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Game Elements- Part 1: The Interface

Posted by grimfall Monday September 17 2007 at 11:02AM
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Due to a lot of work, a second chance for EQ2 and a well earned vacation, it's been a while since I threw down the gauntlet with IIHAVH's first entry.  Thanks again to those who read it and particularly those who took the time to offer their insights.  You can find that post here:

http://www.mmorpg.com/blogs/grimfall/082007/352_MMORPGs-Need-a-Kick-in-the-Pants

I do pride myself on being one of those people who doesn't just bitch about things.  I like to bitch about things, but then try to fix or better them.  With that thought in mind, today in the first of a multi-part series, I am going to discuss the game element of the interface.

First, let me describe what I think of as 'the interface'.  To me, the interface should always be thought of as a two-way interface.  Yes, it is how a player controls his actions in the game, but it is also how the game communicates to the player.  Many decisions that form the very core of game design, such as how are the graphics going to appear, should be integrated seamlessly with the concept of the interface.  As far as I can tell, almost all MMO's now (and unlike 7 years ago, I can no longer claimed to have played them all), start with a some sort of graphics engine, and then slap on a few windows (hot keys, status bars, etc) on top of it and say 'There, that's your UI'.  But, everything that happens in the game is part of the interface.  The graphics, the sound, the voice or text chat that other players and NPC's generate, with each of these elements, the user is interfacing with the game or vice versa.  When blood flies, or spells explode or lasers sizzle, the users are receiving data from the game, aka interfacing.

There was one particular application of the UI that got me thinking along these lines, and it happened quite recently.  I cannot remember which game it was (I suspect it was LOTRO), but when running around I found myself using the battle music as notification that I had aggro.  There were most likely some visual cues that I was 'in combat' as well, such as peacetime hot keys graying out, or a shot of text such as 'A Dire Wolf leaps to attack', but what I found easiest to monitor was just listening for that combat music to kick on.  Was this the intention of the combat music?  I suspect not.  And if not, this is an example of a UI element gone awry.  Whether the outcome that I was using this aural cue as my battle notification was good or bad I will leave up to you to decide.  But this is just an example how one overused interface element, battle music, can wind up as a UI element other than it was originally intended because the developers think of music as 'music' and the interface as 'a bunch of windows with hot keys and status bars', and both were most likely implemented by separate teams, even though we can see that their impact on the game play can overlap.

Now that we have broadened the understanding of the interface, what does it mean?  Can developers better intertwine audio and visual clues to make the interface more intuitive, informative, interactive and easier to use?  Let's go on with my combat music example above and extrapolate some other interface functionality.   What about letting the user set a tool-bar to appear, based on the music or aggro triggering?  Or if in 'run mode' a text box pops up that says 'would you like to fight?' and stops you, and wheels you about toward the closest enemy if you click 'Yes'?  Should I even need to click on 'Yes'?  Why can't I just say it?  What about using different types of combat music that convey the relative power of your enemy, so that you can receive that information even though you don't have it targeted to see it's 'con' color on the status bar? 

That is just one example of using a non-conventional interface element to convey information outside of the MMO standard that we have today.  What are your thoughts?  Do you think the hot-key overlays can be improved, or are we at the pinnacle of UI technology?  Do you think we can better communicate to and receive information from the games by changing the way we perceive the interface?

Eluwien writes:

You have to consider further what these kind of amazing ideas would do to those that are used to instant gratification (those peace time spells graying out, so you dont have to know your skills by heart), statistic fans and braggres who like to have everything up and go through all the passive UI info constantly, and those who are spoonfed with entertainment who cannot live without scroling combat texts showing damages, types and when ever any enemy 200m away is aggroing him.

Good idea tho, but it would hurt those, whe are indeed begining their gaming career and dont desire interesting UI and brain using interactinon from their entertainment =)

Sun Aug 17 2008 10:56AM Report
grimfall writes:

Hi,

Thanks for the post Eluwien.  I have to disagree with your final comment though.  A lot of single player games don't have these type of interfaces, and new users would not have any preconceptions about what an interface should be.  You seem to think that my suggestions, and they're not things that I would definetly, do, but just some spaghetti on the wall thoughts, would make the interface more complicated.  I actually think that the goal would be to do the opposite.

Mon Aug 18 2008 2:02PM Report

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