I was just reading an interview of Chris Taylor, the creator of the mythic
Total Annihilation, which is still considered as one of the best real-time
strategy games of all time despite being released in 1998. Taylor is
working on a sequel to Total Annihilation and he is introducing a set of
innovative user-interface features. The article I read only disclosed one:
watching the frequency of your clicks.
In short, the game will monitor how fast you are clicking your mouse in order
to detect the urgency of your commands. If you want a certain unit
destroyed as soon as possible, you are therefore encouraged to click on it
multiple times, which will signal to the game engine that it should activate
additional firepower and units to follow your command. This is what Taylor
means when he says "A game should understand the player’s angst".
It is a very little known fact that games have pioneered a lot of innovations
in the user interface area. For some reason, their contribution has always
been very much downplayed but I am a firm believer that a lot of the widgets we
use on our desktops today (most of them being incremental improvements of the
WIMP paradigm –
Windows Icon Menu Pointer) appeared in games first. You might not have
realized it, but there are plenty of subtle improvements available to you on a
daily basis, such as:
- Flat toolbars. There was a time when we were convinced that a
button had to be 3D in order to express its
Nowadays, such interfaces look clunky and antiquated.
- Scrollbar thumbs giving hints as to where the document will reposition
itself if you release it.
- Shortcut tree views. Tree views have become a central part of any
sophisticated user interface and they tend to become quite crowded.
Applications such as Outlook or Eclipse now let you specify shortcut views
that only contain the nodes you are the most interested in.
- Goal-oriented interfaces ("I want to create a new document" as opposed
to "Open / New document").
Indeed, we are still using the old WIMP paradigm that was invented in Xerox
PARC two decades ago, but all these incremental improvements have contributed
greatly to making our desktops much easier to use.
Another example of a feature that was first implemented in games
is mouse gestures:
keep your right button pressed, draw a "C" with the mouse and the current window
will close. What’s fascinating with gestures is that not only can you
recognize the geometry of the symbol the user is drawing, you can also analyze
their motion to make a decision: if they drag the mouse in a line from
right to left, it means "Back", while dragging from left to right means
"Forward". Mozilla-based and other non-mainstream browsers support
gestures, but overall, they are not being used very much.
Taylor’s multi-click idea is new to me. In general, modern user
interfaces tend to move away from double clicks because it is difficult to
explain to novices, and the confusion is even greater now that so many clicks
happen on hyperlinks in HTML documents, which create an immediate response after
one click (I set up all my desktops to respond to single clicks everywhere as
soon as Windows 95 came out).
Another unfruitful attempt at using multi-clicks dates back as far as Windows
3 (and still supported to a certain extent in today’s Windows) where a single
click on the upper-left corner of the window shows up the Options menu but a
double click closes the said window.
Overall, it appears that basing an interface on double clicks is a bad idea.
Interestingly, I believe that Taylor’s idea has better odds of working,
precisely because the specification is vague. You don’t need to "click
twice within a few tenths of a second", all you need to do is "click several
times", and the program will react accordingly. The human parameter is
what makes the difference.
Can you think of any other ways to improve the WIMP interface, either coming
from games or other areas?