Monday, July 7, 2014

Look Through Any Window : GW2, CoS, Everquest

Yesterday's not very well-articulated post touched briefly on something I've been meaning to mention for a while: the significant impact of a really good UI. City of Steam, after a long and often uncomfortable journey, has arrived at a place where the form and function of its User Interface feels "right".

Having played through many iterations of the process that brought us to that end the difference is palpable. For the longest time CoS used various convoluted and complicated systems and represented them in fiddly, ornate, over-decorated frames.

Anytime you decide you need a Help button for your UI is time to start all over again.

There was an understandable desire to make the UI reflect the theme and atmosphere of the game but too often it came at the expense of clarity. Something has indeed been lost in the removal of all the pipes and cogs and widgets but a lot more has been gained. The current UI retains enough of the "steampunk" imagery while managing to be just about self-explanatory.

Red light spells danger!

The City of Steam UI uses a combination of fixed and moveable elements. The skill bar sits at the center of the lower edge while the quest journal pops out to the right and the character sheet to the left. Both can be retracted when required to give a clearer view. Chat, options and basic character information are lodged in the corners and all the other windows - skills, crafting, mercenaries, vehicles and so on - open on demand and can be moved around the screen at will.

Everquest's UI couldn't be much more of a contrast. Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and we looked out onto Norrath through 15-inch CRT monitors, Everquest had the most rigid of fixed UIs. As if our screens weren't already small enough, the default UI - make that the only UI - was large fixed frame with a small hole in the middle.

Image borrowed from The Internet without permission. I doubt I even knew how to take a screenshot back then.

After the sheer wonder of being another world with people from all over this one began to wear off, EQ players clamored for more space and better options on their ever-larger screens. The tiny window went away and the UI went through various incarnations until it achieved Interface Singularity, otherwise known as "okay, if you think you can do better, go ahead and prove it".

You can open a seeming infinitude of windows in Everquest then size them and place them any way you like. You can save them on one character and load them on another. You can change the font and the colors and who knows what-all else. For someone comfortable with the game and the options available it's a godsend. For newcomers and returnees it can be a nightmare. We're back to that too much freedom, too many choices trope again.

Somehow my gaze just naturally veers to the left...

Even for the most nimble-fingered and confident UI wrangler, however, there's something EQ's ultra-flexibility doesn't provide that GW2's much less mobile UI does brilliantly: concurrency. It's very much a background effect that gets little to no attention but the difference it makes to the quality of MMO life is out of all proportion. In GW2 you can use just about all the windows and call on just about all the UI functions simultaneously without losing mouse-pointer focus, locking anything up or otherwise getting yourself or the game tied in knots.

Want to hit auto-run, open your bags, open the Trading Post, salvage your greens and sell the mats while you chat to your guild, all at the same time? If you have the manual dexterity and the multitasking mentality for it then GW2's UI won't get in your way. What's more, you can do all of that and plenty more in combat! For a pack-rat it's astoundingly useful. The number of times I've salvaged and sold in the midst of a bag-fest at a keep in WvW, well I wouldn't like to admit - not to our Commanders anyway.

It's okay, I know where I'm going. I don't actually need to see.

Even a really top-notch UI isn't in itself enough to keep anyone playing an MMO they otherwise wouldn't enjoy, of course, but if you've been lucky enough to take one for granted in your previous game you're likely to be quite intolerant of the absence of any of life's little luxuries in your next. This has the positive effect of both establishing and raising UI standards across the genre but at the expense of originality and local color.

It's no co-incidence that most MMOs have interfaces that closely resemble World of Warcraft. The City of Steam layout described above is WoW's with a few more moving parts for example. As the developers of Alganon learned to their cost you can take an homage too far but as a rule familiarity in this field tends to breed contentment rather than contempt. If you're trying to tempt people away from their comfort zone it's probably just as well to have another ready.

Used as I am now to GW2's anytime, anywhere interface I do miss it when I travel elsewhere. It's just one of many factors contributing to my lengthening residency in Tyria and it's inevitably going to be a consideration any time I contemplate a move. It's not something that will make or break a new MMO or my interest in one. It may not even be something of which I'm consciously aware but it'll be in there somewhere, one of those niggling little feelings that something's not quite right.

Attention to detail counts for a lot; in this as in much else. It's the designers who get the little things right that see the big returns. Or it should be.


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  2. While there is a lot that could be said against the game, one of the things they IMO did brilliantly with WoW was and is the UI and its fluid controls even on lower-grade computers.

    I can easily see this as being perhaps one of the most important reasons the game became such a succes and still is, which is also why I'm always a tad surprised if newer MMO's don't have the same kind of intuitive controls and relatively clean UI (with older games I kind-of expect to be assaulted with windows upon windwos to open your backpack, to exaggerate a bit).

    1. I didn't play WoW until five years after launch. Was the UI anything like as polished at the start? If so it would have been a real revelation in ease-of-use compared to its contemporaries.

  3. I never understood the need for the UI to match the theme of the game. Whenever this is the case, i find it cumbersome and ugly. I'll always prefer a minimalist approach with as little "art" as possible.

    I don't look or even want to look at the UI. The less i notice it the better.


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