Wednesday, April 29, 2009

CSM #3 Policy: User Interface

I will begin by giving credit where credit is due - CCP has been consistently improving the user interface for years. Changes ranging from contracts to the Align To button to the drone changes that have been happening for years now to dozens of others have made the user's experience better and made the game consistently more playable. CCP has been implementing these constantly over the last several expansions, and they have genuinely helped.

However, as much as the game has been changing for the better, it hasn't been changing nearly fast enough. Game reviewer Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw said it best:
The interface could only be less intuitive if your monitor was at the bottom of a well...I was going to say in jest that Eve feels like a game that doesn't seem to want to be played at all, but on reflection I think I might be onto something.
And, whether you trust his reviews or not, his response fits well with what I've heard from many other people I've tried to bring into the game. I have yet to come across anyone who wasn't an Eve veteran who thought the UI was anything better than marginally usable, and after two years I still only find it adequate.

CCP may have a team of UI programmers, but there are limits on what three or four people can do for a game as sprawling as Eve with as bad of a UI as it has, especially given that this isn't changes to an alpha test version but instead to a long-deployed game. They need to come up with improvements, and they need to work within a pile of code that they can't just rip up and change, and they have to do this without annoying any significant number of people. It's not surprising that they're moving slowly, but it is immensely frustrating.

This is not a phrase I will utter very often, but this is a field where Eve could stand to learn quite a lot from World of Warcraft. I have never played WoW myself, but I know a lot of people who do, and all of them rave about the utility of user-created user interface modifications. You want to move buttons around, you can download a quick little file that will do so, and all of a sudden the UI is exactly the way you want it, without the developers ever having to lift a finger. As with most other forms of distributed problem-solving, it works incredibly well.

Players with programming skill go into the UI, fix whatever problem annoys them, and then post the patch on a central website for others to use. You need one person to make a change and the whole community benefits from it. Of course, Eve does not have the same size of player base as WoW, but a quarter of a million people will contain one who gets annoyed by just about any problem you care to name - as evidenced by all the game utility sites that exist today - and then the devs can gain freedom of movement, since any bad change can be reverted by the players, and the players get to play with exactly the UI they want.

Of course, there are concerns with this process, but they are concerns that other games have dealt with successfully. The game cannot be so moddable that people can use game tools to build macros to play the game for them. Some interactions are too powerful and will need to be removed. The devs will have to keep on top of what is available and what is being used to ensure that the tools that they provide are not being used for undesirable purposes. However, I believe this to be an important change, perhaps even the single most useful change that could be made to the game right now. As such, I will work to establish a modifiable user interface for Eve, and I will treat this as the single most important goal of my term of office.

However, even if my goal of a user-moddable UI is implemented tomorrow, the game still needs to cater to new players, and as such the default user interface will still need work. There have been several players who have created lists of UI problems for the developers to fix, most notably Xaen with his thread Xaen's List of UI Improvements, now approaching three years old. I encourage attempts to create a systematic process for collating and advancing complaints about the UI, and I will seek to involve the CSM in this process in future. The proposal to have a streamlined process for minor issues(see the CSM Internal post below) should help immensely with this, but I will also encourage players to submit larger proposals of this type as well, such as the badly needed overhaul of the Science and Industry interface.

I know that the user interface is not as impressive an issue to deal with as changes to capital warfare or as likely to make headlines. It is, however, just as important to the long-term health of the game and to the good tempers of those playing it. While it will not be the only focus of my term of office, I think this is an area that has not been addressed adequately to date, and it is one where there is still a lot of real progress that needs to be made.

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