I like to start my blogs off with a loud statement, here's today's:
People that do not read the text in video games, as a practice, ought to be barred from games development.
A doozy that one? I think not, and here's why.
1. A person, any person, that is intellectually capable of reading (i.e. isn't victim to some degenerative brain malady or crippling learning disability), and yet stridently brays "I don't like to read." should be disdained out of hand; This statement implies some difficulty in parsing the language, and if they are American, it's likely the only language they know. A person with such a tentative mastery of their given, single, language is not professional material in my opinion, and shouldn't be rewarded with a game development position of a sort that requires writing or reading text. This aside, let's move on to how this pertains to my title.
2. Watching a movie with the sound off does not convey the whole of the movie, likewise paging through even a childrens' picture book by Dr. Seuss without reading the text will give you an incomplete understanding of the tale. I have an example handy. Just a day or so ago, my middle daughter (she's 7) wanted to watch a sub-titled recording of Hiyao Miyazaki's Nausicaa. She reads well, but the subs flit by a little faster on average than she was able to parse. She was confused and some of her comments let a little glimmer of what I'm saying here shine through. In this example, a small glider flies out of the sun to destroy a group of immense flying gun-ships, but just the visuals alone were not enough to convey the tableau. I contend that they never, ever, are. Do you think that would have been different for her had she pressed the firing stud on the little glider's guns herself? I don't, I think it would still be lost on her why they were firing at all, or who the target's were or even that they were war-machines. The fighting capabilities of these dreadnoughts are not explored on the screen, only referenced in the dialogue, the text. The movie itself begins with a synopsis of recent history, much like the Star Wars movies, that spells out how the story takes place on our Earth, long after this age. This also, is covered here in text and taken as granted afterward, If you watch the film without that knowledge, without reading that intro panel, you lose that knowledge and with it, at least half of the significance of the film's message. How does that affect the impact of the story? The impact of the experience as a whole? This applies to video games as well, not reading the text on screen is deliberately blindfolding ones self. It is ignoring a necessary element of the experience. Could you work a crossword without the clues, would you bother to try? Do you navigate the highways without parsing the signage, do you think it wise to?
How about assembling a model without the instruction sheet? Does that sound like wise practice? The same principles, I think, apply to this concept, and this is the root of my doozy statement in bold at the head of this entry. Consider.
We accept that people don't read the text in their chosen avenue of entertainment because they find it troublesome, cumbersome, or awkward. We must then also assume that they find parsing their language the same set of adjectives, else why would the first be true? Accepting this, we look to a standard practice in the games industry (and, verily in many industries) the writing and keeping of documents.
Because many games are 'made of whole cloth' i.e. don't exist in any form before their inception, it is common that there be written a series of documents, or one large document, that outline the vision and implementation of the game as it grows. This document or library serves to keep the vision coherent and, most importantly, provide a store of all known hard data about the project so that anyone ignorant can reference the document (or library) for a store of knowledge relevant to their question(s) and hopefully come to a conclusion that falls in line with the intent of the project. As a high-level interpretation, that is all that the docs are for, though we in development know that the veracity and usefulness of the docs is almost always a contentious question. In the past few years, and over many projects, I have seen and heard statements regarding game design documentation like "I don't have time to keep up the docs..."; "they aren't ever accurate, so we have never read them" and "the six month old version of that document that I have says..."; These are the most common of many.
If a given individual is averse to parsing their language (as discussed above) what implication does that have for a situation where the only unity of vision for their work available comes of regular and focused reading?
Documents, the very roadmap by which all should be navigating, are apparently held in such disdain by a particular cross-section of devlopment that often they become a sort of 'soft reference' not referenced by any department before a 'fix' or patch is made. This leads to engineering making changes at the eleventh hour that absolutely break the intent of the functionality being 'fixed', or art assets that in no way represent the item needed. Often then there is then a row about how group A or department C failed the other on a given project when all departments would have some concordance had they given their roadmap a little more credence. I have watched artists create assets not knowing whether the object was a friend or enemy to the player, or how it would behave when placed in engine, or with which tools it would be placed. This information was, in all of these cases, available, but the extra effort of reading the documentation, or going back to read the pertinent section of documentation was considered too much to ask. Further, no effort is ever made to interpret the wealth of data included in these documents to make the correct decision from a professional knowledge rather than from specific direction, in almost all cases the conclusion that could have been reached by a little professional knowledge and a little time in referencing the document is postponed until someone can say definitively. And that affects your project in undeniably adverse fashion.
Artists should be familiar with not only the potential visual mileu in which their assets will be placed, but also with some idea of how the asset will be used, and what effect is intended. Likewise Engineers should be familiar with what the systems they are honing affect in the engine at run-time, how these settings will change game-play, and whether that is in line with the intents of the design.
Last, documents are not concrete and steel, they are the fluid record of a dynamic project. You can't have skimmed them the day of hire and think that you are done with them. As has been pointed out in other blogs, the rules of game development change in situ, and with them the documents. It should be the developers individual onus whether Artist, Engineer or Designer to check the revision logs and make sure they are still in step with the current vision of the project-as-whole, and this takes reading. How can this be expected from someone that publicly and regularly states aloud that they choose not to read the text portion of their favorite challenges, that states that they like to play story games and ignore the bulk of the story? I find this confusing.
Many games require no text, Tetris, Qix, non-objective puzzler or action games that require no context for the activity presented do not need any words to set-up the tableau or indicate the next task necessary. Though the more complex these challenges become the sooner you need some simple and universal mode by which to imply the next rule or step. Often, because of the known disdain for text messages, these simpler games use small images and icons to convey the intent to those that won't read.
In our business, the challenge is to collaboratively create a great experience in a limited time-frame, with limited resources; I haven't yet met the UI designer that can come up with an icon for that, have you?