Friday, July 16, 2004

I tried out the Transport Giant demo. I like the premise. I love the graphics. I generally like this sort of game. However, there are some interface annoyances that, although forgiveable back in 1995 with Transport Tycoon, can't be overlooked in 2004. Unfortunately, the interface is annoying enough that I'm not planning to buy the game.

In this game you build transportation routes between cities and industries. Your goal is to make money, deliver goods, or whatever the scenario goals are. The demo limits you to transporting goods by horse on roads, but the full game also offers trains, ships, blimps, airplanes, and helicopters. It would be nice if in these "run a business" games, not all other businesses have to be your competitors. It would be nice if I could run the sawmill to goods part of the transportation chain without having to first run the wood to sawmill part. Railroad Tycoon 3 seems to have addressed this problem.

  • When building stations, the “entrance” is always on the northwest side. This means building a road to get to certain stations is awkward.
  • When building roads, adjacent roads don't always connect. You have to go back and connect some of the corners.
  • There's a way to get a list of all your stations. But this list only offers the name. If you want any other details (cargo, profit, traffic, etc.), you have to click on a station in the list and then press a button (you can't even double click the station name). There's no way to go back to the list; you have to open up the list again and start at the top, scroll down to the next station, click on it, and so on.
  • A minor bug: demolishing a single square of roadway costs $900,000 (in contrast, building it costs $5000).
  • There's a way to get a list of all the vehicles, towns, and industries. But it has the same problem as the list of stations. There's only a name and no information about it. If I want to pick the town with the largest population or the lumber yard with the most lumber, I have to manually click on each one, write down or remember the number I want. If I want to see some information about all of my 94 horses, I have to click on each one (and even then, I can't get basic information like amount of revenue generated).
  • When I want to assign horses to go on a certain route, I bring up a “schedule” screen. It seems like a reasonable UI. But to actually choose a horse, I have to click on the horse, then click on an arrow button. I can't just click or double-click on the horse. To choose a station to visit, I have to go back to the map (which is partially obscured by the scheduling dialog box) and click on the station. I can't choose from a list (especially a list sorted by something reasonable—like stations that process the same kind of good the horse is carrying). Once I choose the station, I have to choose what kind of cargo the horse should carry from there. I have to click on the cargo type icon, then click on an arrow button. It should automatically choose the type of cargo that is produced at that station. These extra steps make the interface more "general" (a sure sign that software engineers were designing this UI!) but they make the common case harder.
  • I can't tell what's actually available at a station or what that station would like to have. There is a "Requires" list but it's often empty.
  • I can't expand a station by clicking on it. I have to go into a separate expansion menu and then choose the type of station. This would make more sense if I could get a list of stations and upgrade many of them at the same time. Once I do go into the menu, there's a list of options, but they don't give me a good idea of the magnitude of the benefit.
  • One of the things that annoyed me in Transport Tycoon is that sometimes I want multiple vehicles to travel the same route. If I want ten buses on a particular route, I have to repeat the setup ten times. In this game there's a shortcut—duplicate route. However, it only works for the initial route. After setting up lots of identical routes, I might need to change something. For example, in the demo scenario, after you deliver 50 wooden boards to a fort, it longer accepts boards, and only accepts passengers. I had to go into each of my 20 horses and change their route to deliver passengers. It was too much work, so I just let my horses keep delivering boards, at a loss.
  • When I go into the schedule screen and I don't have a horse already, I have to exit the screen, go into a different screen, and buy a horse. I should be able to buy a horse and give it a schedule all from one screen.
  • After a while, the horses got stuck at one particular station. There wasn't really anything I could do at that point.

The main goal in these sorts of games is to make money efficiently. To do this I need to be able to evaluate all the things I've set up—stations, routes, vehicles, industries. There seems to be no way to do this. I'm not sure how I'm really supposed to play the game if I can't know how much money each of my vehicles makes. Is corn profitable? I can't really tell. If there were a way to get the aggregate or annual revenue/cost for an individual vehicle, it would make my job possible but tedious. What I really want is a table listing all my vehicles (or stations, industries, routes) and how much each of them brings in, how much it costs, how many days it makes per trip, and other metrics. I want to group them by vehicle type, cargo type, destination station, or other attributes. For stations I need to know the amount of traffic coming through, the wait time is for loading/unloading, the average amount of goods I'm storing there, and so on. If I want to decide whether to build some extra, like a loading crane, how can I decide whether it's worth it? If have to know whether loading time is an issue. I want an Excel-like view: a table of rows and columns, each column sortable and filterable, with grouping (aggregation). These are the things I'd demand if I were running this business in real life; how can I run the business in a game without the data?

Maybe the game designers thought it'd be more fun if you weren't overwhelmed with data. That's a good goal, but I didn't find it fun, in a game about running a business, to run a business blind. I had nothing to use to make decisions. I think they need to start with a list of what the player is supposed to do and design the interface to match that, instead of designing the interface to match the data structures or internal simulation model. It looks like it could have been a great game, but ruined by a bad interface.