The phrase always goes, “Gameplay is King.” But do usability and user interface design matter?
While it’s a rare case that I finish a racing game, I usually end up putting a good 20 or 30 hours into each one. Forza Motorsport 3 didn’t break any new ground on a gameplay level – it was a straightforward racing game with a variety of cars, courses, and different cups to compete in.
Where it really broke ground was usability. A strong design sense in the menus kept things clean and easy to find. Shortcuts from just about everywhere to anywhere made navigation a breeze.
This is exactly where Gran Turismo 5 fails. Coming out a full year after Forza Motosport 3, Gran Turismo seems to have taken an almost contrarian approach. Menus are confusing, slow, and labyrinthine.
A cup just for classic Japanese cars is a great idea. But I can’t find any Japanese classics because there’s no way to browse the premium cars by anything but make, and no way to browse standard cars by anything but the 20-at-a-time that show up in the used car listing. There are literally no sorting options in GT5 – or if there are they’re very well hidden – making purchasing cars to fit into different cup requirements a haphazard adventure at best.
This theme seems to appear in just about every aspect of the game.
Virtually every dialog box defaults to “Yes” as the primary option. Except the one in the tuning menu when you decide to buy a part. “Do you want to install?” it will ask. The default is no. Why is it just on that menu and yes on all the others?
And loading screens between menus? That’s not cool. We’re not exactly creating an operating system here, but Gran Turismo, like so many other in-depth sims, requires a lot of time in menus. Car buying, tuning, and managing – these should all be quick and easy, and the Gran Turismo menus work hard to make them seem like tedious tasks.
Finally, one last gripe: The intro video for cars the player wins. It’s cool to have a badass unveiling of your new prize, but do I really have to watch a 30-second video of a Toyota Vitz remerging from the shadows? And my Go Kart is never going to be badass no matter how you unveil it.
Of course, Gran Turismo isn’t the only guilty party in bad menu design. I had a strangely racing-centric Christmas this year, and in addition to GT5 I also received Need for Speed Hot Pursuit. Once again, like Gran Turismo, it seems to have a Do It Our Way philosophy to the interface. Is it too much to ask game designers to let the players pick what they want to do?
Sure, you can pick which mission you want to do in NFS, but they’re all given some sort of uninformative name, and all you know going in is what sort of event it’s going to be. What if I want to just race with the sports cars, and am not really interested in the exotics right now? Show me races that use the sports cars. Or hell, what if I want to find a race that uses the Lancer Evolution X specifically? Show me which races I can do.
I thought—nay, hoped—that the open world mode would assist with this, since you can pick from ANY of the cars you’ve unlocked. But wait, nope. In fact, why is the open world in there? You can’t select any missions like you could in Burnout (also from Criterion Games), and there don’t seem to be any opposing drivers strolling around to mix it up. Am I missing something?
Whining about menus is nitpicky, but I shouldn’t have to at this point. Wrestling with menus is the last thing game designers should want their customers doing – it keeps us from playing their games.