Sunday, August 30, 2015

Watching Hotbars For Fun And Profit (But Mostly Fun)

Mercury at Light Falls Gracefully has a very interesting post up concerning the qualitative and subjective differences between those games whose combat mechanics demand you focus directly on what you can see your enemies doing and the ones that require you pay close attention to the UI instead. He describes the two approaches, neatly, as first-person and third-person (not to be confused with first and third person perspective, of course).

By and large, using these definitions, the two waves of 3D MMORPGs that followed first Everquest and, later, WoW  fall into the static, UI-focused third-person category. The last few years, beginning  at the point when, arguably, developers gave up trying to build their WoW-killers and instead began to scratch around for other ways to make money for their investors, have seen the genre move towards a much more action-oriented, visually-keyed, first-person approach.

My own original experience of online 3D gaming came with Everquest. It was only fifteen years ago but looking back it seems almost impossible to believe that at the time, like most players, I saw Norrath through the curved screen of a 15" CRT monitor. What's more, the moving image of the gameworld itself only showed up in a rectangle smaller still, set inside a frame that housed the UI that dominated the entire play experience. (That's the image at the top of the post. I don't have any screenshots from that period so I borrowed that one from The Druid's Grove).

It's no wonder we were all trained to treat the UI as paramount. It was pretty much all we could see. Especially if you happened to play a healer. When I first discovered what I still consider to be my true metier, main healing for a group, even that small window onto the world went away.

Killing the easy version of Feydedar for someone's epic.
This is apparently a raid though you'd hardly know it from that UI.
My SK is not in shot. He's the one saying "feared" at the end. I think he fell in the sea. Good thing he wasn't main tank.

Tucked into the corner of a room just inside Back Door at the Sarnak Fort in Lake of Ill Omen with my group relying on me to keep them alive, I'd spend most of the fight sitting down, desperately meditating to regain mana. In front of me all I'd see on my monitor would be my open spellbook and the UI. I'd stare at the health bars of my party and try to scry their fortunes, judging when to stand, cast a heal and sit back down again.

I loved it. It had such purity. It was so calming and yet so exciting all at once. It was zen healing. I was very annoyed when, not all that long after I'd begun my career as a healer, SOE did away with the full-screen spellbook and at last allowed healers the pleasure of seeing what was killing the overnuking wizard rather than having to divine it from his screams.

Of course, I soon got used to having that blindfold taken off and it would be crazy to pretend I'd willingly have put it back on. When I got my first horse, with the arrival of the Shadows of Luclin expansion (we had to go to the moon before we got mounts), I didn't even have to sit down to med any more and I liked that even better. But always, always I had to watch that UI.

As the amusing Little Healer app seeks to remind us, healing in MMOs is all about those bars. I miss that kind of healing a lot, although whether I still have the self-discipline and patience to do it night after night, month after month, I somewhat doubt. I enjoyed a small, brief resurgence in FFXIV a couple of years back but it wasn't enough to pull me away from GW2's "every man for himself" anarchy.

Tanking again. Somewhere in Velious. No idea what's going on but it's very unusual to have the group window on the right. Would never have done that as a cleric. Apparently taking screenshots was also something I never did as a cleric. Off-tanks have all the time in the world to admire the scenery.

It didn't stop at healing though. Playing EQ didn't just show me what adventuring in a virtual world could be like. It showed me what it should be like. I learned to use the cursor keys to move. I learned to click hot keys to cast spells. I learned to stand still and not jump about while I was fighting. I learned to press Num Lock to auto-run, F10 to hide the UI and Numpad Minus to take a screenshot.

It was a language and over the course of five years or so I attained something like fluency. So much so that after about a decade and a half pretty much the only preferences I've changed willingly are using WASD (which I think I probably picked up around 2009, when I first played WoW), moving while casting (got that from Vanguard) and dodge-rolling (GW2 of course). And even in GW2 I dodge roll by clicking the hotbar.

Most of the other attempts by developers to get me to play MMOs as though they were proper video games I have stalwartly resisted. It's not that these mysteries are beyond me. I can do it if I'm motivated. I enjoyed DCUO and Neverwinter and ESO among others. Just not enough to play them for more than a month or two. It gets to be hard work and I don't like hard work all that much. Especially not when it's dressed up as fun.

Sometimes I get to have my own way. In WildStar, where Carbine would love me to watch the action not the UI and have even tried to make it more palatable by turning the action into a UI all of its own, with telegraphs that cover the screen every time anyone does anything at all, the first thing I've done is switch them all off. I even worked out how to put my dodges onto the hotbar so if, heaven forbid, I ever need to dodge anything (hasn't happened yet but I expect it will) I can click on those as nature intended instead of doing that weird double-tap thing.

Classic solo set-up from my magician on Stromm back near launch. Here she's invised watching some hot NPC on NPC action. And given that fire elemental, probably about to take an unexpcted faction hit.

I don't believe a third-person, UI-centered approach is innately superior (alright, maybe I do, just a little...). It's mostly that it's far more comfortable, relaxing, enjoyable and, yes, distant. And I want it to be distant. It's my character having these adventures, not me. He can have the adrenalin rushes. I don't want them. I'm happy floating somewhere overhead and a little behind, pointing and making suggestions. That's what I'm here for.

Having to watch all the tells, read all the signals, react in real time to fragments of the visual storm rather than just letting it burst around me like a fantastic firework display is too intense, too involving, too stressful. Frankly it's more effort than I'm prepared to put in for the sake of entertainment. I'm not so jaded I need that level of stimulation. It's so much easier and just nicer all round to read the UI and take it from there.

So, when Colin Johansen pops up with his mantra of thrills, spills and chills it makes me want to switch off and go do something more boring instead. Like topping up a health bar. That never gets old.


  1. "in GW2 I dodge roll by clicking the hotbar"

    That's even possible?!

    1. It's those two quarter-circles directly on top of the big red circle that shows your hit points. Right in the middle of the screen. Click one of those and you dodge. If you're holding down a directional key at the time you'll dodge in that direction. I started using them early on when I turned double-tap to dodge off to do Jumping Puzzles and found it so much easier I never switched back.

    2. I just use one of the thumb buttons in my mouse to dodge,

    3. Yeah, I have dodge bound to button 4 on my mouse, one of the thumb buttons. Quick and with no accidental dodges. I'm very much not a clicker, though (even going so far as to hide my main action bars entirely when in combat in WoW).


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide