The first rule of technical writing is to know your audience.
The second rule of technical writing is to know your audience.
I’ve been playing and rather enjoying Jade Empire by Bioware which I preordered on Steam for $35.99 USD (now $39.99). The PC edition has been upgraded with high resolution textures, added visual effects, and additional quests and plotline elements. Between the interesting dialogue, passable voice acting, gorgeous graphics, and somewhat engaging combat and mini-games I’m having a good time with the game.
While the gameplay is a sober mix of familiar, tired, and safe standards (ancient Chinese shmup?!), my regular readers will know that I’m a real gourmand of immersive virtual experiences. With rare exceptions this is a really believable game with a tangible world and sufficiently round characters that I honestly care about. I dedicated my entire evening to Jade Empire and found it easy to open up and drink in the atmosphere.
Thus, it’s all the more heart-wrenching to be jarred from this fantasy when faced with some ugly technical writing.
For context, Jade Empire, like most RPGs, encourages the player to open every box and smash every crate to get his grubby hands on every last scrap of loot (not to be confused with the MMORPG equivalent, “lewt”, typically an insignificantly incremental improvement over what you already have). One such widget is a scroll of learning; three of which are required to learn a new fighting style. This is all well and good, but upon finding one of these scrolls the way the player is notified leaves much to be desired. I’ve highlighted the elements that immediately and repeatedly turn my smile upsidedown:
I’m really surprised at Bioware for being so sloppy. This is a veteran studio dedicated to role playing games – games where the player is unequivocally encouraged to take on the role of a character in the world. The zen of roleplaying is to leave your real-worldly role behind, which entails not being reminded that you are “the player”. Similarly, my magical seductress has been tasked with collecting medicinal herbs and banishing ghosts; she has no awareness of an “attack button” and certainly does not need two simultaneous reminders of such.
I’m doubly frustrated at Bioware – first for letting such an amateurish mistake escape not only this “Special Edition” of the game but also the prior version released 2 years ago, and second for passing up my application for a technical writing position they advertised a few months back.
Bioware has taught me a harsh lesson in effective technical writing. It’s clear that the UI and writing teams should have been working closely together, but weren’t. As essential as it is to convey usability information to the user of a software product, video games are not just any software product. They have a specific audience with very different goals than users of Microsoft Word or Macromedia Dreamweaver. Over years of experience gamers are conditioned to suspend their suspension of disbelief during mechanics tutorials and help screens. It’s really not necessary to remind us in painfully lucid English how to dismiss every single dialog box.