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Posts Tagged ‘UI’

Player control over game avatars (of whatever sort, from the Galaga ship to Sora to a WoW avatar) is part of the User Interface.  It’s not what we might typically think of when addressing UI design, but the mechanics of control are nevertheless crucial to making a game work.  The GUI (Graphical User Interface) is usually what we see and think of when talking interface, but it’s only part of that user-game interaction.  We need to be able to actually control the game with some sort of input.

One of the recurring pet peeves I have with games is where I’m expected to direct my avatar rather than drive them when the gameplay itself doesn’t work best that way.

A Kingdom for Keflings (by NinjaBee, the company I work for) brought this dichotomy into sharp focus for me.  The game was originally released on the XBox as a Live game (downloadable), but we also made a PC port for it.  The design goal for the PC port was to make it purely a mouse-driven game, and if possible, single-click.  The XBox version uses a gamepad controller, and it has a lot more buttons to work with, though much of the actual gameplay tends to use just one button.  (An “interact” button, effectively, though we also needed a “cancel” button for menus and assorted GUI.  The PC port uses the keyboard for some of those other functions.)

Making the game mouse driven means that there is no parallel to the control stick of an XBox controller.  The player avatar (a giant among Kefling villagers) simply follows the mouse cursor when prompted to (via a click or drag mouse function).  The player directs the avatar’s actions.  This is in stark contrast to the XBox version, where you drive the avatar with the controller, their motion controlled by the analog stick.  For me, it is easier  and more fun to play the XBox version because of this precision, and ultimately, it just feels better.  It’s the exact same game with the same core game mechanics, but the sort of control I get with the XBox just works better for me.  The core game is still fun, but the method of interaction on the PC isn’t something I like.

I also find that making the avatar control more abstract as it is in the PC version puts another conceptual layer between me and the player character.  The XBox version uses the Microsoft player avatars, effectively putting the player’s persona into the game.  The PC version doesn’t have that option, but even then, the pure mechanics of the controls sets the player further back into a role of a director of a giant who then directs Keflings, as opposed to the XBox role of a giant directing Keflings.  To be fair, both really are you as the player directing the giant, as in any game, so the levels of abstraction are at least similar, but mechanically, when the giant (player avatar) in the PC game is following an element of the GUI to interact with the game world, that’s one more small distance between you and the game world, one more subtle push out of the suspension of disbelief.

On the other hand, our Band of Bugs also started on the XBox, and was also ported to the PC.  That game works well with either control scheme (mouse/keyboard or controller), since you’re never actually driving your characters to start with.  The XBox and PC controls are different, and have different pros and cons, but they feel pretty similar in the long run.  That’s one nice thing about a tactics type of game where it’s all about direction in the first place.

I think this is also why some MMO players complain about the “click to move” control scheme found in some MMOs (usually Asian ones, like Atlantica Online) as opposed to the keyboard WASD movement scheme.  The former has players directing their avatars in the game world by telling them where to go (and a pathfinding AI takes over), the latter has players driving their avatars around the world.  It’s a more visceral level of control, and it seems to be more satisfying.  (Tangentially, I am curious about the cultural implications of this difference, but have little data to examine.)  This is also tied to the oft-repeated complaint about Guild Wars characters not being able to jump.  Many players just want that control.  They want to drive.

The difference between the two is also what I believe to be a major factor to why I think Amorphous and Recettear‘s combat have significantly different feels to them.  Andrew rightly noted the similarities between the two over here (rightly complaining about some of Recettear’s warts), but I’ve tried to describe why I don’t see them as being all that similar in gameplay.  The Amorphous avatar just follows my mouse cursor, but I get to drive Recette’s dungeon diving compatriots.  It’s a subtle thing, but it makes a world of difference in how a game feels to me.  (And tangentially, the default keyboard controls for Recettear aren’t good, remapping is silly… but with a gamepad it reportedly “just works” and works very well.)

There are also games where the whole point is to direct the character, intentionally abstracting the controls to allow for different functions, like Aquaria or Machinarium, and others where you’re not really meant to have a high level of individual control, like Lemmings.  Still, the control interface really can have a pervasive if subtle effect over how a game is played and how it feels.  Neither directing nor driving is the solution in all places, and indeed, applying one where the other would be more appropriate can be a problem.  It may not be a gamebreaker, but it can be important to the tone and feel of a game.

Also, as these guys note (adeptly and humorously), when you’re in the driver’s seat, it changes a lot of things.  The abstract director role lets you internalize things differently from the driver role.  (And similarly, playing “yourself” in a holodeck would push things even further and have different psychological implications.)  Matching game mechanics to storytelling intent is something that most games just don’t do well.  Matching storytelling to UI can be even trickier because there’s less to work with, but it can be more important.

UI design is a tricky, sometimes subtle thing.  Still, I believe it’s crucial to get right, or else a game just won’t work right.  Giving players control is key to making games work, and if the controls don’t work well, all the pixel shaders and voiceovers in the world won’t make a difference.  Games are interaction, and if that interaction is inept, a game can crash and burn, and it may not even be clear why.

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The first time I played World of Warcraft was almost five years ago.  The most recent time I played WoW, the game was more than five years old.  The newbie experience has… changed a bit.  Digging a bit into the newbie experience of WoW 2005 vs. WoW 2010 vs. Allods Online, it’s interesting to see where things have gotten better… and perhaps, where they haven’t.  These observations are mine alone in the newbie areas of the games.

These are relatively uncontrolled nonnormalized experiments, so this is far from scientific, but it has still been interesting to me to see the differences and changes.

Years ago, playing as a Tauren Shaman, I got the sense that the game was approximately 70% running from place to place, sometimes carrying various body parts for a quest.  The remaining 30% was either combat or waiting for combat, since those were days when I waited for named critters to respawn.  Ah, when the lowbie areas were populated, eh?  I didn’t mind it much, since most of what I do in these games is look around at stuff and take screenshots, but I did get the vague sense that I wasn’t progressing very quickly at all.  That only mattered indirectly, as I needed to level up and get better gear to go different places.  It was a 14-day “buddy key” trial, but even so, I never even got far into the Barrens.  I walked up the hill from the Tauren lands into the south end of the Barrens, got stomped by some giant purple Kodos, and then went back to roam the grassy plains for my remaining time in the game.  It felt grindy even then, since leveling was fairly slow and new tricks and tools of the Shaman trade never did present themselves.  I was just an anthropomorphic cow, casting spells and whacking monsters with a stick.  I only remember getting one totem.  It was a neat little trick, but I had hoped to see more of what the class had to offer.

Five years later, there are all sorts of new toys for the newbie.  Sure, I was playing Mortiphoebe, a Forsaken Warrior, but leveling seems considerably faster.  Critters have cursor-hover tooltips that tell me if they are part of a quest and whether I still need their body parts to complete my quota.  The map has an integrated quest tracker, complete with locations conveniently marked to tell me where I should be, what I should kill, where critters roam, what fiddly bits I need to collect, and what the questgiver promised in return.  I can even reread the quest text right there in the map.  (The official quest log is still there and useful, but going through the map is simply a lot more informative.)  Popup tips seem to be more common and descriptive, but that’s especially hazy, peering back into the distant plains of 2005.  All in all, though, the game has a higher level of polish, is easier to understand, and as such, more fun.  There is less running around blindly (except when I want to go off in the wilderness), more doing stuff.  It also seems like drop rates of body part collectibles has been altered for the better.  There is still some weirdness with liverless wolves and the like, but it seems like I can get the requisite components more frequently than I did years ago.

Allods Online’s newbie experience is similarly streamlined.  You’re rushed through some carrier quests, a few kill quests, and leveling is fast… for a while.  You get useful gear much quicker than you do in WoW, even today, but that makes sense since AO is even more gear-centric than WoW.  You wind up geared to the teeth pretty quickly, at least giving the illusion of power earlier than you would in WoW.  The pace of character ability development is still pretty glacial, though.  You do have more tools earlier than in WoW, but once you’re out of the newbie zones/instances, things are pretty slow in both cases.

The AO map is more descriptive than WoW2005, but less useful than WoW2010.  To be sure, this especially will be a matter of taste, as some players want to explore and wander the woods, while others just want to know where to go.  I find myself ambivalent, since I do like exploration… but it’s also nice to have pointers when I just want to get moving.  It’s worth noting that even with a superdescriptive map, I can still wander around if I feel like it, but without a useful map, wandering is pretty much a given, whether or not it’s welcome.

AO has no minimap, though, which is actually pretty annoying.  Once you learn an area, or get used to popping open your full map every minute or so, you’re OK, but I’ve always seen the minimap as a way to compensate for the lack of peripheral vision and good spatial cues.  Scale is way off, with simple building doors being easily 15 feet or so tall… but then, we get that in WoW, too.  It’s a stylistic choice, but it means instinctive spatial cues are skewed.  There are  glowing icons that show you what direction vendors and such are in, which is extremely nice when you wander into a busy town, albeit a wee bit visually cluttered.  Good UI design dances a fine edge between too much and too little information, but I tend to like UI that leans to “too much” rather than “too little”, especially when the spatial and directional cues of a game world aren’t what I’d like.

Speaking of UI, though, major bonus points to Guild Wars for being almost completely customizable out of the box.  Yes, WoW has addons and scripts, and Allods Online is moving in that direction, but when you can change your UI without third party nonsense, that’s a thing of beauty.

At any rate, it’s fairly clear to me that AO benefits from being a part of a generation after WoW hit the mainstream, and similarly, that WoW itself has made good moves over the years, trying to make the newbie experience better.  Some will certainly call this the “dumbing down” of the genre or WoW in particular, but it’s my experience that getting newbies up and running with the fun stuff as quickly as possible is a good idea.  Making new players grind through twenty or more levels before the game starts being fun isn’t good design.

Speaking of which, however, I’d like to see a couple of changes for Cataclysm.

Hunters should be able to tame pets from the beginning. Apparently, there’s a not-insignificant number of characters who never get past level 10.  Ignoring for the moment that such data tells us all of Jack Squat about retention, conversion, monetization or anything truly useful to the financial guys, and that there are probably many bank alts and the like clogging the data, there are some game design implications.  Level 10 is when you first start to understand the Hunter class since you can finally tame a pet.  If you never get past level 10, it’s entirely possible that your impression of a Hunter is of a gun/bow-wielding, weak melee, sting-y… mess.  Those first ten levels are completely wrong for getting a handle on the long-term interest of a Hunter.  I call that Bad Design.

Similarly, Druids should get Bear Form and Cat Form before level 5 or even earlier. The core of Druid appeal (at least for me) is shapeshifting and flexibility.  Why make the first ten levels of a Druid be Just Another Caster?  You may as well play a Mage.  (Shamans are lame in the early levels, too, before totems, but not quite to the same degree.)  Sure, keep Treeform and Moonkin form deep in their talent trees, Aquatic and Travel forms are fine where they are (better as early as they now are than as late as they once were, though), but the core “caster/healer-tank-melee DPS” flexibility of the Druid really should be embraced as early as possible.  It’s a matter of getting a bead on the way a class will play over the long haul as quickly as possible.

Also, I find it weird that some professions are available at level 1, but others require level 5.  If I can manage to explore my way to the capital cities where I can find NPCs to teach me professions, let me learn them already, whatever level.  Sure, keep the Expert crafting and such for those who have spent some time learning the ropes, but Journeyman professions can and should be opened to all.  (Of course, I’d also let anyone learn as many professions as they like, but that’s probably pushing too far.  Then again, it’s not like the economy really functions with all those level-capped characters throwing around their gold.  The scale of the economy is pretty crazy at times, too.)

The newbie experience is crucial to pulling new people into your game world.  The intro cinematics of WoW, with a flyby through the live world (I showed my wife how other players will occasionally run through the scene in these flybys, and she was impressed; that’s the magic of these MMO things after all), really set the scene well.  Going from that (even as old as it is) to a pedestrian “kill ten rats” just isn’t going to cut it any more.

I can’t help but wonder if the MMO genre could benefit from some Metroiditis.  Metroid Prime and even Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (so it’s not a new trick) start you with a powerful character, letting you play with a lot of toys right at the beginning.  The player soon loses access to many of those options, but at least they have been teased properly, and the player knows what to expect later… and they itch to get there.  MMOs that dump you in the world as a dude with a stick are perhaps more “realistic” (whatever that means in context), but they are also downright boring at times.  Yes, this does seem to pull more to the “gamey” than the “worldy” design I’m so fond of, but that’s just working in the current framework; I’m talking of MMOs that are indeed more “game” than “world”, and they may as well play to their strengths.

Is it any wonder that we get the refrain “the game starts at the level cap”?  That’s when everything comes together and your class reaches full potential.  I’ve argued before that WoW could sell level-capped characters for immediate raiding (not unlike the instant level-capped PvP characters of Guild Wars) if that’s the part that really keeps players invested.  Sure, that won’t be everyone, and you might need some restrictions on them, like making them raid-and-capital-only (no open world ganking on day one), but sometimes it’s nice to let players have more toys when they start playing, rather than doling them out via a drip feed of leveling.  There’s a fine balance there, to be sure… but in a saturated market, you need to get people interested and having fun fast; you can’t tell them to wait for a month before it gets fun.  Arguably, WAR did that, with early public quests and PvP craziness.  They have other problems, but they do get up and moving fast, to their credit.  Age of Conan’s best part is the first twenty levels (or so I hear, not having played it m’self).

Yes, I’m pretty powerful at level 1 compared to equal-level critters in WoW, but I’m boringly powerful.  Cracking skulls with a stick while mild-mannered rats nibble on my toes just doesn’t give a fair representation of what the game will always be like.  At least, not for everyone.

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