michael puskas

The UX of Fiend’s text-based gameplay

One aspect of UX is finding the least offensive way to present good ideas.
 
What I mean by that is: the ideal way for a system to be presented to a user would be to magically form a direct two-way connection between their brain and the computer. Since we can’t do that, we’ve developed this field that tries to understand how different presentation choices affect the user’s perception. This allows system designers to start with a goal (help people accomplish a task, practice skills, learn about human nature, etc), and to end up with a result that gets as close to accomplishing that goal as possible.
 
In developing the UX of Fiend, I had a very particular goal in mind: to facilitate the practice of depression management skills. I built systems based on modern clinical psychology, informed by modern game design knowledge. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume that I did a good job at all of that. The question then becomes: how do I surface these systems in a way that doesn’t hamstring them?

 
 

The current iteration of the text-based UI, as of this posting.


 

Text-based presentation offers a unique experience in games. The lack of visuals forces us to slow down and construct a world in our minds, making it a much more measured experience. New players often try to quickly skip through text, only to find that they’ve missed vital contextual information. This introduces an expectation that, in order to achieve any mastery over the game, you must take the gameplay seriously. For a game that aims to have the player learn and practice a purely thought-based skill, this more deliberate gameplay seemed like the correct choice.
 
Traditional text-based games bring with them another element: the parser. While the parser offers a much larger possibility space for the verbs that can be used by the player, this size, along with the rigidity of acceptable phrasing, causes a huge learnability issue. Players often bounce off of parser games because of the immense frustration that accompanies knowing what to do but being unable to phrase it appropriately, or being stuck on a puzzle because it requires a verb that they don’t know to use. This can be offset by making the game easier, perhaps by limiting the verbs that are used. This begins to hamper the purpose of the parser though, as the struggle to discover new possibilities is what makes it so magical.

 
 

Some games are notorious for unorthodox parser usage.


 

I decided to favor learnability and usability in Fiend’s interactions, opting to replace the parser with a button-based interface. This allows the player to immediately understand the language of the gameplay, which I felt was necessary for attracting modern audiences. We’re not stuck behind PDP-10s anymore, after all. There are enough distractions in life that a modern game needs to allow the player to quickly get into the world. Once they’re in, then we can begin ramping the complexity.

 
 

Figma wireframes of various iterations of screens from Fiend.


 

Even with this friendlier interface, I wondered how mainstream videogame players would respond to a text-based game. To answer this, a small “sanity check” survey was conducted with an early prototype of the game.

 
 

 

An attempted random sampling of videogame-playing college students was used for the survey, of which the majority responded that they enjoyed the game. Their responses to other questions indicated that they would be likely to buy the game, and would enjoy non text-based sections being added for variety (something that I had anticipated in the original design, and was already working on). These results certainly hold no scientific rigidity, but they did indicate that a modern text-based game was something that could be enjoyed by modern videogame players.
 
There’s a whole lot to mention in regards to the specifics of the game’s systems and UI design, but I think this wraps up what I wanted to mention about the UX. The rest will have to wait for future posts!

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