User Interface

| Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Also known as "UI, but UI is too short of a post title, since we all know the title must be more than two letters. For other examples, see 'FU' and 'H8', neither of which make particularly great titles, due to saying very little except some sort of generic dislike." On the other hand, run-on titles aren't so great either.

Does WoW have a good baseline UI? I have no idea. Maybe? Perhaps it is what scares away those 30% who don't get past level 10. Or those 30% just don't like MMOs or whatever you prefer to call WoW.

But who cares? WoW has a customizable UI. If it doesn't get the job done, we change it. Can't heal? UI! Can't tank? UI! Can't use the AH? UI! Can't DPS? UI!


You-eye. Ooo-eee.

I don't much like this approach. It's not merely a bandaid; it's a lie. Yes, a lie. What does a custom UI say? Well okay, it could just say "I want something prettier" and that's fine. But beside that, what does it say?

"You can't play this game well enough and the problem is not your skill or the game design; the problem is that you're not looking at it correctly."

Now maybe I'm crazy, but shouldn't the default game UI be the correct way to look at the game, or at least sufficiently close that everyone (+-100%) do not feel the need to change it? Can you imagine a car like that? Oh sure, all the stuff works, and you can customize it, but maybe the windows should be at eye level, rather than foot level, by default. Of course we could drive with the windows that low, but the angle would mean a really short visual range, so drive slowly!

Healers like to whine. About how they are fighting the UI rather than playing a game. Psh. Everyone is fighting the UI. Every class has the information it needs not where it is needed, which is to say, where we are looking. Why are my cooldowns hidden away at the bottom of my screen? Why is the health of my party over on the right? The action is in the center!

We could say that these are skills to learn. Well sure, we can go with a "learn the UI" approach and block extensive customization. That sounds awful, right? Maybe. Or maybe not. Most games use this approach. Such as Starcraft 2, which I hope is an interesting topic for you, because I'm going to be talking about it a lot (or I might suddenly stop after this post, it could go either way).

Starcraft has a pretty awful, inefficient UI. If I want to build a marine, how do I do that? There's no "build marine" button. Instead I have to find a barracks, select it, build the marine. The particular barracks matters as well. It's some crazy complex stuff (not really, but let's pretend for the sake of exaggeration). I'm attacking over here (lower left), but building over here (upper right), see the problem? Just awful. But.

That's the UI that we all use. That is what we learn. We can tweak it slightly with some hotkeys and control groups, but none of us have a fancy light that pops up and says "carrier group spotted in minimap, build marines." Which may be a good thing because I'm not sure how well marines counter carriers. Maybe vikings would be better? Pretend I didn't go on that tangent (I wonder what this button labeled "backspace" does).

There's another layer to it: the actual game. The UI is not layered on the game, it is the game. The barracks builds marines. Let's say that again: the barracks builds marines. The build unit menu does not build marines. There is not so much a UI that I fight to build marines, but the game, and that game within the world simulation that it simulates. Of course with careful use of hotkeys and rally points players can halfway imitate a build unit menu despite using barracks, but ultimately the barracks builds the marine, so I have no choice but to be aware of the world and what is going on, rather than the UI. If that barracks is on fire, I do not have an alert of burning buildings, but instead the place that builds marines also can burn, so again, I am not playing the UI, but the game.

I guess what it ultimately comes down to is this: When I see someone playing, I want to think "wow, he's really good at this game" rather than "where did he get that UI?"

You may now commence commenting about how you healed hardmode something with the default UI and I'm just bad.


Kring said...

Yep, I've always wondered about those crazy "pure 10 man" guilds back then because using 25 man loot would be cheating and stuff. And then they would all download tons of mods from the Internet. :)

Longasc said...

Very much agreed. The default UI should offer everything needed. I am not a friend of too much add-ons and UI mods. Nothing wrong with changing the color to your liking or re-arranging some parts of the UI, but adding functionality is changing the game. Especially in competitive games a more powerful UI is definitely an advantage over people with the standard UI.

Nils said...

Customizable UIs were a good idea. We learned something from the crowd-sourcing.

Now we should go back to non-customizable UIs, because the UI is part of the game. Just like playing soccer with soccer-shoes is part of soccer.

Unknown said...

Seatbelts, power steering, ABS brakes, airbags, the ignition key, lockable doors, digital gauges, long and short beams, automatic gearboxes, auto-dimming electric mirrors, turning headlights, GPS and cruise control were all good ideas, but I think we can stop now. What we have now is the best it's going to ever be. Besides, using an ignition button is clearly cheating, because it allows the driver to start the car faster.

In all seriousness, customizable UIs accelerate innovation. The original developer might have not thought of everything or chose not to build some features because they were unsure whether they were worth it. Customization allows the users to experiment, and the developer is free to absorb the best ideas to form the baseline for the next generation of user interfaces.

Glyph, the Architect said...

What I think is funny about this is that we continually improve the UI with addons. Blizzard then takes the most popular addons and puts them right into the default UI. The problem is they miss the point entirely and put them in wrong.

To take your car example, The default car has no windows at all. We who buy the cars mod them by taking our torch and cutting holes in the walls so we can see. The car manufacturers say "That's a great idea!" and then start including windows that are at everyone's feet.

No, Blizzard! You're doing it wrong! You don't put the threat indicator in the damned tooltip! No one hovers over enemies in combat. We use Omen because it takes that useful information and puts it ON SCREEN where we can see it! Put the threat indicator on the target window! Or better yet, put it on the freaking nameplates!

Hyperian said...

I have been surprised at how often they are adopting new parts to the UI, which makes sense. Power auras was a big one, the dungeon book was a partial fix to using Boss mods, their way of saying here we'll help, but won’t go the full distance and make a screaming add-on to tell you your dumb ass in still standing in fire. I appreciated the effort, lessens my battle against on patch days. I still use the Default UI, I’ve tried bartender and some other fancy things but I always end up shifting back. Simple is better.

Edawan said...

"Put the threat indicator on the target window!"
it IS on the target window.

It's funny because I thought about this just a few days ago. I'd been having DC problems since the patch, so I tried raiding without any add-on to see if it would help.

I didn't have too much problem with it. The base UI has really improved over the years (thanks to the modding scene, indeed), it even does things that my add-ons don't. Did you know that on the raid interface there's a special icon on people while they're being resurrected ? That you can cancel Consecration before the end ?

I did still miss a few things though. Click-casting (good thing I don't heal, that would have been annoying). More action bars. Better display for my procs. Maybe a boss mod, but I killed Ragnaros without one so it's not that important.

Tesh said...

I like the Guild Wars solution; let players modify the stock UI in given ways, but don't make the gameplay eaily trivialized by macro use. Then again, UI design really is a lot art a lot of the time in the game industry. We could do a lot better on the baseline. That crowd-sourcing is a big boon is a bit of an embarrassment, methinketh.

Then there's the whole "optimizing the fun out of the thing" argument. Macros hasten that process while smart UI design just takes out the frustration of learning the game systems.

Anonymous said...

Have a look at some pvp videos. Competitive pvp uses the default UI and those players blow everyone else out of the water.

People who complain about their UI are half right; the ultimate source of the problem is in the first half of "user interface".

Me, I use UI mods to put information where I want it. It's about aesthetics and convenience. I'm still a mediocre player.

Klepsacovic said...

@Hirvox: Maybe I should have specified that I meant third-party customization. Beside that, all of those things you list are not merely UI surface-level changes to appearance or display of information, but changes to the actual function.

@Anonymous: You mean the competitive PvP where everyone uses the same UI, much like my argument of how it creates a level playing field?

A terrible UI is still a terrible UI, even if an exceptional player can overcome it, just as a great UI is a great UI, even if a really bad player cannot play.

Reuben said...

My comment grew a bit.

Unknown said...

Maybe I should have specified that I meant third-party customization.
Funnily enough, power steering was a third-party customization for decades. The inventor tried to get General Motors to implement it but was rebuffed because it was too expensive. He then switched to a parts manufacturer, which built and installed power steering systems to military vehicles.

Beside that, all of those things you list are not merely UI surface-level changes to appearance or display of information, but changes to the actual function.
With software, there is little difference between form and function. For example, those electrically adjustable auto-dimming mirrors require additional buttons, wiring and servos for the movement, and special materials for the mirrors themselves. Clearly function. But with software, it's form. The UI framework already chooses where and how to show a particular UI element, so the mod only has to adjust the coordinates and opacity.

Klepsacovic said...

By function I was refering to the abilities of the character itself. The UI is how we interact with that character, so while it is a path to function, it is not function itself. But I admit that the lines can be fuzzy between UI and function.

Sthenno said...

I'm not sure how to respond to this. As Hirvox says, UI mods (in WoW, anyway) give you access to information you already have access to, so all they do is change coordinates and opacity. That being said, my entire real life job is basically just organizing information for other people, so I can't claim that organizing information isn't a value-added function of UI mods.

Still, I find the conclusion a little odd. If you see someone playing WoW who is clearly much better than you who also has a better UI, you'd have to be quite foolish to think that getting the UI would put you on par with them. How much of this problem of talking about WoW UI mods just comes down to the fact that WoW is not very interesting to watch?

@Kring: 10-man Heroic Lich King with no 25-man gear was the longest undefeated boss in all of WoW history, so I don't really see how you can say that 25-man gear is not a bigger "cheat" than mods for the 10-man raiding experience.

Kring said...

Has 10 man heroic LK been defeated without mods? :)

Ouso said...

I'm an old vanilla player, I've played a hunter since day one. The only mods I use--DBM and Omen--are required by my guild, and I didn't use them until well into Wrath. As someone who's played all of Blizzard's games, I agree--the UI is an essential part of the game, and I have always posted at least comparable dps to comparable gear and talents. The default UI isn't in the way (at least for dps), it just needs practice :).

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