April 17, 2003



I know exactly what Lileks means when he talks about the convenience of comfortable computer interfaces. It applies, even more than desktops, with computer games... a completely ergonomic and straightforward keyboard layout can be more important than plot, graphics, or challenging AI, even. Mechwarrior 3 is about the only game I'd ever played that I wished went on longer than it did, and that was entirely due to the almost completely configurable key-scheme, one of the first I'd seen, which I was able to remap to an optimal solution. Here's a hint... giant humanoid robots are best controlled with a joystick in the left hand, emulating the WASD interface we're comfortable with from first-person shooters, and a mouse in the right... try it, sometime.

I'd even go so far as to say that any good human-computer controller interface relies on a few things: key functions under half a dozen or so home keys, the connection of precision tasks, such as weapon aiming, with the mouse, and, most importantly, an intuitive and balanced separation of tasks between left and right hands. The human mind is designed to control two hands working independently in parallel on a task, whether that task is archery or playing the saxophone... the best human interfaces for computers, it stands to reason, need to apply the same principles. The WASD key-scheme meets these requirements, particularly in the separation of turning the body (left hand) and turning the head (right hand), which is why everyone uses it in shooters... most flight sim joystick configs generally fail in this regard, however, as the home position for the left hand ends up being the stick-mounted throttle wheel, with a quick stab at the keyboard for other functions... far less efficient and comfortable than the two-stick or stick-and-throttle solutions you see people who play a lot of flight games inevitably adopting as soon as they get serious about it.

I don't object at all to software designers subjecting people to new and unique key schemes (even if I wonder why they waste the time)... what really bothers me is any software application that makes it impossible (as opposed to just difficult... I can live with difficult) to amend the designers' vision back to something more ergonomic if it proves necessary. A pretty little cardboard key map with the CD doesn't begin to make up for letting people play and work their own way.

Posted by BruceR at 04:39 PM