Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 5 NO. 7 / APRIL/MAY 1991


Just A Disagreement
1 read with interest the review of our product, Just Another War In Space (January 1991). 1 would like to respond to a number of points made by the reviewer, Greg Knauss.

In the review, Knauss described the interface as "horrible . . . non-intuitive . . . text-based. . . . Pseudo-GEM menus and buttons are available, but they are a far stretch from the real thing. . . . With a GEM front end, I would easily recommend it . . ." The difficulty for your reader is that Knauss fails to offer even a brief description of the interface he condemns; consequently one is left wondering exactly how the interface fails to measure up to his standards.

The user interface in J.A.W.S. can be summarized as follows: The Player commands various spacecraft by using the mouse to click on "controls,' which are rectangular regions on the screen that are labeled with the name of the control. A control typically has a white background when it is "off" and a gold background when it is "on." For example, to maneuver a spacecraft, click on the thrust control to accelerate it in the direction of its heading, or click on one of the rotate controls to change the spacecraft's heading. Clicking on one of these controls when it is "on" toggles it "off' and terminates the acceleration or rotation.

By default, the player sees the Main Control Display on the right half of the screen. The player can change this display (e.g., to show more detailed information and additional controls regarding the repair, force field, computer, maneuver and other spacecraft subsystems) by selecting a new display from one of the pull-down menus on the upper right part of the screen.

Knauss criticizes that this interface is non-intuitive. How is it non-intuitive? 1 might point out that the thrust and rotate maneuver control system described above is similar to the one used in the famous, old arcade game, Asteroids, except that in Asteroids you press and release physical buttons instead of clicking on "soft" buttons. Most people consider that interface pretty intuitive.

The next criticism is that the interface is "actually text-based! You could almost play this program on a teletype and not notice any difference." The point Knauss seems to he make is: If you are programming on a machine that is capable of doing neat graphics, you should use neat graphics wherever possible. This attitude is disparagingly referred to as the "We-Used-A-Computer-To-Build-A-Duck" Syndrome in the seminal work on data graphic theory The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte.

The real issue in displaying information is the use of an appropriate means of expression, depending on the inherent characteristics of the information itself. This almost always requires a mix of text and graphics. J.A.W.S. uses such a mix. For examples, the reader can refer to the screen shots of J.A.W.S. that accompany the review and the Azeroth ad in the January issue of START. I suggest that the reader should decide for him or herself if the style of the displays is appropriate.

Knauss also suggests that the interface isn't realistic. The whole point of the interface is that it represents computer screens on the spacecraft that you are commanding. I suggest that if something is a computer screen, then it looks exactly like a computer screen. How much more realistic can you get?

Knauss' stated rationale for not recommending this product is that it does not have a GEM front-end. GEM was not used essentially to make the product easily portable to other computers. The menus and buttons of the J.A.W.S. interface work in the same fundamental manner as those of the GEM, Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows graphical user interfaces. Does Knauss really believe that people will wish to buy or not buy a product simply because it has pull-down (as opposed to drop-down) menus, or because its buttons have rectangular (as opposed to rounded) corners?

The essence of Knauss' effort is to exalt details of form over substance. His work fails as a piece of criticism because he withholds from your readers the type of factual information that would allow them to make an informed choice of their own.
Bob Parkin
Azeroth Publishing
lssaquuah, Wash.

Greg Knauss replies:
 The "We-Used-A-computer-To-Build-A-Duck" Syndrome is indeed prevalent on the Atari, as it is on all the higher-end machines. and while I feel that fantastic graphics are in no way necessary to make a fantastic program, many people who use computers do. The first question ST users often ask when the subject of a new game comes up is, "What are the graphics like?" Personal opinions aside, I must take into account what the average START reader is looking for.

As you mentioned, a potential buyer should indeed "decide for him or herself if the style of the displays is appropriate." However, my job as a reviewer is to render an opinion, and to abandon that responsibility simply to avoid conflict is negligence at its worst. If every reviewer were to follow your suggestion, program write-ups would consist solely of the sentence "Check it out for yourself" The purpose of reviews is to avoid that.

Additionally, I still believe that the interface is non-intuitive. Referring to an enemy ship as "GM(#2)-B" instead of highlighting its shape on the screen is non-intuitive. Menu items that do not reverse color as they are moved over is non-intuitive. Abbreviations such as "PPLNT" are non-intuitive. Slow button and menu response is non-intuitive. Two separate 2D views of 3D space is non-intuitive. Long message histories without scroll bar control is non-intuitive.

And to ignore the common, easy-to-use, and fairly fast GEM interface simply to ease porting the program to other computers is just plain lazy. Atari owners expect, and deserve, all their computers are capable of- not necessarily GEM, per se, but something that is at least its equal. The J.A.W.S. interface simply does not meet that requirement. The shape of buttons and the type of menus have nothing to do with it.

I am sorry you did not agree with my opinions; however, I feel that all my criticisms are valid. J. A. W. S., as my review concluded, could have been a good game, recommendable to any tactics buff. But the interface is wanting and I believe that any objective person would have come to the same conclusion. I do not prize "form over substance," as you letter stated, but functionality over programmer's convenience.

The phone number for the A.P.E. Newsletter, published in the Products Update section of the December 1990 issue, was wrong, The correct number is (312) 227-2353. We regret the error.

A Million Letters
Of great interest was your article on Donald Thomas, the "ultimate Atarian" (December 1990).

However, there is something wrong here. Although I support his idea and admire his efforts, there is still Something wrong with the consumer spending time and money to advertise and promote a product for fear of it being discontinued.

Perhaps, rather than gaining Prime Time Live's attention, we should direct a letter a week at Atari begging them to run television commercials during prime time. I disagree that "a million dollars won't take you very far in a national TV and newspaper publicity campaign. . . ." On the other hand, a million letters begging Sam Donaldson to give air time to "commercializing" Atari's product is nonsense. Even they are going to say, "Let Atari advertise their own product." This only goes to prove that Atari's public- relations and advertising agencies (if they exist) arc failing. Sam Tramiel is a computer genius, but an advertising and business failure.

I suggest we support ISD Marketing (makers of DynaCADD and Calamus) and WordPerfect Corporation and send them $15.00 to advertise their products using Atari computers in their advertisements. They have done more by producing serious, professional software products than anybody who has ever written a game program and written an Atari ST article.
Jay M. Crutchfield
Des Moines, Iowa

We're not going to condemn or defend anyone working for or on behalf of Atari. We are going to add a few facts to this debate. The last financial report we saw for Atari explained that 82 percent of their sales (and hence their profits) came from overseas. And, according to the Software Publisher's Association, Atari software accounts for less than 2 percent of software sales in the United States.

We don't disagree with you when you say that the ST needs serious, professional software. We don't disagree with you when you say that the burden of advertising should rest on the manufacturer, not on the consumer. And we don't disagree with software developers and computer manufacturers when they say they need a serious return on their investment. - START Ed.

Magazine Shuffle
I haven't heard anything from Atari Explorer. I haven't read anything about the demise of this publication and would appreciate any information you could provide with regard to Atari Explorer and/or my subscription.
Carl Schmitt
Fergus Falls, Minn.

The last time we talked to Bob Brodie, Atari's manager of User Group Services, Atari Explorer was still alive and undergoing reorganization. - START Ed.

Run It Again, Sam
Is it possible to get reprints of articles?
Daniel E. Gregory
Tujunga, Calif.

Yes. They cost $3.00. Call (800) 234-7001 to order Be sure to specify the issue and article title. -START Ed.
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