Over the years, I’ve dabbled in a hefty number of video games. I’m pretty used to sitting down and picking up a new system reasonably quickly. It’s part of my job, after all. I may not be good at it right away (or ever), but I can navigate myself around a world and figure out what I’m doing.
I missed X-Com: UFO Defense along the way, back in the 1990s. I sat down to play it last night, so I could learn a bit about it before the remake comes out. As I began cautiously to dabble with the title, I realised the biggest problem I have with games of that era is one I did not expect: I can’t figure out how to play them.
I don’t mean from a high level, or tactically. I was able to build bases, sort out my revenue, make sure I had soldiers and ships, and decide to intercept both flying and ground-based UFOs pretty easily. I got the idea. I knew what it was I needed to do, what was expected of me. I could understand my goals and improve. In theory.
Because my biggest problem was that I literally could not figure out what half the buttons did.
Faced with a wall of textless icons, I automatically moved my mouse to hover over them. But of course, mouse hover was not a common feature of games in 1995. It took me three tries to intercept my first UFO before I figured out “cautious attack” and “heavy attack.” The first time, I accidentally disengaged entirely.
Knowing is half the battle. When you can’t tell what the tools do, it’s hard to learn how best to deploy them.
It’s not just X-Com, either. I sat down to two of my all-time old favourites recently, SimCity 2000 and Heroes of Might and Magic 3. I scoffed at the idea of looking over a tutorial for either: how many hundreds of hours of each have I played, over the years and decades? And then I discovered how obtuse the games and I could both really be. I could play parts of both from muscle memory, true. But when it came to more complicated actions, or ones I performed more rarely? A thousand clicks just to remember how to view the pipes, instead of the streets.
On the one hand, it’s intuitive: a mortarboard for education, a lightning bolt for electricity. But part of that intuition comes from having read and internalized the novel-length manual over fifteen years ago. Games don’t really ship with long manuals anymore. Players often lament “handholding” and prolonged tutorial sequences, which certainly exist, but really part of the change is just that context-sensitive menus and popups were invented, and they’ve turned out to be incredibly useful.
Civilization V can be an incredibly complicated game, but I was able to sit down with it and learn it on the fly, thanks to the ability to hover for tooltips. The same goes for every skill redesign I sat through in six years of EverQuest II, as well as for every MMO I have ever picked up for a free weekend, demo, or beta. Could I possibly make it through The Secret World and all its zillion possible skill combinations without an occasional reminder of which highly stylised icon does what?
I always knew I appreciated the evolution of pause and save as modern features that made gaming more accessible, but until this week I honestly never thought about how valuable tooltips and context-sensitive information can be. The mouse-hover and I had evolved together, over the years. I expect my UI to tell me what I can choose to do with it just as I expect my game to use millions of colours.
Games speak a highly specialised language of iconography. After you’ve learned what the tools do, their pictograms seem obvious. The “heavy attack” icon and the “disengage” icon clearly show their functions after you’ve tried them out. The little arrow is moving away from the UFO. Of course! How could I be so foolish?
I only had to screw up fights a few times in order to figure out how they should actually work going forward. There’s something to be said for learning by trial and error; the mistake that cost me half my soldiers is not one I will easily forget. But I will be a lot more appreciative the next time I sit down to play a complicated game and I can actually see what the buttons do. It’s much easier to take options that you actually know you have.