In this week's Tattered Notebook, we'll put down our macros, take a break from resizing windows, and look at the quest for the perfect UI.
Vanguard launched with an immense world and very little to help you figure out where the heck you were or where the heck you needed to go. Before the arrival of the Telon travel system, the best way to get a feel for the world map was Soresha's InfoMap. There were several handy maps on her site, but you could also download a UI that contained every sort of important waypoint you might imagine. I couldn't imagine life in game without the help of this amazing interface.
This was one of the first player-made UIs that I used, and for me, Quartz was also my first "cool" UI. It took the boxy look of the default UI and turned it into an awesome dashboard resembling the viewport of a cutting-edge sportscar. In fact, it probably should have come with driving gloves and a candy apple red leather jacket. When I look back, I realize it really wasn't a great UI for utility, but I think I was just thrilled to have a UI that A) didn't take up two thirds of the screen like the original EQ UI and B) had curves and a distinct look that broke away from the boxy look.
I love UIs that clean things up. There are many UIs that add catchy borders and Gaelic-looking icons, but Drox is all about streamlining things to make it easier to get to the stuff you need. Not only did it organize things well, but it always seemed to make my eye go to the important stuff right away. UIs often get in the way of the fluid combat and immersive nature of MMOs, but Drox seemed to avoid that as much as possible.
If I had to pick one UI as my favorite, it would be Profit because it's clean, well-organized, and extremely helpful. The updater also made it easy to keep up with changes to the UI from game patches, so I rarely logged in to find that things were broken. On top of that, Profit incorporated other terrific UI tools, like Info Center, to make it the perfect all-in-one interface.
EQ2Map is the granddaddy of awesomeness. This was the inspiration behind the current default map, and it was always worth keeping up to date because of all the important landmarks and waypoints players submitted to it over time. I think of all the player-made UI tools, map projects tend to be the most valuable because the sheer volume of information that's included makes it less of a headache to navigate and even complete content like quest updates and NPC turn-ins. In short, player-made maps are like the Wikipedia of game interfaces.
I included this one because it embodies my love and hate UIs in general. This click to cure UI does make curing so much easier, but it brings up the problem of UIs in MMOs across the board. If I posted a screenshot from Tetris, people would be able to figure it out pretty quickly and jump at the chance to fit the falling piece. It's intuitive, and the UI (which is minimal at best) helps make it quick and easy to understand. The game itself is challenging (and many a term paper in college was late as a result), but it takes about two seconds to recognize right away what the game wants you to do. It's what Jesper Juul described in A Casual Revolution, which is that good UIs are like familiar songs: You can hum a few bars and people will eagerly help finish off the verse.
But if you toss up a screenshot from World of Warcraft, EQII, or even the soon-to-launch Guild Wars 2, how easy is it to figure out what the game wants you to do based on that one screenshot? Not only do most people struggle to "finish the song," but they're actually turned off by the non-intuitive nature of the UI. To the educated gamer eye, it looks perfectly normal. And for Cypher, it wasn't numbers; it was "blonde, brunette, redhead." But for new players and non-gamers, it's a turn-off.
Of course, the quest for the cleanest, most perfect UI doesn't really lie in the hands of the players because try as they might, they still have to include all of the necessary buttons, buffs, debuffs, targets, cures, and group lists that seem to be standard operating procedure in most MMOs. EQII is making a huge push to shape the title into a more casual-friendly game that fits in the free-to-play market, but the elephant in the room right now is that it has a very intricate UI (as do many MMOs), and in order to make it less convoluted, SOE would need to make fundamental changes to the game. At this point in EQII's life, that's probably not a feasible option.
UI builders do a great job of making things easier for us. I know some players will call it dumbing the game down, but if you understand the rules of a game and your only hurdle is the UI, why not find a way to make that clearer and easier to understand? Otherwise it's like playing with a Star Wars blaster helmet on your head, and unfortunately, we're not all blessed with the force.
As I was putting this column together, I was struck by how many UIs from years ago are still at the top of the favorites list and the most downloaded lists. Foofyspells, SARS, T.King, GlassUI, Drums, and MilqueTowst Info Center have been around for years, and even though I didn't use all of them, I always considered giving them a try, sometimes even after I already loaded a custom UI. In a way, it's almost like a baseball hall of fame, with the perennial favorites always there to brighten our gaming days.
EQ2Interface has been especially helpful to me, and it seemed to be for the EQII team as well. Back a year or two ago, the developers decided to rework the default UI in game, and they turned to the EQ2Interface community for assistance. In fact, the default map now is a result of player input, as are many other interface features that were inspired by player-made interfaces. When it comes to the asethetic, I think developers and the community have collaborated to create some sleek and attractive UIs. But when it comes to utility and ease of understanding, I think MMOs can do a better job of trimming off the complicated clutter and making a UI that makes sense while still keeping the challenge in the game. In the meantime, we have an amazing library of UIs to enjoy, thanks to EQ2Interface and its sister sites!
From the snow-capped mountains of New Halas to the mysterious waters of the Vasty Deep, Karen Bryan explores the lands of Norrath to share her tales of adventure. Armed with just a scimitar, a quill, and a dented iron stein, she reports on all the latest news from EverQuest II in her weekly column, The Tattered Notebook. You can send feedback or elven spirits to firstname.lastname@example.org.