Friday 20 August 2010

All that we should see in the world is You and I.

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.

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