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Watch Your Game Prompts!
by Radek Koncewicz on 12/01/12 12:21:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It's not difficult to find an article these days detailing the troubles facing the Japanese games industry. Things just aren't as rosy as they used to be, and there's plenty of finger-pointing as a result: budgets aren't big enough, the cultural differences are too vast, software design methodologies aren't properly utilized, the corporate world tends to stifle innovation, there's a lack of outsourcing, the desire just isn't there, etc.

While all these claims might be accurate to some extent, they're high-level issues that no one can fix single-handedly. Instead of moping about them, I thought it might be a bit more constructive to offer some small, pragmatic advise. In a previous post I tried to do this with a certain localization issue, and now I'll take a look an interface quirk common in many Japanese games: too many confirmation prompts.

As an example, continuing from a saved game in a typical modern title is fairly painless. Quite often a "Continue" option is the default selection on the title screen menu, and clicking it automatically loads the latest save file.

On the other hand, these are the steps required to resume my game of Resident Evil 5, one of the marquee current-gen titles developed in Japan:

  1. Entering the title screen menu immediately brings up a pop-up asking me to "Wait a moment..." followed by a message stating that there's no storage device selected. This is accompanied by a "Yes/No" prompt asking me if I'd like to select one.
  2. Clicking "Yes" brings up the OS browser with the available options: hard-drive/memory card/the cloud. This requires me to scroll to my desired option and click it.
  3. Once the storage device is selected, a "Storage Device Configured" message appears along with an "OK" prompt that needs to manually dismissed.
  4. Following the previous prompt, a "Loading content..." message shows up and then a "Load successful." message replaces it. This is accompanied by yet another "OK" prompt.
  5. When the title screen menu finally appears, the "PLAY GAME" option is selected by default. Clicking it takes me to the play game menu.
  6. On the play game menu, the "CONTINUE" option is selected by default. Clicking it takes me to an overview of the last save game.
  7. The save game overview displays a date stamp, the selected character, and some other miscellaneous info. It is accompanied by an "OK/Back" prompt.
  8. Clicking "OK" takes me to a network overview screen with various game options such as co-op settings and hit reactions. The default option is "START GAME", and the screen is accompanied by an "OK/Back" prompt.
  9. Clicking "OK" takes me to a loading screen that's quickly replaced by the inventory screen. Here the default option is "Organize" and I need to scroll down and click "Ready" to proceed.
  10. Clicking "Ready" brings up a confusingly labeled "Exit" confirmation with a "Yes/No" prompt. "Yes" is the default option, and clicking it finally loads my save game.
To put it mildly, this is overkill.
If it were only that easy.

A large part of Apple's success is elegantly accommodating for the most common use case. This basically means that an interface caters to the functionality that's used most often, while the elegance comes from avoiding extraneous options, prompts, and technically-minded messages (and presenting an aesthetically appealing UI, of course).

Looking at Resident Evil 5 through this lens, the above steps could be truncated and/or altered to provide a more streamlined way of loading the latest save game.

  1. The "Select a storage device?" screen shouldn't be there. Instead, the game should automatically select a default storage device, or better yet, select all the available storage devices. If none are available, a warning message could be displayed on the title screen without requiring a separate modal popup.
  2. The OS device-selection pop-up should only appear if the user chooses to manually change the current storage device.
  3. The "Storage device configured." message shouldn't appear. There's no point in flooding the user with text if everything went OK. These messages should only pop up if there are errors.
  4. Same as above; there's no need to display a "Load successful." message. The transition into the save state should make it obvious that the data was correctly retrieved.
  5. If a saved game was found, the default options should be "Continue." This option should immediately load the latest save game from the selected storage device. Optionally, the game could check all the available storage device and automatically load the latest save file in order to avoid any extra management on the player's part.
  6. The secondary play game menu isn't necessary if the "Continue." option loads the latest save game.
  7. The save game overview should be removed as it provides non-vital information when trying to load the latest save game. Instead, this data should be presented in the load-game interface where the player browses through multiple save files. Optionally, it could also be shown on the loading screen itself.
  8. The network settings screen should be removed as well since it provides non-vital options that are configured at the beginning of the campaign. There's no pressing need to change these every time the game is loaded, and this functionality could still be provided via an in-game menu.
  9. The inventory screen is also superfluous to loading a save game -- the save data should already contain the proper equipment information. Presumably the screen is there so that the player can change their loadout following a game-over, but in that case the inventory-customization screen should only appear following the actual death. Alternatively it could also be accessible in-game from the save-checkpoint.
  10. The "Ready" confirmation is horribly labeled as it's an ambiguous descriptor. Is the player exiting the inventory screen, or the actual save game loading process (it's the first one, but it always makes me stop and think)? The prompt itself is also unnecessary, especially after the nine preceding ones.
Two incessant prompts most Windows users should recognize.

Confirmations prompts in particular tend to be quite prevalent in Japanese titles. Of course these can be useful when it's easy to hit the wrong button and the consequences of doing so are quite drastic, e.g., clicking the "close" button instead of the "maximize" button in a word processor after writing a lengthy, unsaved document. However, it's rarely difficult to select the proper save-file in a game, and loading the incorrect one tends to waste only a short amount of time.

Despite this, Japanese developers seem paralysed with fear of the user accidentally selecting the wrong option. This only applies to UI-related interfaces, though; there's no prompts for avoiding an accidental weapon-reload or putting a car into the wrong gear.

The convention also seems to be that "No" should be the default selection. I have no idea why this is the case, except to prevent the user from accidentally skipping through an important choice while blazing through a bunch pop-ups.

If that's the assumption, then it speaks very poorly of the application flow as a whole. Perhaps the user wouldn't be so quick to skip through these confirmations if there weren't so many of them? And perhaps removing non-vital popups and prompts would provide a faster and sleeker way to get to the fun part of the game: the actual gameplay.

Radek Koncewicz is the CEO and creative lead of Incubator Games, and also runs the game design blog Significant-Bits.

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Stephen Chin
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I'll take a shot and say the conventions comes from the ideology of not wanting to discomfort and upset the user (eg politeness but more so). So all the confirmations are developer proxies in the quasi-social situation. This also being why No is the default selection; not wanting to make assumptions about what the player wants and avoiding doing so until explicitly said so. All of which is, in varying degrees, a part of various Asian social norms.

Radek Koncewicz
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The social-norms thing is one of the aspects I wanted to point out as those norms are not the standard in the West. Consequently, these issues become all the more noticeable and jarring to Western gamers, yet they could be addressed during the localization process.

Joshua Hawkins
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I think these solutions work in this case, but often on large projects UI is trickier than it seems.
Developers also need to take in consideration certification requirements for certain devices. Often misunderstanding of these requirements can lead to "clogged" UI, or in the opposite extreme failed certification. Also there's the multiplatform issues to take into account. Sometimes it's less time/cost consuming to develop a standardized UI that works on everything instead of having a designers and programmers create UI for each release.

Radek Koncewicz
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Oh, I'm well aware of the potential for UI work to escalate quickly; I'm currently working on a title where one new feature had a pretty drastic snowball effect on various interface screens/pop-ups. With that said, UI is still on the less expensive side of development and a proper pipeline should make it fairly easy to make platform-specific tweaks.

I can definitely see how certification requirements could be misinterpreted, though, especially by a non-English speaking studio. Granted I'm not privy to the working environments of Japanese development houses, but I'd guess at least some of the interface clutter comes from wanting to stay on the safe side of certification.

Alice Rendell
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If you had these types of persistent confirmations in a free-to-play game they would effectively act as a barrier for the player and you would eventually lose them, this is why "number of clicks" are constantly trying to be minimized in social games. This is one of the more positive aspects of free-to-play game design and a lesson AAA should take into account. Games should always try and reduce the amount of friction for playing whether AAA or free-to-play.

Radek Koncewicz
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You're absolutely correct that the barrier of entry has been greatly minimized in social games, although the almighty K-factor has introduced its own slew of incessant pop-ups. Most social games incorporate a plethora of prompts to share and promote the game itself, and these put Resident Evil 5's clutter to shame.

With that said, the number of people who never try a game due to having to download an .exe, install the game, set up an account, go through a protracted EULA/sign-in process, etc., are staggering and developers should be weary of how easy it is to lose these potential customers by putting up too many walls between the player and the actual gameplay.

Hakim Boukellif
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While RE5's use of prompts you describe is indeed excessive to say the least, I don't really consider excessive prompting to be a problem that Japanese games in general are suffering from. Though it could be that's I'm so used to them that I don't really notice the problem.

"However, it's rarely difficult to select the proper save-file in a game, and loading the incorrect one tends to waste only a short amount of time."

I disagree. It depends on the game, but usually after selecting a save file, it takes a few seconds to read and parse the file followed by a loading screen that can last anywhere from 15 seconds to a minute (sometimes even longer, but at that point excessive prompting becomes the lesser problem). That's long enough to be annoying when done accidentally and that's putting aside edge cases such as end-of-chapter saves, which often start a cutscene immediately after loading.

"The convention also seems to be that "No" should be the default selection. I have no idea why this is the case, except to prevent the user from accidentally skipping through an important choice while blazing through a bunch pop-ups."

To prevent trigger-happy people like myself from accidentally invoking operations that make permanent changes (like overwriting a save file) or take a long time to complete (like loading). In most cases, prompts exist to prevent accidents, so there's no point to them if they don't make it harder to cause them.

Radek Koncewicz
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While loading times certainly vary, accidentally loading a game that has no prompts is a small possibility -- in my case, I can't remember the last time it happened -- whereas waiting an extra 30+ seconds to go through RE5's loading process is a constant that takes place every time I start the game.

The fear of making the wrong choice can be applied to just about any interaction, but a good design will make these unlikely/difficult, especially if a lot of the clutter that makes people trigger-happy is eliminated.

Tom Baird
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With regards to you last point about trigger-happy people accidentally doing permanent or long-duration effects, wouldn't a better idea than excessive prompting be allowing those actions to be backed out of?

i.e. Allow the user to back out of loading the game, or always cache the last overwritten save file (just like autosaves are cached).

If the action is dangerous and/or long-lasting, maybe it would be better to fix the fact that it's dangerous and long-lasting, rather than making it take longer and still be dangerous.

Hakim Boukellif
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"While loading times certainly vary, accidentally loading a game that has no prompts is a small possibility -- in my case, I can't remember the last time it happened --"

I can recall a few cases where it happened to me as well as several where I was saved by the prompt. It's as you say not a very common occurence, but it's annoying when it does happen. Personally, I feel the peace of mind gained in this case is worth the very slight incovenience, especially since you usually only load maybe once or twice per session, depending on the nature of the game. Speaking of which, it can also help prevent save scumming.

"whereas waiting an extra 30+ seconds to go through RE5's loading process is a constant that takes place every time I start the game. "

It's something you have to go through anyway, yes, but now you have to go through it twice, once unnecessarily. That's the difference.

"especially if a lot of the clutter that makes people trigger-happy is eliminated."

When I say trigger-happy, I don't mean going all Takahashi Meijin on the controller to rush through the prompts. To begin with, that doesn't work if the default option is "No", so only people who are used to the default option being "Yes" could pick up that habbit. I mean things like accidentally pressing a button twice in succession or the game got you in the habbit of pressing a button the moment you see a change on the screen.

"Allow the user to back out of loading the game"
I don't think I've ever seen a game that made it possible to leave the loading screen until it's done loading (though I'm sure there are at least a few) and for good reason. From a programming perspective, it comes with a bunch of problems and can be a major source of bugs, which are probably not worth the effort solving.

"or always cache the last overwritten save file (just like autosaves are cached)."
I think you're underestimating how clumsy people can be, especially after getting rattled from making a mistake.

Leon Ni
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If you go shopping in Jap, you will understand this is just a culture stuff, nothing else, but I do agree that too much popup will make me upset, and unwilling to continue.

Alexander Symington
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A time-honoured classic of the genre:-

Chris Hendricks
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Or, for another better-drawn version of the same:

Nick Weihs
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This is something that has really bugged me in the past as well. I understand the argument that defaulting to no (even though you'd pick yes 99%) is a cultural thing. I also understand that there are platform cert requirements that introduce unnecessary seemingly UI. But the example here is way beyond either of those arguments.

Having popups that tell the player that some random system has been configured or that some bit of save state has successfully loaded properly is idiotic, no matter where your from. Having all those menus that prevent you from getting into the game when all you want to do is continue is just bad UI.

Another thing that really bothers me about Japanese games is the load times. For example, I stopped playing Lost Odyssey because I felt like I was spending more time loading the game than playing it. Maybe this is just a problem with JRPGs specifically, but I can't handle playing a game that has no problem wasting my time anymore.

I think this goes back to Keiji Inafune's point that Japanese developers aren't learning from western devs. Back in the day those super long tutorials were really helpful because before those really started coming into fashion, you had no clue on what the hell was going on or what you are supposed to do. It was largely the Japanese developer community that was responsible for this improvement, but most western devs are trying to figure out how to make their tutorials less intrusive and more intuitive, whereas a lot of Japanese games are still willing to throw page after page of scrolling text explaining every minute detail.