Posted on: 16 August 2016
SC: Blacklist Review (Where Intentional Design Goes Wrong)
Efficiency versus Experience
A few weeks ago after a relaxing weekend of playing video games, I couldn’t sleep and found myself staring angrily at the ceiling.
Beside me, my wife awoke and asked, “What’s wrong honey? What are you huffing about?”
“I just don’t understand why they put that menu there!” I bitterly responded, then proceeded to rant for 20 minutes about the information architecture (IA) of Splinter Cell: Blacklist, my latest game obsession.
After patiently listening, she simply said: “Ok sweetie, I love you” and she went back to sleep, while I laid there simmering in my discontent.
“Why would they even put that menu twice? It makes no sense!”, I said to myself as I mentally mapped out the game’s decision tree.
You see, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a third person view game from Ubisoft in which you assume control of Sam Fisher, a top-secret black-ops agent, who runs around the world sneaking, extracting and sometimes assassinating to maintain homeland security.
In order to win, Sam Fisher relies on his team of smart and resourceful operatives, each of whom has a unique area of expertise.
SC: Blacklist does a great job in engaging players through good narrative and clever design.
Before each mission, a small scene plays where characters lay out the risky scenario, and while stressful music plays in the background, you must consider the two available options.
“What are you gonna do now Fisher?”
Moments like this create great experiences.
I recall feeling like Jack Bauer (Fox television series 24), making high stakes decisions. In reality these decisions are a simple “play next mission? yes/no” questions, but through creativity and design, these interactions are perceived as much more, and they are remembered as much more.
When you are not deciding the fate of the world with your silenced pistol, it’s possible (and encouraged) to take some time to explore your base of operations, a cutting edge high-tech air-ship, where Fisher’s team is scattered throughout.
Talking to each of the team characters offers deeper knowledge into the narrative of the game, and furthers each character’s personality by revealing their backgrounds and motivations through dialog. This clever device helps us understand the story of the game.
The Good: Narrative Through Architecture
That is why it was very intriguing for me when I found out that traditional menus were accessible through dialog with the characters. It was a great idea!
These menus were directly relatable to each character’s field of expertize, and made sense to the narrative of the game.
This little change of traditional IA allowed strengthening of the character’s role in the story. Not only through animated cinematics and voice narrative, but by providing an actual impact in the experience.
For example, Isaac Briggs, a highly trained black-ops and supporting field operative, offered Co-Op side-missions when you were not playing the main story. Charlie Cole, the team’s expert computer hacker and tech specialist, offered access to new more powerful weapons, improved gear and practical gadgets.
Menus made sense for these characters, and linking them created a more realistic dependency between Sam Fisher and his success on the field. This is a rewarding implementation of narrative through architecture.
By giving simple menus a role in the story, they transcend basic functionality and become part of a larger experience.
At this point, I was happy with how in-game menus were intertwined with characters. To me, the architecture looked something like this:
The Bad: Experience Sacrificed For Efficiency
Obviously if you like to play with friends, like I do, you use the multiplayer option a lot.
However, the multiplayer access is in the Strategic Mission Interface (SMI), an interactive table which allows Sam Fisher and his team to plan their next encounter. In reality, the SMI serves as a centralized access menu for many options.
I took a break from the main story as I was eager to play the multiplayer. I convinced my neighbour to buy the game, and we quickly embarked on a quest to obtain the perfect score on every mission.
As we played and replayed the same level over and over, I noticed an issue that I imagine developers at Ubisoft likely found when testing the game: Running back and forth to another area of the plane, changing weapons and gear, and getting back to the SMI was not going to work. The process was too slow.
The following is how I imagine the exchange happened:
- “Test results say that changing gear in multiplayer is slow”
- “Let’s group all menu options in the SMI”
- (Everyone pats each other on the back)
Problem solved. Now players do not have to run back and forth through the plane when playing multiplayer. They can change weapons and quickly get back into the action, EFFICIENTLY!
This means that every single menu that is accessible through dialog with the characters is also a sub-menu in the SMI. So in reality, our previous diagram actually looks something like this:
As you can see, most of the menu access offered by the characters are also in the SMI.
The SMI is located right next to Sam Fisher every time you finish a mission or start a game, so when I finished playing with my friend and continued on my own, the inevitable happened: I stopped caring for the menus from other characters.
There is really no motivation for me to access those menus by traveling to a character and talking to them. If you take into account the time it takes to travel from the SMI (initial point) to every other character’s location, it is just not worth it.
The once intriguing idea of turning information architecture into a part of a character’s role in the story was gone.
Experience was sacrificed in the name of efficiency.
I still visited the characters from time to time, but only to hear additional comments on the story, never again did that menu access became relevant.
The Second Menu Lesson
Efforts to develop an engaging narrative should not have to suffer from the decisions of a completely different area of the game, especially one that holds a different focus and goal.
In the case of SC: Blacklist, while it is important for multiplayer experiences to focus on gameplay with friends and getting players quickly to that stage, it should have been carefully separated from the single-player experience, where the focus is to engage a player in an interactive and challenging story with engaging narrative.
The decision to improve one aspect of the game rendered a genuine attempt to enhance a different aspect of the game completely redundant and pointless.
Final Thoughts On SC: Blacklist
Maintaining focus on the goal you are trying to achieve is a critical process, and it must be closely monitored throughout every stage of development in any endeavour.
All decisions, however efficient these seem, need to answer one important question: Does this improve my intended experience?
Answering this through critical lenses may help avoid stepping over your own toes.
Making the player engaged in the world presented by the story is the focus of the single-player campaign, and the efforts of the design team to invest the player in the supporting characters via intentional positioning of the access menus, was a clever approach.
After all, interactivity is what separates stories from videogames. Putting this interactivity in characters instead of grouped menus enriches the perceived experience.
That’s why renouncing these elements to improve performance does not necessarily mean proper UX has been achieved.
UX relies on improving the quality of the experience itself.
You must be careful when conducting user research to not just measure an experience in time, points or medals, but to also focus on thoughts and memories.
Consider that, in the mind of users, remembering an experience positively can often contribute to a good night’s sleep, and ask yourself what you can do to facilitate that.