Information Overload

When I first started in WoW, I was most definitely overwhelmed with stuff to know. From movements to emotes to inventory to fighting to questing… there’s a lot you have to process.  At first, I was a jittery mess and could hardly click things properly. Over time you get used to each dimension, and things become somewhat transparent – that is, you don’t think about how to chat, you just do it. You don’t say, “okay, now right-click this guy with the exclamation point,” your fingers do that automatically.

Once you become comfortable with the interface, it largely disappears from your conscious attention – unless, like me, you’re trying to break naughty, naughty “clicker” habits (using the mouse instead of the keyboard for fighting commands in particular). Or, unless you’ve been away for a while. When I came back after my extended WoW hiatus, I had trouble with some things – for example, using party chat – but not others, like certain aspects of fighting. My hands remembered those more urgent skills even though my brain forgot some of the others.

It’s a complicated interface in WoW, and moreover, you can (and should) map certain actions to keys, including to the letters, numbers, the F keys, and mouse buttons. Some keyboards even have additional keys you can use.  I’ve got a few mapped, but not as many as I should, really.

(Below, someone’s WoW interface borrowed from the WoW forums)

wow interface

When developing a new game, however, even in a pre-made environment / interface like Second Life’s, we have to think carefully about how much players have to process. Second Life is strange as a “game” because every island can create a slightly different set of patterns to follow. Click things and they “chat” to you, or click things and hover text appears. Find a cool object to “wear” or to put on the ground. Interact with an NPC using clicks or using chat. Figuring all those things out in a two-hour game session with only basic instructions is somewhat burdensome on players.  So we’re trying to keep the quest itself from overwhelming players while they figure out not just what to do, but how to do it.

Second Life interface with multiple windows.

Our challenge, though, is how much to ask of players. Unlike your standard point-and-click games, this one is completed in a pretty short period of time, so you have to learn things quickly. In addition, you go through with other people who draw some of that mental processing power. Too much to process makes everything slow down and feel laborious.

We want our little game to be fun and rich, so we have lots to see and do. We want people to “get” it quickly, though, so we can’t be too complicated. Information “density” is the issue, here, and we’ve been experimenting with how much we put into the environment.

However, a funny thing happened. As we reduced the number objects to see, places to explore, and tasks to complete in our search for a shorter, more intuitive quest, things actually seemed to get more difficult for players. As it turns out, without a clear set of actual tasks to perform (as opposed to just text to read), people spend a lot of time wandering aimlessly around.  We realised that adding things to do could actually make the whole process go faster. If the only thing to do in an area is to click a few things and read some text, it’s hard to know when you’ve completed your job there, hard to keep track of what that area is for, and hard to coordinate with other people.

Collecting things, using things, and having things happen in the space around you actually seem to help people move along at a less tedious pace. Counter-intuitive, but there you have it.  Add actions, stuff, and events to a slow area and it goes more quickly. Who’d a thunk it?

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5 responses to “Information Overload

  1. It’s true that when you reach WoW endgame, the interface looks pretty complex. It’s something you grow into, because when you start out it’s pretty basic. Slowly adding new options/abilities, quests specifically designed to understand how certain interactions work, Eventually grouping, raids…

    You don’t notice the complexity building, unless you suddenly decide to change your interface setup at a later stage. Just moving an ability one space to the left or right can result into chaos, because intuitively you’re still stuck in the old pattern. It’s even worse when you try to juggle playing two different mmorpgs. Your hands want to type in one style, but those commands don’t work in the other mmorpg. The error causes you to lockup badly for a pretty long time at first (2-5secs maybe even more) while you think “Hmmm why is this wrong. Right wrong game. But what command did I need to this game.”

    About questing in an area:

    For me questing without noticing any progression is really hard. Especially if it’s in a new area I know nothing about. If I had just one quest I wouldn’t know which way to go and if I can’t find something that interacts for the quest I get annoyed, bored even. Also I have to remember all the new other aspects, monsters, items so I can do later quests more quickly. It’s quite draining on the mind.

    I’m a happy gamer when I don’t have just one quest, but a lot of them when starting out in an area. The reason for this that no matter where I go, I’m bound to stumble onto something for a certain quest, this makes me happy and refreshes my spirit, ready to do more! I also don’t really have the urge to map my surroundings anymore, because of the progression.

    Adding more things to progress faster sure sounds right to me.

  2. Okay Yes!!! you have totally hit it, here! Ty ty ty! So, what we need to do is give players, essentially, more individual quest line type things to occupy them as they go through and learn about the over-arching story (a mystery they solve).

    I can totally do that. We even have a few little things in place. This notion of “stumble onto something” whereever you go is absolutely what we were missing.

    I just have to make sure it doesn’t get dizzying. One issue with Second Life is inventory is limitless, includes everything you’ve ever picked up or bought and is a pain – mine has, I do not jest, 7,456 items in it. I can search, but only if I know the name of the item I just picked up.

    So maybe I’ll focus on registering clicks rather than delivering objects.

    You are totally a Super Genius.

  3. just experienced player :]

  4. 7,456 items is ridiculous.

    For questing I expect quest items to be gone after the quest is finished. Sometimes I got items in my inventory, they have no use, but I not sure if I still need them for a current quest or if they are leftovers from an old one. It’s bad clutter, because I’m wasting time every time I see them & think about why I got them and it takes up more time looking up other items because of them.

  5. Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous. That number is because I build things in SL, not to mention change clothes a lot. When you build, or buy buildings, you generally keep a copy of what you’re working with. When you buy clothes, you keep a copy, as well. Same goes for animations (like a dance) or pets (like a penguin that follows you).

    In a place like SL, where the economy around these items is a major part of the space, you quickly collect an enormous number of items.

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