GCDC 2007: Sidhe's Mario Wynands on Usability

At the 2007 GC Developers Conference, in Leipzig, Germany, Sidhe Interactive (GripShift, Jackass The Game) co-founder and managing director Mario Wynands discussed the importance of usability in game development, and how to conduct effective usabil
At the 2007 GC Developers Conference, held August 20-22 in Leipzig, Germany, Sidhe Interactive (GripShift, Jackass The Game) co-founder and managing director Mario Wynands -- who's also the president of the New Zealand Game Developers Association -- gave a talk about usability, along with a case study from Sidhe's experience. Wynands used the definition of usability as stated in Wikipedia: "a term used to denote the ease with which people can employ a particular tool or other human-made object in order to achieve a particular goal." Many games use the entire slate of buttons on a single controller, Wynands said, calling XBox 360's "the bad example," owing to its many buttons, some with differing functions within the same game. Poor usability has consequences, and Wynands' list of potentials included user frustration, annoyance and lack of trust in the system, even "wasteful or destructive actions" -- ultimately, he says, users may even seek out alternatives for play. The key areas of video game usability, according to Wynands, are the game's controls, UI/HUD design, help text, understandability of game concepts, color and sound cues, clarity and consistency of language, and good artificial intelligence. Almost everyone in the development process, from the game designer to the lead programmer, should consider usability, he added, laying out some basic requirements for usability testing. First, it needs a usability advocate -- someone who is involved in the development process, and a facilitator to run the test. Second, Wynands recommended a private test area, consumer test subjects and at least two cameras to film the test subjects' spontaneous reactions. For the test process, Wynands offered a to-do list: assign a test plan and task list, then recruit subjects and facilitate one-on-one test sessions. The next step is to collate the results and report them, and then make the necessary changes to the game. Lastly, iterate the impact of changes to the test. Five or six people over a couple of days is enough for one test iteration, Wynands suggested. He also advised against testing the same subject twice (unless it's for a different game). He theorized that any test group should comprise about 80 percent of all types of gamers. As an example, Wynands offered the case study of GripShift Sidhe's puzzle-based driving game for PSP. "Man hates instructions," he said. "Give players the possibility to surpass training lessons and to jump directly into the game at any level of difficulty." "Make it obvious," Wynands added, noting that in GripShift, checkpoints are clearly marked with big blue arrows. He also advised a "less-is-more" mindset, noting that people don't like to read, and thus it should be obvious what to do. Play itself should be easy enough without necessitating long instructions, he advised. One of his suggestions was to split up help screens and screens describing controls, as well as any measure that allows full access to all of a game's functions without forcing the player to wade through long texts. Wynands also provided some cautions during the development process regarding usability testing. Developers should expect early production team resistance, but he advised against delays. "It's never too early to start testing," he said. He also reminded the audience that usability testing is not focus testing; the test subjects must be game consumers, he stressed, with no repeat subjects. "Usability helps consumers enjoy your games to their full potential," he concluded.

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