User interfaces: Does ‘one size’ fit all? Hardly
In the aftermath of EverQuest II’s recent overall of the UI, players speak out about interfaces, and what they believe developers should be doing
The foundations of an MMO are only as strong as the user interface that allows access to them. Without a UI that is friendly and somewhat easy to navigate, even the best of games can be unwieldy and frustrating.
On Wednesday, August 18, Sony Online released GU57 for EverQuest II, an update that did several things but the most notable – from the moment a player logs in – is a streamlining of the UI. Of course, in the days before the update, there was a lot of trepidation and in-game chatter about what would happen and the majority of it was of the ‘doom and gloom’ variety. The update launched, some things were more accessible and while there was complaining – after all, during a six-year run, some commands were second nature and now players have to think again, not just tap keys – generally, life has carried on in Norrath.
But are developers missing the proverbial boat when designing UIs for games? After all, there seems to be a proliferation of third-party interfaces that are easy to find and install into a program – though games do not support them and will not take responsibility if that third-party program crashes, corrupts or generally makes a mess of the player’s game.
With the subject being so topical with the EQII community, I decided to seek out some of its players for their comments about user interfaces, what they believe developers are missing and why they go out to find and use third-party interfaces. Of course, the disclaimer needs to be tossed in here that MMORPG.com does not recommend nor advocate using third-party programs outside of the systems designed by the game’s developers.
What are the most common reasons players seek out a third-party user interface?
“Mainly because the ‘default UI’ is lacking the features that a vast majority of the third-party's have by default,” answered ‘THEDragon.’ “I'm not a healer, but for the past six years folks that do play healers have used third-party UI's because of the ‘click to cure’ option that the default UI lacks. I also enjoy the freedom the third-party UI's offer, color, functions and ‘tweak-ability.’ “
“Functionality that isn't present in the default UI (for example, click-to-cure),” agreed ‘tknarr,’ “and a visual appearance that differs from the default UI (often because my own preferences in a UI differ from what the devs were looking for in the default UI).”
‘Maozem,’ who does play a healing class in Norrath, was on the same track. “As a raid healer in EQII I find that having a UI like ProfitUI in indispensible. With click to cure, click to heal, condensed and minimized screen clutter, and the ability to modify these for my personal needs I just can't run without them.”
Obviously, if developers were nailing user interfaces, there would not be as many third-party programs floating about as there are. So what does the dev team need to keep in mind when designing the UIs? Well, how about functionality?
“One size fits all, doesn't,” stated ‘tknarr.’ “The needs of a veteran raider with years of experience in the game, for instance, may be radically different from those of a brand-new player starting their very first character. And what a healer wants in their UI may be radically different from what, say, the tank wants. You can't make a single UI that's good for everything across that wide a range. It's like trying to make a single vehicle that simultaneously performs like a Formula 1 race car on the track and hauls 80,000 pounds of freight like a tractor-trailer. Your best bet is to create a UI system that's flexible enough to let people with experience create special-purpose mods for it, while you concentrate on making a solid entry-level UI to give people the basics needed to get started. And don't assume your initial choices are necessarily the best. It's not a coincidence that the new default UI introduced with GU57 took a number of design elements from UI mods like Profit and Fetish; those mods were so popular precisely because people preferred their design choices over those of the old default UI.
“Also, designers should bear in mind that not every player is the same. Red and green, for instance, may be obvious color choices for "bad" vs. "good" (for example, on health bars), but they're also very bad choices for the large minority of players who are, to some degree or another, red-green color-blind. People have different ideas of comfortable text size, comfortable UI theme colors and so on. Don't get so enamored of your own preferences that your UI can't accommodate those sorts of differences.”
“Consult the players,” said ‘Maozem,’ “(and) keep in mind that not everyone that has a great UI idea is a programmer with years of experience. I am working at learning the system that SOE uses now and find it to be moderately hard even given the fact that I have studied some code. With a slightly better system in place they may find the number of subscribers increasing as this is definitely the ‘I-gotta-have-it my-way’ generation.”
‘THEDragon’ was a bit blunter. “The devs need to understand who they are making changes for, not the corporate knuckle-heads that don't play but rather the players. There is a thread on their official forums and they listed ‘who’ they consulted about the new UI changes and nowhere in their own list was the players. … (they) should ask the end-users what they want and why, then do it.”
While ProfitUI seems to be the preferred add-in third-party UI of the three players who responded when asked about the UI, there are others out there.
“At current I would have to lean toward ProfitUI,” ‘Maozem’ summed up, “as I find it the most versatile, fastest, and with the best overall appearance. I do have to mention that it is not for everyone and that DrumsUI and FetishUI are both excellent in their own right. I could write a story a mile long just comparing the pros and cons of these three alone.”
Perhaps the bottom line here is that, as stated before, one size does not fit all and that user interfaces should have flexibility to be as varied as the players using them. Certainly developers can make smart choices in original design, allowing the user interfaces to have that initial ease-of-use that allows newer players to feel comfortable right from the initial log-in, but then – if the community responses were any indication – have the ability to evolve to fit the players’ styles of play, class responsibilities and overall tastes.