Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Is Age of Conan's horrible UI related to its console release?

If you've been playing Age of Conan then you know that despite some very kick ass combat mechanics it does have its flaws. It's nothing that prevents you from enjoying the game but it seems like it shipped with a couple of bad design choices which should have been obvious to the developers. The user interface it probably the first thing anyone notices when they start playing Age of Conan. It’s sparse on the surface so as not to distract you from the beautiful graphics and that’s a good decision. However, this hides the fact that underneath its minimalist front is a clunky and unintuitive monstrosity. It has some very weird slash commands and often doing anything not related to combat requires three or four steps.

It's like the game took everything that was boring about World of Warcraft combat and made it better but decided doing it for any other part of the game would be going too far. As a friend of mine remarked they couldn't have made a worse user interface if they had purposely designed it that way. This got me thinking. What if the user interface problems were really done on purpose? Not to frustrate the players, which would simply be a bad business decision, but to make it easier for its eventual port to the Xbox. A lot of tediousness that PC gamers are experiencing with the game seems to be caused by the user interface not being optimized for keyboard and mouse use.

If you look at the menu system for the game this becomes obvious. You can hold down "ctrl" or "alt" to display only the right or left side of any menu window but this only seems to work if you press the actual menu button at the top of the screen. It doesn't seem to work when you hit any of the shortcut keys on the keyboard. Holding "alt" and pressing "I" will still bring up both the inventory and equipment screen. Another good example are the merchants which require you to scroll through a list of all the items in your inventory to select one to sell. This seems like console rpg menu design compared to modern MMOs where you simply click on an item in your inventory to sell it.

I'm sure a lot of these little annoyances will be fixed very quickly in patches. The user interface isn't exactly hard to modify for most games especially if they use a formatting language like XML. I wonder if the initial design team thought they could make a user interface that would be acceptable to both console and PC gamers. There haven't exactly been a lot of MMOs that have worked on both platforms so Funcom was treading new-ish ground here. If I remember correctly FFXI released on the PC first then simplified its menu system for a console release. Funcom probably thought to avoid redesigning the UI by starting out with one that would work on both.

In the end I'll still play the game even if they don't change anything but I beg Funcom not to make me type "/cc addbuddy #name" to update my friends list anymore.

10 comments:

Scott said...

I doubt it, considering it isn't being ported to the 360 at all -- they have two separate teams working on each edition.

It's a horrid UI, a horrid chat system, you name it. But that type of UI won't even work on a console, so I don't see why that would be a factor? I'm putting it more on the fact they're EU devs in their own little bubble and a bit unsure of what the NA players want, other than eye candy, violence and tits.

A console MMORPG is going to need a complete re-thinking to its UI system. The only relationship I can see between the two platforms is the combo system. They chose an easy turn-based system for combos that is nothing more than Guitar Hero or DDR on Easy difficulty setting: wait for the arrow to light up and press it. That can be done easily (and has been for a few years now) on both platforms. But the skills/hotbar/etc. UI will need to be re-worked from the ground up. TV's don't have the real estate for assloads of hotbars, nor can we force console players to use a full keyboard.

Relmstein said...

I would think that Funcom's experience with Anarchy Online would mean that they would know a little bit about what the market wants in their user interface.

I don't think they are designing in a bubble but they might have just been too rushed to polish that part of the game. If anyone has any experience with AO can they comment on whether the UI is bad in that game also.

br3ntbr0 said...

If they don't have plans to really enhance the default UI I think they should create a documented API and let the mod community go to work.

Funcom doesn't have to do all the development work to improve the UI, they just have to provide the community with the documentation and tools to do so. All it takes is their support and the community will run with it.

Despite what the purists say, mods to mmog's are not evil. Mods give mmog's more appeal to a wider demographic of players in my opinion. User created mods will improve inadequate UI elements and bring extra functionality into the game that is much needed at this point.

Love it or hate it, WoW is the best example of this. Their API is so documented and supported that they wound up having to nerf some commands to stop the high level of automation that used to be in the game, i.e. Decursive.

Sorry, I probably could have made my own blog post on the subject as long as this has gotten!

Captain Angry said...

Its a compelling theory but I think if it was really the case that we're playing a PC/360 "hybrid" interface then we'd see a nice shiny "Use XBOX 360 Controller" control option, and I'd probably enjoy it.

I played FF11 on PC for a couple months and it was much more intuitive with a PS2>USB adapter--So much that I even shelled out the money for the NYKO PS2 Controller with the little keyboard on it. Thanks to my finely honed CrackBerry typing skills it was a joy to play like that.

AOC's interface is a bear though I'll give you that. Theres not even a way to cleanly fit the extra hot bars on top of the existing interface. I've actually opted for just abandoning older abilities to the spellbook and working with a barebone set of attacks.

Relmstein said...

I'm hearing a popular setup is to bind your numberpad keys to your combos on the second hotbar. Then just abandon using the mouse.

When the game comes out for the consoles I'll have to take a look at some screenshots and see how similar the UI is to the original PC version. I'm sure by then they will have had updated the PC version a bit. I think in the last patch they already changed a couple things.

Scott said...

Unfortunately I don't have any experience with AO. I recently installed it, took quite some time getting it patched due to improper read/write attributes set on some of the patcher files. Got it going yesterday: made a character, watched the intro movie, then insta-crash. Now it just gives me a CTD every time I login...

FFXI was designed for the console, that's probably why it felt better using a controller, even on the PC. I'd love to try it out but I just can't warrant spending money (buying the DVD and setting up a PlayOnline account) for what appears to be a typical Asian grind game (only with forced grouping, not all solo like the F2P are).

I'm extremely curious to see what they do for an RPG UI on the console. I suppose they could do what EA, etc. have been doing for RTS where we hold one of the shoulder buttons to drop down the hotbar then choose one, but that would be slower than the PC, so if they took that route they'd probably have to separate each platform to its own servers; no cross-platform play.

Relmstein said...

I always liked the Secret of Mana method of putting a ring of options around the character and allowing you to rotate and drilldown.

Karl said...

I guess I will take the bait thrown out there by scott and say that the only thing you see in AoC that you wont see in a game made by American devs living in their own little puritan bubble who are unsure of what European gamers want, is the violence and mature content.

Rockstar games being the giant exception :)

I should stop getting on my soapbox and defend my fellow Europeans but sweeping statements about how European developers are somehow out of touch with reality are annoying.

I have yet to play any mmo where I couldn't customize the UI in way I found satisfactory... Oh wait in world of warcraft without a UI mod I was helpless. :)

The UI in AO isnt bad atleast I didn't think it was so when I played it for 2 years. When I returned to play it for a few months recently I did however feel its age.

Openedge1 said...

I wholeheartedly agree with the Xbox 360 option.
I play the game on my 360 controller with zero problems, and it is great fun...
I did a big write up on my blog about it.
I found someones elses blog that discussed some macro scripting features, so maybe if I can get some of those stupid commands mapped out..(/cc addbuddy...yea...thats intuitive...lol)
I think i could 99% abandon my keyboard for now..(Teamspeak or Ventrilo should do it)

Later

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