Marvel Ugly Alliance (2007)

When I was in college, I wrote a controversial essay for a class on writing for the world wide web.

We had to analyze a good, bad, or ugly website.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance had a website that I was deeply familiar with, as an employee of Agora Games.

Here’s what my professor said about my essay:

Kenny, Bravo! Excellent! Outstanding! Your essay has been significantly revised and reflects the clarity and precision of a lot of hard work. Overall a fabulous essay! Keep up the outstanding work,
Dr. J

Advisory Grade A

Unfortunately, the class wiki was public.

Community members stumbled on the outline for my essay, and posted on the forums that someone claiming to be an Agora employee thinks the site is ugly.

This got back to the company that made the site’s front-end.

It also got lost in translation that this was all posted publicly on Wikipedia. It was just a course wiki, not all wikis are Wikipedia.

My boss sat me down for an uncomfortable conversation, but I basically stood my ground. Read my essay! Also, this is what happens when you hire cheap student labor. They go to class, they write an essay about a website from work, and get an A on it.

Here is the uncensored full text of my controversial essay:

Marvel Ugly Alliance:
A Rhetorical Analysis of an Ugly Website

Marvel Ultimate Alliance (MUA), a hot new video game for the PlayStation Portable (PSP), puts you in control of the world’s largest army of super heroes. Players around the world take on an epic quest through the Marvel universe, but will they be able to navigate the game’s ugly website? The Marvel Ultimate Alliance PSP Community was built with good intentions, but in an effort to reach a niche audience one feature dominated the site’s design, and ultimately led to the development of an ugly site.

PlayStation Portable (PSP) video game system

The key feature that drove the design of the MUA PSP Community is the ability to browse this web site using a PSP handheld system. The PSP, while advanced for video game technology, does not have a touch screen, a keyboard, a mouse, or any of the standard input devices we take for granted when we browse the Internet from a computer. Instead, the PSP has a limited amount of face buttons and a small screen, as shown above. To compensate for this small screen, the site’s design is very cramped. Everything is closer together, with links and game statistics squeezed in wherever they can fit. This looks reasonable on a PSP, but cramped on a PC.

In an effort to make the site layout PSP-compatible, the designers forgot that community members visit the site most often for its forums, which are more readable, and much easier to respond to with the keyboard and large screen of a PC. Typing text from the PSP, with its limited number of face buttons, is slow and tedious – much like text messaging on a cell phone. Once a message is typed, it can be difficult to read large quantities of text on the PSP web browser. A person would have to scroll down on any forum page quite often, due to the small screen. Given that the rhetorical goals of a community site with forums include the ability to read lengthy discussions and add quick responses, the PSP’s small screen and text messaging interface are unfulfilling to community members. Even patient typists recognize that the PSP is not a valid substitute for a computer, which has a standard keyboard, not to mention a nice, large screen.

Admittedly, even with the limitations of the PSP Web Browser, a PSP-compatible community forum is a cool concept, and it’s perhaps a selling point for the Marvel Ultimate Alliance PSP game. Activision, the publisher of the Marvel Ultimate Alliance video game, paid for the MUA Community Site to be created for a number of reasons: most notably, to make money by selling copies of MUA PSP. An online community can help to achieve this goal in a number of ways. Player interest and discussion can indirectly increase sales of the game by word of mouth, which is a strategy called “viral marketing.” Additionally, communities keep players interested in a game for a long period of time, increasing the game’s “shelf life,” or availability on store shelves over time. While Activision’s rhetorical goals are driven by projected profits, an increase in sales rests on the community site’s capacity to interest players, and keep them talking about the game.

The Marvel Ultimate Alliance Community includes a variety of features that should appeal to the rhetorical goals of players, who want to chat, make friends, enjoy the game, and share scores. As mentioned above, most players join the community to chat on its forums. Players on the community site can also join friend groups, or “Alliances,” to enjoy the game together, and share scores. The site tracks single and multiplayer game scores in great detail, noting every enemy defeated and every point of damage taken in a number of different game modes. All things considered, Marvel Ultimate Alliance PSP has a solid feature list, and this alone should interest players and keep them talking about the game. Unfortunately, cramped web design causes these great features to be overlooked.

Home Page for the Marvel Ultimate Alliance PSP Community

A quick look at the Home Page can leave players wondering what’s important and where to go next. At a glance, what do you see first? A good web designer would make sure that what draws the reader’s attention, the focal point, is the most important part of the page. My eye is drawn to the randomly selected Featured Player on the top right corner, even though this particular feature isn’t important at all – community member aladin’s stats mean little to me. A more important feature to see would be the official “Hot News” from the site’s community managers, designed to keep players interested in the game long term, and visiting the site for updates. Surprisingly, this information is hidden in the bottom left corner of the page, displayed in a dark blue that blends with the background. “Latest in the Forums,” a quick link to the popular forum section of the site, can also be easily overlooked with its light gray heading on a light blue background.

Interestingly, the “Latest in the Forums” is a note from a community member, Deathfromabove, announcing that he will be leaving the site for good. Perhaps he was frustrated with the cramped site layout. “This Week’s Best,” just under the “Featured Player” above, sorely stands out with its left and right columns flush next to each other, creating an ugly result. Had the site not been squeezed to fit on a small PSP screen, it would be much more readable, and pleasing to look at. Players would be more inclined to browse the site, and discover its robust set of features, that are currently overlooked.

To clean up the Home Page, it would have helped to recognize and strengthen the page’s alignment. The Navigation Bar, as seen above, appears to have a strong right justification, which can create an anchor for the rest of the page. Had this influenced the rest of the page’s design, we would see a consistent right justification below the Navigation Bar. Instead, everything below “Hot News,” starting with “Buy It” has a left justification. A strong left justification should be reserved for items to the right of the anchor, but a look at the home page above reveals that this is not the case. This looks weak and unprofessional to community members.

The cluttered Home Page could also simply have been cleaned up through the removal of unnecessary information. The page is crowded, and some trimming would not only make the site more readable, it would speed up the site’s load time on the PSP Web Browser. I would first remove the large “Featured Player” box. The “Featured Player” might be more fitting on the Profiles tab listed on the Navigation Bar. Similarly, “Featured Artwork” might be better suited for the Artwork tab. Cutting these items from the Home Page leaves room for more important information: “Hot News,” “Latest in the Forums,” and “Upcoming Events.” “This Week’s Best” can then be given more room to spread out as well, so its rows of boxes don’t have to be flush next to each other.

First impressions count. This is especially true in the gaming industry. Potential buyers might rent a game, and only play the first half hour of content. If this isn’t impressive, a potential sale is lost. Similarly, a web community should make a strong first impression. Without even leaving the Home Page, a player should be able to see that the Marvel Ultimate Alliance PSP Community has strong features that appeal to his or her goals: to chat, make friends, enjoy the game, and share scores. The site offers forums, the ability to create and join alliances with friends, and detailed score tracking, yet these features are overlooked due to a cramped overall site design. When players see weak page alignment, and a crowded jumble of information on the main page, they believe that the site is weak, and that the game isn’t worth their time. For this reason, Activision’s goal to sell copies of MUA PSP might not be fully realized under the site’s current layout. The statistics tracking and PSP-compatibility of the site will draw some sales, but long-term goals of viral marketing and increased shelf life for the game can only be achieved when players stay on the site, enjoy MUA PSP, and reach new buyers by word of mouth. The “Latest in the Forums” tells us not to hold our breath. Current community members, like Deathfromabove, won’t stay on the site forever.

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