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.
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:
- Core Abilities – Where the fun is.
- Role Abilities – Specific to which facet of the Trinity I’m serving at that moment
- Buff Abilities – Static abilities/items that provide temporary bonuses
- Conditional Abilities – “Procs” that aren’t available at all times
- 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:
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.