Visual Interface

Time to look at Oaqn’s game design again by drawing a card from Jesse Schell’s Art of Game design book/deck of cards and writing down my thoughts as I ponder the questions it suggests. This week the random number generator gave me:

Lens 54: The Lens of Virtual Interface

This lens is paired with #53, The Lens of Physical Interface, to bring light to the user interface of a game. There are a lot of options in virtual interfaces, from buttons and floating heads-up displays to seamless depictions of the world (think of Limbo or Braid). This is a nice card to pull for Oaqn, which innovates on UI for browser games.

The most important thing to note is that this isn’t a real-time first-person shooter view, it’s an isometric map. It will display players’ caravans and towns, but it’s not a constantly-updated view into the world. Most that’s because of technical limitations (it’d be lovely to let people rotate 360 degrees around their caravan without pause, but JavaScript just isn’t fast enough).

This is reflected in the art style, which is going to be more iconic than not. I’m not going to try to draw all objects to an exact scale, sizes will be more representative of importance, with cities very large and signposts very small, somewhat regardless of distance. The player can click on an object to interact with it, instruct their caravan to change course, that sort of thing.

What information does a player need to receive that isn’t obvious just by looking at the game world?

The vast majority of information. Inventory, NPC interaction, quest management, route planning, conversation with players, and trading, to name basically every major gameplay system. These will all need their own specialized interfaces, and drawing this lens has prompted me to put them all on my to-do list to draft interfaces for.

I’ll probably use something like Balsamiq Mockups. They’ll be much less flashy and game-worldy than the Steppe rendering of the map, but I’ll see what I can do to make it less of a spreadsheet than Eve Online.

When does the player need this information? All the time? Only occasionally? Only at the end of a level?

This is a really nice way to break down the different interfaces. The player will alternate between two basic modes. The first is traveling, when they can change their route or perhaps investigate nearby events, but generally only will be social with other players. The second is in town, when they’ll be determining the contents of their inventory and where to take it. Modal interfaces generally aren’t a good idea, but there’s a huge split here that ties in well with the game fiction of being in town.

How can this information be delivered to the player in a way that won’t interfere with the player’s interactions with the game world?

I actually seem to have the opposite problem, that I need to spend time making sure information and interaction appears in the game world whenever possible, so that the terrain is not just that annoying thing you have to scroll down past to get to the interesting part of the game.

Cities will grow and shrink, perhaps the renderer should show an interactive map of the city with buildings for interfacing with different things. I’m not sure that works because I don’t like maps where the arrangement of elements has no meaning (eg. it doesn’t matter whether the trading post is on the south or the north edge of the city), but I don’t immediately see what mechanics could be involved and I’m not sure I want to create another large subsystem.

Are there elements of the game world that are easier to interact with using a virtual interface (like a pop-up menu, for instance) than they are to interact with directly?

Many things, because the player doesn’t have an individual human avatar. There will be an in-game representation of inventory (eg. you can see your caravans and drag things around to place them) but most other interactions will be much more virtual: choosing options for NPC quests, trading, and perhaps route planning.

What kind of virtual interface is best suited to my physical interface? Pop-up menus, for example, are a poor match for a gamepad controller.

I’m very glad to be able to assume my users have a decently large screen to read text on, a keyboard, and a pointing device. (Pardon the vagueness, but I think the game will also work well on tablet PCs.) There is no twitch gaming or freedom of movement, so more tactile interfaces like gamepads and joysticks are unneeded. I’ll be presenting tabular information, the player will often be picking between many options, and when they’re not doing that they’ll be entering and reading text to each other.

(Sorry this one’s kind of short and undoubtedly poorly edited, I’m getting over a bit of sickness. Hopefully it’ll pass in time for me to get my development hours in tomorrow.)

One Response to “Visual Interface”