Stardew Valley Usability Review

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Stardew Valley is a farming-simulation RPG highly reminiscent of Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing (and I'm sure others that I haven't played). Created by one developer, ConcernedApe, the game is a charming and polished labor of love. 

From a usability perspective, aspiring developers can use Stardew Valley as an inspiration. While there are a few recommendations here and there for the developer, this post is mostly about what Stardew Valley does correctly and why those methods work. 

Character Creation



After pressing, 'Start' on the main page, the user sees a character creation screen. On it, the user can enter their character's name, farm name, sex, and so on. For other developers, there are some key elements here that this screen accomplishes:
  • Text Elements
    The window's text is well-sized and colored, making filling out the character creation section easy. The red treatment of 'Favorite Thing' makes it clear that the user needs to pay attention to that text field - and when something has been entered into that field, the font color changes and the 'OK' button lights up. The layout and font styling makes this window easy to understand.
  • Customization Selection
    The arrows and sliders are easy to  read, and the character elements (hair, shirt, etc) navigation is cyclical (ex. item 1 --> 2 --> 3 --> 1, etc) making it easy to view all of the options
    Arrow from The Sims
    . The only arrow treatment that was unclear was the arrows on the character portrait. Since the arrows next to the hair/shirt etc. navigated between different options, I wasn't sure what the arrows on the portrait did. Once experimenting, it made sense (the arrows rotate the portrait), but when I think 'rotate' I think of circular arrows, like the one shown.
  • Icon Usage
    The window uses clear, basic icons that don't need explanation (cat or dog; male or female; random generator). The only potential issue with the icons is the placement of the random icon (the die) - I didn't find it until just reviewing the screenshots now (if you didn't immediately see it, go back and find it). It's not a vital feature, so it's not the end of the world if it's not easily found. Other clear uses of icons are on the main screen itself -- the eighth-note icon indicates that clicking on the icon will affect the music, and the two boxes in the upper right are shorthand (at least on PC) for making a screen windowed. 
Recommendations for ConcernedApe: nothing high priority here - you could keep the arrows and random icon as is and it wouldn't be the end of the world. They'd be enhancements at best.

So, new devs, the lessons you can take away here are thus:

1) Use intuitive icons. When you first think of that concept, what do you imagine? Brainstorm four or five different options. If you've seen the icon used frequently in other games in the same context (the six-sided die in character creation, for example), it's a pretty safe bet -- otherwise, draw out the different options you brainstormed and run them by a group of people (go for at least seven, if you want to be even more thorough, do an online survey). An example question would be, "Below are six images. When you think of the concept of 'randomness,' which of these image/s, if any, most fit with your mental model of 'randomness'?" And then you'd have a few different options to show, as well as an answer that's "none of these images fit my mental model of randomness."

2) People are curious; let them explore. In character creation, or other places where users are encourage to select one element from a list of options, make navigating between options as easy as possible. Stardew Valley's arrow setup (1 --> 2 --> 3 --> 1, as mentioned before) makes exploring the options easy. Other games that I've reviewed do ( 1 -- > 2 --> 3; 3 <-- 2 <-- 1) which hampers exploration. Basically, when you have a list that you want users to select from, make that list circular.

3) Make sure your text is legible. I can't stress this enough. Make sure your font is easy to read on a screen (sans serif font face) and is greater than 10 pt. font if it's vital text; don't use light text on a light background; don't use more than two different font faces in  your game, and when you do, make sure they're in different contexts... there's just so much. If you're not sure if something is legible, bring your game to a coffee shop or something and ask for feedback. Be open to criticism. Just because you know what it says doesn't mean other people can read it. 


Teaching the Game


As soon as the player's character wakes up on the first day, brief tutorial elements are shown on the screen. They're clearly evident on the screen due to content on the black background, and on the right side, the arrow below the ( ! ) bounces until the player interacts with the exclamation point.

What Stardew Valley does correct here is not distract the player with too much visual information. The size and placement of the tutorial information (WASD, etc) makes it easy to find (visually, players would look at the middle of the screen first, then left to right), and then to direct the user's attention to the ( ! ) a moving element is used (captures attention). The other thing that the screen does correctly is that hovering over the elements creates a hover-popup to explain the content (so hovering over the ( ! ) shows that pressing 'F' will open the Journal). Lesson for devs: use contrast (light on dark) and movement to capture users' attention during the tutorial. Show one thing at a time so the learning path is linear.

Recommendations for ConcernedApe: 

  • Consider changing the name of right-click to 'Interact.' Since right-click has so many effects (opening doors, eating, picking up items), you're not really checking anything (with the exception of mail), you're really interacting with the world. Plus, renaming it will remain consistent with the naming conventions of other recent games.
  • Consider moving all of the tutorial information ('E' and equipping items) inside the building -- once you go outside, there's so much visually going on that I completely missed those other instructions -- only on my second play-through did I notice the second half of the tutorial. 

Unclear Elements

Though I'd say 95% of Stardew Valley is clear, there were two elements that confused me: dropping items, trashing items, and eating.

For discarding, it wasn't clear to me immediately how to drop an item on the ground. I thought that I would be able to discard an item from the generic item bar on the screen (so selecting an item in the item bar with the arrow keys, and then left clicking on the ground) but this didn't work. Apparently one needs to open the item menu, and then click on the background behind the screen. This wasn't intuitive.

For trashing, it took me a while to find the trash can on the screen. Though it's a good size, its placement off of the main window made me think that there wasn't a way to trash, because it wasn't immediately evident. It's not the end of the world if you don't move it -- players will find it eventually, but it's good to know that it isn't immediately clear how to trash.


But eating was the most baffling of it all -- in order to eat an item, the player must select the item, then right click on their character with that food selected (another instance where 'check' doesn't really make sense). I'm not sure how this could be made more clear (I tried selecting the food and then left-clicking on the energy bar) -- it could just be right clicking on the item while it's in your item bar -- having to click on your character is a little much.

Recommendations:

  • Consider re-working how discarding occurs; since it's very easy to fill up one's inventory early-game, the ability to discard something and then pick it up is very helpful. Consider allowing players to discard straight from the item bar.
  • Consider moving the location of the trash can to be below the 'Organize' button. It's a little strange that it's not right next to the item section. You could even add a 'Discard' icon there, too.
  • Consider making it such that players can eat food without needing to right click on themselves. It's not a clear interaction.

Final Thoughts


All in all, a charming game. I can see why it's so highly rated on Steam -- I'll go leave a rating myself. Thanks, Jeff, for the recommendation!

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