Norman Doors and Game Design

in Design

So the other day, I was scrolling down through Facebook, (as you do, when half your job involves scrolling down through Facebook), and I saw a really neat video that was put up by Vox.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, here is the breakdown: Push door has a pull handle. Everyone gets it wrong. Why do they get it wrong? Because its dumb design.

The name is coined after Don Norman, cognitive scientist and usability engineer, who wrote the book The Design of Everyday Things. The whole point of the book is that we should design things so they are easily “readable” for our brains, so that we use them properly without thinking about them.

As he says in the video: “The ideal door, is one that as I walk up to it and walk through it, I’m not even aware that I had opened and shut it.” The idea is people centered design. Things should work the way that our minds instinctively think they should work, and once we internalize how they work, they should stay consistently be that way in reality.

And while this is clearly useful in real life, and has applications for some world changing ideas, this got me to thinking about how IMPORTANT this is to video games as well. We need player centered design. We need designs that communicate the right thing to the players, so that they instinctively do the thing you intended.

For a quick example, a recent game that I played, in its main town, used water that the player could walk through. Now, the water didn’t block anything off, it had bridges and stuff. But during the first few hours of the game, I wasted a bunch of time following the paths to the bridges and stuff before realizing I could walk through the shallow water.

Now: What would have happened had they done the same thing in a dungeon. Imagine the scenario outlined by the quickly, and poorly (both design wise and just aesthetically), made map below.

map1

Imagine that the player comes in from the northeast entrance. He can walk on the water section, but HE doesn’t know that. Where does he go? 99% of games use water, even shallow water, as a barrier. How does he know your game is any different? He doesn’t see anything useful, maybe there was something he was supposed to do further back that he missed. And then he wanders your map forevermore, leaves a bad review cause the game is stupid, and you cry into your pillow at night. (Ok, that was just me. it was because he said my mapping was ugly.)

But how can you fix this. How could you redirect your player to attempting to walk on the water? What if the water went all the way up to the stairs? Like below.

map2

Its still mapped atrociously, I know, but look at how those stairs draw the player into walking down into the water. This is a much more clear communication of what your map does. Now, you would still need to test this with playtesters, we may be wrong, it may be just as bad, but its certainly a step in the right direction in THINKING about usability.

You’ve thought about how most games use those tiles, and you are trying to guide your player into knowing that you aren’t using them the same way. Its important information. The next thing is that you then HAVE to stay consistent. You can’t train a player that something works one way, then pull a switcharoo on them. If that water is walkable, it needs to stay walkable the whole game.

As an example, if you don’t have a single bookshelf in the first half of the game have any interaction, don’t suddenly throw in one shelf that has something important on it! Why would they know to check shelves? You have trained them to ignore them as just decorations. If you wanted to put something on a bookshelf, pepper usable bookshelves throughout the game early, even if they just tell some lore, or occasionally give you a minor item, it trains them to LOOK at the bookshelves. Then when you put in that important item, they know: Bookshelf = interact.

There are tons of other ways that player-centric design enters games. How puzzles are created. Bigger stats = better stats. Green = Good, Red = Bad. Can you think of any bad player-centric design in games? Something you were baffled by? How do you incorporate player-centric design into your games? Join us in the comments section below.

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  • CobraA1

    I remember playing games where the tile is slightly different, but contains hidden treasure :). After that first discovery, you go around looking for those things everywhere.

    By the way – another annoying design decision is when something like a bookshelf has an important item once, then for the rest of the game bookshelves never contain anything. You’ve been trained to look into them, but you’re really wasting your time.

    Or they interact as if they COULD contain something, but never do. When you try to interact with them, there’s some flavor text indicating you looked but didn’t find anything. Which invites you to keep looking in the future, because maybe you might find something. But you never do :(. In those cases, it might be better just to leave them non-interactive, to reinforce that they are merely decorative.

    If you’re going to design a game where you encourage players to investigate everything, at least reward them for their effort.

    • Nick Palmer

      “The pot is empty” Yeah, if you tell me that once, you have to eventually put stuff in the pots.

      • ASh

        Shadow hearts and others use a system where everything is decorative unless you see a ! Mark above their head. This works to keep things simple and slows it so that the game developer does not have to create a lot of stuff for book cases and pots and stuff.

  • Kotaro

    I actually made some changes to the game I’m working on to this end, after receiving feedback from the alpha demo:
    http://98elements.tumblr.com/post/135118066508/i-have-received-some-useful-feedback-from-the