Tobold's Blog
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Let's discuss user interfaces

In the open Sunday thread several readers suggested I start a thread about graphical user interfaces (GUI), and how important they are for games, so here it is. The GUI is what connects us to our games, which is why it is very important to be done right. But there are a lot of pitfalls how it could go wrong.

One major problem is information overload. Too much information displayed, and you end up not noticing any of it, because even important displays get burried in a mountain of data. Especially single-player games nowadays have a strong tendency to minimize user interfaces, for example displaying your health by the image becoming red instead of having a health bar you might overlook. While I haven't played it, I saw videos of the new Splinter Cell: Conviction, where even the mission goals are projected onto the walls instead of being shown in a window, way cool!

One technical difficulty for graphical user interfaces is scaling. You can play games in lots of different resolutions, with screen widths ranging from 800 pixels to 5700 pixels. But user interfaces in many cases don't scale very well, because they use a fixed number of pixels, not a fixed percentage of the screen width. Thus if for example a game is using a 10 point font, that looks large on a 800 pixel wide screen, but tiny on a 24" 1900 pixel wide screen. In the early days of World of Warcraft I played on a 17" screen with 4:3 aspect ratio, and the various UI addons for raid healers took so much space, that I only ever saw Molten Core through a small window in the middle. My current 22" wide screen is a lot better there.

The biggest impact on the user interface of a MMORPG is the developers decision on how much modification to allow by the users. The user interface of World of Warcraft improved a lot over the years, because Blizzard not only allowed addons, but then also integrated the functionality of the most popular addons in the standard user interface. Can you believe that when WoW came out, there was only one single hotkey button bar, with no possibility to show more than 12 buttons at a time? It's true, and addons changed that.

The downside of user-created GUI addons is that they have an impact on the difficulty of the game. For example I have Deadly Boss Mods running, and whenever a dungeon or raid boss targets me with an ability from which I am supposed to run away, the "run away little girl" from the Big Bad Wolf event in the Karazhan opera plays, making it harder for me to fail to notice what I should do. One extreme example was recently shown on MMO Champion, where the Augmented Virtual Reality AVR addon makes it possible for a raid leader to mark the ground with circles and symbols as in "healers stand in the blue circle, ranged dps in the green one, and when boss ability X triggers, run in the direction of the big red arrow!".

So, tell me about your experiences with user interfaces in various games! What game has an exceptionally good GUI, which one an exceptionally bad one? How important are GUI addons for you? Discuss!
Eve Online seriously needs a re-think on their GUI.

Several windows for chat, targeting, drones, monitoring fleet members, local chat, goes on and even with a wide-screen you still look at the (fantastically pretty) Universe through a keyhole in the middle, just as you describe!
I still swear that the single greatest thing Blizzard added to the genre was acceptance and embrace of user created addons. Just allowing them was a HUGE step over most other games, and the fact they even integrate the most popular ones in time show how connected they are to the userbase.

It will always stick in my mind how I was afraid to even modify my FFXI back in the day to not play it fullscreen, a functionality which wasn't in the game at all and if added was considered an exploit and could get you banned. Last I checked they changed that policy in time, but it still colored my time in the game.

Blizzard really has my gratitude with such a liberal addon policy, especially making scripting and addon programming so easy a computer science luddite could do it. I still remember being happy when I made my first macros using uncommon scripts and it worked like I wanted it to with minimal looking up and problems.

Some issues in the genre can go back and forth as to who is better of worse, but WoW utterly and completely dominates in this one regard.
>Eve Online seriously needs a re-think on their GUI.

Seriously, yes. And they need to allow font scaling for larger window sizes, as Tobold so sneakily insinuated.
I'd agree with Sine Nomine here. Blizzard's customisable interface is a great step forward. It recognises the fact that different people have a varying ideas about what the perfect UI is and lets players choose their own.
I am rather fond of EQ2's UI. The "out of the box" ui is extremely customizable and as lean or as complex as you want it to be.

That said, I use an "add-on" UI that completely replaces it and adds things like "click to cure" functionality (does help on the healing for sure) and macro buttons for raids, but IMO those are really more "fluff" than anything. Even the "click to cure" is just a simply macro -- it's just that the UI writes it for you when you join a party rather than making you do it manually, is all.

TBH, I don't like the WoW UI much nor the UI in any game that modeled theirs on WoW. I use it when I must, but avoid it when I can.

For EVE, yeah, it looks realy spare and isn't as customizable as I'd like, but I think for how the game plays out it works well enough. For all the complaints I hear about it I've not seen any specific suggestions on what would make it better -- only vague hand-waving kinds of things.
Comparing WoW and EVE, the two asymmetric cornerstones of MMO business today, we can come up with some ideas, I think.

Let's look at inventory. Both games have an inventory. In EVE you have three way to make it look. These buttons, which change how the inventory is displayed, are located right next to the items. They take up unnecessary space and should be in some 'settings'. This would save some space and make it look less confusing to the new player.

Next, the name of the item is always displayed and you also have a tooltip, just like in WoW. This tooltip, however is just one line that contains the name of the item. Since the name of item is already shown, I wonder what's the purpose?

Next, the icons are far apart. A lot of space is wasted this way. Actually, I think the icon itself is even bigger than the WoW icons, which makes you wonder ;)

A lot of items in EVE have cryptic names. For example:
"Small 'Vehemence' I Shockwave Charge". From my point of view: I do not instantly see that this is a smart bomb.

Therefore, I usually use the display setting that shows just text. But since long names in EVE are the norm, you end up needing a lot of space. Also due to the font that has a very, very small height and thus makes you set the spaces between the characters extra large.

My 'bag' in EVE ends up much bigger than in Wow.

Now, you could argue that that is because it contains more information. But all you actually get in EVE are name of the item and quantity. For anything else you need to right-click and 'show info'. If you display in text-only form, you also get the group the item belongs to (smart bombs) and the slot it fits into.

Let's have a look at WoW:
In contrast to EVE, there's just one way to make the inventory look: Icons. Just like in EVE, the quantity is shown. The icon is smaller than the EVE icon (if icon setting is used), and the space between icons is much smaller.

All the other information about the item is contained in a tooltip.

And here we go: The tooltip.
Tooltips are everywhere in WoW. EVERYWHERE! You want to know something about something: Hover your mouse over it.

One big difference between WoW and EVE GUI are tooltips! EVE has them, but doesn't use them wisely or at all. The tooltip you get if you hover over an item is just the name of the item. Useless. An information that is already shown - even in 'big item' display setting.

The original bag in WoW can contain 16 items. Try to display 16 items in EVE: Look at the space the entire inventory windows needs. No matter which of the three display settings you use: The EVE windows covers much more space on your screen.

And since they have bad tooltips there is even much less immediately accessible information!

The way EVE displays the inventory is worse in EVERY regard.
For some reason i remember some Microprose's games, although great content-wise, had less than intuitive interfaces (The Legacy, Bloodnet)...(not to mention the trouble you had to go through to get them running on your DOS machine). As the videogame world proves: the more complex the software, the more complex the UI: the first games had near optimal UIs, which wasnt that hard, since user input was extremely limited. The difficulty with UIs is that you have to work with a set of input devices (keyboard, mouse, handheld scanner, lightpen etc) which are all static by nature. The software they drive however isnt static at all. Also ergonomics isnt an exact science and individual preferences may be wildly apart..

In my experience the UI usually is one of the most interesting but also one of the most challenging parts of a piece of software. It is an area where you can win alot, productivity-wise. If all is designed and executed well users will take it for granted. The amount of work to get there can be vast though..
Speaking about monitors, I had a 19" display for years and never wanted to upgrade to a widescreen one as I felt games wouldn't run or render properly. Then we finally got some widescreen monitors and it changed my mind completely.

A few months ago I bought a 23" widescreen Samsung monitor and now run at a resolution of 1900 x 1080. Oddly enough, I tend to run most of my applications in a 4:3 window in the center of the screen but it's amazing for games as the field of vision is so much wider. Would definitely recommend a widescreen monitor to all gamers now.
@Nils - add to that the thing that there's no EASY way to see how much space the stuff in your hangar takes. The station hangar is infinite, but when you have to move it, your ship's cargohold isn't.

You can buy a station container and put it there - you'll have the m^3 shown, but you'll be then unable to do anything with that stuff, no reprocess, no repackage, because it's all in a container.

Next, the drones interface, which is awful in every way. Doesn't matter much when I fly ships that have one or two drones, but in a ship that holds 30 of them, not so easy - hard to see the HP of drone shields, doesn't show if they're under attack or not...

What else.

There's a shortcut for targetting. There isn't any for clearing targets for some reason.

The directional scanner, which for some unknown reason accepts distance in kilometers when everything is counted in AUs. Yes I know how much km is in one AU, but still.

There's an awful 20 second lock-up of the game when I try to sell stuff from my hangar. Multiply that by a hundred items I want to sell. It's probably fixed by clearing the cache or something like that, but what's the point of a cache if I have to clear it every week.

The map sucks as well - 3d view is useless, unless you're in null sec system somewhere on the border of the galaxy, and in the 2d view the systems sometimes overlap.

Eve would be much better - or at least much more pleasant to play - if they allowed addons in a way that Blizzard does it.
The possibility to use custom UIs is definitely one of WoW's strengths, but also one of it's weaknesses.

Keeping track of what addons to update and when is hell. I would rather see that for an addon and it's updates to be allowed to be installed it would have to go through some kind of reviewing process by Blizzard. Then this addon would be automatically updated during the patching process. This would then probably also make the addons more stable.

Of course this will probably never happen because that would be too costly. But it would be much better in my opinion.
Eve would be much better - or at least much more pleasant to play - if they allowed addons in a way that Blizzard does it.

While I agree in principle, that is not the first thing I did if I were responsible.
To code a scriptable GUI that cannot be misused isn't exactly easy.

I used the inventory system as an example, because it didn't change much over the years in WoW.
It was designed by Blizzard. But they didn't just put some guy to it who then 'made the inventory GUI'. Instead, they put some thought into it first and then iterated 'until it felt right'.

In EVE you have an entire bar on top of the inventory window that's only there so you can minimize/close (tiny buttons in the top right).

In Wow you have one icon that is always visible (just like EVE for the ship inv. - unless your in a station (?)). Only this button closes/opens the inv. You can also use a shortkey ('B', for bag).

This bar on top of EVE's inventory window is unnecessary. While I am writing this I produce some 350 ink with my WoW char in the background. When I open all my bags I can see 114 different items in these bags, if I want.

That needs about 1/3 or 1/4 of the screen. Try to display 114 different items in EVE in a way that you can easily gain extensive additional information (hovering the mouse over it).

Did you realize how fast the tooltips appear in WoW? Instantly! I can move my mouse over the inventory and hundreds of tooltips appear and vanish. Moreover they appear at a position that I never wonder what item they belong to!

It's the small things here, really, more than anything else. The GUI is the one thing that really holds EVE back. It's also a tricky thing, sure.

Addons that change the GUI are a big step forward. But EVE isn't ready for that. EVE first needs to do some basics!
Using tooltips and icons is a two-edged sword. Sure, you get to shrink the UI to a bare minimum, but then your entire user experience hinges on the icon being unambiguous and intuitive. If you have several icons which either don't represent the item/ability/function behind them or are too similar to other icons, you end up with mystery meat navigation. If the only relevant information is in the tooltips, then you have to browse through every icon until you find the right one. That's even slower than skimming through a list.

One of my other pet peeves is sprinkling important information along the edges of the screen, like putting health to the top left corner of the screen in WoW, debuffs to the top right corner and main abilities to the bottom left corner. Because I have to track all of those, I'll have to shift my focus constantly.

Fortunately, WoW allows me to use addons to move that information closer to the center of the screen and only display it if something important happens.
If you have several icons which either don't represent the item/ability/function behind them or are too similar to other icons, you end up with mystery meat navigation.

Very true and another thing WoW does very well. It doesn't really matter that much that the icon represents the item accurately. What is important is that it looks different from other icons.

The user only glances at icons. He remembers their general shape and color. WoW uses all kinds of colors and general forms: bottem left to top right, left to right, circle, square, yellow, red, brown, green, ...
Designing good icons is an art.

Next time you log in WoW look at the 'questlog' icon. What the hell does this icon have to to with a 'questlog' ? :)

Doesn't matter. It's form is completely different form the icons in the vicinity, and if you hover over it you instantly get a tooltip that tells you:


[L] is, obviously, the hotkey.

In Wow you have one icon that is always visible (just like EVE for the ship inv. - unless you're in a station (?)). Only this button closes/opens the inv. You can also use a shortkey ('B', for bag)

Just realized that I was wrong: WoW does have such a bar, too. Somehow it never felt superfluous, strange ;)
GUI design is probably something you can study. I just found one more property of the WoW GUI:

Not all windows can be moved!
In EVE I have one problem all the time: Windows overlap!

In WoW this happens rarely, because some windows, like the bag, are not moveable (by default - an addon can change this).

Since my bags are always in the bottem right, my inscription window, for example, is always to the top left to it. I moved it there once and since the bags do not move, it stays there forever. They almost never overklap!

It's good to give the player some ways to customize his GUI, but as often it is wise to not give him too much power. While everything should be moveable by an addon, the ordinary user should not be able to mess up his GUI; otherwise he just might.

"Addons that change the GUI are a big step forward. But EVE isn't ready for that. EVE first needs to do some basics!"

On the other hand, take the WoW's default inventory UI. It's big (and you can't make it smaller without scaling down everything), up to this recent patch you couldn't figure out what items are important and what not (the quest items have a gold background now and an exclamation mark if they start a new quest), you can't position them the way you want.

It still takes an addon (or a few) to make it *more* useful.

I agree with you that it takes both a lot of time to make a good UI and a good addon system, and boy I'm so glad that Blizzard spent that time.

Slightly OT - I'm browsing Eve forums on this topic, the amount of people that use "this is not wow", "gtfo back to wow" as a response to similar questions is amazing and frankly, very funny.

On the other hand, take the WoW's default inventory UI. It's big (and you can't make it smaller without scaling down everything), up to this recent patch you couldn't figure out what items are important and what not (the quest items have a gold background now and an exclamation mark if they start a new quest), you can't position them the way you want.

WoW isn't perfect - far from it. I liked WARs way to have an extra, unlimited, bag for quest items, for example. But WoW it is a good starting point if you want to design a GUI.

About the standard inventory GUI: I use it and it is lightyears ahead of EVE. I never had the desire to make it even smaller or position the windows the way I want. I even think there is some wisdom here as I explained before:

Imagine two activities that need the inventory. For example equipping/fitting them to your char/ship, transfering them to the bank/station. Now imagine all windows are freely moveable.

I put the char/ship to the upper left and the inventory to the bottom right. Then I start fitting/equipping.

Later I want to transfer stuff to the bank/station. This windows is in the bottom right. So I move the inventory to the upper left.

Later I want to fit/equip again and now need to move the inventory back to the bottom right.

Later I want to put stuff from the ship/char directly to the bank/station. I once again move everything around.

Add a few more windows and more interaction between them and without some system you end up moving windows all the time.

If some windows are fixed this becomes easier.
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I found it easier to run a jEveAssetm a java program that queries the server via the API.

EVE's UI needs so much modernization.

Amen to the font size issue. 12pt fonts should be 12pts high; not some number of pixels that is different for different size and PPI displays.
I have to admit, I'm not and never have been very concerned with the UI. As long as it functions as its supposed to (even if how it functions is somewhat annoying), its generally fine.

Sure, some are better than other, but I can't think of any off hand that have ever been so bad that I couldn't play a game I otherwise wanted to.
I guess that is how many people think about the User Interface. My guess, however, is that they have stopped playing games before, just because they "weren't fun".

What may be hard to understand is that often (if not usually) the GUI is the problem when players cannot "get into" a game.
WoW without addons is an exceptionally bad interface. As thus I'm boggled why other developers are all copying it. They'd be better of to look at some heavily modded UI's.

One of my major problems with the default UI is that it's all too much spread. Party icons & enemy health on the top left, your own buffs on the top right and your buttons on the bottom. All this information should be visible with one click glance. Thus the buffs and unit frames should be smaller and all put at the bottom of the page. I quite like the hud mods. That way you can immediately see your own health, the enemies health and your mana/rage/... pool.

Then again whey you do start using mods WoWs interface goes off the charts. It's incredible how much variety there is in mods.
There's no excuse for 10 point fonts that aren't 10 points. There is an API in Windows to tell you the monitor dimensions and resolution. Do a little math. Easy peasy.

Where you are going to run into problems is bitmaps, you can only scale them so much before they look bad. That means additional art for different screen sizes.
WoW without addons is an exceptionally bad interface

Please. I have the feeling you have never seen a really exceptionally bad interface ;)
There are different needs for (hardcore) raiders and casual levelers.

Your proposed changes, like to put all the information where you can see it with one glance, are certainly helpful in many situations. But the modded interfaces, I have seen, didn't look pretty at all. They looked a bit too much streamlined. Sometimes like an fps interface.

Although Blizzard really tries hard to get everybody in the 'move out of the fire'-raids, most people still play the leveling game and dungeons. Their concern isn't to see as much information as possible with one glance. Nor do they hot-key all skills. Some space between the different icons makes WoW look much less confusing.
@Nils. Well, very bad might be exaggerating indeed.

Still, I've seen WoW modded UI's which look ten times better than the default UI. So why do other developers copy the inferior WoW UI?

Just out of curiousity: Could you link to some of the superior GUIs ?
Nils asked:
Next time you log in WoW look at the 'questlog' icon. What the hell does this icon have to to with a 'questlog' ? :)

It's a GRAIL!
Having left WoW for the pre-Cataclysm lull, the single biggest complaint I have about other MMOPRGs is the interface.

In DDO, I have health bars for healing (thank god!), but no practical way of seeing which buffs/debuff are on my team or how long remains on them. The AH has no search feature, and the game takes ~5 minutes to load up this bare-bones interface when you switch characters or log in.

Contrast this to Grid, Auctioneer and zoning into Dalaran, (no more than a one-minute affair when the realm is busy crashing,) and you can easily see why WoW is so amazingly popular, despite DDO's superior (in my opinion) leveling content.
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