Window on the (game) world

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. 😉

26 responses to “Window on the (game) world

  1. Hehe, yea my UI was a bit unwieldy. Sorry if I did seem to ignore you! I really had no clue that there were mods out there.

    Yours does look much better though.


    • LOL I knew you weren’t really — and I saw why when I saw your vid. Point is, most people probably have the UI you do, and you *did* modify yours to some extent.

      It’s a shame that such a potentially powerful tool (the UI) is so poorly presented in most games, EQ2 being no exception.


  2. The one thing I really liked about WAR was the ability to play around with every element of the UI straight out of the box, without having to download a metric chuff-ton of addons to do it for you (yes, I’m looking at YOU WoW).

    In some ways I feel all nostalgic for the AC layout where your window on the world was exactly that – a window. Everything else was shoved off to the side and the bottom.


    • Out of EQ2, WoW, Guildwars and WAR I’d say WAR had the best UI by far.

      Its not that it has anything else that EQ2 above lacks (and WoW has about everything as standard too apart from a very poor broker interface), its just that it comes with a great set of defaults.

      Just adding some nice optional HUD surround graphics and a set of useable defaults to EQ2 would make so much of an improvement to the game. But unfortunately I get the feeling that the people who decide view it only as an experienced user can, and not with the eyes of a new player.


      • It would be more accurate to say “I’d say WAR had the best UI *for me* by far.”

        Personally I cannot stand HUD interfaces.

        As for “usable (sic) defaults”, one man’s usable default is another man’s garbage default UI. So in my view, customizability of the UI is much more important than the defaults it comes with.


  3. I am hesitant to use as even that does not allow me the freedom I have when readjusting the UI in Aion or GW. I believe bost have the best UI designs and customization options out there, as I think total modding like in WoW is a problem, too.

    This said, I play in 1440×900 at max (fullscreen) and often even smaller, mostly 1440×850 (windowed). It is not too difficult to have place for UI elements everywhere in a 1920×1180 window.


    • Which is why I mention it’s a luxury. I know not everyone has access to that rez — however, I do, and it would be foolish of me to not use that space to its full potential.


  4. I am not a graphics designer or layout specialist but over the years, I have become fond of a general positioning of my MMO UIs. To the point that now one of the first things I do is try and move things around to match my way of “things”.

    => Mini map bottom centered, flanked by action bars, which are in turn flanked by chat windows.

    => Just above those are “unit” frames; me, target, target of target.

    => Left hand side is group frames, right hand side quest tracker.

    => Top Time/compass , and buffs debuffs.

    You can see from this screenshot how I have set up eq2 thus far. Though looking at it now I notice I need to swap my “maintained” spell window with “buffs on me” window.


  5. I love that Guild Wars lets you move stuff around and toggle things off and on. That sort of usability out of the box is very nice.

    I’ve done a little UI work in my day, and there just isn’t a magic rule that works for all users. That’s why it’s so important to let users move stuff around. There are certainly things that should and shouldn’t be done as rules of thumb, but it never ceases to surprise me what people do with their games. Seeing new users come in during test phases and seeing them play the game totally different from the way I play just underlines the inevitable UI problems.

    I also have HUGE problems going between Maya and Max precisely because the UI and workflow are so different. The end goal of both is so similar that the user *logic* is usually very similar, but the programs function so differently that it’s a royal pain in the rear to make them behave. If I could make one behave like the other in simple functions like camera control and keyboard shortcuts, it would go a long way to making working with them a less tooth-grinding experience.

    …lots of words to agree that UI is vital, and WAY too many programs and games botch it royally.


    • Aye. I know I’m not the one doing the work, but as far as I’m concerned when it comes to UIs, there is no such thing as too many options. I’m sometimes befuddled by how people arrange their UIs (and I’m sure people think the same of mine, especially since I’m left-handed, which does influence placement of stuff), but the point is they’re *individual* — we should be able to, if possible, arrange them in the way that suits our playing best. Just like we arrange our desks for work or our pillows for sleep.

      Granted, pillows don’t need too many options. 😛


      • Indeed. It’s also not a huge logical jump to see that this is the exact same philosophy I have when designing the *play* experience, too. Give players options and let them find their own Happy Place.


      • You’re a lefty too? I knew there was a reason I liked you.

        I don’t like your UI though. Not that I want to criticize it or you specifically. Its just that if I ever get to a point in any game where I need that much information on screen to feel comfortable playing it, I’ll be headed to another game shortly thereafter.


        • *You* don’t need that much information. Most of my other characters don’t either, for that matter. But that one does.

          That said, you’re right enough in that about half her hotbars could be cut out and there’d be no effective difference in playing her. They’re not used more than once in a while now, especially since buffs persist after death (recentish change).


  6. My UI is a mess, in large part because I run the game at an unnecessarily low res. I was having a ton of performance problems when I first got the game, most of which went away when I added more RAM to my machine, but I never went back to try and push the resolution envelope.


  7. “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”

    There are plenty of minimalist addon compilations for WoW that give you maximum visible screen and a minimum of addon clutter (and information – that’s the tradeoff). So if maximum visible game window is what floats your boat, there’s plenty of that for WoW as well.

    However, even for people who like lots of addons with lots of info, in my opinion there is no need to have them all on all the time. For example I like to keep my Recount (damage meter) window closed during fights and only open it for post-fight analysis. Omen (threat-meter) is (or should be) mostly useless for raids and its window is only open for 5-man groups. As for raid info, since you don’t raid I guess that’s not applicable for you. But even for raiders, not all information is created equal. If you’re a simple raider and not a Raid Leader or Main Tank, do you really need to see mana bars of other people? If you’re not a healer, do you need to see health bars? People need to learn to pick the info that is important for them and turn off the rest, otherwise you get the messy screenshots you describe. A messy UI isn’t a feature of WoW, it’s a feature of a specific user.


    • “A messy UI isn’t a feature of WoW, it’s a feature of a specific user.”

      To a large extent I agree, but it seems that most WoW players I know (raiders all) just accept that they’ll be giving over most of their screen space, regardless of what options may be out there.

      Oh well. Few more years and we’ll all be playing in VR and it won’t matter, right? (Hah, didn’t people say that in the early 90s too? :D)


  8. The only screenie I seem to have that shows my UI is here

    I actually use a common layout amongst all my toons — the only things that are different are what spells are where in the hotbars — and even there I use a common-ish philosophy, ie hotbar 1 is combat, hotbar 2 is class specific special abilities (heals for priests, positional attacks for scouts, etc), hotbar 3 is utility-type abilites, etc. The 3 bars over on the right are travel spells, fluff clickies, and buffs — useful to have out, but out of the way since not used all that much.

    For me this is useful in that it then makes it so that even if I decide to log on a little-used alt I haven’t played in a year I can still jump right in and play without having to figure out “what do my abilities do and why did I put that one THERE?” — I always know generally what a button will do by its position in my UI.

    This is the Profit Reborn UI, btw. No other add-ons or mods besides EQ2Maps.


    • It will adapt. I’m sure ProfitUI will work beautifully for you — I don’t use it because I don’t like the art style of a lot of the elements (especially those huge italic numbers), but most people don’t mind that at all.

      As a beginning though, in case you don’t want to mess with mods, remember that you can resize and move hotbars by right-clicking on an empty hotbar button and selecting “Hotbar options”. Same with bags, once you get some bags. And of course, same with the chat window. Get hotbars, chat and bags more or less organised and most games suddenly become a lot more playable.

      The rest of the stuff I have modded is really more a function of my insane pickiness than any genuine flaws in the base UI.


    • Heh, that’s pretty neat. It looks utterly unusable to me, which only highlights how personal UI setups really are. You can presumably find everything you need to find at a glance… whereas I keep looking in the wrong place for the stuff I expect. 😀


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