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interface design
Interface Pieces
November 24, 1998: Whither "User Experience"?
November 16, 1998: Some Odds and Ends
October 26, 1998: Interface Design Recommended Reading List
August 10, 1998:
Whose "My" Is It Anyway?
July 29, 1998:
User-Centered Information Design
June 29, 1998:
Best Practices for E-Commerce Functionality
May 21, 1998:
Transitions in Experience Design
May 17, 1998:
Interface Lessons from Video Game Design
May 2, 1998:
Lessons From CHI 98

Thoughts on Interface design
  Archive Piece   
  May 17, 1998

Interface Lessons from Video Game Design
Part I: Amplification through Simplification

A couple days ago I found myself in a video arcade in North Beach that featured both new and old stand-up coinops alike. In one of those indulgent trips down memory lane, I plonked in a good many quarters battling the baddies of my youth.

Two games, both classic, stuck with me most:
Tempest and Star Wars. There's something about the sheer intensity of their gameplay that remains essentially unparalleled. I've come to believe that a significant reason for this is that both are based on line-art vector graphics.

At the time (early 80s), what vector graphics offered video games was a way to more quickly render the visuals, which allowed for heightened gameplay (to create 3D-like environments using rasterized, or bitmap, graphics is far more processor-intensive). As processors have exponentially become more powerful, 3D-like games have graduated to rasterized imagery, allowing for a more "real" experience.

Yet Star Wars and Tempest get me sweating, tongue-biting, and hand-achy (from gripping too hard) in a way that no current video game can. And I think the reason is that the simple line graphics of those coinops require me to fill in the gaps, and allow me to become more intimately involved with the game.

Okay, you're going to have to work with me here. The best discussion of this idea of abstraction leading to involvement is found in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a brilliant book dissecting how comics (and to some extent, all visual media) work. He posits the idea of "amplification through simplification" where the simplicity of the rendering causes the viewer to focus on the subject's essence, which is now amplified, as it is not competing with other sundry details.

It is this simplification that I believe to be at the heart of Tempest's and Star Wars' success at creating an involving experience. Counter to the industry impulse of making the video game experience more "realistic," the near-schematic simplicity of the art invites the player to flesh out the details, further immersing him within this environment.

Part II: Alternate Input Devices
Something else which both Tempest and Star Wars share are unique hardware interfaces. Tempest has a simple 'spinner' or paddle, and two buttons, one for firing, another for 'superzapper', which destroys all enemies on screen. Star Wars features a flight yoke with four firing buttons (all which shoot lasers).
Unlike the world of home PCs, where it's always keyboard and mouse (or maybe, just maybe, a trackball), video games often explored alternative methods for interaction. There's no way a joystick (the 'mouse' of video games) could have provided the seamlessness of interface for either of these games, and the Macintosh version of Tempest,
Arashi, demonstrated that the mouse wasn't optimal, either.
There's no understating how important the physical interface is, and it's unfortunate that the mouse seems to be the end of the line (apart from some wacky new joysticks). Here's to hoping that the industrial designers of the world aren't resting, and will be surprising us soon enough...