Friday, July 6, 2012

User Interface Week - The Nintendo Brand

Customization is key

  The base Wii Interface is an entirely simple, yet strangely gratifying experience that allows users to set up their products in a way that they find aesthetically pleasing..

  One of the things that works best for the Wii's interface is the Wii Remote itself, serving as a near-mouse interface and allowing you to point and click at exactly what you want. A D-Pad could work for this interface, but it would require a lot more navigation to get anywhere, although the grid-based set-up would help make navigating to the program you want more simple. Anybody who has used the analog stick of a Classic Controller to navigate it knows that method is simply not what you want to be using, but it's nice that you don't have to switch up to your Wii-mote when swapping between SNES games.

  All a person has to do to move the icons is pinch the A and B buttons together on any tile (except the main Disc Channel) and move it wherever you want. This drag-and-drop functionality allows for some great organization for a clutter-minded person like myself, but the absence of folders really hinders it. Combined with the fact that the Wii itself can only hold a very small amount of data, and you have kind of a limited use for that an interface designed to show off your inventory of games. The addition of being able to access games stored on an SD Card helped, but you have to go into a secondary menu for that, making the main screen all the more barren.

  One of the things that really endears the interface to me is that the icons can have little animations to them. The Virtual Console ones kind of wasted that potential, just showing the title screen and what system the game was originally on, but original software plays with this in interesting ways. One of the reasons I keep Dr. Mario Rx Online on my main page is just to see those little viruses from my childhood swarming the icon. I also keep Cave Story because I like the scene of the clouds scrolling buy under the moon. It just looks nice.  Also, when you click on the icon, you're treated to an audio queue and little animation (except, again, with the Virtual Console games) that serves as a prelude to your experience. It just makes the whole experience that much more charming.

  The settings are fairly easy to navigate, although being able to get to the system memory to remove and transfer games and applications needs to be easier. Given the system's limited memory, and back when there were games I wanted coming out of the Wii's download service, the tradition of 'cleaning out the fridge' was made all the more painful by having to dig deep into menus to uproot the games and remove them from my system. 

  One of the Wii's big designs was to have other 'apps' take on a more browser-focused set-up, including the Wii Shop. It's not so much that Wii Shop has a bad interface, although it is painfully simplistic. But holy hell it is incredibly slow. When an interface is supposed to be snappy, the way that marketplace was set up is anything but. The attempts at categorization are nice, but need a little bit more expanding upon. This is a rare instance where there actually needs to be more menus for the sake of more accurate navigation. For example, when I want to look at Super Nintendo games in the Virtual Console shop, it only requires the least number of logical clicks to navigate to the section... but then you have to sort through each game in alphabetical order to get to the one you want. And considering 95% of Super Nintendo games started with the word "super," it's absolutely grueling to get to the game you want. An alphabetical categorization would have gone a long way to help with that, allowing you to select the letter your game starts with, at least. Although being able to search by name from the get-go helps if you know what you're looking for without digging around. It's terrible for browsing and impulse buying, but if you know you want Mega Man X2, jump in and grab it. 

  It would seem that Nintendo has learned a lot about what people want from an interface with the 3DS. It has the capability to organize the applications in a row of icons like the Nintendo DSi, or pages of icons at once like an iPhone, all thanks to the amount of on-the-fly customization options.

  I want that "2D image of a Nintendo 3DS game" on a t-shirt. Or all pictures of me on Facebook should say "a 2D image of a 3D person." Random musings, sorry.

  Anyway, what you see here is the default interface when you boot up a 3DS. The top screen is just for shiny pictures and information, but the bottom can be navigated via the d-pad and face buttons or with the stylus. If there's one thing I love in an interface, it's options, and this allows you to really set up your screen into something you're most comfortable with. In the top left corner is an icon of a big box and 4 smaller boxes; with those two buttons, you can basically cram more or less icons on your screen (obviously changing their size in the process). Myself, I have it set up similar to the Wii, with 3 rows of 5 columns. Simply hold down the stylus on an icon to pick it up and move it wherever you want. With a recent update to the firmware they added the ability to sort games into folders, making everything that much more organized. Now all of my Game Boy, 3DS Downloads, and NES games are in their own folders. Deleting games and removing icons is still a hassle, but I think Nintendo is doing that on purpose to make it harder to remove games you can potentially play, or to keep people from removing them on accident. That's just my guess, though.

  The shop interface is much more wieldy and snappy than it's Wii and (more so) DSi predecessors, and I appreciate the "recent arrivals" right there on the left. Since I check this thing weekly, it's nice having everything new right there for a quick glance. If there's one thing the store needs, however, it's the Wii's categories. As it stands, the Virtual Console just has games kind of dumped into it with no way to find, say, Game Boy games specifically. There's also no way to sort out categories like just 3DS-specific titles or DSiWare titles. However, just like the Wii's, if you know what your'e grabbing, that search bar makes it easy enough to just grab it and get out before getting a sea of mediocre DSiWare titles. So it still has a lot of room to grow into a more friendly browsing experience.

  While the overall interfaces aren't perfect, the amount of customization Nintendo is adding to each piece of hardware is only getting better. Hopefully they can continue to improve on these ideas of organization and categorization. They could learn a bit from the Android's interface to really make something clean and user friendly, while still having that undeniable charm that only Nintendo can do.

  What thinks you, reader extraordinaire? Are you as obsessed with interfaces as I? What do you look for in a good interface? What operating system or console has your favorite? Comments are appreciated below, as always!

-Make it a good one.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

User Interface Week - Evolution of the XBOX

When good ideas go bad.

  I'm not going to mince words here: Microsoft's console experience has been an exercise in alienation, confusion, and burying content under needless menus. But just how did it get to such a state? Logically, the interface should be improving, right? Well, unfortunately, it's only been getting worse since it started.

The King of Blades

  I'm always blown away when I remember just how easy the original interface was. It was clean, simple, and snappy. A tap of the right and left bumpers moved you between blades, and you could navigate the individual menus to find what you wanted. Sure, when you actually dove into the Marketplace, it was kind of a nightmare. But actually digging into your media selections and navigating your game list was simple. Plus, you could activate your game from any of these blades. This was back when Microsoft remembered their console was a gaming system. I have nothing against them trying to expand it into other areas, in fact I welcome the idea, but the steps they've taken to get away from selling video games have become glaringly obvious.

The New XBOX Experience

  Now as much as I think the Blades interface was the best, I think the NXE (above) was my favorite. It was stylish, it managed to lay things out in an organized manner. It had it's share of problems, and a complete lack of customization really kept it from being what people would want it to be, but it was nice. It had potential; none of which was ever lived up to, unfortunately. But for what it was it was kind of a fun interface. Zooming along those menus had a tactile experience that made it subconsciously fun to navigate. Plus, all of my libraries were right there and easy to access. The Marketplace also received a considerable upgrade, at least until it all became Zune-ified. Then everything started to chug and take forever to load. That was the start of a bad way for the XBOX experience.

The New New XBOX Experience

  It wasn't so much of a 'total upgrade' as it was an 'upgrade' to help focus on Kinect interfacing. What it was was more boring, and only furthered to bury the content I was looking for. My biggest problem with this interface is the way they handled the games marketplace, separating games and content into weird categories, getting rid of the easy "Stuff that came out this week!" section and forcing you to go into each and every separate category. But while it was a downgrade from the previous exeprience, nothing could compare it to the current state of affairs.

The "We Hate You" XBOX Experience

  It's telling that Games isn't even the first thing next to Home, but is stuck behind two additional layers of virtually identical tabs. This is where everything just became awful. There's so much garbage here, and so many advertisements for paid members. The other systems don't even have advertisements for non-paying services, although they do offer a place where you can go receive game advertisements if you want them. This interface, however, just serves to hide the thing you want, in a pathetic attempt to expose you to something new. 

  I have spent less money on my XBOX since this interface came out than I've spent on my Virtual Console. The only things I've purchased at this point are season passes to shows like 30 Rock and Archer, because Hulu is a miserable service and I like to keep up to date. If Microsoft has improved one thing, it's their video services... once you actually figure out how to get to them, and how to purchase them. 

  The fact that they have a "Quickplay" is neat, but it takes longer to load off the bat than flipping through the god-awful menus it's designed to save you from. The fact that the game you want to play is a tiny icon in the upper left and not the biggest thing on the screen, only furthers my assessment that they just don't want you playing games on this box anymore. And that's fine. I've moved on to more powerful systems like my PS3 and my PC, and the upcoming WiiU will likely become my dedicated Netflix box.

  At this point, one shudders to think of how bad a ground-up design for the next system will look, and we can only hope against logic that Microsoft is actually looking at feedback for this and trying to improve the user experience. If not? Well, we still have Steam, Sony, and Nintendo, all of whom are much more excited to get you playing the games you came here to play.

-Make it a Good One.

Monday, July 2, 2012

User Interface Week - The Playstation Brand

The Ups and Downs of the Cross Media Bar

  If there's one thing I'm kind of obsessive over in video games, it's the user interface. I like 'em snappy, stylish, easy to navigate, and easy to comprehend. The user interface, or UI, is the first experience beyond any cutscenes; it's what tells you a character's health, or ammo, or gives you a small map of the location. For this week, I'm going to be taking a close look at the User Interfaces of the major consoles, which I think are important as they're literally the gatekeepers to everything that console has and can do. Growing up, consoles just booted up your game as soon as you turned them on, but these days a console can do so much that they've had to build these environments for you to navigate, similar in a lot of ways to a operating system like Windows.

  Today we look at the Sony console interfaces for the PSP and the PS3. I would love to talk about the Vita, whose interface actually does interest me some, but I don't yet have the device and haven't spent nearly enough time combing it.

  Sony's interface for the PS3 and PSP is relatively the same, focused on what they call the "Cross Media Bar" or XMB. The picture below shows the same theme I have, which is customizable, but the icons themselves remain in the same places and work the same way. I appreciate the customization, which allows for custom icons as well as rotating backgrounds.

  The way the Cross Media Bar works is by a central line running horizontally that can be navigated by hitting left and right on your d-pad or left stick. This moves you along categories like your system settings, photos, music, movies, games, and the PlayStation Network. Scrolling horizontally over a category takes you through the meat of the options, where each selection has any number of things to choose from. Scrolling up and down through the Game icon takes you between the built in game options, like viewing your trophies or selecting your disc game, as well as through any downloadable titles you've acquired. Taking you through the video selection shows you apps like Netflix and Hulu, as well as any downloaded movies.

  For the most part this interface is useful, but not it doesn't do anything terribly flashy. There's nothing really 'fun' about the XMB. There is a satisfying click when you move between icons, which really helps make this a more tactile experience, but overall there's a lot of wasted space on the PS3, and it can be difficult to read if your couch is too far back due to small fonts. The interface is much better suited for the PSP, which has less options to get lost in, and fills the screen up better so you know what you're looking at no problem.

  Notice the much better use of screen real estate? Even on the two pictures in this article, this one is miles better to read.

  By far, my largest problem with this interface is the settings bar, especially on the PS3, where it's so easy to just lose the option you're looking for in the pile. It feels like there really should be a condensing of these options into smaller sub categories. I'm not one for burying your options under a mountain of sub-menus, but there is something to be said for organization beyond 2 layers.

  One of the things I think is really neat about the interface happens when you're selecting individual games from the game menu. The background turns into one representing that game, and sometimes has a little audio queue to add to it. A touch like that just kind of gets you in the mood for whatever you're selecting, so it serves as a great little prelude to your overall experience. Little touches like that to mix up your interfaces and make them a part of the experience can go a long way to the overall enjoyment of your users.

  Aside from these little treats, however, the overall PlayStation brand of interfaces is bare bones, and a bit muddled despite their best attempts to simplify and organize it. The XMB is better suited for the portable than the console. What's nice is that it was uniquely designed for a controller, which makes it an incredibly usable interface for said controller.

  What do you think of the PlayStation interfaces? Does the Vita's improve on the formula at all? Tomorrow we'll be talking about the Xbox 360's interface, and then the Wii and 3DS's shortly thereafter.

-Make it a good one.