Whelp, BlizzCon 08 is slowly fading to memory, but before it's completely out of our mind I wanted to take one last look and comment on some of the insight we got on how Blizzard design's their interfaces. Also the big 3.0 patch hit and I hope you're enjoying it. If you're anything like me it's been a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows as I discover all the new features. For today, we'll take a look at the state of the interface and addon world with an analysis and commentary recap on the UI news that came out of BlizzCon. I wanted to look at that earlier, but the new patch took us by storm and made me rethink some issues. So kick back, relax, and get comfy as we examine where we're at and where we're going in the world of addons.
This being my first BlizzCon I didn't really know what to expect. Will there be a jaw dropping surprise announcement? Will Jeff Kaplan (Tigole) be there to ask questions to? Will that cute girl dressed as Whitemane like to join me for some "hot coffee"? Unfortunately the answer to most of these questions was a no, and initially I was a little let down. After thinking about it though, because our attention wasn't diverted to "the next big thing", we instead got a good look at what it takes to make our favorite game. I personally felt the panels were a great insight into some of the design decisions made. I great example of this was at the (gasp) UI and addon panel.
Like the rest of the con, there were no big bombshells in the UI panel, but we did get some good insight into Blizzard's design mantra. We've all heard the Blizzard motto "minutes to learn, a lifetime to master" but it's interesting to hear that this also applies to their interface development. It's yet another layer to the product that needs that special Blizzard polish. The goal is to have an UI that melds in when not needed and look seamless, yet is eye catching when an event happens that needs your attention. "A good HUD has to not be flashy." I assume this is why we don't have "flavor" UI's for different class/race combinations ala StarCraft. They want the interface to be familiar no matter the class you play, leaving graphical flare to the mod community. "If we have the option of making one button look three different ways or letting you guys make them however you want to look, we'll do the last one." Having a unified interface is also why Blizzard doesn't intend to add class specific UI enhancements. This doesn't mean we won't see some class specific additions, such as the totem timers for Shaman. If a core mechanic for a class can be benefitted by an interface addition, it's up to the UI dev team to find a solution that fits well within the existing interface. This kind of consistency was emphasized in all aspect of game design, especially interface development.
Once a new feature is added to the game, the UI developers get to work finding ways to incorporate it into the interface using these design philosophies. For the Death Knight unit frame, they began creating the layout using paper cutouts and from there photoshop mock ups. They originally wanted it to be unique, something that set it apart as the game's first hero class. After many renditions though they realized the more basic the UI, the better it worked. The trick was that the information needed to be clear, such as with the rune bar. They needed to alert the player when they're off their cool down and ready to be used. Several iterations were flashy, but when it came down to it, the best UI is one you don't notice until you need to. Same deal with the removal of the sword background, cool in theory, but in practice it was potentially confusing and not needed. The same design process was applied to the new achievement window and menu buttons.
An example of a challenge the devs needed to figure out was how to incorporate the new achievement, currency, and mount/pet windows in without major redesigns to the existing UI. Remarking on how to keep everything in perspective, the devs noted, "You need to keep your focus, don't get rid of your goals, even if the process is exploding around you." Trying to force a feature in haphazardly feels unnatural and the players are attuned to that. Just plopping down another button on the menu made it way too big, so they consolidated a few by adding the lag meter on to the monitor in the computer icon. This combined with shrinking the bag icons slightly yielded enough space for the achievement button. They contemplated using a fly out menu, but felt it didn't fit in with the current interface since such menus weren't used before in the default UI. Having buttons visible rather than hidden also facilitates the use of "breadcrumbs." Little nudges to tip the player off that they should take a look at something, like when the tabs of your spell book pulse alerting you of new abilities.
Finally, the last design philosophy discussed is, to me, the most important one. The devs "want us playing the game, not the interface". This mantra explains a lot of decisions that have been made, and even sheds light on how new features will be implemented down the road. They don't want us just staring at a bunch of bars and graphs waiting for an icon to pop up (hello decursive). The devs are afraid of addons and macros over simplifying the game. This can be scene when they revamped the macro system and allowed sequence macros. It was a great addition to the interface, but they purposely kept the macros "dumb". not being aware of cool downs and rather or not the spells it cast were successful. It's important to note that they definitely want an extremely editable interface (hence the whole addon architecture) but within limits. When we look at new features yet to be implemented and ones just recently added, we can see this mantra at work. Take for example the new threat meters, it's subtle and gives just enough information to be informative, without reducing the game play to a spreadsheet. Its implementation is very organic, and blends in well with the rest of the default interface. For those who want exact numbers, bars and graphs, the option is always there via addons. And with the new threat tools made available by Blizzard, these addons are more precise and better than ever. (Particularly once the authors learn how to take advantage of these new tools.)
I believe in knowing Blizzard's design philosophy brings a greater understanding as to what motivates them when adding new features to the game. Thank you for letting me editorialize a little with this post, I know it's not what you usually expect from this feature. But I find it (and hope you do too) fun and interesting to thinking about what it takes to develop such a detailed game as WoW. Tune in next time as we take a good look at patch 3.0 as we try to apply some of the ideas discussed today to the patch. Until then, happy modding!