At London’s wonderful Science Museum there is a little section of the transport area where they’ve set up an authentic looking air traffic control room. The tech is clearly from the ’60s or ’70s but it is impressively intricate, with hundreds of buttons and switches and a big radar screen. It makes you wonder about the complexity of this important and demanding job in a way that the largely forgettable air traffic control movie, Pushing Tin, didn’t.
I thought I would never get to experience the arcane intricacy of the air traffic controller’s fraught world – until I downloaded Pocket Planes. You’ve no doubt heard of the latest title from Nimblebit, the developer behind last year’s break out hit Tiny Tower. And to be brutally honest, it is effectively Tiny Tower again, but this time with airports replacing the skyscraper and planes instead of an elevator. The people still wander around expecting you to do everything for them just because they’re cute, and you are still gently nudged toward making micro payments to speed up your progress.
But now things are much more exciting because the interface is horrible. It looks lovely of course, but there are groups of icons all along the bottom of the screen, each leading to a different chart or option menu, and none seemingly linked together. There are two icons with planes on them, which do very different things. Then, if you press the menu button you get a new screen with 15 more icons as well as three of the icons available on the other screen. You have an icon that shows plane parts to sell, but also another one to show the parts you’ve already bought. I’m not sure whether the parts are supposed to replace worn ones, or whether they upgrade the parts I have to make my plane better. Now, click on the Airpedia icon and you get a list of stats about planes, as well as some more unfathomable icons.
Then I have to work out the relative economies of carrying passengers or cargo (because the two don’t seem to be presented in a way that makes them comparable), and the benefits of buying new airports, or upgrading old ones – none of which is really explained or even signposted. Then I must figure out the exchange rate between the main in-game currency (coins) and the monetised currency (Bux) – although there is a Bank icon to help with that, once I’ve pressed on the Menu icon.
There’s nothing – and I mean nothing – wrong with complexity. But, apart from an off-hand tutorial that lasts approximately five seconds, and some text instructions every time you open a new menu, there is nothing to guide users into this beautifully drawn little world. Even Sim City, the godfather of the complex work simulation, offers masses of help and explantation.
Am I just being stupid? Am I tragically out of touch with freemium game design? Is figuring out the menu system part of the fun these days? I mean, I’ve seen lots of good reviews for this game, but very few have mentioned the almost aggresively unfriendly infrastructure. Thinking about it, Tiny Tower was similar – it’s just that its world was more condensed and easily understandable – we were packing people in a lift and sending them to different storeys, rather than shoving them in aircraft and sending them around the world. And we didn’t have to buy new lift parts, or store new lift parts, or wonder what we were buying those parts for in the first place.
Interface design is a sign system – it is about semiotics, about communication. You cannot just shove a few cute icons on the screen and hope that gamers will work it all out in the end – even if many perservere to figure it out. Arcane systems soon become obsolete systems – and the next thing you know, they’re making an interesting but unfathomable attraction in the science museum and people are stopping, scratching their heads and saying, “how did anyone ever understand that piece of junk?” And Pocket Planes isn’t a piece of junk. Especially because, when it sends you a prompt to tell you one of your planes has landed, it sounds just like the ping noise in an airport announcements system. And hey, Nimblebit, I understand that.