An Unexpected Problem

Making my Nightfall game, one of the first things to do is to design a grid for the databattles. I’m going for 256 x 256 pixel dark blue squares on a light grey background. However, after making a mock-up in GIMP, I faced an unexpected usability problem. Can you see it?

It might not be visible to everyone, but when looking at that grid, I see light grey dots between the corners of the tiles. (it might help if you zoom in) It’s a Hermann grid illusion. It’s very distracting and not intentional, so I have to get rid of it.

I found this question on UX Stack Exchange. I tried several of the things suggested in the answers. Moving the squares closer together made the gaps between squares less obvious. Moving them further apart, I had to move them a large distance to get rid of the illusion, and that ruined the look of the grid. I couldn’t offset them, I have to keep them in line because of the format of the game. When I tried changing the colours, I couldn’t find a combination that worked well and didn’t have the illusion. Any combination with enough contrast to make the grid easily visible also produced the illusion.

I looked at how the original game does it. I don’t know if it’s deliberate, but it looks like it uses a combination of a patterned background and varying the colour of the squares to break up the illusion. It’s still visible to me if I look closely.

Varying the colour of the squares would make it harder to build levels, and I don’t really want to add a patterned background. I eventually found a different solution. I put another grid of small squares underneath, so that they fill the area between the corners:

This eliminates the illusion, and has another advantage: Bit-Men. In The Nightfall Incident, the Bit-Man is a program you can use to add and remove squares from the grid. The small sub-grid makes it easier to see where Bit-Men will place new squares. This is my favourite solution by far.

The Nightfall Incident Project

In 2002, Lego launched a range called Spybotics. These were spy robots. You could load up “missions” on your computer and complete them with the robot in the real world. To accompany them, they published a game on their website called The Nightfall Incident. In it, you work for a fictional organisation called S.M.A.R.T, and hack into different nodes across the net with “databattles” – turn based strategy battles.

It’s a very good game, especially considering it’s a small online game made to sell products. I replayed it recently and really had to think about my strategy in the battles, making victory rewarding. Lego took it down from their site years ago, but it’s still available at Jay Is Games. However, because it was made in 2002, it uses Shockwave. Shockwave was discontinued and doesn’t work with modern browsers. You have to go to great lengths to find and use an old browser, then install Shockwave on it, making it inaccessible for most people. In addition, it uses an obscure, small resolution (650 x 420 according to the above video) meaning the game window is tiny on high resolution screens, reducing usability.

The solution to all of these is to create a new game inspired by/based on The Nightfall Incident. I’m not the first to have this idea. There have been at least eleven attempts by other people to create things inspired by The Nightfall Incident, and almost all of them have been abandoned. It’s almost a running joke.

For my attempt, I’ll be using my favourite game engine, Godot, and documenting it on this blog. My aim is to imitate the mechanics of the original, so all the original levels can be replicated, while adding the ability to create levels, maybe new mechanics, and an updated, higher resolution UI. I can’t wait to be added to the list of failed attempts.