It's no secret that EVE Online has a poor user interface. With its drop-down menus for interacting with objects and text lists to show information like market orders and nearby objects in space, EVE has thoroughly earned the nickname "spreadsheets in space." The UI has changed drastically since I started playing in 2004, but in recent years, it's fallen behind the development curve. In a new devblog this week, CCP Snowlax suggested that the UI developers at CCP have lacked the framework necessary to do what they wanted with it. The existing framework had become bloated with eight years of development, and the underlying rendering engine wasn't even capable of using custom shaders.

With Incursion 1.6, CCP pushed live a completely new UI framework that makes cool features like holographic UI elements possible. With the new Carbon UI framework in place, developers are taking another look at redesigning the EVE user interface. Screenshots of the new features being used in the upcoming Incarna expansion are impressive, but that's all taking place inside stations. I can't help but wonder how these new technologies could be applied to the space-faring portion of EVE and whether there are more fundamental challenges to overcome in UI design than adding flashy graphics.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I give some thoughts on the development of EVE's UI, from the necessary evil of the overview to some things I'd like to see change.

The overview

In EVE's youth, information about nearby objects in space was presented on a three-dimensional radar screen at the bottom right-hand side of the screen. Friendly and hostile targets were differentiated by colour, and the scanning range was manually adjustable. Although this sounds like a rather elegant solution to the problem of highlighting ships in the vicinity that are out of view, this radar turned out to be less than adequate, and CCP was forced to provide an alternative through the directional scanner interface.

We now use the directional scanner as a long-range tool to warn us of incoming enemies, but in 2004 the most useful part was a special short-range "auto-scanner" tool. This was the precursor of what we now call the overview, a spreadsheet-like list of objects in your local vicinity. We've now come to rely on the overview for situational awareness, targeting, warping and other actions. Whether you like it or loathe it, I'm convinced that the overview itself is a necessary evil. I can't imagine a system that could replace that familiar list of local objects without reducing usability.

Ship and cargo scanners

One area in which we could definitely improve the UI is the underused ship- and cargo-scanning interface. There's very little reason for these abilities to come from modules, as they could easily be incorporated into every ship's standard suite of scanner tools. The boring scan results windows could be replaced with holographic pop-outs from the target ship, similar to the Wolf's module identification at the start of CCP's Butterfly Effect trailer. Cargo scans could open a holographic read-only cargo window attached to the target ship rather than a boring old text list in yet another window.

These are both cases in which ugly text elements could be converted into pretty visual effects without losing utility. In fact, having a proper cargo window or module information popping out of a target ship could present far more utility than the current interface. With the scanning process decoupled from modules and target locks, I can imagine certain ships getting bonuses to ship and cargo scanning.

Covert ops frigates could be granted the ability to perform scans at a distance while cloaked, for example, or tech 2 Transport ships could be set up to give false readings on cargo scans. Ship scanners haven't been put to a great deal of use in EVE's core PvP gameplay, and the ability to scan a ship's fittings while cloaked would give us some much-needed intel-gathering tools for gang warfare.

User modding

The single change that I think would improve EVE's user interface the most would be the release of a UI development kit for players. The past eight years have shown us repeatedly that when the game is missing something essential, players will eventually step in to fill that void with their own development projects. With the lack of a skill planner in the EVE client itself, players developed an external program called EVEMon to fill in the gap. Similarly, EVE Fitting Tool lets players design virtual ship loadouts and provides reliable and realistic numbers on the ship's tank and damage output.

While CCP has borrowed from these ideas with the introduction of certificates as skill planning aids and the redesign of the ship fitting screen, player tools continue to do the job significantly better than anything CCP has come up with. It's reasonable to assume that if players were able to develop UI modifications for EVE, many of the current problems with the UI would be ameliorated in short order. It doesn't matter how bad the UI is if players can build a better one. In turn, CCP could learn what players think is missing from the game by looking at what mods people are using.

Addon development

While moving and resizing UI elements is definitely something that's been considered, I'd like to see players able to integrate current tools into the game client. The release of a World of Warcraft-style programmable addon development framework for EVE would surely mean we'd eventually see the dreaded damage meters, but it would be great for getting fast access to useful information.

Players already put information like NPC damage types and security rating restrictions for pirates into their character biographies for ease of access. There are also countless tools and websites that provide everything from wormhole data and common ship fittings to mission reports and skill plans. Having those as tools or databases available in-game could be fantastic, and making them optional addons removes any issues with generated UI clutter.

What I'd really love to see opened to player development is the UI menus themselves. There are so many options in EVE's multi-level drop-down menus that most of us don't use very often. The ability to customise those menus or extract the items we want from them would be a god-send. Players can currently bind a huge range of actions to keypresses, from broadcasts, aligning and warping to drone commands. It wouldn't be a stretch to let us extract those commands as buttons on the UI that we can click, and it would go a long way toward letting us cutomising our interfaces. Imagine being able to control your drones the same way you fire your weapons or creating a button that sets your current destination to Jita. These are little things that would make a big difference to usability, turning complex or multi-step actions into single clicks of a programmable button.

Final thoughts

It's fun to think about the different graphical effects the new Carbon UI system will bring in, but no amount of holographic doo-hickeys or graphical woozle-wotsits will improve the game's basic usability. Complaints about cluttered menus, windows stealing the focus, and unintuitive controls are commonplace, and it's these challenges CCP will have to overcome when redesigning the UI. While I personally believe putting players in the development seat with modding support is the way to go, CCP is at least planning to revisiting the UI for further development. If you have any ideas for improving the EVE UI, now's definitely the time to make them known.

Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to brendan@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.
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