Menus in Games: Rollercoaster Tycoon 3

Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 is a classic simulation game known for its surprisingly deep take on a light subject. It’s also fairly complex, but that complexity can be exaggerated if the interface doesn’t work to ease that complexity. In this article, I want to dive into a specific instance of complexity as represented by a user interface. I’m going to take a specific menu in RCT3 and do some modest wire-framing in an attempt to improve it based on my needs. I’m not going to take any specific approach other than being reflective and user-centered. Hopefully, we’ll explore the ways in which an overly complicated interface can impede playability because of its arrangement and the way it represents the game’s mechanisms.

RCT_donutmenu

The panel seen above is part of a food stall menu. This single panel allows players to examine the products (donuts), their differentiation (small, etc.), garnishes (the tiny icons shown as the middle columns) that can be added to the donuts, and the price at the right. The other panels, seen as circular buttons on the right, display a variety of other food stall-related options.

First off, it’s somewhat mind-boggling that a game would allow players to micro-manage so deeply. Do I want to add ice in my lemonade? How much ice? How much should I adjust the price based on that ice addition? How will that alter people’s enjoyment of my product? I’ve always been impressed by RCT3’s depth. These are great questions to ask players in a simulation game. These questions, and the decision paths they inspire, add a richness to the game and lets players feel like they fully control their environment. Of course, it’s likely that the game dumps price and garnish into an algorithm and makes no distinction about what kind of garnish and that there is inherently a superior garnish-to-price level. But the player doesn’t know that.

But to return to the menu: in some ways it’s a spreadsheet. Donuts and their prices in the rows, garnishes in columns. This is perfectly logical, but it doesn’t necessarily adhere to how a player wants to play the game. Those tiny little up/down buttons next to the price? They’re in intervals of five cents. Five cents! If I wanted to increase the price of a small bag of donuts to $1.30, I’d have to click four times. If I wanted to increase each product that much, I’d have to click 16 times!

To pull back from the details for a moment, we should ask what the panel is supposed to accomplish. Display the array of options available to players for customizing their donuts? From a game design perspective, that’s not the real point. The real point of the panel is to give players an exhilarating sense of control over the tiniest details of their donut shop in order for them to feel like they’re really running this theme park. So the goal of this panel is to contribute to the simulation atmosphere by giving players more decisions that have consequences about revenue, customer satisfaction, etc.

When we think about the menu in that perspective, I think it could use some improvement. Being a long-time player of RCT3, this particular menu has always felt burdensome and detracted from the smooth simulated experience because it took me forever to fiddle around with the controls. Because of that, the game loses some of its micromanagement energy because the UI can’t really match the complexity in a way that is simple and fun for players.

I’ve listed those grievances out below in order to address each one separately:

Issue Interpretation Problem Category
“Changing the product price takes forever.” No UI options for large increment changes. Interface
“Adjusting all the products takes forever.” Lack of “change all” options means every product must be altered separately. Interface
“I don’t understand how the garnishes or price affect customer satisfaction or behavior.” No feedback on customer reaction. No metrics on customer satisfaction, behavior changes. Feedback representation
“Why would I want to change products individually?” The game gives no feedback on how individualizing product choices impacts customer satisfaction or behavior. Feedback representation

Again, these are just personal reflections and I’m sure we could find more. The interpretation column is representative of the designer ingesting the issue and directing it into an actionable critique. After reviewing those issues, I mocked up the wireframe below.

Wireframe 1

RCT_wireframe1

In terms of solutions it’s the smallest step in terms of changes: the spreadsheet nature of the menu remains the same and players still need to click quite a few times to get what they want. What the menu addresses, though, are some of the more tedious processes. The “All” row was added to allow players to add every garnish to every product, reducing the potential clicks from four (add one kind of garnish to each product) to one. The pricing buttons were changed to a scroll bar to allow players to adjust prices at larger increments. Additionally, the “All” price bar adjusts each product’s price by a specified increment.

So what did we gain? The chart below speaks to our previous issues. We reduced the number of clicks required to adjust all garnishes and all prices. We also reduced the number of click required when changing prices at greater increments.

Issue Interpretation Wireframe 1
“Changing the product price takes forever.” No UI options for large increment changes. A scroll bar was added to allow players to increment at larger amounts.
“Adjusting all the products takes forever.” Lack of “change all” options means every product must be altered separately. An “All” row was added to allow players to modify all products at the same time.
“I don’t understand how the garnishes or price affect customer satisfaction or behavior.” No feedback on customer reaction. No metrics on customer satisfaction, behavior changes. No solution developed.
“Why would I want to change products individually?” The game gives no feedback on how individualizing product choices impacts customer satisfaction or behavior. No solution developed.

The first wireframe addressed the simple issues. It often requires some investment of time to play around with the UI before player “desire paths” become apparent. The fact that the wireframe fails to address the other two problems is not a failure of the wireframe, but representative of the iterative nature of design. Seizing issues by category (addressing interface first, then feedback issues) often eases the solution-making burden and mitigates the risk of over-complicating the design.

But that still leaves the other two issues. These two feedback issues are, in some ways, outside of the scope of the menu we’re examining. I don’t know how the game responds to these pricing or garnish changes. But I can make some assumptions, so we’re going to move forward with those in order to continue this design exercise.

I’m first going to assume that the pricing and garnish algorithm is relatively simple: the garnishes represent some value change to the donut that makes them less or more satisfying to customers. I don’t think the game evaluates each garnish individually (some amount of sprinkles is the same as some amount of glaze). So really what garnishes represent are some additional cost to increase some amount of customer value.

I also am going to assume that donut size is simply matched to some customer attribute (hungriness, size preference) and that the individual garnish setting doesn’t figure into that decision model. With those two assumptions in mind, we can move forward with a new wireframe.

Wireframe 2

RCT_wireframe2

I cheated a little bit. There’s another panel in the donut shop that displays customer comments, so I brought that in to address some of the feedback issue. Shouldn’t it be here if you’re looking at the comments in order to judge how customers like your product? As for the bottom half, the above assumptions really just highlighted the fact that the individual products don’t add much to the game experience, and the player doesn’t know why each product is different anyway. By reducing to a single product, feeling of management is still present, but now each part feels like it has understandable value. With the comments above, the levers and pulleys should have an immediate feeling of feedback. If I were to go a step further, I might say that the individual garnishes don’t add much to the game either and should be condensed into a single “how much stuff” lever or scroll bar.

I don’t think the process ends there. The menu addresses some of the basic issues, but there’s some work to be done. One additional step would be to consider a new feedback method, like a chart or customer display that would be a better way for players to experience the changes they make when adjusting the donut options. Lastly, I want to mention that RCT3 remains a fantastic simulation game and holds up wonderfully well–I think simulation games of that caliber take a tremendous amount of effort and time, and I wish more of them would be developed.

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