Monday 15 March 2010

An interface is worth a thousand pictures.

The major observable difference between Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online is with the pace and flow of combat. That and the largely instanced world of Eberron versus the more traditional open world of Middle Earth. And, of course, one is free to play with a Store of Pixelated Delights (Will save DC 30 to resist), where the other is subscription based.

I’ll start again.

The major observable similarity between Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online is that they both have dwarves. And rubbish beard options.

I play a Monk in DDO, and the primary mechanic of the class is a combo system that is very similar to that of the Warden in LotRO, where the player has a number of abilities to choose from that will perform combat manoeuvres, and at the same time the order in which these abilities are performed will also activate a more powerful ‘finishing’ manoeuvre. The Monk has a limited set of finishing manoeuvres compared to the Warden, and where the Warden has numerous effects both personal and group wide, the majority of the Monk’s finishers consist of one minute duration group buffs or targeted debuffs. The interesting difference, however, is the pace at which combat takes place in each game, and I think that it’s because of this that the Warden works as a class where the Monk feels a lot more awkward and, to some extent, frustrating to play.

I use pace to describe the difference in the combat between the two games, but it’s not really the whole story, although DDO definitely feels faster, with mobs dropping quickly – sometimes going down in one almighty burst of a critical attack roll – the flow of the game is also more dynamic, with caster mobs dropping back out of melee range to cast, melee mobs running past the melee front line to get to the PC casters, the combat feels more… fluid.

I was stunned and somewhat frustrated in LotRO the first time I entered the Barrow Downs in a group, coming fresh faced and level capped from World of Warcraft I was used to the power of predictable and consistent aggro generation that the tanks in that MMO provided; compared to WoW, LotRO at that time was a different world entirely. WoW’s tanks were giant electromagnets, so powerful that they could draw mobs to them from half way across the dungeon and hold them there indefinitely, and as long as an enemy caster had a few buttons on their robe that were made out of metal, they too would be drawn inexorably in. So a WoW instance run generally consisted of a giant ball bristling with angry and somewhat compacted mobs, around which several melee PCs would stab periodically while the ranged types stood back and lobbed spells at it. After a minute or so of this regimented attack formation a tank would appear from out of the resultant debris, brush off a few extraneous bits of metal that were still stuck to their armour, then trundle their way into the next pack of mobs until they looked like a hamster in a rollerball made from orcs, before rolling back and bumping to a halt on the skirting board of melee DPS. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that tanking was easy in WoW but, given an accomplished player, the level of control afforded tanks in WoW was an order of magnitude greater than that of LotRO, where every care had to be taken by the DPS not to over-nuke and for the healer to carefully balance their healing output in order not to draw aggro. Even so, mobs in LotRO would run around a fair bit compared to WoW, and most fights were hectic; picture the resultant chaos from releasing a couple of agitated bats into your average teenage girls’ midnight slumber party and sealing the doors, and you have an idea of the high-pitched screaming flailing combat that occurred.

Now take that same scenario and replace the bats with a pack of terminally-rabid Fox Terriers, and you have combat in DDO.

As such you can’t rely on standing still for a moment in DDO and just punching the abilities on your hotbar, you need to be on the go all the time. There is also no auto-attack, you either have to constantly mash, or simply hold down, the left mouse button to attack, and this ‘basic’ attack in DDO constitutes the majority of damage for most classes. For those of us with only two hands, this makes hotbar activation a little trickier. Even with my key-binds set up to place the abilities I need within easy reach of my ESDF-movement hand, it’s somewhat tricky to be on the move almost non-stop and at the same time activate other abilities. I may have to look into making more use of my extra mouse buttons perhaps, but even so there’s also another limiting factor which causes a clash in combat, an area where I feel a lot of MMO developers fail to innovate when they have evolved some core part of the MMO design – the UI.

DDO sticks to the traditional ‘hotbars with cool downs’ UI design, where ability icons are greyed-out if they can’t be used, be it because they are on cool-down, the target is out of range for the ability, the PC doesn’t have enough spellpower/endurance/ki to activate the ability, or any number of other reasons. The problem I find is that, given that the combat in DDO has been changed from the traditional electromagnetic-hamster-rollerball of WoW to a more rabid-Fox-Terrier-in-a-room-full-of-hysterical-teenagers design, it seems that the traditional UI design of WoW, with its hotbars and party frames and various elements that require your concentration to be away from your character for split seconds at a time, should have been eschewed for a more Head-Up Display sort of design.

Being that my primary area of work is the software for Head-Up Displays of various types, I can quite happily relate to the need for information to be available at all times in an unobtrusive manner, so that split-second decisions can be made without having to rely on the human body’s ponderously slow response to changing focus between various display items. I’m not saying the timing requirements in DDO are nearly so stringent or critical as those we have to deal with in aviation, but at the same time it seems obvious that in a game where a mob can have moved out of attack range in the time it takes you to check to see if an ability is off of cool-down, the need for a change in the fundamental philosophy behind the UI and why it exists is evident. This problem is exacerbated when playing the Monk because they have numerous moves, all with independent cool-downs, the order of activation for which is important to get a valid combination to trigger a finishing move, and on top of which they have to have generated enough Ki to power each of these moves. That’s a lot of looking at hotbars and not looking at your character.

An instant solution to the problem would be to drag the hotbars up towards my character on the screen so that they are always within my field of view, but who wants to play a game through a viewport of hotbars and party frames? Well, some people it seems: just look at the many raid UIs in evidence on various WoW AddOn websites, where the actual game world is hidden beneath what essentially amounts to a dynamically updating Excel spreadsheet with heavy Visual Basic graph scripting. Yet on the same sites we can also find some of the neatest innovations in MMO UI design; indeed, there are even popular Head-Up Display-a-likes, with health bars, mana bars and other information presented around the character in a way that is designed to interfere as little as possible with the player’s view of the game world, after all, what’s the point in having these three dimensional DirectX 11 marvels of graphical splendour if all we’re going to do is cover them up with bar graphs and slide rules?

I think Heavy Rain has recently shown the way that UI design can be taken. It’s a splendid example of thought and attention to the user interface experience because it does the basic thing right and doesn’t get in the way, and it may be that many players will hardly even notice the clever nuanced feedback that it provides to them as they play, which is as it should be. The very best user interfaces are like the steady and dependable butler from Jeeves and Wooster: never fully appreciated by the user, they’re the ones that don’t frustrate or confuse or obstruct, while at the same time providing more information than the user might have otherwise expected to receive. They’re also the ones most likely to slip under the radar of others, because nobody notices the silent stalwart butler subtly guiding his master to victory from out of the shadows of servitude.

Despite the frustration, however, I’m not going to stop playing DDO any time soon, there’s something compelling about running around a room, leaping on to furniture and heaving ineffectually at locked windows along with a bunch of other screaming teenagers in their pyjamas, while small frothing yappy-type dogs with blood-shot eyes try to bite your ankles off.

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