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Kylotan

Interface Considerations

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Ok, this follows on slightly from my Final Fantasy 6- Why? thread. You don''t have to read it to understand, though. Summary: in RPGs and similar games (exact definition deliberately left vague), the interface can be important. Do you have to rummage through 17 bags within bags to find the green-and-red speckled key? Can you assign shortcut keys to commonly used items in your inventory? How easily can you transfer an item from one member of your party to another. How about comparing the armour they''re wearing? In shops, does the game allow you to see what items you already have, so you don''t have to try and remember which items are not worth buying? Are there too many options on one big menu? Or maybe too many little sub-menus to keep track of? What about simple things like moving around: does the user have to use the keys for moving and the mouse for the rest of the interface? Is it possible to play optimally using either only the keyboard or only the mouse? Do you have to remember various hot keys to bring up certain menus? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, is all you could ever need just one click away, because 90% of your screen is covered in toolbars, character portraits and menus? Hopefully some of those ideas have got you thinking. What are some examples from games you''ve played of either very good or very bad design in these (or related) areas?

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Ok, here''s some of my ''answers'' to the question posed above. I''ll pick out a few games and a few choice points about their interfaces.

Diablo (II). In many ways, this had a very good system. Shopping was effective in that you can see what you are wearing and carrying when choosing what to buy, enabling comparisons. Potions were available for quick access at the press of a key, and these were configurable to the player''s choosing. The inventory system was quite versatile, forcing the player to take capacity and shape into account through one simple abstract system. Inventory, character statistics, and the overhead map could be viewed without interruption to gameplay, and some could be viewed at the same time.

However, most of Diablo''s system only works well because it only deals with 1 player in any great depth. It wouldn''t scale well to a party-based game. The inventory system might work if the window was draggable (it would look somewhat like a stripped-down Ultima in that regard). But the shopping and statistics windows would be less well suited.

Ultima VII - this features a pretty unintuitive movement system. To go places, you had to hold the right mouse button down and move the mouse to the corner of the screen the represented the direction of travel. The distance of the mouse cursor from the player represented the walking speed. The disadvantage here was that a lot of mouse movement was necessary to avoid some obstacles, and that you spent much of the game with one mouse button depressed. One benefit of it was that you could move at differing speeds without resorting to a simultaneous keypress (compare with Diablo or Thief). You couldn''t easily move to a Diablo-style system (which I prefer) without sacrificing the ease at which you can travel at 3 different speed levels.

Ultima VIII - this game benefits from you being able to use almost the whole screen as the play area. This means you can see further and obviously this adds to the playability without requiring tiny sprites. It provided a small meter for your health level so that was easy to keep track of. (Ultima VII lacked this, so it was common to have to bring up the stats screen during combat to check.) By contrast, some games such as Diablo, and Baldur''s Gate, have so much in the way of peripheral tools and borders and pictures, that you end up playing in a relatively small window. This, to me, detracts from the immersion quality somewhat. The difference between 1 click and 2 clicks is minimal, yet a ''2-click'' interface can hide a lot more from the player behind that first click, exposing a wider game area. (Admittedly, the Diablo play area could have been made bigger just by reducing the size of the pretty graphics at the bottom.)

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Kylotan, this is kind of a moot point. What works flawlessly in one game could completely destroy another. Using a Diablo-style inventory in a game like Lightbringer would be just plain stupid. (If you don''t know what I''m talking about, Lightbringer is a 1994 isometric action game, called Dungeon Magic in the US.)

Diablo walked the fine line between ridiculously-complex and embarrassingly-simple inventories. For a game based more on action than anything, the simplicity of its one-screen inventory was very welcome. Given the inordinate number and variety of items you could find, its complexity was also very welcome. I consider organizing my inventory to be part of the game''s strategy. Other people hate it, but I rather enjoy it.

My two biggest qualms with every single game I''ve ever played in my entire life are: control and presentation. Control refers to the input devices you need to play the game (mouse, keyboard, gamepad). Presentation refers to the style in which the game is presented to the player (side-scrolling, first-person, third-person with rotating camera, etc.). More often than not, it''s one or both of these factors that makes or breaks a game for me.

My favorite game is Unreal Tournament. It has virtually infinite replay value to me. The control is refined and fluid, the presentation is flawless, the game is just plain fun. It''s all about action (and occasionally teamplay), so there''s nothing like an inventory to get in the way of my fun.

Another of my favorite games is Diablo II. While it is also action-oriented, the presentation and control are far different from that of UT. Rather than throwing you directly into the game world, Diablo II emphasizes control over a third person. Supposedly you are this character, but that''s not how the game really works. It''s more like you''re managing this character, telling him what to do and where to go. Inventory management is part of the gameplay, and therefore it works extremely well.

Then you''ve got hybrid games like D&D: Shadow Over Mystara. DDSOM does have a generic inventory system. You have a half-dozen slots, each of which holds a different type of item. Picking up two of the same type of item will drop the old one on the ground, after which you can change your mind and pick it up again, or someone else can pick it up. Each character also has an inventory "wheel" that holds all different kinds of weapons. For a side-scrolling action/adventure, this system works very well.

The first two games (UT and Diablo2) use a mix of keyboard/mouse. The third uses a joystick. All three games are outstanding in my book, for several different reasons. I can only imagine how horrid UT would be if I tried to play it with a gamepad; it''d be like trying to play DDSOM with a mouse. Diablo II, on the other hand, would probably work equally well with a gamepad as it does with a mouse, especially if the gamepad has lots of buttons.

Running in DDSOM is achieved by double-tapping left or right. In Diablo II, it is achieved by either holding down a button or (in my case) toggling run-mode on. What if we mixed them and required that a button be held down in DDSOM to run? Or that you had to double-click on a location to run there in Diablo II? Either way, I think both games would suffer from unnecessary complexity.

Style determines interface. I don''t care if you''re the baddest game designer ever to walk the planet, you will never find a single interface that works for every game in existence. I only hope that''s not what you''re trying to achieve.

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I''ll bring up some interface issues with the game I''ve played way too much over the last two years. Everquest. Consider this a list of basic interface mistakes.

1) To view an items stats and properties you had to hold down the right mouse button. This was a huge pain when you wanted to discuss those stats to another person. You had to right-click, try to remember as much as possible, and type out as much as possible before you were unsure or simply forgot. And of course, right clicking on the item cleared out everything you had already typed... making it twice as bad. What would have been nice would have a double right click paste all the item properties into the text window.

2) Inside a bank, to retrieve X amount of coins you have to scroll a tiny scroll bar util it hit the number you wanted. Instead, you should obviously be able to just type in a number. How they left this out is beyond me.

3) Until a recent patch, you couldnt purchase multiple items at once. This got to be a major pain when you wanted to buy 100+ of an item. Clicking the same button 100 times is painful.

4) The mouse input wasn''t done on a separate thread as the main game loop. So when the framerate dipped below 30 (very common) your mouse would lag horribly. Nothing more annoying than moving your mouse and having to wait to see where it lands.

On the other hand, I really do like EQs ability to create and customize banks of hotkeys to do just about any action you could want. You could shift between banks with Shift-# and execute the hotkey with just the number alone. Now if only they stored a players hotkey configuration on the server rather than the client. Every time you wanted to play on another machine you had to copy your file around.

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quote:
Original post by Tom
Kylotan, this is kind of a moot point. What works flawlessly in one game could completely destroy another.
...
Style determines interface. I don't care if you're the baddest game designer ever to walk the planet, you will never find a single interface that works for every game in existence. I only hope that's not what you're trying to achieve.

No, no, no. Don't worry I know you can't just take "the k3wlest inventory", "the baddest menu system", "the most intuitive point-and-click movement options" and throw them all in together to get A Great Game. The overall interface is greater than the sum of its parts. I was asking about specific individual issues in isolation, but was also asking for examples where different parts work together and support each other for 'the greater good', and perhaps where such individual elements would not work alone.

quote:
I consider organizing my inventory to be part of the game's strategy. Other people hate it, but I rather enjoy it.

Me too, because it offers "A Dilemma" which is what gameplay is about. You sometimes have to make the decision of "More potions" vs "More space for loot". This is a simple but valid gameplay mechanic. Similar are the issues with deciding what is worth carrying back to town when you can only carry 2 out of 3 items. And so on.

quote:
My two biggest qualms with every single game I've ever played in my entire life are: control and presentation . Control refers to the input devices you need to play the game (mouse, keyboard, gamepad). Presentation refers to the style in which the game is presented to the player (side-scrolling, first-person, third-person with rotating camera, etc.). More often than not, it's one or both of these factors that makes or breaks a game for me.

Sure. These are the input and output layers respectively between you and the game. Everything filters through them, so your enjoyment is limited by their expressiveness.

quote:
My favorite game is Unreal Tournament. It has virtually infinite replay value to me. The control is refined and fluid, the presentation is flawless, the game is just plain fun.

Since I came from the world of Doom, I moved onto more recent FPS games by keeping my vision locked straight ahead and pressing a key to be able to 'mouse-look'. Then, for some stupid reason such as a key being broken on my keyboard, I once chose to play with 'always mouse-look' on. I could never go back to the fixed view again. This to me is an example of where, for a given type of game, a given interface development is almost undisputably an improvement, since the only downside is the time taken to acclimatise. Although the previous method was satisfactory, the new method was almost undeniably better.

quote:
Running in DDSOM is achieved by double-tapping left or right. In Diablo II, it is achieved by either holding down a button or (in my case) toggling run-mode on. What if we mixed them and required that a button be held down in DDSOM to run? Or that you had to double-click on a location to run there in Diablo II? Either way, I think both games would suffer from unnecessary complexity.

I think that, as you more stringently define a subset of games, the 'perfect control system' becomes less subjective and more objective. Double-clicking or even single-clicking where you want to go just wouldn't work in a 1st person game, therefore you need some sort of steering system. Early FPS games only worked in 2.5 directions, so the mouse just controlled rotating in 2D. Then, when they added a full 3rd dimension, it was obvious that it was 'half a dimension tacked on top', as the game still assumed you were facing straight ahead, and assumed you'd press a separate button to look up or down. It was only later that the controls caught up with the presentation and expected you to move and look around in full 3D using 1 control method. Similarly, there are some methods in isometric games that seem to work well, and some that do not. I am not looking for 'the' right answer, but I am looking for examples of where a given system is very good in a given context, and possibly even approaching perfect.



Edited by - Kylotan on August 14, 2001 5:11:41 PM

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Guest Anonymous Poster
I think using transparency is a good compromise for displaying a lot of diffrernt kinds of information against cluttering the screen.

If you have some info that can be presented all the time, but isn''t an intrinsic part of gameplay then it allows the player to focus either on the info or the screen behind it as required.

Outcast did a pretty good version of this, IMO.

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quote:
Original post by Kylotan
I am not looking for ''the'' right answer, but I am looking for examples of where a given system is very good in a given context, and possibly even approaching perfect.


Well, I think allowing user-defined controls is a great start. Even most console games allowed this when gamepads started having six or more buttons. If you want an example of horrible interface, don''t play Oni. (I say don''t because you would regret it.) The game had the most wretched control interface I''ve ever seen, and what made it worse is you could not configure your controls within the game, and you could not use a gamepad! The game was action through and through; it literally screamed for gamepad support, and Bungie conveniently overlooked that. And they made a huge mistake, because it completely destroyed the game.

I''ve got more problems with Oni than that, but they don''t deal with interface. I think most action games have achieved the perfect interface status. The information you need to play an action game is limited and therefore very easy to fit onto the screen in a way that won''t interfere with gameplay. In addition, action games have very pure controls that rely on reflexes rather than complex movements, and nearly all action games have a robust configuration panel that lets you change the control setup and make playing the game even more fun (Bungie decided Oni would be the exception).

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quote:
Original post by Anonymous Poster
I think using transparency is a good compromise for displaying a lot of diffrernt kinds of information against cluttering the screen.

Interesting point, and a good one. If you have a transparent dialog box, you can see what is going on behind it, effectively increasing the amount of screen space since some of it is ''used twice''. It also reduces the need for the game to pause while you are doing something else.

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More thoughts, mainly for RPGs, adventures, or other in-depth games:

If you have a map of some sort: it''s great if you can annotate it. The player should be able to click on it and stick a label on it to help their memory.

On a similar note, players should be able to take notes in-game. All this requires is a very basic notepad-type screen, saving to a standard text file. It means the player doesn''t have to scurry for pen and paper if your game is detailed.

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Baldur''s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn has bot functions you describe

Maps contain their own notes, so it is easier to find houses. But you can change these notes, or even add new ones.

Also, there is a special section in the ''Journal'' screen, allowing the player to make their own notes about the game. Or you can add more text to the ''Quests'': when you are leaving one to enter another, you can note where you left the quest, so you can pick it up later

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quote:
Original post by Tom
Well, I think allowing user-defined controls is a great start. Even most console games allowed this when gamepads started having six or more buttons.


While this is an excellent (and obvious) suggestion, it''s never been taken to the extreme of modifying all controls - mouse movement, single-/doubleclicks, joystick/gamepad directions - allowing the user to create a totally custom configuration.

Which has just turned on a light in my brain.

/me scuttles off to see how I''d design such a system. Probably using function pointers...



People who can''t do shit, talk.
-Dwight Yorke, Manchester United

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quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
While this is an excellent (and obvious) suggestion, it''s never been taken to the extreme of modifying all controls - mouse movement, single-/doubleclicks, joystick/gamepad directions - allowing the user to create a totally custom configuration.

Well, you don''t need anything so low-level as function pointers. Just a simple array mapping input values to input types: which is a good design cos physical input considerations should be abstracted away from logical input events anyway. But that''s more for another forum, I think.

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quote:
Original post by Ronin_54
Baldur''s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn has bot functions you describe

So does Lands of Lore 3, I think: shame about the rest of the game

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Guest Anonymous Poster
With today''s entertainment-heavy games, there should be some ratio for the time and/or difficutly of perfroming a task and the visual (not just gameplay) rewards of the task.

Which is a fancy way of saying that actions that are supposed to be quick or simple should take a minimum number of control presses (mouse clicks, whatever) to accomplish. Firing a weapon, for example, should be 1 mouse click, two at most. But you can get away with a shorter, less varied animation.

Actions that are longer for the player to use should have a richer or longer set of feedback. Building a structure in an strat, or conducting a magic ritual in an rpg generally represetn tasks which take longer. It''s ok, or even desired for these to require more keystrokes. But you also should include a longer set of animations/sounds.

Both the feedback and the game impact should always be longer than the user required action. If it took 3 seconds and a selection of 5 separate keys in order to watch a half second pic of a sword swing, the average person would get bored or frustrated. Likewise, if you were playing a real time game and spent 5 full seconds on making a decision, you''d expect this to have greater value in the game mechanics than a half second twitch-click.


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