Perceptual fluency and how Battleborn’s gameplay was hurt by its aesthetic

One of the complaints Battleborn has faced has always been that its presentation is a little confusing, or less polished than its counterparts. Though many of these complaints have regarded the HUD and presentation of explicit numerical information, the character designs and their influence on the players ease of information processing may also be worthy of consideration. A brief look at the two images below shows a comparison between the aesthetic presentations of Mercy from Overwatch (left) and Miko from Battleborn (right). Within their respective games, they both exist as support classes, able to heal allies with a visually similar healing beam when in close proximity, however only Mercy’s aesthetic really infers this gameplay style.

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Merely glance at Mercy and there are a myriad of clues that might provide you with the indication that she exists to heal her allies. The red cross represented onto her uniform, the white, almost clinical aesthetic to the character outfit, the angelic wings representing her role as the team saviour. Even the weapon itself looks like a less threatening mechanism than the rest of the cast possess, and matches the healing weapons weld by medics in previous games like Team Fortress 2. Mercy’s character design can be considered to possess what can be considered as high perceptual fluency – wherein the information conveyed by the visual aesthetic is clearly conveyed and easy to process – and this comes with the capacity to influence Overwatch’s gameplay in a positive way as new players more quickly grasp her gameplay designation.

Although Miko, Battleborn’s medic has similar functionality to Mercy, projecting his healing beam from his hand instead of an additional device, his aesthetic does little to infer this role. Despite his relatively slender presentation supporting the notion that he might be one of the more low-health support characters, little else provides any indication of what his role may be. His thrown kunai invoke the idea that he may be an aggressive, damage orientated character rather than a healer and Gearbox do little to refute this notion by making healing his secondary, rather than primary attack. His character design has low perceptual fluency, affording the opportunity for new players to be confused, and require longer to develop an understanding of his gameplay role.

While Mercy possesses a secondary weapon too, it could be argued that by making this weapon something you have to actively switch to, Blizzard ensure that Mercy exists as a support first. This mechanical reinforcement of the gameplay designation inferred by Mercy’s aesthetic can be considered intelligent manipulation of player behaviour so as to influence gameplay in a positive way. It’s much more likely that a new Mercy player will heal you than a new Miko player, they’re more likely to understand their role and greater processing fluency of her aesthetic is likely to be a component of that.

For Battleborn this inherently more confusing visual presentation can be seen as something that influences the games processing fluency negatively. Overwatch players looking at their characters can select Mercy and go into the experience with vastly more information about how to play their role, and thereby how to play the game, than their Battleborn counterparts. If you still weren’t sure what to do with Mercy then worry not, as Overwatch’s character selection menu neatly categorises Mercy as a support character, making her role and thereby your gameplay focus, quite clear from the outset.

Moving away from these video games for a moment to use another example and emphasise the significance of using imagery and affordance to convey information within human computer interactions more broadly. Glance at the two icons below and you can see a similar issue to what I described between Mercy and Miko. The mail box icon infers its functionality, it’s both concrete and very familiar, and researchers have demonstrated that icons like these are seen as more appealing. You see the mailbox icon and you know what to do, but that isn’t the case with the second icon.

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In the same way, Mercy is a more concrete character design, with her functionality embedded into her aesthetic, while Miko is the abstract, conveying less information about his playstyle, potentially liable to be seen as more confusing, and less appealing. That’s not to say that either of these characters are inherently less interesting in their design. On a personal level I like Miko’s character aesthetic, but as with many Battleborn characters I often feel as though I don’t understand much about the character before forcing myself to play a few matches. They don’t feel as though they’re as easy to pick up and play as Overwatch’s counterparts and it often feels intimidating taking a new character into PVP because it’s less clear how they should be played.

Looking at the small scale impact this affects our ability to play Miko,  however more broadly it also influences how Miko is perceived by others too. Whens seeing Miko on the battlefield players may decide that he looks like a relatively mid-ranged damage per second rather than support, and neglect to place enough emphasis on taking him down in a team fight or alternatively, allied players may not run towards him when they need healing. His lack of perceptual fluency harms the flow of battlefield information and makes the game more difficult for new comers to pick up and play as they have to consume more effort than would otherwise be needed in order to figure out what each character does and how they should be interacting with them.

If we look at the rest of the cast on offer in Battleborn, very few of them feature an aesthetic presentation that correlates neatly with their functional role. Boldur is the smallest hero in the game, yet probably the tankiest, Ghalt is one of the largest, yet he goes down quite quickly and focuses on trapping and support, while Ambra, the slender support class is deceptively tanky due to an additional emergency overshield that automatically applies itself.

In Battleborn’s beta, where Gearbox sought to promote their game, Ambra was a dominant force and deemed overpowered. Too tanky to kill and capable of dishing out more damage than most of the cast. The aesthetic presentation of this squishy looking support character had little to no relationship with her gameplay potential, and that’s created a big issue. Players found themselves frustrated, Ambra herself wasn’t necessarily overpowered, but what she was doing was completely out of line with both her character description and aesthetic presentation suggested, her design had incredibly low perceptual fluency.

This distorted relationship between gameplay and aesthetic presentation makes the experience harder for the new player to process and subsequently for many, less appealing. Gearbox neglected the informational value of the games aesthetic in favour of making it quirky, and almost comic-book like and while some may value the unusual aesthetic that facilitates, or argue it represents the heightened versatility of the characters, the impact that the poor conveyance of this information has on gameplay understanding can be argued to have a significant and detrimental influence on how newcomers experience the game.

Going into an experience thinking the character is likely to play one way, then finding your getting pummelled because your internal representation is disconnected with the developers intentions makes for a bad gameplay experience. In the same way, looking across the battlefield and seeing all of these characters and feeling unable to infer their playstyle makes the whole battlefield more difficult to understand and process. Where does your character need to be? Who should you be attacking? It’s less clear in Battleborn and although veteran players inherently become familiar with these less explicit elements of the games design, newcomers are punished for the mixed and confusing messages conveyed by the games aesthetic.

To use another example from another game, if we look at a more classic character like Zangief from Street Fighter, then we can infer that he’s a grappler or close range physical character from a mere glance at his bulging muscles and character design. Because of this information we know what he wants to do to us, we know the range he wants us to play in and we can understand the fight. Therefore, we can shape the gameplay in such away that we play around the space that he wants to acquire, we can play against his playstyle and we can do that without having to figure this out through trial and error. This informational fluency isn’t as prominent in Battleborn’s aesthetic, as playstyles vary independent of whether a character is small, or large and its detrimental to the games accessibility, which will have been especially influential during the games open beta, where new players formed impressions of their experience within a relatively brief period of time.

zangief

Whether this lack of processing fluency harmed Battleborn’s reception is hard to say, but from personal experience I think it’s reasonable to suggest it as likely to have done so. During the beta, and even after the games release, there were an abundance of players that didn’t seem quite clear on what their characters role is, they didn’t heal with Miko, and they didn’t clear the lane with Thorn. They didn’t get the game, and that’s not their fault, it’s the games design. Gearbox approached a console market, a consumer base that’s largely alien to the tropes and expectancy of typical MOBA gameplay, and failed to easily facilitate the acquisition of information required to play successfully. Even if you’re one of those that was less affected or invested enough time to overcome this initially heightened learning curve, playing with these players on a match-on-match basis can make the experience frustrating and inconsistent. When we compare Battleborn to a game like Overwatch, the higher processing fluency of the character designs over on Overwatch is one component of information conveyance that helps create a night and day experience in respect to the players ability to understand both their character and the battlefield as a whole.

Ultimately, if it was Gearbox’s intention to sacrifice processing fluency for the sake of a unique aesthetic, then they should have considered compensating that with additional support systems such as brief gameplay introductions to each character, or gameplay category designations that dissociated groups of characters from one another on the character selection screen. As it stands Battleborn is just worse at conveying its information than its competition with little alternative provided other than asking players to figure it out on their own, and there’s questionable benefit to that in regards to the player experience.

Author: Jozef Kulik

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