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Many people agree that many CD-ROMS are crap, but where do we find a good model? Enter the computer games world, says Sutherland Lyall

When you’re talking cutting edge CD-ROM you are almost certainly talking about the multi-media content rather than the technology. That’s because, whatever the sluggish moves in the technology of CD-ROM, the big issues are to do with its concept end: such arcane items as appropriate metaphor, the non-linear ergonomics of interactivity, the horseless carriage and the fact that most CD-ROMs to date are crap.

One reason posited for the latter fact is that many CD-ROMs are thrown together to get them to market quickly. Another reason is that they are assembled by committees whose members are so fearful of their position on the edge of the electronic information cliff that they are effectively driving a horseless carriage. Horseless carriage? That, runs the argument, is the stage we’re at in the history of interactive data. It’s that uneasy transition between the methodology of the old information world – books, magazines, archives, recordings, films, tapes and still images – and whatever is out there ten or maybe only five years hence. On such a cusp it’s not surprising that CD-ROM quality is, ahem, variable.

Another reason may be to do with the fact that the makers are themselves making the transition from beating the horse to clutching the steering wheel and advancing the spark lever. And right now there’s a shortage of talent. Olav Wendt of Trip Media, author of the successful computer game BurnCycle and the forthcoming Virtual Nightclub, says: “A lot of people who want to do multimedia come out of graphic design and publishing. Now film and TV people are coming in. The games industry laughs at multimedia people because they’re not programmers, at the graphics and publishing people because they have no grasp of time and at the film people because they have only a grasp of linear, sequential time.” Others will talk about the tyranny of visually impaired programmer-anoraks. So there’s clearly a lot of entrenched and departmentally rivalrous thinking about. The way out, according to Wendt, is to start thinking of CD-ROM production in terms of movie production, in which disparate skills work together with a degree of harmony under a producer and director.

Current CD-ROM interactive material is devised to imitate actions already familiar in information retrieval – the metaphor of “browsing”, the screen representation of a turning page, an icon in the form of two or three books representing a library of files, the use of arrow buttons to indicate the direction of desired movement and so on. The term metaphor is used a great deal – and, for once, more or less in its correct meaning of describing something as being what it resembles rather than being like what it resembles – because it is believed that practically everything we see on the screen needs to be familiar – a metaphor of physical, real-world events and activities.

Sounds reasonable. Especially when most CD-ROMs take the form of a navigation or search program for a database containing lots of facts and/or images and/or sounds. “Searching” and “steering” are very familiar human activities. And it makes especial sense when you think that many of these CD-ROMs are based on reference books and thus are themselves metaphors of the “real” printed world.

Not everyone is happy with this kind of assumption. Alasdair Scott of AMX Digital, which has just produced Image Bank’s CD-ROM catalogue, worries about a mistargeted emphasis. “People keep saying to us that we’ve got to have a metaphor. Not ‘How do we navigate rapidly around the stuff we’re dealing with?’ In practice, metaphors are difficult to get completely right – there’s always one bit which doesn’t quite fit, so you’ve got to change the metaphor for each job and maybe that’s the wrong concept to use. Actually, we reckon we’ve done a good job if people don’t comment on the interface – in the same way that they don’t bother to comment on the buttons of a remote control,” says Scott.

Maybe the real world is an inappropriate model for CD-ROM interactive multimedia anyway. Some multimedia people are finding useful precedence in the arena of CD-ROM-based computer games. Scott believes that there are certainly lessons to be learned: games are fast, they’re personally involving in the same way that good cinema is and they’re navigable in a way which feels “natural”. But they don’t rely on real world metaphors.

All games start off with the designing of a “world”, the artificial, internally consistent context of the game. A games world has to be logical and consistent – however weird and unnatural its appearance may be. It’s only when the unique world is established and debugged that it’s possible to devise the way the player will navigate through it and decide on the complexity of the characters inhabiting it. “If the world you design is good enough, people will be prepared to acquire the skills involved in navigating and playing in it,” says Wendt.

All that could be transferred to the devising of a CD-ROM encyclopaedia which isn’t simply a tarted up version of the book plus movies and sounds and smart text.

What we’re really doing is empowering the user to move around an extraordinary information world in a way which is effortless, untaxing and as gripping as it is for the player of Doom entering the final domain, chainsaw chattering in eager anticipation.

It’s early days for this argument to have developed satisfactorily. But it’s important that it should. The time has come to move on from the horseless carriage.

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