Ready Player Two — Ernest Cline

Where do I start? When I first read Ready Player One five years ago I was a fan. It was that book that drew me back into reading. The story was captivating and the premise of a virtual egg hunt with a lot at stake was thrilling. Since I like video games it made me appreciate the many pop culture references even more.

Unfortunately Ready Player Two is pretty much the same plot all over again and the main character Wade Watts is joined by the same group of people to help him in his quest to save the world…again. Even though he’s supposed to have grown up in the nine years that have passed since the first book Wade’s behaviour is that a of a spoiled and insecure billionaire man-child.

As luck would have it he’s the chosen one which means only he is able to complete the main stages of each quests. This leaves very little room for the rest of the characters to shine and develop their stories.

In this sequel the pop culture references were gratuitously sprinkled all over and didn’t feel very relevant to the story. It seemed like the author just wanted to brag about his vast knowledge of the 80’s which gets old quickly.

Unless you’re a huge fan and want to check out what the hype was all about I would avoid this one.

★★☆☆☆

Roguelikes and the UX design process

I’ve been into video games for as long as I can remember but it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I discovered an entirely new genre called roguelikes. The name comes from the original dungeon crawler Rogue released in 1980.

Two of the major defining characteristics of this genre are permanent death and randomly generated levels. As you can guess the games are usually very difficult and frustrating, especially since there is no saving or reloading. Ever. Once you die, you lose all of your past progress and start again from scratch.

Over the years many games tried to replicate the formula that made Rogue great. The rise of roguelikes eventually led a group of passionate people to create a scoring system to determine how roguelike” any given game is. This interpretation of the genre became known as the Berlin Interpretation which highlights 9 high value factors” of a true roguelike game:

  1. Random environment generation: the world is randomly generated so that every playthrough is different.
  2. Permadeath: when your character dies you lose all progress and have to restart a new game.
  3. Turn-based: each command corresponds to a single action without having to worry about time.
  4. Grid-based: the world is represented on a grid so that monsters and players take up the same amount of space.
  5. Non-modal: every action should be available at any point of the game.
  6. Complexity: the game is complex enough to allow several solutions to common goals.
  7. Resource management: you have to carefully manage your limited resources like keeping track of health or thirst.
  8. Hack’n’slash: the player should be able to fight and destroy most things in the game.
  9. Exploration and discovery: the game requires exploration of the dungeon levels and the discovery of unidentified items for every new playthrough.

Why does any of this matter? Well I just picked up my latest roguelike: Hades by Supergiant Games and it got me thinking.

Even though I’ve played many roguelikes before, it’s only during a session of Hades that something occurred to me–advancing in a roguelike game is very similar to the UX design process.

Discovery

Roguelike

Procedurally generated levels ensure the obstacles and the path to completion remains unknown. Rooms and game elements remain the same but the way they’re laid out differs from one run” to the next.

Design

At the start of any project the design solution usually isn’t known. Sometimes even the problem isn’t clearly defined either. The designer has to embark on quest to find the truth while dealing with ambiguity along the way. The deeper they get into the research, the more findings they uncover. Their ideas generate new ones as they move from one concept (“room”) to the next. Since the design process is inherently messy and far from linear, there’s no telling where they might end up with a solution.

Failing forward

Roguelike

The beauty of roguelikes is that they’re unforgiving. One tiny mistake and your hero dies a horrible death while you watch in disbelief. A death is never in vain, however, because with each failure comes a valuable lesson. Maybe you encountered a new monster or trap that you haven’t seen before which led to your sudden demise. Whatever the case may be, you will have learned something. About the environment, the enemies or maybe your character’s abilities. Those insights will allow you to make it further during your next attempt, with each run becoming a lesson in itself.

Design

Fortunately when a designer’s ideas don’t pan out straight away they don’t die. That would be quite cruel, wouldn’t it? They might, however, have to kill” their ideas early and often without ever getting too attached to a single one too soon. A lot of times they’re encouraged to fail fast in order to focus on the next idea with possibly more potential.

As with every death in a roguelike game, every failed concept in design leads to valuable learnings and ultimately a better solution. It’s important to take time to reflect: Why did this idea not work? What can they learn from the current prototype? How could it be better?

Power-ups and retention

Roguelike

Modern games of the genre implemented achievements and unlockable items that carry over from one run to another. This means that even though a run might fail as it’s often the case, the player still retains a sense of progression through items or power-ups that will help them in future playthroughs. They might start with more life or better weapons for example.

Design

With each customer or stakeholder interview, each prototype and each usability testing session the designer will inevitably learn more about the problem at hand. These insights don’t vanish–they remain with them and inform their decisions for the next steps. These valuable bits of information are their little power-ups for the next phase testing. They’ll pave the way for a more powerful” prototype that will be able solve more problems than the previous one.

Final thoughts

I’ve found that once you start accepting that failure is inherently part of the learning process you’re much further along than other designers.

Deep Listening — Oscar Trimboli

Last year I had the opportunity to meet a designer from Google. During our chat he mentioned that a course on deep listening helped him become a better designer. While I don’t have access to the course I figured a book is the next best thing to learn more about this topic. Deep Listening — Impact beyond words seemed to be the most popular so I went with it even though it’s really short–just over 100 pages.

Turns out the secret to deep listening is…to just listen:

  • Be present in the moment
  • Give the speaker your undivided attention
  • Give the speaker space to think–avoid jumping in just because they pause
  • Don’t start thinking about a reply
  • Don’t interrupt

When you think about it, it all just sounds like common sense and mindfulness. I’ve been guilty of interrupting, eagerly waiting for my turn to speak and being distracted to name a few. In the past few days however I’ve made a conscious effort to notice those things in order to become a better listener.

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” –Epictetus

★★★☆☆

Taking safety for granted

It’s been around 6 months since the last lockdown in New Zealand. Things had just started to feel normal again in the recent months. I would often tell people that I felt very lucky to live in such a safe environment when other countries still struggle to contain the virus a year later. It’s easy to forget when you don’t watch the news.

Yet the many masked faces in public transports and QR codes at the entrance of every building are constant reminders that the pandemic isn’t over.

Earlier this week the entire country went back into a lockdown. A single case of COVID-19 in the community brought the everyone back to reality. It feels eerily familiar to be stuck at home again while we wait for daily updates and hope for the best.

Remember we’re all in this together. Stay safe and be kind.

On Writing Well — William Zinsser

After reading The Elements of Style and a couple of other books on writing I didn’t necessarily plan on reading another one on this topic. But when I saw that Derek Sivers recommended On Writing Well on his site I thought it might be worth checking out.

I learned a lot about how to improve my writing in the first few chapters of the book. They were relevant, filled with examples and easy to understand. The main takeaways for me were:

  • The best writing comes from rewriting as much as necessary.
  • Strip down each sentence to its essence.
  • Avoid long sentences. Break them down into smaller pieces if it’s easier to understand.
  • Ask yourself What am I trying to say? and check in later Have I said it?.
  • Writing in the first person is the most genuine way to write.
  • Don’t forget to have fun, your readers will notice and enjoy it
  • Use people and places in your writing, they make your story come to life.
  • Write like a human being and avoid confusing your readers with fancy words that don’t mean much.

Now every time I write whether it’s for my blog, at work or anywhere else I try to put these learnings into practice. The book gave me new tools to improve my writing and made the process more enjoyable. It’s like I was given a clear path to follow on my journey to becoming a better writer.

All that’s left do is write. And rewrite some more.

★★★☆☆