Avoid Making the Player Proofread in your Strategy Games

Meet Hector. He’s a powerful jerk in Fire Emblem Heroes and is mostly balanced out by his low movement speed. However, when given the Wings of Mercy ability, Hector can unexpectedly teleport across the screen and ruin your day. This is a serious game design article, but please also enjoy this low-quality meme (source):

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A careful player can notice that Hector has this (non-standard) ability and plan accordingly. Some might argue this is good for the game, since it increases its skill cap. I’d argue it’s a negative, because it’s replacing strategical thought with something less satisfying. For the purposes of this article, let’s call it “proofreading”.

Players begin to proofread when the game state isn’t clear. This forces the player to either spend mental energy nitpicking through the game state himself, or suffer an in-game penalty.

To clarify what I mean, here are a few examples:

Fire Emblem: Heroes

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Fire Emblem

Fire Emblem mostly has a good, clean interface, but scanning for abilities is an annoying exception. A given character can have different abilities, and these can only be noticed by proofreading the tiny ABC circles in the upper right corner. If you don’t immediately recognize an icon, you need to longpress it to see what it does.

A recent patch allowed players to customize their own characters, which will make the PVP arena much more annoying than it was. Those wanting to maximize their chances there will have to click on each enemy unit and doublecheck that their opponent hasn’t given them something nasty.

Hoplite

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This wizard can attack 5 squares in every direction. Yikes!!

Hoplite has a lot of neat things going for it, but proofreading is a major weakness. The entire board is filled with monsters that can attack from varying ranges. For instance, the wizard in the screenshot can attack 5 hexes in any direction! Tracking one or two of these guys is manageable, but as you progress further into the dungeons, the game becomes a proofreading nightmare. When I was playing, I would first find every spot that I could move to without getting hit. Only *then* would I start thinking about the tactical considerations of each safe square.

This “proofread safe squares” -> “find best move” -> “proofread safe squares” loop ended up pretty tedious, and was one reason why I could never get into the game as much as I would have liked.

Hearthstone – I have lethal!

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Can you spot lethal?

Hearthstone has an amazing interface, but there’s one issue that hasn’t been solved yet. A lot of losses in the game occur because the player forgets to count up the damage he has on the board, and misses a situation where he can kill his opponent that turn. This makes for some entertaining (and humiliating) moments in streamed tournaments, but is fairly annoying as a player. Remembering to do some basic arithmetic isn’t an exciting skill to test.

Avoiding proofreading

Once a “proofreading” situation has been recognized, implementing a solution is seldom straightforward. Often it requires a massive reworking of the basic game system to fix the issue, which is why these sorts of situations show up so much, even in games with AAA user interfaces like Hearthstone or Fire Emblem: Heroes.

That said, there are a few good guidelines that can help avoid a lot of potential proofreading situations:

  • Try to avoid having long-distance interaction unless it adds a lot to your game. Make pieces more like Go, where stones can only affect adjacent spaces, than Chess, where a Bishop can threaten a square from across the board. If you do want a Bishop-like character, try to have the squares it threatens show up as dangerous in the UI, rather than forcing the player to trace all of its paths himself.
  • Try to make sure all commonly relevant information about an object can be found by glancing at the object itself. If a player is frequently rooting through subpanels to find relevant info, your UI is probably not pulling its weight.
  • If the sum of a bunch of numbers is frequently important, add them up for the player and display it somewhere on the UI rather than making the player calculate it himself.

Above all, remember that games are supposed to be fun places to strategize. The less proofreading that gets in the way, the better.

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