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Bioware forgot the first two rules of Write Club

Writing | Wednesday, February 28th, 2007 | 10 years, 7 months ago

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:

jadeempire.JPG

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.

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13 Comments

  1. I agree that it is sloppy work on Bioware’s part, but the piece that I find shocking is where it says “The Player has…” instead of “You have…”. This is standard RPG language and I am surprised they slipped up. However I think the button reminder message is more of a miscommunication between the writing team and the interface team or something along that line. It would make more sense that the slip up occurred as a result of an individual who doesn’t have immersion as a top priority (though everyone on an RPG team should have that on the top of their list in my opinion).

    Hopefully there isn’t going to be anything like this in Mass Effect.

    Comment by andrew — March 1, 2007 @ 10:48 am

  2. I have a feeling that Bioware took the technical writing out of a specs or game design document written for programmers, and never got around to rewriting it in context for players. I empathize but it really is a grievous oversight.

    Comment by brian — March 1, 2007 @ 11:29 am

  3. By the way, that part of the game is part of the added material for the PC version.

    Clearly an afterthought, in both planing an execution.

    Is this not usually the case for any added or bonus material that is added when porting a game to another system to keep a 2 year old game purchasable.

    Comment by Mycroft — March 5, 2007 @ 12:56 pm

  4. Having finished Fable: The Lost Chapters for PC I was very satisfied at the cohesiveness upon learning where the Xbox ended. It’s debatable whether the addition was considered after the fact or whether it just wound up on the cutting room floor and awaited a cash infusion from the original title before releasing an expanded version. Highly annoying for the original purchasers, no doubt.

    However, to my surprise, I’ve hardly touched Jade Empire in recent days. The new Sam and Max episode came out which my girlfriend and I immediately played to completion (and it’s the best episode yet), and I’ve been tinkering with the new Sims 2 expansion, Seasons, which is really very cool.

    I suppose I ought to make the most of my purchase and get back to Jade Empire, though.

    Comment by brian — March 5, 2007 @ 1:01 pm

  5. I still think you payed too much money for a 2 year old game. $40! When it was new, sure, $40 is reasonable, 2 years later?! No way.

    $20 would be reasonable. And a little bit of added content does not make up for the fact that the game is 2 years old.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 5, 2007 @ 3:48 pm

  6. If this game had really captivated me I’d argue that the price was fair enough. But it hasn’t, yet, so I won’t, yet. I’ll give the game another chance when I’m bored of playing god in Sims.

    Comment by brian — March 7, 2007 @ 10:10 am

  7. this site is for wussy losers

    Comment by yo momma is a fatty — March 17, 2007 @ 6:36 pm

  8. and that’s why you came here – to feel right at home

    Comment by brian — March 17, 2007 @ 6:38 pm

  9. yesss. i am at home would u like to rub my feet and make me dinner to?

    Comment by yo momma is a fatty — March 17, 2007 @ 6:39 pm

  10. “…It’s clear that teams the UI and writing teams…”
    teams twice

    “…suspend their suspension of disbelief…”
    double negative

    ;) hehe

    Comment by mick — April 18, 2007 @ 6:12 pm

  11. Holy moly did I mess up this post. A blog so nice I blogged it twice?

    Comment by brian — April 18, 2007 @ 6:36 pm

  12. the game’s writers have clearly had an influence on u lol jk

    Comment by mick — April 19, 2007 @ 4:08 pm

  13. That actually made me laugh out loud! Nice one!

    Comment by brian — April 19, 2007 @ 4:11 pm

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