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.

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