Our Civ4 interface programmer, Pat Dawson, was a big fan of World of WarCraft. One of the most impressive things about that game is the flexibility it gives users to create their own custom interfaces. The interesting thing about that decision is that while it taps into the incredible resources of the user modding community, it is also a tacit admission that a game’s interface is best developed in concert with the players.
I first started playing WoW over a year after the initial launch. Thus, I assumed that a number of modifications had been made to the official interface since then. I noticed that the system for updating the progess of your quests (SHIFT-clicking on them so they appear permanently on the right side of the screen) seemed a little hacky. The text, for example, didn’t have a background and sometimes overran other interface elements. Also, the limit of only showing five quests seemed quite arbitrary… but it sure was useful! I asked my hard-core WoW buddy about this feature, and he said – sure enough – it was added in a post-release patch. Now, I have no way of knowing, but I strongly suspect that a user-created interface mod inspired them to make that change. The on-screen quest display seems like a classic case of showing what the user cares about as opposed to what the designer thinks the user should care about.
At any rate, getting back to Pat… he pushed hard late in the project for us to move all of our interface into Python. This decision really paid off in the long run as the amount of interesting and useful Civ4 interface mods is growing rapidly. In fact, a couple of these mods were rolled into our last two patches, such as ulfn’s Proper Score Graph and the health bars from 12monkeys’s Plot List Enhancement. Quite simply, they fixed things we could have done better – no one knows how best to make an interface than someone who uses it day after day after day. We play our games a lot, but we can never play them as much as our fans do.
I have no idea if this is happening in the mod communities of other games, but I also enjoy the “compendium” mods that seem to be popping up, which merge together all of the useful interface mods out there. Guarav’s Yet Another Unaltered Gameplay Mod is a good example. There are lots of good changes here – a Foreign and Military Advisor, a Civilopedia with a persistent menu “pane”, Great People quotes, triggering diplomacy reminders and messages, showing turns left for Culture and Great People Points, a customizable Domestic Advisor, and so on. These changes are very interesting to see as a designer because they meet the informational and aestethic demands that the community has for the interface.