A Tale of Two User Interfaces

I recently logged back in to Star Wars: The Old Republic after taking a break from playing. My guild has had the current Operations (Raids) on farm for some time, and there really doesn’t feel like there is all that much to do with my Bounty Hunter. Many of our players have scattered to the four winds, some have cancelled their subscriptions, and we’re all waiting to see if BioWare’s big 1.2 patch will be enough to invigorate the game once more. I could PvP, but I’m at a point were hitting the solo queue doesn’t seem like a great deal of fun and setting aside time to find a dedicated group to PvP with seems tiresome. Besides that, my Bounty Hunter was my guild’s main tank, so I have to essentially start the PvP gear grind all over again for a gear set that would actually allow me to survive 1 on 1 encounters. At the end of the day, I’m just leveling a couple of alts and enjoying the stories of different classes, since that is the primary area where BioWare got things right and advanced the MMO genre.

Which brings me to the point of this article.

Why did the honeymoon phase end so quickly with SW:TOR?

While there are many examples I could give, the main reason for me is that it feels like I’ve done all of this before. The same burn out I suffered in World of Warcraft after six years of the raiding treadmill has carried over to my SW:TOR experience. While I’ve defended BioWare’s MMO over and over again whenever I heard it written off as a WoW clone, in many ways it does feel like I’m dating an ex-wife who changed her name and bought a redheaded wig.

Familiarity can be a good thing, especially when you’re talking about a MMO with ten million subscribers. It lowers the barrier of entry, and allows people to start playing your game immediately instead of spending those first few crucial hours learning basic keybinds or the UI. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, familiarity also breeds contempt. While it is normally a phrase used as a psychological reference to the idea that the better we know people, the more likely we are to find fault with them, I think it applies to games as well.

I’m finding a lot of faults with the Star Wars UI, and while I’m certain the customization options in patch 1.2 will help, some of these issues are found at the core of the game’s design.

As a visual aid, I’ll post a screenshot of the UI for my Trooper alt.

Good... Bad... I'm the guy with the gun.

Buttons. So many buttons.

I won’t make any claims about being a keybinding genius. I play using a Razer Naga mouse coupled with a Razer Nostromo gamepad. I try to only use my keyboard for typing in chat and for leisurely keybinds to things like my inventory and quest log. My binding ability isn’t the problem. The problem is that out of all of these buttons, I probably only use about 10-12 of them 80% of the time. The rest are completely situational in nature.

My main binds to my core abilities are all located on the two bars immediately under my health bar near my character portrait – six on top, and six below. These are my bread and butter abilities. The remaining buttons, while useful at times, are really just providing the illusion of complexity. Just because I have 48 total available button slots doesn’t mean that all each of them are vital to the majority of my gameplay.

Beyond that, once I do start to fill up each and every one of these (much like I did in WoW – especially since every expansion includes a mandatory 3-4 new abilities for each class), I start to play the UI instead of the game.

Some of these buttons and binds are used up so that if I swap roles, say from damage dealing to tanking, I don’t have to spend time setting up a new UI. In the screenshot above, I keep my tanking stance, my guard ability (which allows me to share damage with another player if I am in the right stance) and my taunts (both single target and multi-target) on the left side bar. These abilities only exist because SW:TOR, like WoW, forces you into traditional roles of Tank, Healer or Damage dealer (DPS). If those roles didn’t exist, or if everyone shared them to an extent, then there would be little reason to have a UI this expansive.

Likewise, each class in SW:TOR has a specific buff that only they can provide to their group members. I use a slot for my Trooper’s buff. These buffs are designed to make you more powerful when grouping, since you can all buff one another. For organized activities like raiding and team PvP, it also means you’re forced to bring along at least one member of each class so that none of these buffs are missing. The downside to that is that, much like class roles in the “Holy Trinity” of Tank, Healer or DPS, you’re group composition is now constrained by these factors.

Still other buttons on the right side bar are used for temporary buffs that boost my damage or performance in some way. I have three different buffing items stacked together – a stim (like a potion in WoW) and two relics that my Trooper has equipped. The idea being that I hold these items in reserve for when I need an extra surge of power to take out an enemy.

Others binds are used for conditional abilities, ones that “proc” or require a prerequisite of some sort before becoming available. My Trooper’s High Impact Bolt (which is greyed out and bound to my number 5 key) only becomes active for use if I have the right damage over time ability already on my target. Other classes have similar abilities, and they are primarily used again to promote the illusion of complexity. They break up the monotony of a static ability rotation. The premise being that it adds a level of randomness that, in theory, keeps things from getting too predictable or boring.

My least favorite type of ability of all, and one which unfortunately has a place of prominence on bound to my 1 key, is the Filler. The Filler is an ability that you can always use regardless of what else is on cooldown or how much of your class resource you have available. It doesn’t really do much by itself, and it is by design not very interesting. In the case of my Trooper, it is a few rounds of burst fire that hit for mediocre damage. By weaving in a few of these “free” filler shots with my more powerful abilities (all of which use ammo), I effectively manage my ammo resource along with my cooldowns. This is intended to reward skillful play. What it really does is add a fairly useless keybind, and one that I would eliminate the minute I had macro functionality. Once I did, I would just add the filler to each of my cooldown abilities so that if the ability I really want to hit is on cooldown, it would auto fire my backup filler ability instead. Some would argue that this goes against the spirit of the game and reduces the complexity of what divides good players from bad ones. I would counter that it doesn’t require skill to know that if my number 2 bind is grey that I need to hit number 1. It is just clutter.

Thus far I’ve listed a few different categories of abilities:

  1. Core Abilities – Where the fun is.
  2. Role Abilities – Specific to which facet of the Trinity I’m serving at that moment
  3. Buff Abilities – Static abilities/items that provide temporary bonuses
  4. Conditional Abilities – “Procs” that aren’t available at all times
  5. Filler Abilities – Bland abilities that are similar to the auto attacks found in other games.

Add each of these up, and it is easy to see why without macro support and the ability to customize and scale your UI, your screen can easily start to fill up with buttons and binds.

Now, let’s take a comparative look at the UIs of  SW:TOR and Guild Wars 2:

A Tale of Two UIs.
Image provided by GuildMag.com

In the image above, we have 24 available ability binds (only HALF of what they support) on top compared to 10 abilities (13 if you count the F keys) for Guild Wars 2 on the bottom.

Which offers the most complexity and fun? For me, the answer is clearly Guild Wars 2.

Instead of massive amounts of clutter for every ability my class can possibly possess, my binds are streamlined, making every ability a Core Ability.

From right to left, and ignoring how this particular player set up his personal keybinds:

Binds 1-5 are determined by your weapon and are class specific. For a two-handed weapon like the Hammer the Guardian is using in this image, all five of his binds are tied to his weapon. If you are dual wielding, the main hand weapon determines your 1-3 abilities while your offhand determines your 4 and 5 abilities.

There is also a weapon swap button for most professions (classes) that allows you to interchange two different weapon presets on the fly, in essence doubling your available weapon abilities without doubling the space your UI takes up. No fluff. No filler.

It is also important to note that the primary attack for each profession (the number 1 ability) is the only one without a cooldown, and it is usually far more dynamic than an auto attack or Filler Ability. Guild Wars 2 makes use of a fair amount of Chain Abilities in this slot – abilities that are essentially three different abilities that fire off in succession with each press of the button. It adds a lot of dynamic feel to the game while still giving you something to do to be effective if you’re waiting for the right moment to unleash your more powerful abilities.

Bind 6 is your heal. Every class has one, although there are three options you can choose from to customize your play style. You don’t need 5 different heals, a medpack, and a PvP specific medpack. One and done. Other heals and healing abilities are tied to weapon abilities, utility skills or are a side effect of traits you pick when customizing your character. Massive amounts of complexity contained within a minimum amount of UI.

Binds 7-9 are your utility skills. You choose three at a time from an available list of around twenty. You don’t need all 20 available at all times. Your utility skills help define you and what makes you different from the guy next to you who is playing the same class. More choice. more complexity. Less UI space.

The number 10 bind is for your Elite skill. This is your big nuke, your game changer, your “Oh shit!” button. You choose one from list of three class-specific and three race-specific Elites.

The remaining F key binds are class specific. Some classes, like the Warrior, have a single powerful weapon-specific ability. The Guardian has three virtues that have both passive and active effects. The Elementalist has four elemental attunements (Fire, Water, Air & Earth) that completely change all five weapon skill slots, giving her 20 different skills for each weapon set.

Complexity. Not clutter.

Just another reason I can’t wait for Guild Wars 2 to release. It isn’t about hype. It’s about the evolution of the MMO, and innovation that rewards skill and personal choice and customization while allowing you to play the game and not the UI.

It is also why last generation MMOs, including SW:TOR, have a hard time keeping my interest. I know a lot of my issues with traditional WoW-like UIs can be minimized or worked around with the use of mods and some basic UI customization features, but in my opinion, that’s masking the problem instead of solving it.

ArenaNet is setting out to solve it.

MMOs & Investor Confidence: How Business Concerns Affect Your Gaming Experience

Bear with me on this one, as I will be referencing a couple of different articles in order to make comparisons between some popular MMOs and the companies behind them.

I noticed today that a few articles have popped up regarding Star Wars: The Old Republic and the accusation that they have too many active servers. According to the squeaky wheels on the official forums, several servers are relative “dead zones” where players have a difficult time finding other players to group with. It has been stated that while SW:TOR only has 10% of the subscriptions that World of Warcraft currently has, they have 50% of the number of servers that the MMO giant has. If this is accurate, then it is easy to see where some of these concerns are coming from. The easy solution would be to consolidate servers and bring players closer together.

Unfortunately, the suits on Wall Street don’t see it that way.

The plain truth is that nothing shakes up investor confidence in the companies who produce MMOs like server consolidations and/or lower subscriptions. I don’t think it is a great stretch to imagine that most of those investors are only vaguely aware of the products their investing in, and perhaps overreact to these kind of metrics. As a result, despite the fact that consolidation would make the experience better for YOU, the player, and may in fact keep you playing and paying, server consolidation is a measure of last resort. This is especially true if you’re Electronic Arts and you just shelled out an estimated 80 million dollars to make the game, and it has only been out for a few short months. I don’t think SW:TOR is in dire straits just yet, although they certainly could be if their big April patch falls short of expectations, but they’re certainly not the only MMO who’ll play the numbers game for a better quarterly statement.

Take a look at World of Warcraft, the 800 pound gorilla in the MMO market. They’re certainly not above this kind of sleight of hand either. A very interesting article I read back in 2009, and one that is still relevant, highlights some of the ways that Activision Blizzard manipulates statistics in order to market their game and keep their investors happy. You may hear that WoW has 10 million subscribers, but that number doesn’t take into consideration that many players in the asian market aren’t playing or paying quite the same way as their American and European counterparts. For instance, at the time of the article, the Asian market made up 50% of the WoW player base, yet only accounted for 6% of the total revenue. Other areas where WoW has been historically accused of fudging the numbers is keeping servers online that have huge faction imbalances; servers that would greatly benefit from mergers with others that could balance them out and improve the overall player experience.

The WoW annual pass scheme has certainly been an effective tourniquet on WoW’s bleeding subscription numbers. If you’re unfamiliar with it, the short version is that if you agree to purchase a one year subscription to WoW, you get a free digital copy of Diablo 3 as well as an in game pet and beta access to the next WoW expansion. Seems like a great fan service! The reality is that no company would make such a move unless they had already reached the decision that doing so was the best financial decision possible. They’re essentially giving their players a $60 game in order to guarantee they spend $180. And when I say guarantee… I mean it. Apparently is it almost impossible to cancel the annual pass once you’ve paid for it. For anyone in the Blizzard Finance Department, this is a huge win. You’ve essentially locked in a large portion of your revenue stream and marginalized the future subscription losses you would have suffered otherwise, buying you a year to prepare for the announcement of Blizzard’s next MMO, code named Titan. In the meantime, you just hope and pray that people still love pandas and Pokemon.

Going back to the Old Republic and their server issues, it is really nothing more than a corner they’ve painted themselves into by failing to plan. Every MMO, especially those with monthly subscriptions, see a huge population swell at launch. Players are eager to try something new, and the first 30 days is generally included with the price of the game. This means that almost no reasonable amount of servers that would sustain your normal expected population post-launch will be enough to handle this kind of traffic. Server queues begin to back up longer and longer as players try in vain to all get in at once. After the initial 30 days, however, the population starts to fall off to a more manageable level. If you’re artificially increased your launch servers to minimize queues, or if your content is relatively stale or buggy and players start leaving, then server populations start to dwindle and thin out. It is important to note that this happens to every single MMO that has ever released (or at least it has happened to enough to be considered the rule even if an exception or two actually exists).

So what is a developer to do? What kind of solution can you come up with to account for the perfectly normal and anticipated launch rush, while at the same time minimizing or hopefully eliminating the post-launch purge and merge?

It appears that ArenaNet may have the answer.

As part of their design of Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet is implementing something called an overflow shard. This server acts as a buffer against server queues, allowing you to temporarily play on a separate, dedicated server while your remain in queue for your home server. When your queue is up, you hit a button and after a load screen, you magically reappear logged on to your home server and standing in the same spot you were in on the overflow server. That is forward thinking and innovative. No two ways about it. The real genius is that it doesn’t matter if you have a single overflow shard or two dozen of them. It will be seamless to the player who is playing, and post launch you can still reduce the number of these overflow servers without sending up red flags to your investors. The suits remain happy, and your players come away with an even better playing experience.

Seems odd that someone at a company the size of Activision or Electronic Arts didn’t think of it first.