A few weeks ago I promised a follow up on what players consider to be the “ideal” user interface. Here you go!
Creation of anything new has its own unique challenges, and creating the perfect UI for new games is a complex challenge for game developers. In multiplayer games, the complexity is compounded by the need for players to be able to interact and communicate with one another. Each UI has a design element that keeps the interface thematically attuned to the game world being created. Then there are technology considerations, both back end and front end, that determine optimal and non-functional ways to code the actions the interface needs to perform. Finally, there are user needs and expectations for the interface. Users come to new games with prior experience and assumptions of how certain actions work and where they should be located on the screen, and even which keystrokes should trigger the activation. They may be novice gamers or they may be seasoned veterans. A good UI is one that, for all players, enhances the ambience of the game, delivers functionality efficiently and is instinctive/invisible to the user.
MMOGs approach UI design issues differently. Some, like City of Heroes/Villains, are optimized for more novice players. Others, like World of Warcraft and Everquest II, appeal to more sophisticated players. Some, like Star Wars: Galaxies, are so complex and arcane that only the most dedicated and experienced players can manipulate them effectively. Thinking back to earlier multiplayer games like Island of Kesmai, Lords of Empyria or Kingdom of Drakkar, which were 2D and turn-based, or used mouse point-and-click to direct character action, interfaces could be relatively simple. The 3D, immersive worlds of todayâ€™s MMOGs create complex challenges for designers. A lot of information and actions need to be readily available to the player without completely obscuring the playing field.
In the field of software development, â€œcode once and reuseâ€ is the ideal. Being able to carry common elements of functionality across many applications in a recognizable form is also important â€“ for example, the X button at the top right of a window to close it or menu button icons at the top of Microsoft Office products that are the same across all Microsoft products, and have become somewhat standard in all program design.
The world of multiplayer gaming is still new and emerging. More than likely, over time UIs will standardize based upon the type of game being played. RPGs or fantasy/action games require complex and elaborate UIs, while games for younger users and first person shooters require fewer controls and actions. Ultimately, as confirmed in the interviews below, a UI that can be customized to suit the unique needs/habits of each player is the Holy Grail.
Over the past month I have interviewed more than a dozen experienced multiplayer gamers, some of whom I have known and played with for several years, others I donâ€™t know at all. Three were young college students (18-22). Four were in the 50+ year old range. The rest were mostly 30-45. Most were male, but three were female. I asked them all the same five questions related to MMOG UIs. Here is a summary of their responses.
QUESTION ONE â€“ How many multiplayer games have you played personally and over how many years?
Some of the players had experience with only three or four, but most had played more than 10 multiplayer games over a period of 10 or more years. One said she had played more than 40 in the past 16 years, and another 20 over 25 years. The range and depth of their experience gave me confidence that this group could comment knowledgeably on game interfaces. Some of their comments:
â€œDozens of games, I canâ€™t even remember which onesâ€
â€œStarted with Yserbius on TSN ~16 years agoâ€
QUESTION TWO â€“ What to you are the most important things about the user interface (UI) in a multiplayer game?
Two features jumped out loud and clear from all of them: Ability to customize the UI to the individual preferences of the player and Quick access to functions.
Creating a UI comprising customizable components is a â€œmust-doâ€ today for developers. Some players are minimalists and want as few options and commands cluttering their screen as necessary. Others like everything to be visible on the playing field so that they can find commands quickly and click them with their mouse. Others want to use only keyboard keys. One interesting thing most of the players interviewed found a way to observe is that they consider an efficient or good UI to be one that is similar to the one in the first game they learned. For some, for example, depending on what they learned in their early gaming experience, the â€œcorrectâ€ movement keys are WASD, while for others it was the number pad arrows or mouse button scrolling/clicks. Developers must provide options to enable players to set up their own preferred UI layout and number of functions/actions displayed. Give players choices.
Quick access to functions had more than one meaning. To some it meant minimum time spent looking for some functionality, and to others it meant using keyboard commands instead of relying on a mouse. Almost all of them said they wanted keyboard shortcuts because key commands can be executed faster than relying on a mouse (using both causes the hand to go back and forth frequently between the keyboard and mouse, slowing game play, and constant use of only the mouse contributes to carpal tunnel pain). Player created macros assigned to hot keys and other key bindings are important, especially to seasoned players. Here are some of their responses:
â€œI like quick access to frequently used items or spells or actions. I also like there to be some indication as to whether the item or action has a keyboard shortcut because using the keyboard is much faster than relying solely on the mouse.â€
â€œEverything that can increase the speed and the rhythm of a game.â€
â€œDegree to which you can alter the interface or commands beyond what the developers think you should have; cleanliness – not looking clutteredâ€
â€œCustomizability is paramount, followed by being able to accomplish UI tasks multiple ways.â€
â€œAbility to customize it (key bindings, window placement, programming the UI with new widgets, macros, etc)â€
â€œUsability, scripting, macrosâ€
â€œFlexibility to add, subtract and move the elements that I want.â€
QUESTION THREE – What differences do you see between game UIs based on type…1st person shooter (FPS) vs. war game vs. D&D type game vs. whatever?
Two major points came through in these answers. First, UIs must be adapted to the type of game, and secondly, that camera angle/view is an important consideration. Hereâ€™s what the players had to say:
â€œDifferent types of games bring different neccessities. Shooter games need access to weapons and ammo and health items and such. War games need access to different functions of the different people you control…there are visual aspects and there’s usually a lot to deal with so the mouse works well.â€
â€œIn FPS, UI is based around the eyes of the player: information should be accessed very quickly, such as health, ammo and so on. Very little information, but seen clearly instantly. In RPG and strategy games, more data can be added on the screen: life, magic, spells, action points, weapon icons, unit names. The slower the action, the more information can be displayed directly on screen.â€
â€œI prefer the 3rd person over the shoulder camera options; if a game is intended for first person, they should also come with a third person option. FPS games tend to err on the minimalist UI – maximize the art over clutter – so that you can focus on killing as much as possible. MMORPGs seem to have interfaces built based on providing as many combat/function options as possible.â€™
â€˜The UI is built to serve the purpose of the game:
* FPS accommodate fast reaction time and give you the most “in the action” feel, whereas 3rd-person shooters are designed to market a main character
* Real time strategy games require a wide range of view and the ability to move your focus quickly between areas on the map. A top down board game-like view makes dividing your concentration between many things easier
* RPG UIs are designed to give the player access to a large number of abilities (usually through the use of menus) and, in most cases, focus attention on marketable main characters like a 3rd-person shooter.â€
â€œThe UIs for D&D type games must be more flexible to accommodate the variety in in-game classes, the number of spells or abilities, the greater amount of information (several in-game chat channels, raids, bazaars, etc). FPS UIs must be more streamlined, since speed and ability to react fast are of the essence. The UIs for multiplayer war games (like Battlefield) fall in-between, since there are several “classes” (soldier, tank driver, aircraft pilot), but ability to react fast is again of the essence.
â€œAn FPS is much more mouse-centric and the keyboard is supplemental at best. That typically means fewer controls that can be programmed into the mouse and a hand or offhand button. In an RPG the interface can often be used entirely without a mouse and the player can still be competitive, I guess I think of RPG games as less â€œarcade-yâ€.
QUESTION FOUR — Forgetting about technical limitations, what would your ideal interface include in the future? (skyâ€™s the limit)
This question is the one I was really trying to lead the players toward. My own ideal interface would be a cross between the panels Tom Cruise manipulated in Minority Report and the holographic projections seen in Star Wars. I would be less keen to immerse myself physically into an environment, like the holodeck in Star Trek: Generations, but manipulating my character and/or objects in a more physical manner, like pointing a finger and sliding it, is appealing — especially if it only requires very lightweight or no special gear. Hereâ€™s what the other players had to say.
â€œThe UI should be customizable. You should be able to choose what you want and where you want it. Yes, that would require a lot of work on the side of the programmers, but it would be well worth it. Or even better, forgetting technical limitations, a thought response game would be the best ;)â€
â€œA UI similar to tactical FPS games, such as Swat or Rainbow Six Raven Shield: a contextual radial menu accessible by a click and then, slide the mouse to the wanted option. With a little training, this method is extremely fast and accurate. I think that not enough games have these menus. Everything able to decrease the time used to click and select is welcome.â€
â€œDrag and drop interfaces (move things where you want without limit) that are remembered as preferences, ability to work with 3rd party interface add-ons (World of Warcraft does that to a degree, but they are now starting to interfere with the playerâ€™s ability to use them).â€
â€œDisplay of typed chat characters in real time (as they are being typed) rather than when ENTER is hit.â€
â€œThe best UI is the one you never notice is there, so disregarding all technical limitations virtual reality would be the way to go. As humans, we interact most naturally with our environments with our own physical bodies, and this feeling is what a UI at its core tries to emulate.â€
â€œVoice activated UI’s (lol…in my dreams)â€
â€œAnimations for interface actions so you can tell when someone is checking inventory or whatever they are doing.â€
â€œA more immersive interface, like a headpiece that gives an all-around field, with 3D depth and appropriate environment sounds, etc, coupled with a fully customizable interface connected to a control device, like a keyboard or other similar control device.
â€œReal 3D world (like optical 3D), with full support for voice, and multiple methods of interaction.â€
â€˜I guess one that would safely immerse the user into the fantasy world, engaging all five senses. One that would allow the player to safely overcome the suspension of disbelief. To use a cliche, a true cyberspace environment the way William Gibson intended it. Heâ€™s the author who invented the term cyberspace and â€œjacking inâ€ to a virtual environment to interact with computer systems. His cyberspace environment wasnâ€™t consequence free though. In his book people had plugs installed directly into the brain. Iâ€™m not that literal, Iâ€™m more interested in experiencing the environment as if I were immersed in it.â€
â€œAlthough it seems glove and goggles are an improvement from the mouse and keyboard, that would not be my dream scenario. A Star Trek like immersion would be pretty cool, but for me the interface is a means to get at the experience. I donâ€™t know if I would make a distinction between physically interacting and perceiving myself to be physically interacting. It would be hard to play a game to play physically for 12 hours at a shout though, if you are physically exerting yourself the whole time. But serious WoW players could all enter marathons then. ;)
â€œ3D display â€“ keyboard-less and mouse-less. Virtual reality. Thatâ€™s the answer, VR…complete reality inversion and submersion. Doesnâ€™t matter if it requires goggles/gloves, etc. Just less bulky and weighty equipment that today.â€
QUESTION FIVE â€“ What game has the best standard user interface you have ever used? (why?)
Answers were very different, indicating that the UI must have enough flexibility in its design to allow a wide range of customization options. Here are some of the player comments that represent the wide and varied points of view:
“I’m not sure there can be a standard UI. Maybe for the different types of games there may be a standard, but for all games? It’d be very difficult for one to satisfy that.”
“Half Life/Half Life 2 UI is very simple, but efficient. Baldur’s Gate also has a very good interface with 3 bars : right for the characters status, bottom for the actions, and left for the options (menu, map, attributes, log…).”
“I’d have to go back to Asheron’s Call 1, because that was my first MMORPG, and therefore, the standard to which I compare all other games.”
“In recent memory, World of Warcraft because of how customizeable it is and the large number of ways in which you’re allowed to interact with the game. A close runner-up is Shadow of the Collossus. Gripping perilous surfaces and climbing are such an integral part of the game, and the grip function is bound to the right shoulder button. Pressing the shoulder button forces the player to hold the controller tighter, and, in tense levels, the UI mimicks the FEEL of holding on for your life, sweaty palms and all. The way in which the camera moves is also customizable (thank god, because the default setting was terrible).”
“It’s close between Everquest (first one that is) and World of Warcraft. Very easy to access actions with the hotkey method, but sometimes gets a bit messy on the screen. I understand with all the actions possible, its not going to be a nice little unobtrusive 10 slot hotkey bar. I do not believe any game has done it perfectly, as the player written add-ons make game play much easier. I think the basic UIs should be more player friendly in a lot of cases, i.e. Decursive, Buffahoy, etc should have been part of the WoW UI, not an add on. These developers have to know, after hundreds of hours of play, that some of the actions are slow and cumbersome. and this should be remedied in the game UI, not in an add-on.”
“The last generation Everquest interface, the newer Dark Age of Camelot interface, or the World of Warcraft interface, because they were all programmable to some extent.”
“Never Winter Nights, it was totally interactive where it gave the ability to do multiple things easily.”
“Thatâ€™s kind of a loaded question. Seems like most people would answer with a game that has fewer controls, because the learning curve is smaller. WoW was very intuitive for me, but I think this a mostly due to experience with this type of game. It might be a weird choice, but Iâ€™m gonna pick Half Life 2 for the XBox. I was able to pop it in and play it without ever looking at the manual. A console game also has a lot fewer options though.”
“World of Warcraft. Vastly more flexibility built right in, and written to encourage and support the inclusion of 3rd party add-ons to customize it.”
Some recent MMOGs have solved the UI problems described here effectively. Dark Age of Camelot, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Puzzle Pirates and Audition all use different approaches, but they work well. The first three use variations of the break-apart UI that users can rearrange on their screens as desired. Puzzle Pirates uses a radial menu, and Audition relies entirely on the number keypad. For some additional reading on user interfaces and the way different developers have attempted to solve the problems, you might try some of these sources:
3D User Interfaces: Theory and Practice by Doug A. Bowman, Ernst Kruijff, Joseph J. LaViola, Ivan Poupyrev.
The Essential Guide to User Interface Design by Wilbert O. Galitz
Game Design Perspectives edited by Francois Dominic Laramee
The Art of Computer Game Design by Chris Crawford (online full text version)
“Structuring Key Design Elements,” by Erik Bethe
“Learning from Games: HCI Design Innovations in Entertainment Software,” by Jeff Dyck, David Pinelle, Barry Brown, and Carl Gutwin
“Designing a Good Interface,” by David Krieger
“Game Interface Design,” by Harry Teasley