Thursday, February 25, 2010

Evolving User Interfaces

Massively conducted an interesting interview with David Allen, president of the developer responsible for creating Alganon several of months ago that has stuck with me. The standout quote for me was:
WoW is the most successful and well-known MMOG in history, and it follows standards set by countless games before it. Why wouldn't we want the custom-built Alganon UI to be familiar to players who know these standards?
At the time, Alganon was under heavy fire (and still is) because they took the whole WoW-Clone concept to never before seen levels. The interview itself was subject to quite a bit of ridicule.

Side-by-side with screenshots, David’s attempt to defend that which even the most forgiving pundits would consider shameless plagiarism was laughable.

The irony is that from a pure product development standpoint – he’s right.

Re-inventing the Wheel
First, I want to say this isn’t a post about WoW having the only UI that can or does work in an MMO. I’m a strong believer in innovation and there are certainly lots of things that can be done to improve gameplay in WoW.

But that said, the WoW UI is really a product of many years of evolution. You can’t write a post like this without people pointing out that Blizzard copied most (if not all) of the basic elements of their UI from other games. They took what worked and improved upon it.

Users then made further refinements through Add-ons, many of which have made it into the default UI. And Blizzard hasn’t been sitting idly either and have made countless other improvements over the years.

The result is that the WoW UI is not only familiar, it has YEARS and YEARS of product testing behind it.

In practically every other industry, a tried and true user experience is a recipe for success. Product Managers often copy each other and improve upon concepts in an effort to refine and enhance user experience. Cell phone manufacturers are hardly looking at the iPhone and trying to figure out how to be radically different.

The simple reality is that users do appreciate the familiar.  From a usability standpoint, why fix what’s not broken. In fact, the unfamiliar UI of games like Darkfall are some of the biggest concerns that community has about new user adoption. The fear is that people won’t give the unfamiliar a chance.

So Alganon mockery aside, there is some merit in having a familiar UI.

What if Blizzard developed Alganon?
The obvious joke here is that they already did and they called it World of Warcraft. But the question I’m really asking here is that if Blizzard used the existing WoW engine but completely redid the content, how successful would that game be?

I’m talking about keeping the engine, but new lore, new races, new classes, new skills, new talents, new quests, and new regions. Not an expansion, but a totally new game which just happens to be based on the existing engine, UI and game mechanics. In other words, something akin to using the Quake2 engine to create the original Half-Life. Same game mechanics and engine, entirely different game.

I’m betting that if Blizzard were the ones to launch that game, it would be immensely popular. I’d play it. Hell, I think it would quickly become the second most popular MMO on the market next to WoW.

Of course, we’ll never know if I’m right because Blizzard would never do such a thing. But it does raise some interesting questions about why exactly people like playing WoW and not other MMOs. Is it marketing? Is it where your friends play? Is it the familiarity of the game mechanics? Is it the familiarity with the lore, classes and skills?

So why do we really hate Alganon?
Obviously some people hate it because they hate all things WoW. Others likely hate it because they support WoW and see it as an infringement of intellectual property.

For me, it’s just bothersome that I can’t pinpoint exactly why it bugs me.

I would consider myself fairly MMO agnostic and I don’t have a vested interest in any MMO game. I also fully buy into the concept that products evolve and you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And yet, the extreme plagiarism bugs me in a way I can’t figure out.

I suppose it’s some combination of both. Alganon offers nothing new AND it’s a complete rip-off. If it were just a partial rip-off, I don’t think I would have a problem with mustering support. But it’s the complete lack of originality in something as important as the talent tree that really bothers me.

That’s why the MMO market is so hard to please. We want things to stay familiar, yet be different enough that it provides a unique experience.


Carson 63000 said...

When looking at many MMORPGs and their similar UI elements, one thing has always me as interesting.

The "player frame top left, target frame top middle, minimap top right" layout is incredibly prevalent. WoW, WAR, EQ2, AoC, Vanguard, Alganon (lol), Runes of Magic, Allods.. we see a very similar layout again and again.

Yet every custom UI I ever see for WoW moves away from that model, because it's simply not that great an arrangement - it forces far too much eye movement around the screen in critical situations.

When are we going to see an MMO that launches with the popular layout of player and target frames close together, at the bottom of the screen, directly above a button bar?

(of course there probably is one, and I've missed it)

sid67 said...

From a usability standpoint, things that are on the outside edges are harder to see. We move the most important frames where they are more visible. I think devs shy away from that by default because it detracts from the graphics. Do you want to look at a target frame or the beastie itself?

Of course, as players, we often learn that the beastie doesn't need to be looked at as much as the 'stuff' the UI tells us.

Perhaps that's bad game design?

DOUBLE9S said...

My core group of friends has played WoW on and off since launch. Now they all say that they want something, but every time I introduce them to a new game, I hear the same thing:

Where are the heroic dungeons?
Where are the battlegrounds?
Where is the gear viewer (whatever they call CTRL-clicking an item)?
Where's my auto-attack?

And the deduce that every new game is "a primitive WoW". As the guy in the group that's always looking for something new, it's pretty infuriating, but it's also hard to argue. I love WoW's polished to a shine interface, and I love that whatever I don't like, I can change with an addon.

Still, I'll take fresh content over that crap any day.