The Interface is a Part of Gameplay
An anonymous game that’s still in development called and asked me to relay this message: the interface is a part of its gameplay. It’s not something you can take for granted. It’s not something you can leave to your lowest level team member. It’s not something you can “pretty up” or deal with later on. It’s critical, and it needs to be on the table from the beginning. It’s the functionality through which we receive the experience. It’s the colors and what they signal. It’s the size of things and their consistency. It is everything your players have already come to know.
It’s so critical that Rodin’s famous The Kiss, pictured, is on his larger work The Gates of Hell because the lovers never connect for all eternity. Their interface is broken. It’s hell.
The interface of a game is an expression of the player’s fingertips into the game’s dynamics. Make those touches as natural and as fulfilling as they can be. Please.
BMW gets it, and we don’t question it. It is the ultimate driving machine. If we have any issue with this thought at all, it’s often because we own a competing brand or think that perhaps super cars like the Ferrari fit the “ultimate” label better. We don’t question the “driving” part, though. After all, that’s what you’re in a car to do.
I’m using this set up, of course, to hammer home this point: the interface is a part of the gameplay in the same way that the steering wheel, the cabin design and the handling of the car are critical to driving. Put that beautiful engine in something that handles poorly or whose cabin is sub-optimally built, and you’ll not enjoy the same experience. In fact, even with a great engine, you might hate it. “I can’t control it,” you’ll say. “It doesn’t work like other cars work.” Put the steering wheel on the other side of the car, and see how long it takes you to relearn what you already know (took me about 2 months).
Seconds before we engage with a game (or a car or whatever), we have a certain expectation about how it’s going to work. To the exact extent that a game doesn’t match these expectations, you give the player confusion, irritation or boredom. If the game is free-to-play, this could be the end of the player altogether. After all, they haven’t spent $60, brought the game home and looked forward to playing it for hours. This player might try to muscle it out, but he or she critiques you on Twitter and on Facebook along the way. In general, designers stick to patterns for a reason: they work. There’s a reason the keys for FPS control have remain unchanged since Wolfenstein 3D. Players already know what to do. Who wants to learn an interface when you could be having fun?
The interface is the gameplay. It is the experience. It is what connects player to technology. I bought the BMW for the Ultimate Driving Experience, and that came only through connection of man to machine, hand to wheel and foot to pedal. The only thing that connects the player to the underlying mechanics of the game is the interface. It is there and only there that the experience of play is made, and through the interface, you will either succeed or fail, be branded clumsy or almost there.
Please, on behalf of players everywhere, I am begging you: believe that your interface is your gameplay, too.