As everyone knows — well okay, the three or four people who have heard me rant about it before — I’m a UI Nazi. Seriously. I’m not just concerned with UIs, or mildly interested in them, or even rabidly interested in them. If I can’t make the UI do what I want in a game, chances are I’ll eventually stop playing that game. That’s a hard theory to test though, since the games I’ve played that have had awful UIs were also pretty awful games generally.
Even when they’re reasonably well designed, UIs come out of the box looking pretty crap because they have to suit the lowest common denominator, or in this case screen resolution. And one thing even the best-designed UIs out there love to do (and I can’t name any good UIs off the top of my head, just a few decent ones) is waste visual space with unnecessary scrollwork, decoration, or just plain empty UI-element space.
EQ2 is no exception. When I saw Werit’s otherwise very entertaining video of his EQ2 heritage quest experiences, I couldn’t help cringeing at his UI. It’s not his fault, of course, it’s how the game presents it to you — and that’s after some customisation on Werit’s part. But now I understand that whenever I thought he was intentionally ignoring me in game, he was just probably not seeing the chat, because 17 million other chats were spamming to one chat window. (Which also kept fading — what is it with fading windows? Is it an FPS thing? I detest that with a passion. The last window I will ever want fading away is chat, because 99% of the game’s information — let alone the minor aspect of its bloody social side — is echoed in chat.)
And now Syp is also trying EQ2. My prediction is that it won’t stick for him — the game is too huge to adequately try out in a few weeks, which may sound like a good thing but has actually become a rather large barrier to getting any kind of new players. It can take several tries to find your EQ2 legs, and in my opinion the freaky, highly uncanny-valley, brown-dominated art style really doesn’t help there. (There are some gorgeous views and great textures in EQ2, but the art style is still weird no matter how you spin it.)
Part of what puts players off, I’m sure, is the yucketty (technical term), unwieldy, and apparently intractable UI. When you first log in, there are boxes and hotbars and crap knows what else all over the place — you’d think at the very least that, by now, there might be some kind of a default layout that loads based on the screen rez you’ve chosen in the game. Well, a better default layout, I mean. One where all the windows aren’t squished together in the middle. Some of the windows are opaque, some are not, and some fade when you’re not looking. It’s a mess, and it’s unusable until you’ve at least dragged a few elements here and there on your screen. That’s bad: you should have something usable right out of the box, even if it’s fugly; this is fugly and useless.
Fortunately, as Syp points out, you can load UI settings from other characters. They’re just text files, so you can even load settings from other people’s characters if they let you have that file. For my Test server characters, who occupy an EQ2 folder of their own, I just copied over my main character’s settings from the live EQ2 folder. Easy as pie — once it’s set up.
The first thing I do in any game is mess with the UI, and I’m constantly tweaking and messing some more. I’m using a couple dozen UI mods (all sourced from EQ2interface), and 90% of those are designed to replace basic UI elements like bag windows, hotbars, equipment windows and the quest journal. A couple of them extent the functionality of elements like the broker. I only have one mod that actually does anything in the strictest sense of the word, and all it does is allow me to cast heals and cures on groupmates without having to untarget, target them, then retarget whatever it was; given the number of debuffs that get flung around in EQ2, this is really handy though it’s not actually essential.
As I said I’m always tinkering with my layout, trying to find the perfect balance between being able to see lots of game info when I need it while still keeping as much screen space free as I can. When I see WoW-screenies that show a teeny-tiny visible window surrounded by scads of group info, raid info, DPS meters and crap knows what else people need to see in WoW I always shudder and wonder how people manage. Yes, I need my UI elements, but I also need to see the game. Most of them are worth looking at.
So here’s Fairuza’s more-or-less current UI layout. If you click through you can see it full-size, which for me is 1920×1200. After years of cramped screens, being able to have loads of stuff showing and still see lots of the game is a wonderful luxury.
Fair’s hotbars are in a constant state of flux, because the higher she levels the more stuff she has to throw on there, and I’m still looking for the most intuitive arrangement for me. The one where in the heat of battle I’m not going “OcrapOcrap where’s my healing spells argh!” but can still access her damage spells because nuking is what Fair does (yeah, she’s a healer, but a nuking healer. Best of both worlds, right?!) And because I craft and harvest a lot, I’ve also got hotbars with recipes (for doing crafting writs), hotbars with bag shortcuts, hotbars with gear-swapping macros, hotbars with pets, etc. etc. etc.
Targeting stuff is as close to the middle of the screen as I can get it without them being on top of the character. Lots of people like having stuff on top of (or very near) the character, but I can’t stand that, so this is my compromise. Remember, I don’t raid — I don’t usually see particularly urgent combat situations, so this works for me.
And most of my UI is taken up with chat windows. EQ2 spams a LOT of chat and I like to be able to catch up on stuff without having to scroll for 18 miles to see it. So on one side I have main chat, showing xp stuff, guild chat, tells and the crafting channel, with tabs for combat, sub-channels and narrative spam (e.g. “You successfully counter Burn Your Eyebrows Off crafting event!”). On the other I have tabs for NPC tells — quest conversation logs, basically — loot (mostly to see what I’ve been harvesting) and skill increases. Some of those tabs are a bit redundant and I could probably mush skill increases in with other stuff, but I’ve got it set up that way because it makes things easy for me and because I can. It just takes a while to get everything juuuust right.
The main point of this post is that although the default UI in most MMOs is poo, you don’t have to put up it. Taking the time to set up an interface you’re happy with and can navigate rapidly will be amply repaid every time you log in.
And yes — if people want, I can set up a default 1920×1200 UI for people to use in EQ2. Because I’m a giving UI nazi. ;)