Unraveling the mystery behind slow-loading, word-by-word dialog boxes in games


Photo from one of our product testing sessions where a young boy wearing headphones is playing a 3D game on a laptop

Reposted from the 3D Avatar School Team Blog.

Last Saturday we had five fifth-graders over to our office for a session of testing and feedback. The session ran smoothly, we received lots of useful feedback directly and indirectly from the students and they enjoyed the experience.

One observation that vexed me to no end was that whenever our system served up a dialog box, to tell the story or to offer instructions, the students would click it away within a split second. In some cases the box hadn’t even finished loading. In some cases they gave it one look and clicked it off – even though they afterwards mentioned that there weren’t enough instructions. (“Well you clicked them away!” I was tempted to quip.)

What I realized was that students just didn’t like to read. It sounds pretty obvious in retrospect, but in the fray of a design session, we sometimes forget such basic facts. For their part, the students thought of our product as a game and played it as such – clicking monsters rapidly upon sight and batting away any extraneous dialog boxes ASAP. (I also attribute some of this behavior to the much-hated web browser pop-ups that plague poorly designed websites.)

Thinking about how we could circumvent this swatting behavior, I suddenly remembered the text/dialog boxes of the games of my childhood. The text box would appear, and then the words would appear (sometimes accompanied by small bleeps) one by one. I was never able to skip them with the touch of a button, and the best I could do was to speed them up a little bit by holding down a button. A seriously annoying feature for a devout nerd like me, who just wanted to read the text faster.

But on Saturday, I realized that most gamers are not me. Most gamers don’t like to read through long passages of narration or dialogue, and certainly pay little heed to text instructions. After this revelation, the annoying wait attached to the text boxes of my childhood suddenly became a brilliant feature, a tried and true way of making kids at least read a little bit of the text.

About the author

Jason Li is an independent designer, artist and researcher. He is a co-author of the forthcoming Hanmoji Handbook, an editor at Paradise System, and a member of Zine Coop.

Visit his personal website or email him.

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