Posts Tagged ‘User Interface’

The year was 1996. I had just gotten my first external 28.8 modem. While surfing the internet, I had found a game called “Battlestar MUSH.” This game was a MUSH (RP-oriented MUD) about the old TV show Battlestar Galactica (the original show on ABC, not the recent one on the Sci-Fi channel). I played the game for a couple of years, and greatly enjoyed it at first. But after a while, the admins of that game decided they needed to make a change in the timeline and in how the game worked. They converted it into less of a MUSH (which is more RP/conversation oriented) and more into a MUD. One of the things the admins of that game loved was an old MUSH add-on feature called “Dynamic Space” or D-space. This was special code that allowed you to have rooms that would be dynamically generated when players were in the room, and then de-generate when no one was in there (to save on memory). This wouldn’t be so bad except, because D-space let you make huge massive maps with virtually no more overhead than a single room within the MUSH, the admins decided to map out the various ships of the “Colonial Fleet”, including the enormous Galactica herself, in all their gory detail. I remember just going from my Colonial Warrior’s cabin on the Galactica to meet up with a friend of mine on the hospital ship took about 200 moves, and probably over half an hour. Considering we only had about an hour of time to roleplay with each other, I thought this was a supreme waste.

When I complained about this on the BSM mailing list, I was called all manner of names. After all, “that’s how big the Galactica really is — we have the old maps from 1978 to prove it.” My point then, and I make the same point now (though more generally) was that “how big it really was” shouldn’t matter. The goal of a game is to have fun, not to be realistic. The goal of BSM was supposedly (even then, with all the D-space and other MUD-style coding) to roleplay. How much “roleplaying” was I doing by pressing “w, enter, w, enter, w, enter” to go west, west, west to find my friend Lyssa? The answer is: none. I wasn’t roleplaying, and I wasn’t having any fun. At the time I accused the admins (rightly so in my opinoin) of “sacrificing playability on the altar of realism.” I still think they did that, but I think this points out a more general truth. Often game-creators or game-masters become so slavishly bound to their vision of the game (in the case of BSM, the vision that they were going to map out the whole ship in gory detail) that how much fun it might be gets lost in the shuffle.

Before I go on, let me define what I mean by playability. To me, playability includes (1) Ease of “use” — an easy user-interface, easy to understand writing in the help files or game manual, (2) Fun — it should feel like play, not work, and (3) fulfillment of its overall goal. Note that by “overall goal” I do not mean the “vision” of the game designer, but the overall goal of the general game type. For example, a roleplaying game’s overall goal is for you to roleplay in it. An RPG that impedes roleplaying isn’t “playable.” Again, keep in mind this doesn’t mean “you can’t play it,” but rather, “you can’t play it as a roleplaying game.” See the difference? Similarly, by “ease of use,” I do not necessarily mean “easy to play” so much as accessible. For example, Champions is usually considered one of the most complex RPGs ever written. However, I would argue that the rulebook, at least through 4th edition (the last I’ve read) is extremely easy to use because it is accessible — it is written in a clear manner with wonderful examples to illustrate each rule. Thus it might be hard to keep all those rules straight in your head, but if you sit down to read the “Energy Blast” power’s rules, you’ll probably get it right away.

My main thesis today is this: the most important thing for a game to be is playable, as I have defined it above — easy to learn and use, fun to play, and compatible with its over-arching goal. Since this is a roleplay-oriented post I make today, the over-archging goal of significance here is “roleplaying.” If a roleplaying game doesn’t promote roleplay, support it, encourage it, make it “front-and-center,” then it has less playability than it should.

The problem with all that D-space on BSM, then, was this: it was not fun, and it was not promoting roleplay (it wasn’t hard to use, but that’s 2 out of 3 it failed on). Therefore, the playability of the game was low. Given that having fun and roleplaying are (or ought to be) the primary intentions of RPG design, why then did the admins of BSM make their game something that had neither incorporated into the design? The answer is that they had a vision of how the game should be, and they put that vision first, before fun, before ease of use, and certainly before roleplay. “We want to replicate as realistically as possible the world of Battlestar Galactica,” sums up their vision (though they never said it in so many words). And they sacrified everything else — most especially playability — to make sure their vision was brought to fruition.

I firmly believe the following rule holds in any game: Playability is all that matters. After all if the game is an incredibly accurate simulation but is not playable (is too hard, not fun, etc), who cares how realistic it is?

Unfortunately, GMs and game designers forget this rule all too often, or perhaps they never learned it. They develop a theory of how they want their game to behave, and what they think will make a good game or campaign, and then they call that the “vision.” They then work very hard to implement their vision, in spite of feedback from players telling them that their game isn’t playable (“This isn’t fun,” or “This is too hard,” or “This is hampering my roleplay ability”). Often, no apology is made for the lack of playability. Players who complain that the game is not playable (though usually not using this term directly) are regarded as “violating the vision” — as if somehow they are to blame for wanting a playable game, rather than the designer being to blame for making one that is not playable in the first place!

In my view, the designer is entirely at fault for an unplayable game. A game that sacrifices playability on the altar of the “vision” is frankly not worth playing. The reason is simple: You’re asking me (the player) to play a game that is not fun, just to further your own vision. And that, I am sorry, is not going to work. People play games to have fun. They play roleplaying games to roleplay. If your vision of your roleplaying game or campagin is stopping either of these things, the vision is wrong. There are no two ways about it.

Now, clearly fun is defined differently by each person. I am not suggesting that because I personally do not find something fun, it is automatically a bad game. No, that is a matter of taste. However, if when I say it isn’t fun, you respond, “Well I know it’s not fun, but that’s how I want it for thus and such reason,” now you are guilty of sacrificing playability on the altar of your vision. This is what the admins of BSM did — they knew D-space was going to hamper roleplay and they did not care, because they wanted D-space representations of the starships more than they wanted good roleplay on their server.

We can, of course, see modern analogues to this all over MMORPG-dom. Just check out Dungeons and Dragons Online. In that game, they want you to group up because “that is how one plays D&D — with a party”, and so they basically made it so the game more or less could not be soloed. When told during the beta and design phases of the game that this would hamper many people’s fun, their answer was the same as the BSM admins: “Tough. This is our vision.” The vision trumps playability. Nevermind that someone playing at 3 in the morning might not be able to get into a group. Nevermind that some people don’t like grouping with random strangers. Nevermind that their grouping interface leaves a lot to be desired, according to reports (I haven’t played the game myself). What matters is the vision — how much fun the vision leads to, be damned. Oh, and the fact that the game is an action game, more than an RPG, and thus hampers roleplaying, impeding it rather than promoting it? Too bad, little roleplayer… the vision is all that matters. Here again we have a game where the playability (ease of use, fun, and roleplaying) has been sacrificed to the almighty vision.

Unfortunately, too many designers these days, seem to care about their vision, rather than about playability. And I think that is why a lot of games fail. Take a look at the utter mess that is Dark and Light right now. Again the designers have a “vision” — basically a huge, giant world, a “sandbox”, but one that has no real help for new players, no way to get started, no real “content”, and nothing particular for most players to do. When told that their game is hard to use, not fun, and doesn’t promote roleplay, these devs similarly have responded that the players do not understand the “vision.” (They didn’t use that word, but maybe that’s just because they are French… heheh.) Once again, the vision is paramount, and playability be damned.

One of the harsh realities that game designers and, to a lesser extent, GMs, all end up facing is that you cannot survive for long without a playable game. The BSM designers found this out when their user base dropped by a good 50% within weeks of their “upgrade” to the high-vision but unplayable game. Star Wars Galaxies found this out when they lost thousands of subscribers after their April 2005 “Combat Upgrade” that turned the game into basically a chore to play. And eventually DDO released a new patch that allows level 1-3 characters to solo a bit more easily… showing that they are finally realizing that one cannot survive long with a game that ignores playability in favor of vision.

You would think, after this lesson has been repeated time and again with the same results, after so many games that sacrificed playability to the vision have either failed, or had to change to become more playable, that game designers would have figured it out by now. But they haven’t. A friend of mine said recently that this is because there are some mighty big egos in the game design world. The designers are all convinced of the absolute “rightness” of their vision. I suppose that might be so. But you’d think they could start learning from their mistakes, instead of making the same old ones over and over again.

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You’ve seen it many times before. That new “massively mulitplayer online roleplaying game” (MMORPG) releases its ads and PR, and it tells you (like most of the ones that have come out for the last 3-4 years) that is combat will be “action packed” and “dynamic.” Unfortunately for the person trying to decide whether to buy the game or not, these terms, which can mean practically anything unless you put specifics to them, are usually not defined. However, after having seen and tried a lot of these, there seems to be a pattern here: “action packed, dynamic” combat almost always means “clickaholism.” Let’s step back a minute, though, before I explain what I mean.

Roleplaying games, of course, originated with pencils and paper (PnP), played on your kitchen table or living room floor or wherever was convenient, with some dice and a small group of friends. Figures or counters were placed on a scaled map and you moved them around to keep track of the battle. Combat was very slow in these games, in terms of real time — in Dungeons and Dragons it might take 45 minutes for the party to kill a few orcs. In Champions a battle between a half-dozen superheroes and a few villains could take upwards of an hour of real time (the time the players spent gaming it). That combat, in game time (the time the characters experienced) was only a few seconds or minutes in either game. Roleplaying games were, thus, originally tactical and strategic games, much like chess or checkers. You had a long period of time to think about what you wanted to do, and you could even stop and read up on the rules before making your move, assuming the GM allowed it.

When translated into computer games, this strategic level of game play was retained by the expedient (in solo games, which were all that existed at first) of “turn based” play. That is, the cursor would blink infinitely until you made your move, then you’d move and hit “enter”. Then the computer controlled enemy would make his move, and then your cursor would blink again. This gave you, as with table top, as long as you wanted to think, plan, strategize, read help files, go get a bag of chips to munch on, etc. The gameplay, although faster by far than table-top because the complex calculations were now handled by the machine rather than your pencil and brain, remained fairly slow and ponderous. These games were not exciting, like an arcade game, but intellectually stimulating, again like a game of chess. People looking for visceral excitement would turn to a different game, such as Asteroids or Space Invaders — just as someone looking for a fast-paced table-top game would play ping-pong rather than chess.

Once online games became a reality, and multiple players could play together, the utility of turn-based gaming pretty much vanished. If you have to wait for 8 different people to press “enter” before your turn comes up again, it could take hours and hours to play a simple battle, and heaven help you if someone goes “away from keyboard” (AFK) for any length of time.

To solve this, developers of even the early MMORPGs switched from turn-based play, to “real time” play. Thus, 1 second of real time equated to roughly 1 second of game time, and your character could swing his axe or cast his spells say once every 3 seconds… So you had to react now based on timing. The advantage of this game style is that battles are fast and more “exciting” because they happen quickly, and you can have any number of people in the fight, but it won’t (measurably) slow down because time moves forward whether you click your “attack” button or not. The disadvantage is that the speed pretty much kills off any chance of planning out and executing a complex strategy. You don’t have time to look up the consequences of casting “Fireball” — by the time you do, the battle is over (and if you were looking up rules instead of clicking “attack,” you’re now dead).

To compensate for this, the early games such as Everquest included a couple of useful features. The first was “auto-attack” — this was the basic attack with your equipped weapon or prepared spell, that would just fire every X seconds (whenever it’s your turn to “go” in combat). This allowed you to just “attack” the target and then sit back and think about future commands or tactics a little bit (not for long, but a bit). The second feature to help deal with the speed increase was the “combat queue” — this is a pre-defined list of commands your character will follow. One of the last games to have a queue that I know of was Star Wars Galaxies. In that game you could click any number of instructions, and they would all be listed in a small side window, and executed, in the order clicked, by the character. So you could (as a simple example) click, “punch, kick, legsweep, punch, punch, kick”, and your character would do those, at a rate of about one every 1.5 seconds, until the queue ran out. Then it would revert to auto-attack until the target was dead or the user gave new instructions.

Although these two mechanisms helped very much to compensate for the lack of “thinking time” that real-time games had brought about, they ended up becoming maligned and criticized. One reason they were criticized was that players felt they were not “playing” their characters but only “watching.” It was possible to just click “auto attack”, sit back, and watch your character kill off an “even con” (equal strength) enemy (at least if your character was set up right, with proper equipment, skills, and so forth). It was also possible to make long, detailed lists of commands that could be funneled into the queue, and then you could go do something else and your character would happily go along killing things without you. The most extreme form of this was the “macro”, which was basically a small script that the game executed on behalf of your character, running through a list of commands. Players figured out how to “loop” macros and could end up having the character play the game without them. They would set their character up in a place where enemies would “spawn” every so often, and have their looped macro target, attack, kill, and loot the enemy, and then fire itself to start the loop over in time for the next spawned creature. This led to a culture of “botting” the game (setting up a “bot” character who just played the scripts for you) — allowing people to gain loot and levels without even being at the keys.

Players who did this, and games that allowed it, rightly earned the derision of folks who actually played the games. Additionally, as players became more used to the “real time” sorts of combat, clicking buttons and thinking a bit at the same time became easier, and it no longer was as much of a burden to do both at once. To combat this boring “I’m not really playing” feel, designers wanted to come up with a system that made you feel like you were really playing your character — a system where you had to watch exactly what was going on, and respond, or your character would die. Such a system would be more “action packed and dynamic.”

Although they may not have been the first to try it, the first game I am aware of to really implement this successfully was City of Heroes. They had no queue… when you clicked a button, it executed. If command #1 was executing when you tried to execute command #2, then #2 didn’t happen, and you had to click it again. Each action had its own individual refresh rate so you had to watch carefully. Thunder Kick did good damage, for example, but took, say, 4 seconds to recharge. You couldn’t just hit TK, TK, TK… You’d hit TK once, and it would go off and its button would fade. The button stayed faded and un-clickable for 4 seconds, slowly “animating” back to the “usable” version. Meantime, the enemies were swinging at you so you’d better do something else — like, perhaps, clicking Crane Kick instead.

This changed game play dramatically. Bots were gone; auto attack was gone. You had to click each attack as you needed it. That was what they meant by more “action packed,” and it worked somewhat. But it also turned the game into what I call a “click-fest.” Instead of actually watching the battle — which looked really cool with all those special effects and whatnot — players found themselves watching their button refreshes. You stared at your toolbar, waiting for that button to light up so you could click it again. I’ve likened it to a user interface version of “whack a mole” (that game you find in arcades where moles pop out of random holes and you wait with a mallet to hit them as they pop out). This model was quite successful and was quickly followed by pretty much every game that has come out since, including WOW, Guild Wars, Vanguard, Everquest 2, the revamped versions of SWG… the list goes on and on.

Players in general seem to prefer this sort of gameplay, though to be honest I do not. I end up spending too much time thinking about button refresh rates and not nearly enough time watching the pretty combat animations. Now, I suppose in a game like Vanguard where the special effects are about as good as those of the old 1980s Commodore-64 and Apple II games, maybe that’s not a big loss. But for most games, it is frustrating that I spend so much time looking at the UI, and so little time looking at the actual game.

What this has definitely done, though, is turn the world of MMORPG gamers into what I call “click-aholics.” In short, if they’re not clicking, they’re bored. They have to click… and click again… and click again. As soon as the clicking stops, they become impatient. Designers seem to know this (either explicitly or maybe instinctively), so they keep designing “click-fest” games. Nobody is willing to try going back to the queue and maybe fixing it to work better (and most importantly not be bottable), because they figure the players will say they’re bored.

The consequence of all this is that, at the fundamental gameplay level, every single MMORPG on the market today, and every one in development for release in the next 2 years at least, is exactly the same. Every one of them has a toolbar with animated buttons, skills that are used individually and have individual refresh rates, and no combat queue. Now, it’s not that these things are bad, per se — I wouldn’t mind them just in, say, COH. But it gets old when you install yet another MMORPG, and realize that basically, you already know how to play it, because it plays like every other MMORPG out there.

What I’d really like to see is a little bit of innovation. Playing a non-MMO, but single player, RPG — Jade Empire — recently has made me feel this more strongly than ever. In Jade Empire, you have up to 10 “styles”, but each style only has four moves – attack, power attack, block, and area attack. The four moves are entered by the mouse only — left click, right click, center click, and left/right simultaneous click, respectively. Therefore, once you learn it there is nothing to really look at. Style switching might require glancing at your list of styles, but in a given fight you are usually using just one style at a time. Since there are no refresh rates, and no buttons to look at, you spend your whole time looking at the animations, the battle, the enemies, your character — in other words, you look at the game, and never at the UI.

Now, I realize that as Jade Empire is a console game translation, and something you only play one type of character in (a martial artist) with only 20 or so hours of gameplay to it, this exact mechanism would certainly not work for an MMORPG. But the point isn’t the exact mechanism, but the bottom line — which is that Jade Empire is a game where I actually play the game, instead of playing the toolbar. And that’s the real point — I’m sick of “playing the toolbar.” I’d like to go back to playing the game.

I’m not sure if the click-fest style of gaming is going to change any time soon though, at least for MMORPGs. Players are so hooked on clicking, because they are “click-aholics,” that most of them would have to go through withdrawal if they played a game like Jade Empire, where they didn’t have to stare at their toolbar the whole time. I’m going to keep holding out hope though, that someone, somewhere, will design a game that avoids click-fests… but though I’m holding out that hope, I certainly am not going to hold my breath…

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