I’ve been working my way through Mass Effect 3 on the XBox 360 the last couple of weeks, and it’s interesting to see how Bioware has continued to evolve the interface of these games over the course of the series. Something I’ve noticed in the game is either a clever way to reduce loading times or an irritating obstacle to moving around on the Normandy. When going from the tech labs to the galaxy map, you enter a tiny room with two other members of the crew, and you get scanned for about 10 seconds before being allowed to proceed. Check out this video example:

Occasionally, the crew will chatter about recent events in the galaxy - that’s the only thing that’s even remotely interesting about this 10 seconds.  Moving around the ship is already a bit of a pain because you have to take the elevator between all five decks on the ship, which causes a legit, I-can’t-do-anything-until-its-done loading screen.  So this “scanning” doesn’t help things any - in fact, I find it quite irritating in that it forces me to pause for no apparent benefit.

Unless, of course, this tiny room is actually preventing *another* loading screen.  Would I rather have a real loading screen that totally takes me out of the action?  Definitely not.  Loading screens break the user’s immersion in the game. As a rule of thumb, Jakob Nielsen’s Website Response Times article says that actions under 1 second “keeps the user’s flow of thought seamless” while 10 seconds is the maximum users will wait before wanting to do something else entirely.  I realize that gamers playing a console game are likely more invested in playing that game than your average web user is in loading an average website.  But still, a 10 second loading screen isn’t uncommon for games, and man is it annoying.  And I’ve definitely spent some time checking Facebook on my mobile phone while waiting for a loading screen to go away.

But loading screens themselves don’t even have to be annoying.  There are lots of examples of games that have done great things with loading screens.  I think my favorite was Bayonetta - while the next level was loading, you had full control over the game’s heroine and could practice the game’s intense combos (which you needed practice at, because that game was hard!).  The classic Ridge Racer for the original PlayStation featured a round of the also classic Galaxian while the game loaded.  Anybody who remembers load times for the PS1 knows how epic they could be too!

Moral of the story, while this scanning scene in Mass Effect 3 is annoying, I’m really hoping it’s preventing an even bigger annoyance.  While I’d rather not have a loading screen at all, this could be a great way to hide it.  If it’s NOT hiding a more immersion-breaking loading screen (big if here), then I’d say the developers are saying “realism” is more important than a healthy respect of the gamer’s time.  I know it’s only 10 seconds, but I’ve got a lot of games in the queue to play (and blog posts to write!).