||May 17, 1998
Interface Lessons from Video Game Design
Part I: Amplification through Simplification
A couple days ago I found myself in a video arcade in North Beach that featured both new and old stand-up coinops
alike. In one of those indulgent trips down memory lane, I plonked in a good many quarters battling the baddies
of my youth.
Two games, both classic, stuck with me most: Tempest and Star Wars. There's something about
the sheer intensity of their gameplay that remains essentially unparalleled. I've come to believe that a significant
reason for this is that both are based on line-art vector graphics.
At the time (early 80s), what vector graphics offered video games was a way to more quickly render the visuals,
which allowed for heightened gameplay (to create 3D-like environments using rasterized, or bitmap, graphics is
far more processor-intensive). As processors have exponentially become more powerful, 3D-like games have graduated
to rasterized imagery, allowing for a more "real" experience.
Yet Star Wars and Tempest get me sweating, tongue-biting, and hand-achy (from gripping too hard)
in a way that no current video game can. And I think the reason is that the simple line graphics of those coinops
require me to fill in the gaps, and allow me to become more intimately involved with the game.
Okay, you're going to have to work with me here. The best discussion of this idea of abstraction leading to involvement
is found in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, a brilliant book dissecting how comics (and to some extent, all
visual media) work. He posits the idea of "amplification through simplification" where the simplicity
of the rendering causes the viewer to focus on the subject's essence, which is now amplified, as it is not competing
with other sundry details.
It is this simplification that I believe to be at the heart of Tempest's and Star Wars' success at
creating an involving experience. Counter to the industry impulse of making the video game experience more "realistic,"
the near-schematic simplicity of the art invites the player to flesh out the details, further immersing him within
Part II: Alternate Input Devices
Something else which both Tempest and Star Wars share are unique hardware interfaces. Tempest has
a simple 'spinner' or paddle, and two buttons, one for firing, another for 'superzapper', which destroys all enemies
on screen. Star Wars features a flight yoke with four firing buttons (all which shoot lasers).
Unlike the world of home PCs, where it's always keyboard and mouse (or maybe, just maybe, a trackball), video games
often explored alternative methods for interaction. There's no way a joystick (the 'mouse' of video games) could
have provided the seamlessness of interface for either of these games, and the Macintosh version of Tempest, Arashi, demonstrated that the mouse wasn't optimal, either.
There's no understating how important the physical interface is, and it's unfortunate that the mouse seems to be
the end of the line (apart from some wacky new joysticks). Here's to hoping that the industrial designers of the
world aren't resting, and will be surprising us soon enough...