Tobold's Blog
Thursday, November 01, 2012
MMORPG user interfaces

It could be argued that World of Warcraft has the best user interface possible, because there are so many mods and addons out there to modify it and tweak it to your exact preferences. But curiously allowing addons is not an industry standard. Neither Star Wars: The Old Republic nor Guild Wars 2 have them. And that point was really driven home recently when Bioware was forced to backpedal on a decision to give free players only 1 quickbar in SWTOR. Players obviously felt that having less character slots or banks slot was a reasonable restriction, but being forced to use an inferior UI was not.

Now I'm not saying that mods don't have downsides. Sometimes they provide too much information, leading to social exclusion based on addons like Gearscore or DamageMeter. Sometimes they are simply too good, becoming mandatory for raid content. But in many cases mods that change the UI are just making the game more comfortable for the user.

What do you think? Should MMORPGs all have the possibility to change the user interface with mods and addons, or not?

They should absolutely all allow mods.

For WoW in particular, it's been great for Blizzard. Players mod the interface, and Blizzard cherry-picks the best stuff to put versions of into the core UI. So we wind up with the UI still being pretty good and competitive with that of 6-years-newer games.

Personally, I like it as an extra form of content for the game. Part of the reason I still play WoW is that I can write addons for it. When I'm bored with questing or dungeons or raiding, I tinker with scanning for rares, or sorting bags. This is, admittedly, pretty niche content.
Yes, but making the UI moddable means that the designers have to treat the API with equal importance to other core gameplay mechanics. Any limits or affordances must be enforced at the API level, not in the default UI. For example, if they don't want the players to know the exact state of other players and enemies, they should not supply the UI with exact figures that it obscures before showing them to the player. If they want players to be able to set their own markers and waypoints, they must make explicit methods to manage those and so on.
Yes for sure.
Just look at all the little bits that Blizzard made baseline that were addons not that long ago.
Once in a while they have to step in and break unintended functions, but otherwise there is so much potential that is just outsourced to the community.
True some people don't grasp the point of Gearscore and demand an arbitrary high score for things that don't need them, but that doesn't void the fact that you can messure someones gear to a certain extend.
Same with damage meters. If I'm trailing the pack while an equally geared player of my class tops it, then I'm missing something and CAN look into it. If there is a lack of a damage meter, I wouldn't even KNOW.
For me the configuration of th UI has been a major element of fun in WoW. I've spent hours upon hours. After taking breaks from the game I usually try to go with the default UI and it has been improved each and every time through inclusion of things that were previously in addons.

Then I again I found it so very relaxed to not use any addons in Guildwars2. The UI is absolutely ok and since you only get 11 buttons to press anyway it is not quite as important where they are and since you can do little to influence what they do ... keeping the UI simple feels good to me.

So this makes me think if all the options you get with addons do not - in a way - force you to use them. I well remember when I went to Molten Core the first time how it was expected to have certain addons installed because it was so much harder to win some fights without improved raid frames and Decursive.

Decursive, of course, was broken or was it the game that was? ;)

So fact is I like my games with and without addons.
Addons that allow you to tweak the interface are vital for any game. Simple you cannot please all people with 1 Interface. Also different people have different needs. A player that click his abilities on quickbar does not need an addon like Power Auras while this addon is more than vital for a player using keybinds and used to look at the center of the screen...

From the other side, addons that try to put numbers on performance or gear have a lot of negative results. I can say that the cons out-weight the pros of these addons.

Lastly, addons like DBM force the developers to create more and more complex gameplay mechanics in order to provide some challenge for the people, making the game almost un-playable without these type of addons and result to very complex mechanics where people play the UI rather the game. For example I would prefer a 2 sec cast that I must interrupt without know when the boss will do it, rather than a 1 sec cast that I have to interrupt when this big red addon bar end

we ended up to play guitar hero rather than RPG.
A functional and ergonomic user interface is a must for anything one uses a bit longer than a ten hour throw away game. The idea is that the game content is supposed to challenge, not the user interface.

That being said, having a moddable UI creates other problems - people always try to game the system.

Ny preference would be to have an ergonomic, logical and functional default user interface. Bonus features such as moving elements around on the screen, changing their size and or colour are useful.

That being said, a number of features of the current WoW client started out as someone's addon. Clearly, having users develop additions to the game is a great bonus, if you have the people to police the API and stay on top of abuse. =]
I consider mods a negative. Here's my argument, based on playing wow for many years:

Once you allow mods, inevitably people will develop genuinely useful ones that make the game easier to play. Many mods become generally accepted by raiders, increasing their effectiveness. Once this happens Bliz has to balance assuming people have certain mods (or their equivalent) to prevent top-tier raiding from becoming trivial. Once /that/ happens now the mods are effectively mandatory for all the raiders. So, now it's necessary to spends hours managing ones UI, updating mods, hoping they don't break, blah, blah, blah. I liked mods at first, but after a while their maintenance became quite a chore. Well, for me it did.

Obviously I'm the lone dissenter here. Don't take it personally, I'm not attacking anyone, just saying what my experience was.
Since noone brought this before -- I'll pipe in with a point *against* mods.

Mods (at least for some people) create a huge barrier for re-entry.

While you actively play, say, WoW (which is most known example of moddable interface), you tend to collect bits and pieces of UI mods that seemed very necessary at the moment for one or other reason.

Then you take a break, Blizzard breaks mods API for a good or not-so-good reason, you come back to find that most of your "important" mods are no longer working.

At which point you seriously consider whether you should bother trying to fix the mess in the first place or it is simplier to not play.

So my vote is for a highly functional & configurable default UI plus, possibly, 'skinnability' to let people change UI non-functionally (e.g. change textures, possibly size and position of stuff). If skins are available, developers should make a very serious effort to try and NOT break compatibility when upgrading UI.
Mods/addons create a "must have" environment, particularly in PvP. Once you get past a certain point, if you want to do better you have to upgrade your equipment and/or UI.

However, a non-moddable UI also means that mods such as the often-reviled GearScore aren't used, and that Theorycrafters/One-True-Wayers have a harder time identifying a specific rotation.

I'll freely admit that I miss my mods when I'm on Age of Conan or SWTOR, but then again I'm playing the game differently there. It's not so much a competition as merely having fun in a more relaxed manner. When I play WoW, particularly in BGs, it's a lot more competitive.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it depends on what you want, and how competitive you want to be.

Change the UI absolutely. Allow automation to the level of WoW, nope. IMHO EQ2 hit the sweet spot on this back in the day.
I'm almost 100% FOR addons. Reasons:

- Interface mods: not everyone cares about the same stuff, has the same habits, has the same problems (being colorblind can make an UI unusable very fast). Every time I play another MMO I find myself wishing I could mod the interface more... when you fight the UI more than the enemies, something is wrong.

- Performance meters: either performance is important and then you NEED way to measure it, or it's irrelevant. The reason to use recount is to see what you can do better, not to slam other players.

- Information addons: Boss mods are a lot less useful than you can imagine: I have raided without boss mods and you can definitely play very well even without, Blizzard has done a very good job at making events visible. Timer bars are also becoming less important, since usually you can obtain the same information from debuff durations and other things. Honestly, after I know the combat, I don't even look at the bars anymore....

- auction house addons: a requirement, since the default AH user interfaces suck beyond words.

- "automation" addons (like Ovale): they are the ones I am against: they turn the game into guitar hero, but what's even more idiotic is that they make people play WORSE than without them. I've seen videos of feral druids making idiotic mistakes just because they were following the addon.... I'm pretty positive that I can out-DPS an addon user, simply because I know how to optimize for the specific combat, something which an addon cannot do.

When I look at a new MMO, for me the lack of addons is a serious negative point, and I'm sure that the customizability of WoW has played a big role in its longevity.
I don't use mods in MMOs and preferably never will; the theory I have is that the game isn't worth it if you find it necessary to seek out a mod....the MMO ought to provide the tools you need to do the job and enjoy the game as intended. But that does not mean they shouldn't be allowed! My wife, for contrast, has never played WoW without extensive mods best as I can tell, and they seem to dramatically enhance the overall play experience for her....the way she and her guild do things, anyway. It does create a barrier for someone like me, but I see it more as a "warning: too much dedication required beyond this point" sign post for someone like me who cannot afford to get too invested in MMOs. Mods are for the people who really, really live and breathe the game. The normal UI features are for the casual fodder like myself.
I guess it depends how much a company wants to control the user experience. Having addons can really change gameplay and even ruin content or exploit (ie. they basically play for you or give you an unfair advantage. I'm thinking of things like arena addons which are not available to Mac users). If an interface is already amazing, then there should be no need to innovate. On the other hand, having the flexibility to control things like health bars and action bars can transform a frustrating experience into a pleasant one.
Although figuring out mods was a very enlightening and educational process for me, an old guy, they are ultimately a barrier and divisive. The many hours I have spent tinkering and fighting with mods were a waste of time.

And every time I've put in a GM ticket for anything they essentially blame my addons or macros.

WoW is essentially unbalanced for those not using mods. You cannot PvP competitively or raid at an appreciable level without them.

The mystifying thing to me is, why would Blizzard put so little effort into creating a usable and customizable UI that they control?
I'm not a big fan of mods really, but I think people exaggerate the need for them, and Blizzard have often gone some whay towards making them unnecessary. For example, Deadly Boss Mods was really unnecessary in Naxx2, and maybe only on about three bosses was it even slightly helpful. Recount and Decursive were the only add-ons I needed on my mage. Recount was just for information, and I think Decursive was just for Noth and Kel'thuzad.

I also had a few macros for my elemental and sheeping.

In the BC era I also had a casting bar with a timer so that I could get off the next cast just in time for the server to accept it.

I also had an add-on giving extra buttons, but that wasn't really for raiding.

So I kind of lean two ways on this issue. My ideal game would have no add-ons and no need for them. But I can live with a game that has add-ons and some need for them. I don't think the need for them in WoW was as great as many suggest.

The D&D Online UI is so awful it almost turned me off from the otherwise fun game. I did eventually quit, and I think constantly battling my own UI was a part of it. If they allowed mods/addons, there's a decent chance I would have fixed the UI and kept playing.
MMO's should never allow mods. Ever. People that use them should be permabanned. It gives those that use it an unfair advantage over those that don't - and most MMO's come with the agreement that you won't use mods anyway.

Not a WoW player, so maybe WoW encourages this behaviour?
The reason I fundamentally support addons is simply that I have never met a mystical MMO that didn't allow addons and didn't need them. At best you had didn't allow and only had minimal constant grumbling from everyone about how painful the UI is.

Blizzard's amazing UI C/O their addons is without a doubt one of the huge keys to their longevity. No matter how many games come out, wow often feels the most free, the most homely, because you can do so much to make it your own.
"MMO's should never allow mods. Ever. People that use them should be permabanned. It gives those that use it an unfair advantage over those that don't - and most MMO's come with the agreement that you won't use mods anyway."

I'm not sure if you understand the meaning of addons.
They give users the ability to perform better. Why would anyone choose to stay crippled instead?
An addon isn't an "I win" button and every timer can be replaced by a real life stopwatch.
I think one point left out of the loop here is that addon support is not free. I don't know how well addons were supported at WoW's launch, but I do know that they've been a thorn in Blizzard's side to support. It costs development time all around, from the initial time investment to add it in, to dealing with addons practically breaking the game.

While addons are pretty much always a "nice to have" and never a "never have", "nice to haves" are always at the bottom of any developer's to-do list. I'd rather have a nice base game than a good game with addon support. GW2 came out very nicely and did not need any extra UI customization on top.
I actually think guildwars is a prime example of how not having a customizable UI works well, however in games that are more button intensive i expect to be able to customize my UI how i want, wow does that the best of any game out there, let alone just MMO's, thats not to say its the best MMO, its definitely the most established for reasons such as this though.
UI mods are one component of WoW's success. It's a complete mystery why nobody else copied them; certainly competitors haven't been bashful about copying everything else about WoW.

And no, adding mods post-release ala Rift and WAR obviously doesn't work. Too late. You need them during beta and at initial release to capture that surge.
I believe the main argument against addons is not a "nothing's optional in MMOs" (even though it can be considered important) but the price tag addon support comes attached with. The users pay the price because they have to keep their addons up-to-date with newest game updates or spend time redesigning their UI in case it's not possible (e. g. author decides to stop updating an addon they use). The game maker needs to provide an AI and keep it secure - and based on my experience with games I've played, that's quite a huge problem.

I commented on cons of addons a bit more on Siha's blog ( who posted a couple of arguments in favor of them in case anyone's interested.

I'd like to reiterate that I think it is possible to create a good, customizable UI without addons. Just because a game doesn't support them, it doesn't mean it has to go all the way to the other side as GW2 seems to do.

@Joseph Skyrim - maybe you already found the information but what you're referring to is modification of game binary executables and/or data files. It's not what addons are; WoW client has a LUA interpreter (not sure about the programming language but I think it was LUA) and API which can be use to create and run programs that extend the client but only to the extent the API allows.

@Camo, bots provide advantage to players who use them too and can be replaced by real person performing the activity. Yet most games do not support them because the designer decide on an arbitrary border between what should be allowed and what not. The border can be permissive or restrictive, both have their pros and cons but neither is wrong per se.
depends. personally I find current incarnation of SWTOR UI near perfect. the only thing its missing is better indicators for the raid frames (I want to be able to specify buffs, debuffs, and see incoming heals). other then that, I was able to make it look identical to my former WoW UI - something that required several addons in WoW and greatly reduced my graphic options in order to allow for extra memory UI uses.

even altoholic (my absolute favorite addon from WoW) is something I've learned to live without. it would be lovely, but unnecessary. WoW is not a better game for allowing addons. WoW is a worse game for requiring addons in order to give people good playing experience.
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