Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Justifying my Existence, part 3

Ok, time for the glorious conclusion of my blogging trilogy.  Wherein I tie everything from parts 1 and 2 together, then celebrate blowing up the Death Star II with a big Ewok party in the woods.

(Everything else that's wrong with Jedi aside, how could blowing up the death star and killing the Emperor definitively end the Empire?  I mean, did the entire enterprise really hinge entirely on one functional but partially unconstructed starship and two top leaders?  They can't possibly be outnumbered and overpowered at that point by the Rebel Alliance - characterized as the ragtag underdog throughout the series - after a single battle, which itself resulted in great losses for the Alliance's already dwindling force.  I'm not willing to believe that the sociopolitical infrastructure that is both a requirement and product of an intergalactic empire can be undone in one stroke like that.  But, whatever.  I bet the Expanded Universe answers these questions, but frankly, it just makes me feel too nerdy to have any knowledge from the SWEU.  Anyhoo...)

So let's recap where we've been:

Human factors was born out of the military wanting to know why their best-trained pilots were still crashing the most precision-engineered planes.  The answer: the technology wasn't designed to fit the limitations of the human operator.  A bunch of people came together to figure out how to engineer the technology around the human being, and bam, we have human factors.

Video games are at an interesting point in their history.  Graphical improvements have defined the step up from one console generation to the next for the past 30 years.  But we're getting to a point where graphics are not significantly adding anything meaningful to the video game experience.  Recent trends have moved towards employing motion controls, but no one is really crazy about them except for idiots (and even then, for not very long).

So what do these things have in common?

I'm going to answer this question with a graph.  'Cause that's how we do in academics.

I know there's an official figure for this somewhere, but I can't seem to find the one I have in my mind's eye.  That makes me wonder if I made the whole thing up, but it all sounds probable enough to be real.

Anyway, discussions of human factors usually involve a graph that looks something like this:


What this graph tells us is that aviation incidences have decreased over time thanks to advances in engineering.  More reliable hardware means planes aren't spontaneously combusting and sputtering to a halt in midair so much, so of course you see a drop in aviation incidents.  That's super, but engineering will only get you so far.  You eventually hit an asymptote at the wall of human error.  Even with the best engineering possible, you're still going to have some percentage of people mistaking one dial or switch for another and getting caught in a death spiral.  Codified safety regulations also help to bring the numbers down, but even they only do so much.  You never really reach zero.

To break through that wall, you need human factors.  You need a method to systematically study what mistakes people still make, understand why they make them so you can develop solutions, and then systematically test the solutions to see what works.  When you start engineering the human-machine (or human-human or human-human-machine) system as a whole, then you suddenly find avenues for improvement that weren't there before.

Now consider this graph which I most definitely just made up:

Human Factors is driven largely by Nyan Cat

Like aviation engineering, we're getting to a point in video games where our hardware is starting to asymptote.  Technical advances are adding less and less to the experience, even if they continue to advance monotonically.

(Sometimes, they even make the experience worse.  Remember how awesome it was when Dead or Alive introduced boob jiggle physics?  Then remember how horrifying it was when Team Ninja made the boobs jiggle independently from each other in wildly different directions on the Xbox 360?  WHAT HATH OUR SCIENCE WROUGHT?!)


Back to the point, video games - in my opinion - are hitting a similar technical wall to the one I described for aviation.  While the technology evolves, things get better, but the rate at which they're getting better is slowing down.  (Before you jump up to argue with me on this, hear me out.)

Think about the Mario series.  Break it down into its core components (I'll discuss more on this in future posts), and you have this underlying thread - running and jumping through an obstacle course - that just evolves over time.  But think about how that evolution has played out.

We saw incremental improvements going through the 2D Mario games on NES, and those were awesome.  But then the SNES came out, and the graphical leap allowed game designers to introduce enemies and environments they never could before.  Enemies could be huge or tiny, they could change form, they could respond differently to different attacks.  Your environment could shift and move around you in new ways, creating situations and challenges that people had never seen before.

Then the Nintendo 64 came out, and it was an even bigger leap.  There was not only a leap technically, but also in the experience afforded by this open, three-dimensional world.  Challenges and puzzles could come at you from all new directions, and it fundamentally altered the way you approach and move through the game.  Once again, gamers were faced with a brand new experience they had never seen before.

Then the Gamecube came out, and it was cool because it was prettier, and the worlds were a little bigger, and for some reason you had a water jetpack?  I'm not normally one to denigrate a jetpack, but honestly, can anyone say that's as big an evolutionary step as the addition of a spatial dimension?

Oh, I almost forgot: Mario got short sleeves.  Progress.

And then the Wii came out with Super Mario Galaxy and it was like Super Mario Sunshine without the jetpack and some funky gravity physics.  And the revolutionary new control scheme the Wii was supposed to give us?  Wiggling your wand at the screen picked up stars.  (Oh, if only that were true in other facets of life.)

And now we have "New Super Mario Bros." which is basically Super Mario Bros. with pretty graphics and co-op play.  The evolution has become a cycle that's eating itself.

When an iconic figure in the industry like Mario is running out of places to go, you know something's up. The point is, video games are running up against this wall I talked about before; it looks like there's nothing else to improve on, but there's still this sense that we could be doing better if we knew what was holding us back.  And that's what human factors affords us: a tool set for making bad ideas good, good ideas great, and great ideas amazing.

Motion controls were one attempt to break through the wall by taking things in another direction.  While that was a valiant approach (that some say have ruined the glut of modern video games), it's become a joke among the core audience of gamers.  Understanding why it failed (and how to fix it) is one major application of human factors.  One reason that I've mentioned already (though there are many, in my opinion) sits at the core of human factors - developers pushing motion control didn't think about the users.  They designed a blender for someone who wanted a toaster; sure we have this cool new gadget, and they made some money off some protein-shake-drinking douchebags, but a lot of us are still waiting here with cold, pallid bread in hand.

And now, I've officially spent way too much time pontificating.  Enough with the mission statements.  Next post will be more like what I had originally intended for this blog.

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