A man lies unconscious in a hallway. Does he need help or is he just asleep?
As humans, we frequently encounter ambiguous situations like this. Few people would want to wake a napping man and fewer still fail to assist a dying man. How quickly do we determine if we need to take action? It depends on the clarity of the situation.
In the picture to the right, it’s unclear if he needs help – perhaps he’s sleeping, perhaps he just got hit over the head and needs to be rushed to a hospital.
Now let’s change a few factors. What if he’s well-dressed, wearing a suit and tie and has a beer bottle in his hands? Far more likely that he’s just unconscious, but still possible that he needs help. Crank it up another notch: he’s a coworker and you just had a party celebrating the launch of your new website. Another notch – there’s a note on his head that his wife has been called. Almost certain that he’s OK and help is on the way.
Let’s go the opposite direction – add in a knife in his side, blood dripping from a small cut on his head. He’s moaning painfully and you notice his wallet is missing. At a glance, it is instantly clear this man needs help.
Just a few details completely change your behaviour in this situation. We would likely run for help, while someone trained in first aid tended his wounds. The braver of us might even pursue his attacker.
A wide variety of responses, elicited rapidly and efficiently simply by adding a few crucial details to the situation.
This is first focal point of improving any design. The clearer the situation, the more obvious the devices in play, the more rapidly we respond to the situation. There are thousands of ways to do this. In Starcraft 2, Nuclear Launches were made incredibly clear through the use of unique art, sounds and telegraphing.
In Super Mario World, the importance of the game over timer was reinforced with a warning sound, a change of music and pulsating numbers on screen.
Portals were so pivotal to Valve’s Portal that they named the game after the concept.
Clarity doesn’t just happen. Players don’t magically understand what you want them to do. In fact, increasing the clarity of the situation was so important that Hellfire Peninsula was redone three times until the threat of the Burning Legion was the in-your-face centerpiece the moment you began the expansion.
If you can only take away one thing from this post, remember this:
The tool to improve clarity is communication.
Why is a Fireball clearer than an instantaneous Heroic Strike?
One is communicated. The other just happens.
When facing down a Mage, it’s incredibly clear what they’re doing. They stop moving. Their hands glow with fire. A bar fills under their target flame and finally a fiery ball flies through the sky, warning you the damage is coming.
A heroic strike instantly causes a number to fly over your head. Is it any wonder people feel infinitely more frustrated with a Warrior in their face than a Mage? … is it any more of a wonder that Mages constantly clamor for their all of their new abilities to be instant?
Keep in mind that what a player clamors for is not necessarily right.