I’m not a graphic designer. I was not formally educated in that art. However, over the years, my jobs in editing and writing for books, newspapers, magazines and publishers have required me to learn the rudiments of layout, typography and design.
I am the first to admit my design talent is merely adequate. Despite that, I did absorb enough to be able to recognize egregiously bad design.
And this week, I found what may be the best example of the most egregiously bad design and layout I’ve ever encountered: the Town of Collingwood’s advertising section on pages D6-D8 of the Enterprise Bulletin, April 24, 2015.
Whoever assembled these ads has – incredibly, it seems – even less talent than I have in layout and design.
First, the size: the ads sprawl across two-and-three quarters pages when they could easily have fit in a page-and-a-half. Since we taxpayers pay for those ads, this wasteful layout is costing us money. There is no excuse for this.
Second, the type: about 99 percent of the text is set in the same sans-serif typeface – Arial or Helvetica – body and headlines, making it incredibly boring and dull to look at. Couldn’t someone had clicked the font menu and selected a serif typeface just once?
Serif fonts improve ease of reading; they have been used since Roman times. The serifs help guide the eye along the line – and the longer the line, the more they prove useful. But even if you use sans-serif for the body, it is good design to use a different typeface for the headlines. This wasn’t done: instead the pages have a monolithic sameness.
Perhaps the single most important part of graphic and web design is typography. Like color, texture, and shapes, the fonts you use tell readers you’re a serious online news magazine, a playful food blog or a vintage tea tins shop. Words are important, but the style of the words is equally essential.
So what do the fonts of the town’s ad pages tell readers? Boring, dull, unimaginative, stiff, stodgy, amateurish? All of these?
The type size, too, is unnecessarily large for body type – 12 or perhaps even 14 point. At the most, it should be 10-11 point and probably could be smaller. This oversized text is the major cause of the sprawl, too.
But the headline size has not been scaled to match the large body size, so the headlines look grotesquely small. And to compound it, the small headlines are all centred, looking orphaned amidst all that extra space.
And why are some headlines in black, some in blue, and others a mix of blue and black?
All of the body copy is justified – again adding to the boring similarity of every ad. Fully justified text like this has been proven harder to read in large blocks than ragged right text. And the full justification creates awkward gaps between words in the longer lines.
Then there’s the excess leading (the space between lines) and the embarrassingly wide distance between paragraphs (did someone hit return twice? That’s a bad habit from the typewriter era). Thick horizontal lines of whitespace mar the appearance and force the reader’s eyes to drift too far to find the next paragraph.
I won’t even begin with the issue of kerning in the headlines, except to note that there doesn’t seem to have been any effort made in that department.
Humans have remarkable ability that is shared by – as far as we know – no other animal. We can turn abstract images and symbols into meaning. Words are, of course, the prime example, as old as our history. We can turn a word like dog, tree, table or vacation into a broad and deep understanding of what that word means to us.
Of course when I write “dog” and you read it, they’re not the same thing. I need to add qualifiers – adjectives, descriptions, anecdotes – for you to come close to appreciating my meaning. Even then, it’s still based on your and my individual emotional experiences. And they’re likely not aligned or similar. Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop writers from discussing dogs, from describing dogs.
But like molecules are made of atoms, and atoms of smaller particles yet, and those made up of quarks, sentences are made of words, words are made of letters, and letters are made strokes. The jot and tittle of Biblical phrase.
The amazing thing with the human brain is that we can take a collection of slashes, lines, strokes and dots and transform it into a letter and thus into a word. We take the abstract and solidify it.
Dissect an ‘A’ and what do you have? Two angled and one horizontal line. In lowercase – ‘a’ – we see two curves, one cupped against the other.
But in the human brain that’s a letter; a vowel, an indefinite article. It’s a crucial component in writing and speech, one of five (and sometimes six) sounds that connect the vertebra of consonants. Tens of thousands of words depend on those simple lines. We could not do without the letter A. it is part of the genetic makeup of language. Yet by itself it’s just some lines on a page.
The letter “A,” we told, comes from the Phoenician aleph: a stylized bull’s head, rotated with use (see here). Today we’re using symbols created 3,000 years ago (although our Western alphabet – Latin – is really a creation of the Romans, dating back more than 2,700 years, although in today’s form and content about 2,100 years old. Consider the heritage in that, every time you type a Facebook post, an email or write a letter: the history of writing is ancient.
The alphabet is a remarkable invention. It turned human vocal sounds into abstract symbols, it codified the world into abstract symbols. Humans assembled a series of strokes, lines and curves to define language. And we did it a long time ago – in Egypt in the 27th century BCE by most accounts. More than 4,700 years ago. Others identify it with Sumerian culture, somewhat earlier. Either way, it’s pretty impressive and probably the most important human invention. Clive Thomson writes in his book, Smarter Than You Think,
Writing — the original technology for externalizing information — emerged around five thousand years ago, when Mesopotamian merchants began tallying their wares using etchings on clay tablets. It emerged first as an economic tool. As with photography and the telephone and the computer, newfangled technologies for communication nearly always emerge in the world of commerce. The notion of using them for everyday, personal expression seems wasteful, risible, or debased. Then slowly it becomes merely lavish, what “wealthy people” do; then teenagers take over and the technology becomes common to the point of banality.
(I don’t agree entirely with Thompson’s assessment that writing is on the same technological level as, say, an iPad or the internet, nor that technology makes us smarter; in fact I argue the opposite in that technology makes it simpler to do things, so we work less at them. But I sigress and will save that argument for another post.)
But letters are not rocks: they are not fixed in the firmament. They change, they evolve like living things.
The design of those letters has been debated and developed since the first words were scratched into rock. But it really became an art when the printing press was invented, thanks to Johannes Gutenberg. And ever since his invention, people have been debating what makes a good, readable, legible and aesthetically pleasing typeface. Sometimes with great emotion.
In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field. In a book designed by rote, they sit like stale bread and mutton on the page. In a well-made book, where designer, compositor and printer have all done their jobs, no matter how many thousands of lines and pages, the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles.
Type and typography creates in some people the fiery emotions we see in other arts.*
The hype was huge and long. Diablo III was rumored, hinted at, promised, delayed, and even denied for years. Then it was embraced when it finally arrived after more than a decade’s hibernation since the success of Diablo II, released in 2000 (and 16 years since the original, released in 1996). Good technique for raking in the money: the anticipation meant huge sales initially.
The spammers love it, of course, because it provides a wonderful, accessible platform for scams through its live in-game chat system that allows them to post text ads promising in-game gold and experience points in exchange for real money. This sort of scam has plagued World of Warcraft for years. Electronic Arts has not learned much from a that lesson, it seems.
There are reports (see this article from Forbes magazine) that D3 has been hacked and scammers have stripped accounts of gold and items.It may be that EA’s battle.net is being hacked instead, which means all your accounts with it including WOW are vulnerable. If you read some of the game forums you can find these stories in abundance. Even if you use one of their authenticator dongles, you may still be hacked, as this story notes. The threat is not merely losing virtual items in a game account – but that it will let the hackers into your other services, like email accounts, or other online places where you may use the same name, email or password. Like PayPal, online banking or eBay.
EA has denied widespread hacking. Having had my WOW account hacked, I can testify to the stomach-wrenching sensation of logging on and finding all your gold gone, your stash empty and your character naked (except for some politically correct but underwear). There are unconfirmed reports of players being hacked even through they use EA’s authenticator.
I figure I report at least a dozen spammers every time I play the game. Which is, because of their ubiquitous presence, increasingly seldom. It doesn’t appear reporting abuses makes any difference. It’s hard to tell because spammers change their identity almost daily and their usernames are never the same, although the scam sites they tell you about remain the same.
This is Electronic Arts’ fault. You need a constant Internet connection to play the game, even when you’re playing solo. That means the spammers and scammers are there with you, sending message after message after message – often five or six of the same multi-line crap – through the general chat network. No, it doesn’t affect your game, just your perception, as your attention is continually drawn to the part of the screen where their messages appear.
Had EA set up the system so that solo play was local, not linked to the Net, spammers would not be such a huge problem. As it stands, you are deluged with their annoying ads during gameplay. These may not be harmful per se (until you fall for one and go to their phishing site), but they break the immersion, and draw your attention from the game to the bright blue letters of their message on your screen.
Back up a bit. For those of you not familiar with the Diablo franchise, it’s a role playing fantasy game (RPG) with an overhead, third-person orthogonal view. Everything you do – move, fight, trade, repair, talk – you do with the mouse. It’s a clickfest. A typical session is one mouse click after another after another: click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click and then a whole lot more and faster in combat.
Suggestion: buy a good gaming mouse if you want to play D3. A Logitech gaming mouse can withstand the constant clicking. Your typical, cheap $20 mouse will break. Spend the $100-plus on a good mouse if you like this game.
Like the title suggests, Diablo is about demons, evil, devils, angels and their ilk, although not taken wholesale from Christian mythology. It’s more Hollywood than Biblical in its inspiration. The story line is thin, even simplistic, but sufficient to explain most of the action.
The bad guys are caricatures of evil, but it’s a game, not a novel or even a movie. The differences between D2 and D3 are more in the polish, but nothing that can justify a decade’s effort. The scenery is pretty, gritty and gloomy in turn – all good eye candy, if a bit stereotypical and cliched. Particle physics are good; monsters lose limbs in gory splats, and explode satisfyingly.
Diablo was an original concept in the 90s, and, although cloned by many other games, it was still great fun in 2000. In 2012, D3 doesn’t offer much more or newer than its competitors (like Dragon Age). In fact, following a move seen in WOW, D3 is simplified (dumbed down if you’re a hardcore gamer) from its previous versions: skimpier skill trees, fewer character classes (no more paladins…), fewer combat options. However, this allows players to concentrate more on gameplay and less on micromanaging their characters.
[pullquote]Buy a good gaming mouse if you want to play D3. A Logitech gaming mouse can withstand the constant clicking. Your typical, cheap $20 mouse will break.[/pullquote]It’s not a very deep or challenging game, but rather an entertaining time waster. It’s more beautiful than solitaire and it’s more fulfilling to kill monsters than drop a jack on a queen. But it’s not in the intellectual foreground like chess, go, or even the solitaire mah jong. It’s pretty heavily scripted and the paths you can take and means to fulfill a quest are limited and very linear. Some areas are large open zones you can explore; others are fixed paths you are forced to stay within. Each quest has to be done in order and completed the way the game dictates; it’s not an open-ended system with multiple quest-trees like Skyrim.
Replaying it with different characters, even different classes (wizard, barbarian, witch doctor, etc.) doesn’t change the game. Rather it simply changes some of the tactics and weapons available to the character class. It also changes a few, but not all, lines of dialogue you’ll hear. Along the way, you’ll get a companion to fight beside you. There will eventually be three you can choose from: templar, enchantress and scoundrel. The main difference between them is the tone of their repeated comments during play. You’ll want to play in silence after you’ve heard the same lines a few dozen times in an afternoon.
Still, wiping out a whole platoon of Orc-like creatures, zombies, or demons does give some satisfaction. More than, say, clearing a screen full of cards. D3 is like Cheezies: addictive in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. You want something more cerebral, play Civ 5. Or Fritz chess.
Diablo III has other issues, not all of them EA’s fault. The scammers apparently broke part of the in-game auction system and forced EA to close down the part that used real money to buy virtual goods (why anyone would do this baffles me, but it’s done in other games like Second Life). The real money auction is offline right now, while EA works on a fix. My suggestion: drop the idea entirely and stick to the virtual gold system. That way no one gets hurt.
Auction prices are another thing that bother me. The auction house system works well in WOW but in D3, it seems like insane gremlins have taken over. Items that can be sold for 200 gold at any in-game merchant are being offered for 10,000, 20,000, even 100,000 and more! I’ve seen some in the millions of gold range. Obviously the sellers suffer from some sort of Midas ailment because these prices are not merely unreasonable, they are stupidly, egregiously high. No thinking adult would put these prices that high. Children must be muddying the auction system. Why isn’t there some sort of cap that limits players to auction prices a mere 100 times the in-game sell price, rather than allow it to be posted at thousands?
Non-player characters are generally as stupid as auctioneers when they fight with you. They can be inept or ineffectual during a battle (why do they have such a hard time killing a single monster that I can dispatch with one hit?). Sometimes they get stuck in rooms or at other points outside the action (poor path-finding programming I suppose). They say inappropriate things (like shouting wildly about a battle success when only one enemy was slain).
Static characters like merchants have a limited, series of lines they repeat every time you visit them (which gets stale within minutes of your first game). The repetition of lines makes players like me avoid all but the essential NPCs after the first hour of play. You must, however, visit merchants often, because your main source of income is selling the weapons and armour you pick up along the way. Since you can’t expand your packsack as in WOW, you can only carry a small number of items. That means frequent trips back to town to sell the crap you’ve collected. You get between 2 and 150 gold for a find, but mostly between 2 and 10. It takes dozens of hours of play to get 100,000 gold this way. So why would you waste it all on on weapon that you might as easily find falling from some chest or dropped by a monster?
Going back and forth between battlefield and town every 10 or so minutes to unload your pack gets old fast.
When you quit and start again, the monsters are back in the areas you just cleared out, respawned so you can kill them again. This is good for dungeon crawlers and grinders who play the same field, ruin or cave over and over to build up experience points and collect loot, although returns diminish as you gain levels. However, the ‘big bosses’ don’t respawn, so you can’t rake in massive loot and XP by killing them again. Too bad. However, on the plus side, most of the dungeons and fields change when you restart, so the geography is somewhat different, if not the result.
Once you’ve taken your character through the basic (normal) level of play, you can replay it in harder modes. That means you deal less damage, and monsters are tougher, and loot may even be better, but the game doesn’t change otherwise. It’s just more of the same.
There is a multiplayer mode where up to four people can play in a public game online in co-op mode. Not sure how loot and XP work, but I always like co-op games. Not sure if public games give hackers and scammers any advantages, though, since they can discover your username in co-op mode.
Is it worth $60 (plus taxes and monthly Internet charges)? Without the spammers, I’d say yes, if you want a fast-paced, mindless, time wasting game. No if you’re looking for depth, high replayability, serious challenges or intellectual stimulation. But for basic fun and a month or two of entertainment, it’s not bad, assuming you are willing to risk being hacked and don’t mind taking frequent breaks from the action to report spam. I’d give it five stars if it didn’t require a constant Net connection for solo play, but with it, I’d give it 3.5 out of five.
It took me about 30 hours to finish one character on the basic level, so at $2 an hour, it’s not a great per-hour expense. Figure spending at least twice that time on the game, solo, if you want to try all the character classes. If you’re a fan of online MP games, you will probably play that much in coop mode. Value for the cost is good when weighed solely in playable hours. Throw in the spammers and the threat of hackers, and it’s worth somewhat less.
So to answer the question posed in the headline: it’s a more hype than excellence, but that hasn’t slowed sales. D3 doesn’t set any new standards or break any old ones, but it manages to be sufficiently entertaining nonetheless.