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ESO's Addon Conundrum

Michael Bitton Posted:
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Traditionally, at least for the MMO genre, the more information available to players via the game’s UI, the better. As a result, MMO UI designs often end up being deficient in some way, and depending on how much foresight the developers had, the UI is either maligned and rigidly remains as is, or the UI is moddable and the player community releases a slew of mods to shore things up. While these efforts are often born of necessity, things can get crazy quickly, and anyone who has played World of Warcraft for any length of time can probably attest to this.

With games like World of Warcraft, you end up playing the UI more than anything else, and this trend has been divisive, to say the least. Many players embrace having as much information at their fingertips as possible, while others have grown fatigued of the information overload.  The latter crowd, and I count myself among them, was relieved to see that Zenimax Online Studios is going against the grain with The Elder Scrolls Online, designing a minimalistic UI that is distinctively Elder Scrolls.

For me, ESO’s UI has been a real breath of fresh air. Combined with the action combat and the recent trend towards a smaller amount of abilities being available at any given time, it finally feels like I can play an MMO without feeling compelled to glue myself to the UI. I’m actually looking at what my character is doing in combat, reading what enemies are doing through purely visual cues, and feeling able to appreciate the beauty of the game world all at the same time.

That said, it wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that ZOS may have gone a little too far in the other direction in some cases, even as someone who can appreciate the minimalism, and that’s where ESO’s moddable UI would conceivably come in. For PvE, the UI, at least so far, hasn’t presented any real problems for me. But for PvP, it’s clear that a bit more information would be useful, if not altogether necessary.

Thankfully, we have a willing and talented mod community that has already begun work on developing mods to extend the game’s UI, improving on things in some ways. But these mods haven’t come without controversy and no matter where you go, whether it is here on our own forums, at ESO fan communities, or even Reddit, there are aspects of these mods that are being hotly debated amongst the community.

The crux of the issue centers on the additional information that mods can provide through ESO’s API, making the use of mods a potential necessity to compete in areas of the game such as PvP or perhaps elder game PvE. In your typical MMO, most of the information players are arguing about having access to via mods in ESO, is already readily available. Mods are often used to better process or display the information already available, though they sometimes do pull out information that is not at all available through the baseline UI experience. However, it’s not usually as disruptive as it has the potential to be in ESO.

In ESO’s case, there is simply a whole lot of typical MMO information intentionally left out of the default UI, and this is either liberating or frustrating, depending on your point of view. If the API didn’t allow modders access to that information, it would be one thing, but since it does, mods that include that information make a convincing case for players that feel those who use mods have a distinct advantage over those who don’t. Players already end up feeling this pressure to some extent in most MMOs that feature moddable UIs, but this is a whole different ball of wax. Simple information, such as how much mana your opponent has available to him, is not visible in ESO’s base UI experience.  There is a whole host of other information that can be displayed using mods in ESO (cast bars, for one), but simply being able to tell what ability resources are available to your target vs. not having that information available at all is a game changer.

If people want to mod their UI to organize or display the already available information in a way that is efficient, but maybe looks cluttered or unattractive to some, I imagine we’d all live and let live. Some would simply opt to use mods, and some wouldn’t. The problem is that the information available through the mod API makes this consideration not a matter of simple preference or tradeoffs for some additional utility, but pure necessity.  With the way things are now, people who stick with the default UI are essentially playing by an entirely different set of rules than those who don’t.

In the end, it all comes down to ZOS to decide on what information is or isn’t restricted in the API and also whether or not they choose to include that same information (even optionally) in the default UI.  Whatever they choose, though, there shouldn’t be a huge divergence. Modders, like Atropos of Tamriel Foundry, also shouldn’t be blamed for creating mods that take advantage of the tools ZOS has made available to them. The answer to what is and isn’t acceptable needs to come from ZOS. The onus is also on ZOS to deal with any potential for cheating that arises from the use of mods. If ZOS feels certain information can be culled from the API that is easily abused, then it needs to lock that stuff down to ensure the integrity of the experience or have the right tools in place to detect the use of hacks.

Personally, I really like what ZOS is doing with the ESO’s default UI, but as I mentioned earlier, there are certainly areas that could be improved upon via modding. I’m open to using mods that can make these improvements on the base UI without also making the game look like your garden variety MMO, but that’s just my personal preference. You may want something completely different, and that’s fine. Ultimately, I don’t care how you want your UI to look, I just want us all to play by the same set of rules and I don’t think the current disparity between the game’s default UI and what is available through mods remotely resembles this.

We reached out to Zenimax Online Studios for comment on this issue and this is what they had to say:

As we get closer to launch, our beta events have continued to grow in player-size, and that growth has resulted in even more and more of you taking the time to experiment with our UI modding tools. It’s exciting to see the amazing add-ons you have come up with and for us, as developers, it’s also a very important part of the beta process. Seeing what the community wants to add or change is helpful as we continue to tweak and balance the game – what are people looking for? what works? what doesn’t? Finding the right answers to these questions often means leaving the API very open during this beta phase. It helps us see where limits may or may not be and helps us determine what makes the best possible ESO experience for everyone.

We welcome creativity and have built ESO on player-choice, but as a game played with thousands of others, we also must be mindful of any mods that give clear mechanical advantages in competitive situations.  Maintaining a level playing field will always be our first priority. Our intent with add-ons is to encourage you to modify your UI in a way that is more fitting for your personal play-style, but not ones that could allow you to make choices for others.  We do not want those who aren’t interested in using an add-on to feel compelled to do so because they cannot remain competitive without them. As we continue beta testing, we’ll continue to evaluate add-ons and the implications they have on other players, but you can expect changes to the API before launch and will share that information as it becomes available. Thank you to all of you that have created add-ons during this time – we appreciate your help in making ESO the best it can be.

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB


Michael Bitton

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB