: Not done at all. Adding a slayed a demon/got hit by a demon sounds would be like a nice option.
  • Do not expect the user to read a manual: Most people did fine without it, but some seem to have problems. Quick help screen is a step in the right direction. A training mode for teaching how to fight would also be nice. I guess the hiragana demons in the forest are a good place to add the help messages.
  • Provide means for error prevention and recovery through the use of warning messages: Not applicable
  • Players should be able to save games in different states: I'm not certain about that. Save games contain information not only about the game state, but also about game's knowledge about player's kanji skills. Save/load before bosses would make the game lose this knowledge. So I think it's impossible to do it without a major redesign.
  • Art should speak to its function: I don't really know what is meant by it.
  • Mechanics should feel natural and have correct weight and momentum: A lot of work in jrpg has been done to make the movement natural. You'd be surprised how non-trivial the issue turned out. And it seemed so trivial at first.
  • Feedback should be given immediately to display user control: Doing fine.
  • Get the player involved quickly and easily: This point could be improved a lot. It takes jrpg way too much time to learn about the player's kanji skills.
  • There should be a clear overriding goal of the game presented early: Like - learn all kanji ? Fine enough.
  • There should be variable difficulty level: jrpg autodetects player's skills and if it's possible to make the game easier or harder by fighting demons in different locations.
  • There should be multiple goals on each level: Like multiple treasure chests on each dungeon level ? I don't think it's really applicable.
  • A good game should be easy to learn and hard to master: So true.
  • The game should have an unexpected outcome: Not applicable.
  • Artificial intelligence should be reasonable yet unpredictable: Not applicable.
  • Game play should be balanced so that there is no definite way to win: Well, you could always simply learn all kanji ...
  • Play should be fair: jrpg is trying to be fair, by accepting different spellings, all correct pronunciations etc.
  • The game should give hints, but not too many: Not really applicable, unless you count the silly quests.
  • The game should give rewards: The crystal ball is a step in the right direction but it's way too mean.
  • Pace the game to apply pressure to, but not frustrate the player: Difficulty is automatically adjusted to the player's skills. But I think the difficulty in the dungeon is adjusted to an overly difficult level.
  • Provide an interesting and absorbing tutorial: The kana part kinda has such a function, but it's not doing too well.
  • Allow players to build content: Like, with a level editor ? I'd like to make one for myself, but it'd be rather hard architecturally.
  • Make the game replayable: Unless you learn 2000 kanji in one go, it's pretty much replayable.
  • Create a great storyline: It probably won't happen.
  • There must not be any single optimal winning strategy: Not applicable
  • Should use visual and audio effects to arouse interest: It's a retro game after all, and I don't have any artists to work for me ;-)
  • Include a lot of interactive props for the player to interact with: I'm not sure if it's applicable or not.
  • Teach skills early that you expect the players to use later: doing OK
  • Design for multiple paths through the game: It would be nice. I'll have to check it with the guardian angel of software development.
  • One reward of playing should be the acquisition of skill: That's kinda the point of jrpg.
  • Build as though the world is going on whether your character is there or not: That's way too ambitious for jrpg.
  • If the game cannot be modeless, it should feel modeless to the player: jrpg is not modeless, but tries to be close enough. Most keys work the same way in all modes, even silly ones (save game on quick help screen etc.).
So the useful ideas for UI improvements found in just a few minutes are:
  • Add input customizability
  • Display current quest
  • Add optional sounds to the battle
  • Add a quick help screen (done, visible on the screenshot)
  • Add a training mode for battle
  • A difficulty dispatcher.
  • Make the crystal ball less mean.
  • Take a look at difficulty.
  • Finally make a level editor.
  • Make the world bigger and more interesting.
It's quite surprising how many heuristics were applicable to jrpg, especially since they aren't specific to its genre.

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