Often times, when I design something that works I have a tendency of just using that over and over again. One example of this is to copy and paste parts of working code into new code. Usually I need to change something, but it makes for an excellent starting point. But this also applies to UI design. When I find a design that works I have a tendency to try and copy paste it everywhere else. I usually have to tweak it a bit for things like space constraints, but this has the upside of a unified design.
However… as you may have surmised from the title, there is a downside to this. And that is when the old design just won’t work for what I want. Now you would think the answer is simple “Just do something different” and yes it should be that easy. But then comes the “rigidity”. You see, I like the idea of the design being “unified”, of everything looking and acting similarly. So the idea of changing a design that has worked up to this point is a hard one to accept. And I struggled with first one idea that just would not work, then another that was somehow worse. But eventually I got it through my head to “just change the layout of the design”. This gave me the room I needed and actually helped differentiate a specific part of the design so that it wasn’t confusing.
So I guess what I have to say is this: Don’t get stuck in one way of doing things. Even if it works it isn’t always the best choice.
Something I have been putting off for a while was a settings menu. I kept putting it off because “How hard can it be?” I figured it would be easy to slap together. And I was half right. The buttons and mechanics of the menu are/will be fairly easy to make. But… the ever looming questions of how to design the thing and what to include are a bit harder to answer.
Lets start with one of the simple ones: Volume Controls. Once I actually started thinking about it I was struck by a seemingly obvious question. The primary target platform for this game is mobile devices, and people tend to just use a phone’s inbuilt volume control when playing games. So… Do I really need a volume control? Or would a simple mute/unmute toggle suffice? Another question: Do I have enough distinct sound effects to warrant individual volume controls? And all these questions for one of the simpler parts of the settings menu.
One of the other problems I am having with the settings menu is another simple question: Where should you be able to access it? Seems simple and straightforward right? Que hysterical laughter of a man losing his mind. At first I was just going to put it on the main menu and be done with it. But some of these options feel like they should be accessible from the play experience (mostly the volume setting). The problem with that is this: The play scenes are already using 80-90% of the relevant screen real-estate and the remaining parts are so desperate that is might as well be 100% use already.
So where would I even put the settings? The two options I can think of are to have the play area temporarily vacate the screen to make room. And alternatively for the settings to just sit on top of everything else with a semi-transparent backdrop to make the settings stand out from the play area. And I don’t really like either option. So that brings up the question: Do I really need the settings to be accessible from the play scenes?
In my game I have a hint system, standard in puzzle games. But my system always gave the hints for a given puzzle in the same order, top down, left to right. I felt this was stale and uninteresting. So I decided to add a random element to the order in which the hints were given. So I tried a method I thought of, involving a nested while loop, several variables, and a random number generator. Everything looked fine… until I tried it out.
It would work for a few presses of the hint button, and then the entire application would freeze. Most frustrating of all however was that when it froze it would not display any of the debug commands I had put into the code. So it was very hard to figure out what was going on. Then I had a brain wave. My first method was selecting one of the hints to display at random, then finding that hint to see if it had already been chosen. In the new method, I chose a random square and checked if it had a hint to display. Basically getting the same result by doing the process “backwards”. In fact this new function was half the length of the failure attempt.
All that to say. Sometimes I get stuck on a solution that I assume must be “the best” and refuse to see other solutions. And often times I see this solution as “the best” because “It is so complex it must give a good result. When I really need to remember an anecdote I learned in High School. The K.I.S.S. principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
There is an old piece of advice I remember for writing. It goes something like this: If you aren’t ready to name a character don’t give them an actual name as a placeholder. The reason for this is that if the placeholder stands for long enough you will just attach that name to that character and never rename them, or have great difficulty doing so. You can imagine the clash that can arise in a high fantasy story with Grognar, Lethewin… and Steve. I purposely over exaggerated that example to make a point, but the point stands. But what does this have to do with game design? Everything.
But not directly. It doesn’t really matter what you name things as long as the design team knows what is going on. However, What names you put on buttons, what names you give to play modes, what text you put in descriptions, that all maters. And unless you are careful your subconscious may latch onto the “temporary” element and not want to revise it. For instance, when I put a temporary title on my game’s main menu I also put “Name WIP”. Turns out I used the placeholder name anyway… and don’t regret it, it led me to a theme I like.
But with all that said, my main point is that this can also apply to other elements. More than once I have jury rigged a solution to a programming problem and been reluctant to replace that solution with a more elegant one. Similarly, design elements can be hard to replace because of how long they have stood or how long it took to make them. (That second part is called the “Sunk cost fallacy” and deserves a deep dive of its own.)
The primary solution to this problem is to be aware of it and account for it in your thought process. If you need a temp name use something nonsensical or something like “title goes here”. If you are putting in a temporary element, first ask yourself “Do I really need this now? Or could it wait?” When jury rigging a solution perhaps take the time to just learn to do it right the first time. (deadlines might make this one tricky.) Just remember that “temporary” solutions have a tendency of becoming permeant if left alone too long.