Flowmaps and Frag-Grenades, Part 2

Written by: Bryce Glass

I’d like to talk specifics a bit. I’m sure there will be some readers at B&A who aren’t gamers, and probably even more who haven’t played Halo—so my apologies to those folks— but… describe in some detail exactly what you contributed to the finished product.

When I look at Halo 3, what ‘pieces’ of the experience did you work on?

I worked on the IA, navigation and screens for the game shell; the social design for the game for systems such as the party system, matchmaking systems and sharing systems; on rewards systems such as the stats, medals and experience ratings; and also on how that user experience extended to the web through Bungie.net. I also worked on the theater features such as film clips and screenshots, and on the Forge “in-game” UI. My compatriot David Candland handled the in-game HUD in addition to collaborating with me on the design, look and feel for the overall UI and specifically handling the visual design for the game. Aaron Lemay was the art and graphic design lead for our team, including Bungie.net. Max Hoberman was the lead for the entire multiplayer and UI team during the planning stage of the project.

The information architecture and navigation includes all of the screens and flow to support the game experience outside of the game—we refer to this as the “Game Shell” UI. With Halo 3 we started by identifying what the “core game experiences” would be for the game and grouping them into “modes”.

These modes were:

  • Campaign:The story mode where players play through an adventure either solo or cooperatively.
  • Matchmaking:Players are matched with other players over the internet based on similar skills or experience and based on game preferences to play games that are controlled by Bungie matchmaking.
  • Custom Games:Players set their own game rules and maps in a player-hosted game lobby.
  • Forge:Players can customize maps to play in Custom Games or to share with the community.
  • Theater:Players can view films from any game mode and take screenshots.

Do these modes then inform the IA of the shell?

Grouping the experiences as modes allowed us to start with a foundation for the overall player experience and a baseline for the information architecture. Each of the modes support many options within the mode, but these 5 modes have unique characteristics that support a”focused” player experiences within the mode over a period of time. With the priority that “everything is social,” each of these modes are designed to support from 4 to 16 players either locally, on System Link or over Xbox Live, so we gave each of these modes its own “lobby” where players could gather to share the experience.

In addition to focusing the core experiences in the game, this lobby system sets up the infrastructure for our party system. In Halo a “party” is a group of players that gather to play together, particularly over Xbox LIVE. The party leader is the player who makes decisions for what the party will do together, and the system allows players to stay together and do anything they want without breaking up. In Halo 2 this was termed the”virtual couch”…

Yeah, I recall that H2 was really revolutionary at the time—made it so easy to form a group and hang out for the night…

It’s like sitting on the couch together—if you decide you want to switch from one game mode to another on Xbox LIVE you can do it together just like if you were sitting on the couch with your friend. This is a very big deal on consoles because many online systems do not have this flexibility and it is not always easy to get together and stay together online.

The end result was a fairly simple information architecture for our game shell. Each mode has a lobby. Within the lobby, the specific options are contextual to the game mode. For example, in Campaign the main options are to select a level or difficulty for the story, whereas in Custom games the main options are to select a game type or map to play. The lobbies themselves are “locations” for players to gather into a party and play together and once players are together they can easily switch modes from within the lobby system to travel together to try a different mode. For example, a party of players may decide to customize a map together in Forge, then switch over to Custom Games to play on the map they just created.

The other major areas for player experience are community, personal identity, sharing, and settings. These are very much tied to a player’s personal profile and so in the information architecture these are all presented in a global menu that can be accessed anytime by pressing the “Start” button. The menu is always tied to the identity of the player who presses the button.

Regarding navigation and orientation, our goal was that the player always understands where they are in the game and that menus are in most cases only a couple of levels deep. In most cases the player is only a few clicks away from a core location. Another benefit of grouping the experiences into modes is that the main experiences for the game are easily discoverable from the main menu.

What kind of process did you follow?

The overall timeline for game development was “pre-production” where the studio teams plan what we wanted to do for the project and evaluates scope, then “production” where we execute on the design. At the end of pre-production each team submits an overall design document to the leadership group and the project features are approved. For the interface and experience this was a pretty detailed document for the overall information architecture and screens for the game. This is similar to a product requirements document, but in the games world these are design documents. Over the course of the project the design evolved in some places or was scaled back in other places. A great idea may be recognized well into production and is never discarded automatically, but anything new that is proposed during production is weighed against other features that are in development.

Regarding design process, we targeted the foundation first. The information architecture and systems that would support the different features in the game, as well as the overall guiding principles for the game. This allowed us to understand where everything fit.

Then we tackled the major features based on scope and dependencies. Each of these “major features” would cover many areas of the game. For example, the lobby system would provide the foundation for many other features and was also a dependency in supporting the overall IA for the project. It included the “shell” for the interface, the player roster that shows who is in your game lobby and the core navigation for the information architecture. For each major “feature” set, I would put together a proposal for the feature using screen flow “posters” that outlined flow and also detailed screen requirements. We would then review these proposals with the team members that had an interest in the UI. From there we would refine and build out detailed design documents to support the development. Once the feature was built and in the game we would verify that the features were working according to specification through in-game testing.

We also had great support from the Microsoft usability lab. User researchers were part of our review process and provided heuristic analysis of the proposed designs, and also supported usability testing for both the early “prototype” ideas and later with the actual game.

Would your design artifacts look totally familiar to most practicing Interaction Designers? Wireframes, flows, that kinda thing?

Absolutely. The format I found most useful were poster flows.These are large format posters with detailed wireframe screens, navigation and flow decisions for a feature area. These would include detailed specs and use cases for specific features near the screen or decision point on the poster where they were relevant. I would print these out and post them on the wall near the UI pit, and also post them internally as pdf documents.

The posters allowed everyone in the studio to get an overview of the feature by reviewing the printed poster on the wall, and the engineers and QA team would use the pdf version as the spec while developing and testing the feature. I preferred this format because it was a format that outlined “the big picture” graphically, so it was easy to collaborate and refine as a team. It was also easier to update than a detailed 50 page word document. In many cases, the poster on the wall would be the “most up to date” spec because—as we were developing the feature—our team collaborated to work through issues together using the printed posters, and we would update the poster specification with markers as we refined the direction. The QA team calledthe poster wall the “wall of truth”.

I also put together design documents for the main feature areas such as matchmaking, the party system, sign-in and profile, etc. These were word documents with detailed specs, or in some cases excel spreadsheets. The word documents started with an IA diagram and overview of how the feature worked in context with the core shell UI and that then outlined specific specifications for each feature. Early in the project I also had wireframe”prototypes” in power point to walk through certain use cases to explain an idea and get feedback.

Did you do any prototyping of concepts? And how about tools in general? Does Bungie have proprietary tools for screen design and prototyping?

We conducted rough prototyping during planning to test our concepts in a usability lab or to get feedback on concepts, and we also put together a polished director demo to present the final interface proposal to the team at the end of the pre-production phase.

On the rough prototyping we worked with Randy Pagulayan and John Hopson from the Microsoft Game Studios User Research group to test the concepts in the usability lab. We put together a script for the prototype, then I created wireframe screens in illustrator and John coded the screens into a prototype so that test subjects could use an Xbox 360 controller to navigate the prototype. Randy and John and our team spent about three weeks running the prototype through tests and then rapidly iterating on ideas with matchmaking, the core game shell interface and the party system.

The content was all fakery, I think we called the game in the prototype “Mecha”, but it was designed to confirm the fundamental direction for our user experience. The lab setup and process was top notch and I really have to give props to the Microsoft usability team. The process helped us to refine our thinking and have confidence in the information architecture and core navigation. In fact, the final prototype for those sessions is very close to what we shipped in the final game.

David Candland, Max Hoberman and I then put together a polished demo in Director that was scripted to run through the main use cases for our proposed interface direction. We used this to present our proposed direction to the team and Max and the leads used this to evaluate the direction, gather feedback and reach consensus on feature sets and final direction as we moved into production.

Thanks, Colm!

Note: shortly after Halo 3 shipped, Colm left Bungie to work with Max
Hoberman at Certain Affinity, a game design and development company
based in Austin, TX.

Flowmaps and Frag-Grenades, Part 1

Written by: Bryce Glass

By any measure, Halo 3 is one of the most wildly-successful consumer software interfaces in recent memory: more than 1 million players played the game in its first 24 hours on Xbox Live; over 8 million copies sold to date; and “over 100,000 pieces of user generated content being uploaded daily […] 30 percent higher than YouTube on a daily basis.” It’s probably safe to say that more cumulative man-hours have already been spent in Halo gaming lobbies than in Microsoft Word! But H3 is distinguished for another reason, too. It’s one of the earliest—and definitely one of the highest-profile—mass-market video games to benefit from the contributions of a dedicated interaction designer.

Colm Nelson was the interaction designer for Halo 3 and has been a working UX designer since 2000. Before joining Bungie (the Studio that produces the Halo series), Colm’s background was largely in Internet consumer applications, with a heavy bent toward entertainment software. Colm’s experience is unique, but it’s part of a growing trend in the gaming industry toward employing UX professionals. Colm would like to see this trend continue, and was gracious enough to speak about it with us, and share some insight into the intersection between his ‘traditional’ UX background and his job duties at Bungie.

Hi Colm—I’d like to thank you for taking the time out to speak to the B&A community. Given the audience here, I thought this emerging trend—this matriculation of interaction designers into the gaming world—is something that folks would want to know more about…

Online systems that facilitate player experiences around social interaction, custom content sharing and online communities have received a lot of attention by both the gaming press and fans and is definitely a hot trend in gaming. The gaming press has even begun to draw comparisons with these features to You Tube, My Space and Facebook. My observation is that developers that are offering more features in [the] user experience around the game are seeing more of a need to specialize and fill roles specifically around user experience and interface design.

Games with success in these areas have generally done a good job developing a solid feature set and matching the social goals of gameplay with the accessibility and usability of the features. Ultimately these features add to the longevity of a game’s popularity, which translates directly to sales. I think as a result there are more opportunities for traditional interaction designers in the games business.

I’ve met developers that are actively recruiting from traditional software interaction design to take ownership of these features and if you look around you’re starting to see postings for UI designers—both Bungie and Blizzard are actively recruiting interaction designers and experience designers. There are also studios that are championing player experience research and design such as XEOdesign, Inc.

But I also think that if you look around you’ll see that it’s not as clearly defined role in all game companies as it is in traditional software so I think as a trend it’s fairly early. My impression is that in many game companies the interface and experience design in games is handled by either designers or artists that are also responsible for the overall game design. The good news is that if you are an interface designer with a passion for games, there are definitely opportunities out there.

Let’s start at the beginning. I actually remember seeing the job req. at Bungie that you filled … it even used the term ‘Interaction Designer.’ My jaw almost dropped—design jobs in the gaming industry typically focus on character design, level design, gameplay and mechanics. How did Bungie ‘catch religion’ about strong interaction design? About paying attention not just to the core gaming experience, but also all of that scaffolding that gets you into the game? The experience around the game?

Yeah, I had the same reaction when I saw the posting. I’d been looking for opportunities in the games industry for some time and had not seen any positions related to interaction design, so when I saw the posting I was amazed.

The guy that hired me, Max Hoberman, was the online, UI and multiplayer design lead for Halo 2. Max and the team at Bungie are really passionate about the user experience around the game and also about usability. It’s just part of the culture of the studio. You can see the results from the design of the party system and the matchmaking system from Halo 2. Heading into Halo 3 there was plenty of ambition for the social experience and with features for the game so the team decided to hire a dedicated Interaction Designer.

And how did you get the job? 😉

As soon as I saw the position I put together a portfolio and cover letter that said I wanted to help Bungie in their quest for world domination. I managed to get a phone interview with Max, which went OK. His feedback was that he enjoyed our conversation but if we had a second conversation he expected me to be more critical with my observations about what could be improved from Halo 2 and Bungie.net. This was on a Friday. The “if” felt pretty dicey to me so I decided to be proactive.

I worked all weekend on a concept document on ideas to improve Halo 2 and fired it off on Sunday night at 3am. I wasn’t sure how it would be received but it paid off because I got a invitation to visit Bungie for an interview. I flew to Seattle to meet the team for a full day interview and was really impressed with the energy and passion that they had for design and the experience around the game. It was a lot of fun—I was also passionate and the interview felt like a series of brainstorming sessions as we discussed problems and ideas and how we might solve them. I guess it went pretty well because they offered me the job!

Describe the development team to me. I (like you, before your time at Bungie) come from a web & consumer applications background with roles like Product Manager, Project Manager, Developers, Designers, Researchers. Is game development roughly the same? How were you situated on the team?

There are similarities. It is still software design so all of the practical considerations still apply—you need to manage the project well in order to succeed and you need the resources to make it all come together. Producers, engineers, designers, researchers and QA all play a role on the team. Producers at Bungie are roughly equivalent to project managers from my previous experience, although I think the producer role varies quite a bit across studios. But at the same time you have cinematics, art, modeling and animation that are also core to the project.

There’s really not a “product manager” role, at least at Bungie. The team makes pitches for the game, the leads of the studio then decide what will be greenlit for production, and the team leads propose and drives feature sets for the project. It’s a very collaborative process and it is driven by the leads of the various disciplines. An example is that in designing the online experience and interface plans we solicited feedback, then proposed features and prototyped “proofs of concept” in order to land on the feature sets that would be developed for Halo 3.

Was there a bit of culture shock moving into the gaming world? Did folks on the team generally ‘get’ what you were brought onboard to achieve?

Yeah, there was a bit of culture shock for me. Mainly because some of the tech, process and roles on the team were new to me. As far as people getting my role, I’d say it was about the same as what an interface designer typically encounters when joining a new team. Definitely the core team responsible for interface and social design had clear goals for how the interface design process would work and understood what I was tackling—we tackled it together as a team. I was really surprised at how important interface design and usability was to the entire team—it was awesome! And at a higher level, even if all the folks didn’t get the details about process, they were supportive and as a rule folks at Bungie are really good at giving feedback on concept proposals and contributing ideas.

[Stay tuned for another installment of Colm Nelson, designer and gamer.]