,The game throws you into the deep end of Japanese rice farming. — 123rf.com Hello! I know you’re reading this tech article in the tech section of your newspaper or news website, but I’m going to spend a large portion of it obsessing over the logistics of growing rice. I’m also going to talk about user interfaces and user experience design eventually, but mostly, I’m all about the rice today. I’ve been playing a lot of Sakuna: Of Rice And Ruin, a game about a bratty princess-goddess who gets booted out of the celestial capital of Japanese heaven and is forced to redeem herself by starting a rice farm with some lost humans on a demon-infested island. The rice-growing mechanics are so deep, so intricate, and so reflective of real life that Japanese players have reportedly been going to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries to learn actual rice-growing techniques that they can use in-game. There really isn’t any "easy to follow, video gamey" guidance in Sakuna’s rice mechanics. In a rather bold move that only a small indie studio would dare pull off, the game throws you into the deep end of Japanese rice farming and expects you to figure out several centuries of agricultural techniques on your first day as a farmer. Sakuna’s approach to explaining – or rather, not explaining – fascinates me greatly because it cleverly defies everything I’ve learned about good software and UI/UX design. Whenever you create a software system intended for human use – whether it’s a video game, or a website, or a mobile app – there are a few "common sense" rules that you should follow. Here are a few: 1. Well-designed systems should communicate their purpose to the users. If you’re building an ecommerce website, it needs to immediately signal its function to shoppers with a bunch of "add to cart" buttons and "Sale!" banners. (Or if you’re selling boats, "Sail!", I suppose.) Sakuna is kinda obvious with its main goal – you grow rice to level up your character – but a lot of its subsystems are mysteries left for you to figure out. Like, why does my rice have an "aroma" stat, and how do I raise it? Answer: It improves your magic power, and you raise it by, counterintuitively, giving your rice far less water than what the in-game NPCs suggest. Which brings me to the next point: 2. Well-designed systems should communicate the options the user has available. If you’re building an Android app, you need to be pretty obvious which parts of your app can be interacted with, and what actions they perform. If your user doesn’t know they can swipe left to open a hidden menu, that option might as well not be there. As hinted earlier, there are a lot of things that you won’t be told that you can do in Sakuna.Pictured are Sakuna and her friends overlooking an abundant field of rice. Not pictured are the several in-game years worth of effort required to make the rice grow this well. — Edelweiss, via official website There’s an outhouse that you can interact with to collect the base materials to feed into a fertiliser pit, but if you didn’t notice the pit, you might spend a whole game day wandering around wielding a bucket of poop that you can never put down. From experience, I can tell you this is a terrible way to make friends. 3. Well-designed systems should communicate what’s going on, pretty much immediately. In other words, your software needs proper feedback mechanics. If your app takes time to load, show a loading icon. If the "Update" button triggers a long download, show a progress bar. If something goes wrong, show an error message, preferably with a sad trombone sound for added drama. Sakuna, meanwhile, only deigns to tell you if the seeds you planted in early spring were any good when you harvest the rice in late autumn. Sakuna’s obtuse rice farming gameplay breaks all three obvious rules, but I still love the game and its design. And I think it’s because it balances out those broken rules by really focusing on other additional rule of good design: 4. Well-designed systems should tolerate (and expect) failure, and encourage users to find ways to improve. Surprise! I was meant to utterly fail my first few attempts at growing rice because it turns out I was playing a bratty princess who just got booted out of the big city. Of course, I wasn’t supposed to understand the difference between planting and harvesting seasons; I was supposed to learn along with the princess! The game’s story of personal growth even signals to the player that it’s perfectly OK not to be perfect (or even just okay) when you start out. In fact, that’s no real "fail state" that you can blunder into – you’re going to make mistakes, but you can always try again next time. I’m as surprised as anyone that a game about growing rice can tell me so much about forgiving system design, but here we are. The next time I write some code, I need to remember to add a recycle bin in case someone accidentally deletes their files, or an undo button in case somebody accidentally orders ten tonnes of raw fertiliser from my e-commerce website. Because hey, users are going to make mistakes, and it’s the developer’s job to make sure they can try again. In any case, I heartily recommend giving Sakuna: of Rice and Ruin a try. It’s a great game with a lovely story that can teach you quite a bit about good software design, and a heck of a lot more about actually growing rice. Raised by wild Nintendo consoles and trained in the ways of the computer scientist, Shaun A. Noordin tries to use his knowledge of web development, technology and video games for the greater good. Or for entertainment and amusement, whichever is easier. He has a lot of advice to share, but they’re all inadvisable to follow.
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