Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 16, 2014
The invisibility of fake reality

The Wildstar open beta is currently making a bad impression on players due to a bug with the nameplates. Sometimes you simply lose them, and it turns out that it is surprisingly difficult to play when the monsters you are looking for aren't having nameplates floating over their heads. Why is that so? I think it is a matter of how we trained our brains to look at these virtual worlds.

If I go in my garden and see a stone, I can interact with that stone. I can lift it up and check whether there is a bug under it, I can throw it, I can kick it. If I see a stone in the virtual landscape of a MMORPG, chances are that there is absolutely no interaction possible with it. It is basically just painted on the 3-dimensional texture surface of the virtual world. In fact, most of the things I see in a virtual world can't be interacted with. The few things I *CAN* interact with are helpfully marked with nameplates, sparkles, or other strong visual clues. In the real world a task like "go out into the woods and find me ten small lost objects" would be extremely difficult. In the virtual world that is a standard quest, and the sparkles and visual clues make it easy enough.

Play these games for a while, and your brain begins to automatically ignore everything which isn't marked at being interactive. An object without sparkles or a nameplate can't be interacted with, so it is not important in the context of the game. So it becomes invisible, you don't notice it at all any more. So if now you have a bug that removes this visual hint that something can be interacted with, everything becomes invisible. When the quest asked you to kill 10 rats, you never looked for rodent-shaped creatures. You looked for creatures with a floating sign "Rat" on top of them. Remove the floating sign, and you aren't trained to look for them in the other way, by shape identification. Especially not in visually overloaded landscapes.

On the one side I find the idea interesting that you could have a game with no nameplates or other visual clues. What if we could interact with every tree and stone and every object in every house? But as I have played games like Skyrim in which more of the objects in the world can be interacted with, I know that this can get annoying pretty quickly. Who wants to click through lots of vases, barrels, and boxes to find some herbs and vegetables? Having a non-interactive fake reality in the background is probably necessary for good gameplay. Too bad that fake reality has become invisible to us.

I'm surprised to hear that this is such an issue, considering I always play MMOs with NPC nameplates turned off myself. You'd think that the fact that they move (when most of the environment around them generally doesn't) would be enough to make them stand out.
There are other funny bugs. Try to open the Reputation tab on your character screen and see what happens. One of the questgivers was submerged underground yesterday, with only top ends of her Aurian ears and the exclamation mark visible.
Well, I'm trying Wildstar and I would not consider the appear/disappear of nameplates to be the major problem, but this is a subject for another post :)

Personally, the lack of nameplates is not a problem at all, it could be from my trekking days in Ryzom: down there anything with a nameplate is close enough that if it's dangerous you're already dead, so I learned fast to recognize mobs from a distance just from the shape or how they move.
The problem in Wildstar is that it's inconsistent: at times you get nameplates/markers on anything, at times there are none....

In the real world a task like "go out into the woods and find me ten small lost objects" would be extremely difficult.

Not really, the "virtual" woods of MMOs are absolutely tiny compared to the real-world ones. You can cross them by running 30 seconds, 1 minute max. In RL such a place is not even named a wood, it's probably 3 trees in someone's garden.... I could probably find the 10 cannonballs my task requires without any trouble.
The "requirement" of visual indicators stems from the point that you state clearly: in virtual worlds there's a ton of clutter which is there just to make the world look pretty, but the interactive part is limited to very few objects. Unless the one you can interact with are clearly marked, the entire thing would be an exercise in frustration as you have to click on one million items (resulting in no effect) only to find the one which actually does something.

When the quest asked you to kill 10 rats, you never looked for rodent-shaped creatures.

Yeah, except that often quests ask you to kill 10 squelchs, and I honestly have no idea what a squelch is unless a nameplate with "Squelch" is on top of it.....
The nameplate bug is annoying. But all that does is slow me down a little. It makes challenges where you kill something harder. But so does 2 other players.

But it doesn't stop me from enjoying the beta. I can still follow the story of most questlines (although at 11 most aren't that memorable, hopefully that will change). I'm still exploring the reaches of the zone I'm in. I'm still mining and making a few pieces of decent heavy armor.

Nameplates or no, its a fun game.
"The few things I *CAN* interact with are helpfully marked with nameplates, sparkles, or other strong visual clues." There weren't always sparkles. they were added to WoW some time during Burning Crusade.

In some ways, it seemed to trivialise play. There was a quest in Dustwallow Marsh in which you looked for clues such as fottprints after sn inn was burned down. Without sparkles, this was pretty hard. With sparkles, it was a bit silly.

Of course one got used to them. But it's another example of creeping 'user-friendliness' that can eventually suck the soul from a game IMO.
I think the issue is more that the world in wildstar tends to be so garish that even with the text indicators it can be difficult to see objectives. Something can be pulsing bright gold and still not stand out.

It's not so bad. I don't care for games where everything in an area is just shades of like 2-3 colors (SWTOR, I'm looking at you). But areas in Wildstar like the Dominion starting zone just make my eyes want to bleed. I still think GW2 is the prettiest mmo I've played. But that's just my taste.
I haven't played since the last beta weekend, but doesn't this nameplate bug go away with a simple /reloadui ?
doesn't this nameplate bug go away with a simple /reloadui ?

I think there is currently a problem with nameplate occlusion. So /reloadui fixes it only until you move. Anybody know how to put macro commands on a hotkey? I sure could use a /reloadui button. :)
Almost all MMOs I've played allow you to make up your own mind whether you see nameplates or not. I almost always choose "mouseover only" or "targeted only". That way, if I need to find a rat I just look for a rat and when I target it a name pops up and I know for sure whether I really found a rat or just a ratalike. Similarly if I need to find a "squelch" I can just target any weird-looking suspects for confirmation.

The rest of the time I have a nice, uncluttered field of view.
It looks like nameplates had been patched, but this patch makes the game crash with memory access error...
I'm one of those people over-reliant on nameplates, for the following reasons:

(bare in mind that is from my experience in WoW, not Wildstar)

a) It's easier to monitor your target's health without having to focus on the target frame. This way your eyes never leave the center of the screen.

b) Makes target switching easier.

c) If you have an execute ability, usually the nameplates change color beneath a certain threshold alerting you that you're set for 'mad deeps'

d) When there is a clutter of mobs on the tank, it makes picking out priority targets much easier (i.e. a healer)

e) Depending on your UI, you can sometimes see interruptible abilities on the nameplate itself, which is a godsent.

I'm certain that duting levelling having nameplates isn't all that important, but they make your life so much easier that when you lose them you get a huge QoL drop.
In real life the brain filters out non-relevant clutter. Wwe effectively add our own non-visual form of sparkle.

A game world viewed through a moniter doesn't get that same effect. The field of vision is smaller, there are no visual clues or actual depth perception. As a result, finding things in a screen or picture is much harder than spotting them in the real world. Increasing the number of objects to a virtual world increases the chance that clutter will obscure what is important.

If you want objects that are easy to find, the world needs to be either:
a) Sparcly populated with objects (Considered to be a boring world).
b) Designed to draw the eye to the objects of the hunt. (Frequently used to overcompensate and make things a lot easier to find than in real life).
or c) Defined in high definition binocular 3D such that the brain-filtering applies.
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