Have you ever encountered a door that simply refused to behave logically? Maybe it was so obvious that it was a pull door, yet turned out to require pushing instead. Or perhaps the signals were simply unclear, and either way seemed equally likely. Perhaps the door even had a helpful written sign on it to clarify which way it was supposed to go, because it would cause too much confusion otherwise.
Once you start looking for them, you will find that doors like this are all around you. Why is it that, in a world where robots are gaining citizenship, there are still doors that are this badly designed? It’s not like this is a difficult problem – most doors do a fine job of making it clear what is supposed to be done with them, and yet there are still some outliers that practically go out of their way to confuse people.
Doors like this are known as Norman Doors, and are named after Donald Norman, the inventor of user-centered design. These doors are a major topic in his classic design book “The Design of Everyday Things”, which explains that the reason the doors are so frustrating is because they lack a design principle known as discoverability.
Discoverability is a property of designed objects that makes it obvious what types of things the object is able to do. Discoverability is hugely important in all areas of design, from product design to web design, and game design is no different. In this article, I am going to be taking a look at how the principle of discoverability can be used in games to guide the player and improve the overall play experience.
When talking about discoverability, there are a couple of closely related ideas that should also be mentioned. The first concept is the idea of affordances. An affordance is an option that the object “affords” the user. Going back to the door example, a door that has nothing but a flat plate only has a single affordance – push. It does not provide the “pull” affordance to the user, and because of this the user doesn’t even think about how to use it. The only option is to push, so they push.
For a slightly more complicated example, lets look at staplers. If you think of the word stapler, there is probably a single image that pops into your head. It is most likely a long rectangular shape with two parts – a top and a bottom, with a hinge between them. The bottom is probably a flat plate, while the top is a little thicker because it has to hold the staples. The way to use it is obvious – you slide the paper between the two pieces and press down to staple – easy!
Unfortunately, not all staplers are made quite so simply. I once had a handheld stapler, similar to the one shown in the image (I couldn’t find the exact model I had, but it’s similar enough). As you can see from the image, this particular stapler has two very similar gaps on the top and the bottom. On my model it was difficult to tell which gap I was supposed to put the paper into, and there were a number of times when I got it wrong and had to switch.
Although it was not always clear which side the paper went into, it was always easy to tell when I had gotten it wrong. Why? Because of the next related concept – feedback. Usually when you staple an item you can feel a satisfying pop when the staple goes in. This lets you know that you have done something right, and when this is missing you know that you have either stapled wrong or need to add more staples.
The examples so far have been pretty mundane, but the concepts of discoverability, affordances, and feedback are all very relevant to game design. As your player navigates the world of your game, it is important for them to be aware of the various options that are available to them at any given time. By adding proper affordances, designing things in a discoverable way, and providing proper feedback, it is possible to avoid a lot of confusion and frustration within your game.
You Can’t Afford not to
The first step to discoverable design is to make sure that objects in your game have the proper affordances. There are two parts to this. The first part is to make sure that if something can be interacted with, there is some indication of this fact to the player. The second part is that you should not provide false affordances to the player – you should not advertise interactions that do not actually exist.
As gamers, there are certain affordances that players have begun to expect. Levers can most likely be pulled, ladders and walls with vines can probably be climbed, etc. Because these types of affordances are so common in games, they should be avoided unless your game actually allows the player to use them. You should never present your player with an unclimbable ladder.
Similarly, there are some affordances that players begin to expect within the game itself. If you show your players that they can burn objects made of wood, then you should be prepared to make sure that every wooden object in your game can be properly burned. Also, do not provide red barrels with danger symbols on them unless the player is actually able to properly blow them up.
An example of a game that does affordances really well is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. This game really doesn’t have that many actions that the player can perform – they are given a few basic skills at the very beginning of the game, and their abilities don’t really change significantly from that point on. However, one of the biggest strengths of this game is allowing the player to find new ways to use their various skills.
For example – the player has a magnetism ability that allows them to move around metallic objects. For most games, this ability would probably be limited to a few special items that the player actually needs to move around to progress. However, in Breath of the Wild this power applies to ANY object made of metal. Your enemy drop their sword? Throw it back at them with magnets. Want to fly around in a metal mine-cart? Magnetism, baby!
However, providing the proper affordances is only half of what makes up discoverable design. The other piece of the puzzles is providing proper feedback so that the player knows whether their actions actually worked. When a player turns a crank, there should be some indication that SOMETHING happened in the world. The player could hear the creaking of hidden machinery, or see some gears spinning on the edges of their vision. The player does not necessarily need to know exactly WHAT happened (especially in puzzles), they simply need to know that their action had some effect on the world.
In most cases, the feedback will flow naturally from the action. If you want to know whether a particular rock is destructable, all you have to do is place a bomb and see if it blows up. You don’t need any special “you found a secret!” music to tell you that something changed – the effect is obvious. However, sometimes the result of your actions occurs off-screen. In these cases, it may be appropriate to include some sort of visual or audio indication that the player’s actions actually achieved something.
When I think about providing feedback for actions, I am reminded of a particular scene in Better Call Saul (don’t worry, there are no spoilers ahead). In this scene, Jimmy encounters a light-switch with a piece of tape over it. Curious about what would happen, Jimmy surreptitiously removes the tape and flips the light switch. Nothing happens. Jimmy looked around confused, before flipping it back and putting the tape where it was.
This scene is the type of thing that causes the back of my brain to itch, and I’m sure Jimmy felt the same way. Tape over a light-switch is a pretty universal indication of “don’t flip this” – therefore when it was flipped you would expect something to happen (probably something bad). Perhaps it would blow out a breaker and the whole building would lose power, or maybe it would spark and smoke. The fact that nothing happens leaves the viewer with this nagging thought in the back of their heads – why was it there?
This feeling is NOT something that you want to provide to your players, unless you have a very good reason. If your players actions affect the environment, it should be very obvious that something changed. However, if their actions were ineffective this should be equally obvious. Sometimes it is necessary to indicate clearly (perhaps through a specific “dud” sound effect) that an attempted action did not work. This will allow the player to immediately begin looking for other options, instead of wasting their time wondering whether it worked or not.
Similar to not providing false affordances, it is equally important to not provide false feedback. A common example of this I see in games is when the player has to cross a particular gap that is too far to jump across. If the gap is obviously too wide, the player will not waste their time and will immediately begin looking for alternatives (perhaps something can be knocked down to form a bridge)? However, if the gap is just barely too far for the player to cross they may waste time trying to jump across it, thinking that they are doing something wrong and not realizing their other options.
By combining these two design principles of affordances and feedback, it is possible to easily convey the options available to your player without having to provide a single word of explanation. Without these two principles, players can end up stumped and feel like they have no options or, even worse, THINK that they know what to do and waste time attempting an impossible task over and over. With them, however, players will know what they can do and how it affects the world of the game, leading to a much more intuitive and satisfying experience.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week. I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, when I look at the spookiest board game of all!