Less is More

Roads Gone Wild is an article about making roads safer by removing traffic signals and signs. I found it through Brian Marick’s agile development blog.

Roads have historically been built with the assumption that cars and pedestrians don’t mix. Seems like a sound assumption, right? No one really questioned it. Road signs were used to enforce driving patterns. For example, blinking red lights and stop signs require drivers to stop at an intersection. Also, streets and people were segregated, and so people felt safer walking in certain areas but not in others.

Traffic congestion is the result, but it was assumed that wider roads would alleviate the problem. Studies are showing that this is not the case and will only make matters worse.

There is a new trend to reduce the number of signs on roads. Instead of placing stop signs at intersections, an island can be placed in the center, and the drivers can navigate around it safely. I presume it is because drivers are much more engaged and don’t just space out while driving through. Whatever the case is, the big idea is that the physical features of the street, the architecture, can dictate traffic much better than traffic signals can.

The bonus side effect is that pedestrians and cyclists feel safer near major roadways. Businesses get attracted to these new markets, and now you have transportation mixed with local development. Previously, transportation and storefronts didn’t mix so it required a lot more space and therefore money.

So basically, good architecture influences behavior better than arbitrary rules. The requirement of a road sign can be an admission of the road designer’s failure to make a better road. Stop signs shouldn’t be necessary because a road can be architected to require people to stop in the first place.

It’s a cool idea, and I wonder how it applies to games. I’ve seen games that present a level layout that requires the use of a special item. For instance, in Super Mario World one of the first levels that allows you to collect the feather to give Mario the ability to fly also has a coin bonus area that requires you to fly to collect the coins. There doesn’t need to be a sign or clue. Players see a feather, see a ramp next to the incredibly tall pipe, and figure out that they need to run up the pipe and start flying to collect the coins. Similarly, in Wind Waker, when you get the leaf, it gives you the ability to blast a puff of air. When you see the rotating fans in a dungeon’s room, you know you can use the leaf here. There is no need for a sign or message to let you know what to do.

I think that most games do a good job of making level layouts intuitive, but I know that some games have placed markers or signs to guide the player. In reality, they probably weren’t necessary if the level was designed better. Obviously some markers are necessary for immersion, such as wooden signposts in a fantasy RPG. Others are used as optional tutorials, such as the signs in Super Mario 64. But some might be used to make up for deficiencies in the game itself.

If anything, it should give a game designer some pause if he/she realizes that a marker is getting added to compensate for a bad design. Provide hints to the gamer instead of rules. Cracks in a wall indicate a possible cave to explore. A player should be able to place a bomb or smash through. On the other hand, if the game requires the player to set some “I-know-about-the-hidden-cave” variable before a bomb will be effective or the cracks in the wall visible, that’s just bad and arbitrary.

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