Design and a game from the '90s

chip's challenge

Good design is time-independent and long-lasting. In order to find products with such characteristics it's not enough to look only at new ones, because they weren't exposed to the test of time. We learn best from a history of past successes and failures, uncovering the reasons behind them. We could say that if an old product would work equally well today, it probably had a good design.

It's interesting what a game from the 90's can teach us. "Chip's challenge" was developed by Chuck Sommerville 24 years ago and then ported to different platforms. It even runs on Windows today without the use of an emulator. The idea behind the game was to collect all chips on a tile-based map in a given time and put them in a socket to unlock the exit to the next level. The levels were created with a lot of fantasy, being quite engaging, especially for children. Even today it is hard to imagine how a game can have almost 150 challenges and still be 488kB. (This might be what the average website uses as a background image today.) This shows how much value a kilobyte can offer. Few small tiles are reused in many creative ways to build the maps, which is in contrast with having a large variety of tiles that will only rarely be used. The game starts instantly and is immediately useful with no need for HTTP requests. The low-resolution display of the gaming console meant that the designer didn't have to bother offering fullscreen mode. The game is single player only, so it doesn't try to appeal to everyone. The design is consistent throughout the levels—the tiles, items and creatures look and behave the same, which begets the right expectations and builds on them. The game doesn't have complex controls—it uses only the arrow keys,—so it doesn't make us think what each key is for. There's no game over and no lives get counted. When we fail, the level we were last on is restarted, which allows us to explore different ways to solve the same task without the fear of starting from level one. Even if we leave the game at this point, the last level we were on will be remembered. Once we have gone through a certain situation, we already know how to handle it again, which supports learnability. Certain elements of unexpectedness—for instance, with what could be off screen,—make the game surprising, and we need to anticipate things if we want to go further. As soon as the window loses focus, the game is paused, so no time is lost while doing something else.

If we still enjoy playing this game today, then it means that its designer did something right and we can learn from it. Such a high level of engagement can be hard to achieve on a website, even though we have plenty of tools and techniques at our disposal now. A potential problem is that we don't see our links as directions on a map, so we very often don't know where we want to lead users on their journey. We also don't tell them what the endpoint will be, which makes them less willing to continue. Maybe we have to think more tiles in advance.