22 January 2011

Game Design And Control Ergonomics - by David Hughes

I have to start out this article by noting that I'm a somewhat unique case. Despite being relatively young, I have carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists - one of which is already post-surgery. This means I'm more sensitive than most to ergonomic issues, but I can't be alone here when I say this: I hate holding buttons.

Often times, holding buttons is a necessary aspect of game design, but I've recently played two games that could have used a different control layout to much better effect. The designs still 'work' but ergonomics is an overlooked part of game design, because the last thing we want our games to feel like is work. In order to keep things focused, I'm going to stick to the two games I have in mind and conclude by offering a third game as a positive example of good ergonomic consideration in control design.

I recently played (and reviewed) Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed II. Largely speaking, the control scheme of the game is well-conceived, but there is one issue I found particularly annoying from an ergonomic perspective. Ezio, the game's protagonist, has three movement speeds (walk, run, and free-run). Especially during the game's excellent beginning where tension is at its peak, walking around the city at the slow default speed is surprisingly fun - something I can't saw about most games with slow default movement speeds.

As the game's setting gets old, players spend a lot of time holding down (on the Xbox 360) RT to run. This is nothing new, though holding the trigger is slightly more annoying than holding down A (as in basically all of the Rockstar games). The issue becomes when Ezio needs to free-run. This activity is a major component of the game, and it requires holding down RT and A at the same time.  Considering that players very rarely have a need to run but not free-run, Ubisoft would have been better served taking the middle movement speed out and making RT (or A) the only button needed to engage parkour mode.

The negative impact of this becomes even more apparent during the game's badly conceived 'open-world' Tuscany region where Ezio must ride a horse in order to travel at anything approaching a tolerable speed. Here again, the horse has three movement speeds (walk, run, and gallop) with only two being truly useful. I never once found a sequence where I wanted Ezio's horse to run and not gallop, making a two-button hold necessary to move in the region.

I admit the horse part annoyed me considerably since I played Assassin's Creed II after Red Dead Redemption. Any game from now on will have a difficult time coming up with a horse-riding control scheme that is any better than RDR's simple 'tap A spur horse faster, hold A to maintain current speed' scheme. It's still a button-hold yes, but at one button it's manageable. Moreover, there are frequent parts of that game were having the ability to fine-tune how fast the horse is moving is quite nice to have - something absent from AC2. At the risk of diverging from the topic slightly, I also want to note how more games should examine RDR's brilliant scheme for matching NPC movement speed (logically, by holding A). It is, quite frankly, ridiculous how many games that involve following or escorting NPC's do not implement something as basic as having the player-character and NPC's move at the same speed.

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