On "Free" vs. "Constrained" Site Designs (and Being a Privateer)
To continue on my retro kick, today I'll be look at Origin Systems' "Wing Commander: Privateer" and how it relates to web design. Origin was a prolific publisher of DOS games, creating the entire Ultima series in addition to a line of Wing Commander games. Privateer was released in 1993, and unlike other games in the series, it gave the player complete freedom to chart their own course through the game. Wing Commander II, released in 1991, made the player a military pilot with specific orders; Privateer, in contrast, simply gave the player a weak starting ship and said "Have at it."
You could choose your own role in the game, working as a trader, a mercenary, or even a pirate, and you could switch roles at any time without so much as checking a box or changing a setting - everything was based on your actual actions. Ship upgrades acted as the game's RPG-like elements; rather than the military providing your character with better and better ships as a simple result of playing through the game, Privateer's ships and upgrades were the result of hard work and cash.
There was also no "best" ship. While most players naturally gravitated toward the Centurion, a decommissioned fighter, there were also strong arguments to be made for choosing the Galaxy (the ship with the largest cargo hold) or the Orion (a mixed-role ship with the heaviest shields and armor). Like anything else in the game, these ships could be bought and sold at any time, with little penalty to the player.
Back to design
Privateer was a great game, but its freedom of exploration was also its biggest flaw. Sometimes it's nice to just have someone telling you what to do in a game. The restriction in freedom lets the game developer construct more elaborate "set pieces" within the game, since they don't have to consider every possible way that the player might get to (or avoid entirely) the event.
The same applies to web sites. Some sites naturally lend themselves to a focused, directed user experience, like the 37 Signals family of web apps (and especially Basecamp's web site), which guide you smoothly from home page to product description to sign-up form. Others require a free-form, exploratory design to be effective - like Wikipedia, which lets users wander aimlessly until a search for "Tacoma Narrows Bridge" turns into "Lesbianism in Erotica" (see the graph at xkcd).
But notice that these pages aren't just floating around randomly. Like the star systems of Privateer, Wikipedia's pages are part of a dense network of links that facilitate aimless wandering by giving users a selection of choices that ultimately get them from point A to point B.
Choosing a site format
Where does the site you're working on fall? If the primary purpose of your site is to promote discussion, then you will most likely want a design focusing on freedom of exploration, with large amounts of linked content. On the other hand, if you want your users to take a specific action, you'll want to build a site that holds users by the hand and leads them to that action. In essence, your site design should match your site's goals. Your site does have defined goals, right?
Keep in mind, an exploratory site design can only work if there's enough content to keep exploring. That's why most blogs - which inherently exist so that readers can amble through the author's work - can't really attract an audience of readers until they have at least 50 posts, and likely many more than that. A directed site, on the other hand, can be successful even with a single page, so long as its design effectively guides users to take action.
So, readers, have you had any choices like this come up recently? What did you decide to use, and why? Leave a comment below! And if all else fails, talk to Sandoval, in New Detroit.