When is it okay to be confusing?

I play a lot of DDR, and recently I got the old PS2 game “DDR Max.” It’s a little less polished than the newer games, but it does have a couple of very interesting bits at the end. If you get a high score, it lets you enter your name. But it doesn’t tell you how to enter your name. Letters just zoom up from the bottom of the screen, and you sort of have to work out what’s going on.

Actually, it’s just an extension of the normal game mechanics: if you stomp on the pads when the appropriate letter comes by, it’ll be added to your name in that position. The positionals are the same as the ones in the game, so the left pad is the first character, the up pad is the third, etc. The first time I got a high score, I couldn’t figure it out. I just sort of muddled through it and shrugged, and got a random string of letters for my name. Whatever, not important. But the second time I got a high score, I figured it out. It was so obvious! Yet I couldn’t see it the first time. I actually felt a little clever for figuring it out.

It’s a neat mechanic because it lets you do a little dance move to enter your name. Very cool. The question is: would it have been better, or worse, if it had given the user some instructions?

How likely would users be to read “enter your name” instructions, anyway? Plus, the actual mechanics would be very hard to explain. It’s unintuitive until suddenly you just “get it” and it’s completely obvious. So I suspect instructions´┐Żwould have made things clunkier, not easier.

The easter egg in the DDR Max credits is great, too. As the credits roll up the screen, you can step on the pads right when a name reaches the top. The name explodes, as if you’d stepped on a note. Just another cute continuation of the game mechanics. Instructions there would have been very detrimental.

So what’s the rule of thumb? Obviously, you can’t be confusing at the beginning of the game. But perhaps it’s okay to add mechanics that aren’t completely intuitive later in the game, as long as they’re very isolated, like the “enter your name” screen. (Or an optional mini-game, in the case of casual games.) Of course, it has to be fun enough to justify the confusion. DDR Max could have used a traditional “enter name” screen that was very intuitive… but it wouldn’t have been as much fun!

Note that I’m not standing up for the GUI’s in later DDR games. The GUIs for the “adventure mode” in DDR Extreme 2 and DDR Supernova are amazingly unintuitive, and they don’t have any “fun factor” to fall back on, either. They just suck. If you’re going to be unintuitive, it’s gotta be for a really good reason!

One thought on “When is it okay to be confusing?

  1. There are times when instructions make things harder to understand. On the “Indie Gamer” focums I started a thread about “select player” screens. One person suggested “click on a name to edit the name” which is logical except it’s extra text on the screen that can be learned by the player. When hovering on a name in the list, add a blinking cursor. The player can start typing and see that the name is being edited. In many cases there are intutive clues that can replace dialogue and text.

    I plan on my games never being so complex as to need a paper clip as an assistant.

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