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2% failure in user experience

Mass Effect 3 was 98% awesome, but a significant part of it's failure was tied to UX design. Read on to find out more.

Moses Wolfenstein

May 26, 2012

10 Min Read

this post is excerpted from this other post.

There's a lot of good in Mass Effect 3. In fact, as others have argued I'd say the game is really roughly 98% good. In addition, unlike some folks out there I don't think that the ending of ME3 ruined the whole Mass Effect series. I do believe that it casts an indelible shadow across it that slightly diminishes it as a whole, but there's a big difference between that and saying that it's ruined as I honestly I don't think it even ruined the rest of the game let alone the series. I mean heck, I'm still playing the multiplayer and plan on replaying the rest when I have the time so that surely counts for something.

That said, I'm not going to write much about the good in Mass Effect 3 in this post, because honestly I don't have too much to say about it that hasn't been covered in the more glowing reviews. Instead I'm going to focus primarily on the parts of Mass Effect 3 that I consider to be badly designed or badly written, as well as those elements that I consider to be ugly game design in that they may be effectively designed but they still do a disservice to Mass Effect players.

Many words have already been spilled on the topic of Mass Effect 3, most of them focusing on its ending. I have a few thoughts on the ending as well from both a design and writing perspective, but before we even get to that there are a handful of design and development elements in the game that fail in one way or another and are worth addressing. These are mostly things that would have marred the game moderately even if the ending had been different/better in some way (bad design), and the part that makes me fundamentally worried about any games coming out of any EA development houses in the future (ugly design). 

Undoubtedly the most egregious of the bad design or development failures from a sheerly technical standpoint is the character face import failure. While it didn't ultimately diminish my experience with Mass Effect 3 that much over the course of the game, it was absolutely jarring for the first 30 minutes or so of gameplay in which we see Shepard's face quite a bit. I did my best to reconstruct my Shepard, but once she was out in the world there were a number of camera angles where she just looked wrong.

In large part the disjunct between my redesign attempt and how my Shepard looked out in the world owed to the fact that the lighting on the character construction screen was pretty dark making it hard to see just what some of the character's features really looked like. Meanwhile, there are many settings in the game including the early ones that are brightly lit, and any protruding feature becomes magnified. The combined result was a development failure (import) and a design choice (dark lighting) that magnified each other in diminishing the quality of my experience as a player the moment I started the game.

I think the key design take away here is that improving the lighting in the character designer would have been a good design move in general based on the variations in lighting that occur over the course of the game. While it may have been nice artistically to have that screen be a little darker to stick with the mood of the game, it has serious usability consequences that have aesthetic consequences over the rest of the game, hence those concerns should've lead that design decision. In theory the bug was fixed in April, although I haven't tried a re-import as there's no real point in doing so currently. Ultimately, I'll say that fortunately this issue was greatly offset for me by Jennifer Hale's excellent voice acting, as her voice is in many ways a more defining feature for Shepard than my character's appearance.

Of course, the face import wasn't the only problematic bug in Mass Effect 3. Most of the other ones are small things and I assume all of them will be fixed eventually (some of them probably have been already). Still, I do have to mention one other bug since it touches on a general game design problem that certainly didn't kill the game by any measure but is fundamentally problematic in some ways. Specifically the bug on the Cerberus intel for the Eden Prime: Resistance Movement mission highlights a core design dillema in the series. The actual bug involves the mission not only being incompletable if the player fails to gather the intel when they're initially on Eden Prime, but the mission continuing to stay highlighted in the mission log and the system remaining highlighted on the galaxy map up to the end of the game even though there's nothing the player can do there.

Note that with other side missions BioWare made it possible to complete these missions even if you failed to collect items while on the relevant planet for a priority mission or other side mission. From my perspective, the problem this bug bug highlights seems to represent Mass Effect 3's designers reluctance to allow for the appearance of individual mission failures in the game. Players can fail a mission and die, but side missions are either completed or not, but never actually failed. It's possible the Eden Prime side mission was supposed to be different, but if so this just highlights the manner in which the norm for the game involves not allowing the player to fail.

While there are certainly development reasons for the bug that could in theory be tied to the fact that the main Eden Prime mission is DLC, it still touches on the second fairly major technical failure in the game: the mission log. As far as I can remember the mission log has been an issue in all of the Mass Effect games. The problem (which you're well familiar with if you've played the game) is that the mission log loads to the center of the list of all missions. This means that especially late in the game you have to scroll up a long list of completed missions in order to get to your active missions. Given that it's not unreasonable for players to reference missions with some frequency (why have a log if that isn't the case?) I'm going to assume that this wasn't an intentional design choice. This just makes it a really unfortunate failure of development (or perhaps design through neglect?) since it's been a persistent issue across titles.

The other major problem with the mission log involves access to mission information while charting navigation on the galaxy map. It's frankly ridiculous that a player has to navigate all the way back out of the map in order to get access to any kind of information about the missions beyond their general location.

In a sane and sensible world, the player would be able to see mission information displayed on the same screen where they perform navigation. As with the scrolling issue, this was a user experience design problem in the previous game as well that really should have been rectified. It could have been fixed one of two ways: 1) Make it possible to navigate to the codex with one click from the galaxy map or 2) Populate the galaxy map with a little bit more information about active missions.

I'm guessing that 1 would've been harder to do, while 2 would have required some good UI design to keep it clean but carry the right amount of information to help players make navigational decisions. The bottom line with all of the mission log issues from a UX standpoint is that you're wasting the user's time and making them needlessly click through screens. This detracts from the gameplay experience, and it's particularly unpalatable in a game that takes at least 20 hours to get through and upwards of 40 for a completionist like myself.

While the galaxy map/mission log issue is annoying, it's not quite as severe a user experience failure as the war room terminal is. The first time I saw the war room terminal I was tremendously excited by it. It's just such a cool looking interface and I figured, "Okay, the reapers have just attacked, but at some point in the game these various system statuses will change and I'll have access to some kind of cool features (maybe special missions and things) based on which systems are available after I do things in the game." I mean, that seemed like a totally reasonable interpretation of the interface as it's first presented.

The problem with the war room terminal is actually three fold. Two of the issues involve user experience, and the third involves the part that I think is fundamentally unethical design. First there's the fact that no matter how much you improve galactic readiness absolutely nothing changes in terms of what you can do on the map in the different sectors. The status unavailable message ultimately conveys nothing since the information revealed when a system is available is simply a general description of that system with no strategic relevance. 

This is closely coupled with the fact that most of the activities I've done to push that meter up (multiplayer matches) act globally with very few of them affecting specific sectors. Taken as a whole this means that the interface promises something that the game never actually delivers: 1) That unique actions will have a meaningful effect on what that interface tells you about the different sectors and 2) That there's some way in which preparing those sectors impacts actual progression of the game in a meaningful way. Point 2 is a little hazier, but it's strongly implied by the message telling you that more information is not available when readiness is at 50%. Furthermore, given the very real complaints about meaningful choices that have plagued Mass Effect in light of the ending/s, point 2 actually carries the horrible burden of undesigned potential as well (more on that in a bit).

These two issues are further complicated by the single greatest design failure in relation to the terminal which is its fundamental opacity. There is nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, in the single player game that tells you anything at all about how to move the dial on galactic readiness. There may have been some piece of supporting documentation that I missed somewhere, but as far as information in the game either on the map itself or in the codex, the thing is fundamentally opaque.

It was only after I spoke first to a friend and then to my brother and they mentioned that you had to play the multiplayer in order to optimize your outcome on the game that I went online to discover that playing the multiplayer or the iOS app were the only ways to improve galactic readiness. I'll get to my issues with that in a minute, but the key thing from a user experience standpoint is that given the choice, you should never force the user outside of your system in order for them to understand how some aspect of the system works. Ethical issues aside, that's simply bad design. Of course, we can't put the ethical issues aside entirely which is why I'll be returning to this topic at the end of this post.

While I have a variety of complaints with other various elements of game play (Press A for All Action!) and level design (that damn reaper on Tuchanka) in Mass Effect 3, they're all ultimately pretty insubstantial issues. Some of them are likely tied to my preferences as a player or the results of idiosyncratic errors I made that most people never encountered. Others are more common subjects of complaint. All of them are the types of critiques I generally write off in games, and the proportion of them was remarkably low in Mass Effect 3 anyway.

the rest of this incredibly long post.

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