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Gradual Time Changes

Given the intelligence of modern clocks, we could shift time continuously to match the sun.

There’s the Sunshine Protection Act (Wikipedia: “Sunshine Protection Act”), and there’s the Save Standard Time movement ( Two sides of the same wooden nickel, which would lock us into one of the two levels of the current see-saw of time we go through every year.

Continue reading “Gradual Time Changes”

Non-games Should Consider Gaming’s Learn-by-Doing Design Pattern.

Well-designed games teach you to play them while you play them. Other systems should do the same.

In many games, the first thing the game does is to teach you how to play it. You walk across a flat surface, until you meet an obstacle. At this point, you’ve learned to walk. The obstacle teaches you to jump. Next, maybe there’s an enemy you have to deal with. When the game introduces a new mechanic, say a bounce pad, it shows you one, you jump into it and get launched into the air. By teaching you these things through interaction and constraints, you learn quickly. No manual needed.

This kind of learn-by-doing practice could be used in a variety of products. Learning to navigate almost any device’s interface, for example, could be done through this design pattern. The idea of device navigation is already known to the user, but how to navigate, which buttons to use, may not be obvious. Instead of reading the manual, teaching the user through direct use would be simpler, and it would also help encode the navigation map in the user’s brain through use, which is far better than through reading the manual.

If a website introduces a new feature, like reporting offensive comments, it could offer readers an example comment. “This is a training comment you could find offensive. Click the flag icon to try reporting it.” You click the flag. It shows a list of reasons. You pick one, click Report. Done. You’ve learned how to report a bad comment.

This may seem trivial, but it’s quite common for most complex websites to lack documentation or manuals. And who would want to read one anyway? Rather than developing documentation, this learn-by-doing design would stay up-to-date automatically, if they build the system to treat the dummy items as real ones in most respects. If they later add a CAPTCHA or some other new aspect to the comment reporting system, it would adjust automatically and nobody would have to go update the (non-existent) documentation to match the changes.

As computing matures, we’ll soon get to the point where the system learns how you want to use it as much as you learn how to use the system. This kind of built-in learning will be essential for that as well. Some games already detect whether a player prefers inverted mouse control by asking them to “look up” and whichever way they move the mouse automatically corresponds to up.

That’s also a kind of learn-by-doing. But it’s the computer learning about the user by having the user perform the task. It’s not like the computer is going to go read the user’s blog and see if they wrote about how they prefer inverted mouse controls. Learn-by-doing is low-friction in most cases. (If you accidentally move the mouse the wrong way, you’ll have to go find the setting and fix it.)

But there’s another question to ask about learn-by-doing for computing in the future: how much is too much? How much should a system try to adapt to the user, and how much should the user need to learn a system? There are benefits in both directions, and some balance can be found, but it will take effort. The question isn’t unlike “how clean is too clean?” in the face of needing to train immune systems and avoid allergies from lack of exposure.

Thoughts on the Steam Client Library Update

A brief look at the Steam Client Library update.

First, what is the update and what is it not? The update covers the Steam library, listing the user’s games and the display of individual games themselves. It’s not a revamp of all the web pages and application views that form parts of the library, like achievement pages or the downloads view. Those will likely be updated in look and feel to match the new styles over time.

The biggest change is the addition of the new home section, which is a jumping-off point to other parts of the library. It adds a new events/news serial at the top, where you can see game news including media and updates to games.

The primary art for games is now in portrait format (600×900). This, alongside the addition of a large banner image at the top of each game page, are the biggest visual changes. The portrait format affords space for text and art with some separation where the old banner style (what Valve calls capsule) really require putting the two together. But the capsule format is still used in at least a few places, including for the most-recently played game and on the downloads view.

The collections system, formerly more like tags, now allows for dynamic grouping. I tend to track several properties of games, like whether I played them yet and what their style of game is, besides noting of they require a EULA or have broken features on Linux (a few games I’ve played required using Proton in order for achievements to unlock).

One downside of the collection system is that if you navigate to a game from the home screen, it will be opened from the first collection alphabetically. It might be useful to let users designate a primary collection that a game belongs to, so that it will be shown as selected from the most sensible category and not one that happens to be first in some old song that lists letters.

On the whole this is a nice update. The most notable thing is that it matches design changes that are happening across the larger digital space. While books developed a fairly consistent design schema a long time ago, the digital sphere is still trying to do so. It still has a way to go, as seen in the choice to maintain website icons as squares (which, far as I can tell, was a change driven by Apple and their iOS choices) while something like the Steam library uses portraits.

In terms of the future of Steam, a lot of this will depend on developers using the new events system and updating their artwork. As of writing, roughly 2/3 of my games have updated art for the beta, with the rest using the capsule-style art with a blur effect to fill the extra space.

As mentioned, other parts of the client experience still use the old capsules. While it takes work to create the separate representations, having the visual differentiation is useful as far as it goes. One wonders whether a compositing system wouldn’t work better, with separate images for graphical logos and backgrounds being able to be adjusted to aspect ratio requirements at display time, with some caching for frequently composited elements. Ah well.