I thought I’d expound a little on the thought experiment of moving UI elements into the game world, which as we know is not a new idea in gaming as Hirvox rightly points out in a comment, but is perhaps less common in MMOs. Zubon has already taken the health bar idea a step further, with consideration given to colour blind players, a concern that Tesh highlights in a comment as well.
The next logical step was to move the yin to the health bar’s yang: the mana bar. A few obvious ideas sprang immediately to mind: the wizard’s staff, for example, is a prime candidate for being turned into a mana gauge; a Steampunk world could have staves as a metal rod with pipes and wires, and valves hissing open and shut, and running the length of the rod would be a thin window that shows the level of fuel left, a bubbling agitated blue liquid that slowly drains away as the Vapourmancer performs their half-scientific half-mystical art. Sticking with the Dead Space inspired influences, another option could be a belt of phials strapped around the back of the magic user’s waist which slowly drain as they cast spells. We can improve on this further perhaps by having the avatar grab a phial and drink it down prior to casting a spell, this gives us several benefits: firstly it draws the player’s attention in to their character and thus the game world because that’s where they can observe their mana levels, a Good Thing in my opinion – I’ve always wondered at the reason for having tremendously pretty 3D worlds and then making the players spend a vast amount of time staring at 2D two colour bar charts (health, mana, rage, experience, aggro, etc.) and pie charts (cool-downs). Secondly, we can use the animation to eliminate another of the 2D bar charts, the cast bar. The avatar draws out a phial from their belt and takes a swig and puts it back and then throws their spell, the cast bar is now a visual animation in the world (drawing the player’s focus into the game again) rather than a gauge on an interface to a game. Finally, it’s just much more immersive, rather than constantly breaking out of the game world to check gauges, the player’s character has a (comparatively) more realistic way to show the same information.
Games have developed in leaps and bounds in recent years, in graphics and audio quality, in scope, and in the maturity of the content presented therein. One of the major items that really lags behind, however, is the UI. There are efforts being made in certain areas to make a breakthrough, games such as the aforementioned Dead Space, and others such as Gears of War and Heavy Rain, with varying levels of success. It’s not an un-researched topic, but in the MMO space it seems to be regarded in terms of COTS technology, that is ‘Slap some bar charts on the screen (make it a big red circle if you’re feeling innovative), put some buttons at the bottom of the screen and fill them with ticking pie charts and numbers for cool-downs, a mini map and have a text box with quest objectives in it’. If you’re feeling particularly generous add-in LUA scripting so that players can create HUDs so complex they’d make an aircraft HUD developer have a seizure.
One of the things I liked in one of the Guild Wars 2 game-play demonstrations was the way the world map was brought into view, it sort of faded in as the camera zoomed out from the player’s avatar, giving the player the sense of their place in the world in a geographical sense. The curious thing to me is that, although that is a lovely and slightly less jarring way to introduce the world map, I wonder why they didn’t have the avatar pull out a map and then zoom down over their shoulder and into the map that way, which to me would give the impression of reading a map, rather than calling up a geosynchronous LEO satellite image, which the zooming out impression gives, and again it would draw the player down and in to the game, rather than pulling them up and out.
It’s one of those curious tropes in MMOs, for me, that these beautiful worlds are crafted by fantastic minds and amazing artists, are always the first thing to be shown-off in promotional videos with dramatic fly-bys of prominent landmarks, and then the game itself is layered on top of this world in such a way that you are constantly being pulled out of it, or at the very least viewing it all through an immersion breaking HUD of varying levels of complexity. The most important thing when engineering the software for aircraft HUDs, and even more importantly now with the development of real-time tracked helmet HUDs, is to make the HUD invisibly visible to the pilot, which sounds a bit like marketing speak, but is the easiest way I can describe it. The pilot is never conscious that they’re looking at a HUD, they’re looking at the real world, always, because in many situations they’re travelling too fast to not be looking where they’re going, they look at the world and they know information about what they’re looking at without having to draw themselves out of the world they’re looking at. Now admittedly other tricks are used too, such as focussing the display at infinity so that the pilot doesn’t need to change their focus to read the display, but as much as possible the aim is to minimise the effort required on the pilot’s part to have to absorb that information, it becomes more like a sixth sense than an information panel.
The reason I raise this issue is that I see MMO developers creating more extravagant worlds with every new release, and yet often we see the same old UI pasted on top of it, and as long as you do that, as long as you continue to draw the player out of the world to look at a spreadsheets worth of information every fight, it seems like such a waste. As a final disclaimer, this is all context dependant of course, a game such as EVE which is set in a futuristic society of space-faring combatants is obviously ripe for tactical overlays and systems monitors and the like, and although the game has undeniably beautiful vistas in the void, they are far less important in the context of that game than the raw data.
Now I’m off to buy my lunch, just as soon as I’ve checked my mini-map for where the shop is, examined my bag inventory for space, made sure my stamina bar is full enough to make the journey, and have set the lunch objectives in my quest tracker.
Quest: Arthas Hungers
0/3 Tundra Boar Sausages
0/5 Frost Lettuce
0/1 Northrend cheese
Find the ingredients scattered about the area, then use this [Sandwich Assembly Crystal Of the Icy Depths] to fuse them together. Deliver the sandwich to Arthas for his luncheon, you little errand boy. That’s right! NPCs are the real heroes here!
You may chose one of the following,
[Frozen Footlong] – consume to gain 92725948 health over 30 seconds.
[Icegrown Sub] – kills the consumer and turns him into an undead minion. Made fresh.
I actually was thinking the same thing yesterday. I haven’t played World of Warcraft in over 2 years, and just the other day I decided to go back and run a few quests and see what it was all about.
And the one thing that I noticed more than anything else, was just how much I was staring at my abilities bar. I wasn’t even watching the fights at all! and no matter how much I tried I couldn’t really pull myself away from that. I was staring at the casting bar, trying to maximize the efficiency, only occasionally breaking the gaze to take a peek at the health bar. I never looked at the enemies.
That coupled with a quest that told me to literally “Kill 100 of these”… I lost interest and quit. I was really disappointed, because I was wondering if anything fundamental had changed since I had last played. Nope.
With that said, let’s discuss some things we can do to bring the UI into the game world. How cool would it be to enter a game and have almost no icons or bars anywhere? It’s a steeper learning curve, that’s for sure, but just how much more immersive would that be? :) I want to see what I am doing, and enjoy it.
So in this MMO I am dreaming up, you can create a demon character that can actually be summoned by other players into the real world. (that’s a whole different discussion), but the interesting thing is that when the demons take damage, they do actually start to phase out of existence. As it runs low, they lose max health, get translucent and harder to hit (smaller), and do less damage. They gain boosts to evasive and transportation (blink) abilities. They lose some, and gain other new abilities. (Right before death, they can go out with a bang, causing the AoE effect of their choice).
Larger demons will actually lose limbs/parts as they take damage, and eventually all will be broken down into smoke. Just one thought for the application of Kill Ten Rats’ transparency thought.
Demons simply don’t have health bars, because just by looking at them it should be obvious what kind of condition they are in. (if limbs are missing, and there are translucent holes bored through the guy, emanating smoke from many places, chronic evaporation… etc) You have to LOOK at the enemy to see how much life they’ve got left.
The recent Ghostbusters game does something interesting for this, too. The majority of the game is third-person over-the-shoulder gaming, with important data on the proton pack (though again, which type of beam you’re using is pretty much just a color thing, unfortunately). At nearly any time, though, you can put on the Ghostbuster goggles and look around for sneaky, invisible stuff.
It strikes me that such an “active/passive” UI might be a good thing, to give players options for how they want to see things at any moment. (Which is also why I really like the default UI for Guild Wars; you can mold it to your tastes in a lot of ways.) Have a solid intuitive “in-world” UI, but allow overlays for those who want them. (It might also be worth noting that rendering smoking holes in a baddie can be taxing on the processors. Having a low fidelity option might just mean more HUD stuff.)
I bet I’d get really tired of that pull out a map animation after the hundredth time or so. Especially if I didn’t have a mini map always on screen, which would make me switch to the map screen more often.
On the flip side I’ve been playing Atlantica Online since WoW spat me out.
It’s 99% UI, 99% of the time. It’s a game and you always know it. The benefit being you are always doing at least 5 different things (while you auto-walk to where the next 20 boars are). So it can be a pretty intense chat/inventory Skinner Box if you want it to be (and I find I do).
Yup, you may walk everywhere on auto-pilot if you like through a fairly well rendered world constantly hidden behind 10 pop-up menus. I have no idea where to find any NPCs that I can’t auto-walk to; like a blindfolded spy being led through a Secret Evil Bunker.
If you happen to have no menus that need looking at then whether it’s crafting, fighting or travelling, you can do it almost entirely AFK. It’s Progress Quest with a cash-shop.
In it’s defense the fights are overhead-view turn-based so you can’t blame them for giving up on immersion from the get go. I really love it, I just can’t sell it.
I’m actually quite surprised that Guild Wars 2, for all it’s talk of revolutionising the genre, hasn’t done more to tackle this subject.
I think part of my alt-itis is to do with the fact new characters have so few skills that you don’t need to look at the skill bar. You’re probably going to steamroller over most enemies you come up against in the first 5 levels or so, so constantly monitoring health bars isn’t an issue either, and I find I can just immerse myself in the world. Take in all that glorious detail, marvel at the complex fight animations… Then, as soon as I get more skills than I can comfortably operate with one hand on the number keys, and death at the hands of my foes becomes an increasing possibility, I find my attention drawn out of the game world and onto the UI, never to return. I then start wondering what that other starter area looks like.