A Moveable Interface…

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.

2 thoughts on “A Moveable Interface…

  1. After playing WoW for over a year, it was hard to go play other games that don’t have a scriptable interface. I find myself playing games and thinking “boy it would nice to have a mod that moved this information here” or “I wish I could have access to this information without opening this submenu” and then remembering that it’s not going to happen unless the developer decides to do it – and with most companies that means it won’t happen.

    I was VERY happy when I found the Yet Another Unaltered Gameplay Mod a few weeks back. I think it makes a ton of improvements. Some improvements I think should be rolled in to the official game, but I’ll admit that there are several improvements that I actually don’t think the base game to have. Some things are great for power users, but would be too intimidating for new or casual players. I think you guys did a fantastic job at making this latest Civ very inviting for the new user.

    The funny thing about WoW, though, is that I constantly felt that the addons for WoW did a lot more than just improve the interface – they actually made it playable. You mentioned that the “Quest Watcher” was implemented after release, and it definitely was added because of the huge popularity of a community addon that did the same thing. However, there were HUGE features missing from the interface when the game was first released – in a raid (of up to 40 people) it was impossible to see the health or status of any of those raid members aside from the 5 in your party. This made end game raiding pretty much impossible. Blizzard didn’t seem to mind, however, because the community addon “CT_RaidAssist” was required by pretty much every endgame guild there is. There are other addons out there like AutoBar and TargetOfTarget (I believe this is implemented in the latest patch) and EquipCompare that I literally cannot play the game without. But then again, I really am a mod junkie – I find mods for every game I have, develop for most of them, and usually spend more time modding my games than playing them!

    I guess my whole point is that while I absolutely love having a client side scriptable interface, I think it can be annoying when a developer uses it as an excuse to not need to make their retail interface that great, because the community will fix it. Note, however, that I don’t think Civ 4 did this at all. 🙂

  2. I must agree with Greg’s comment about client side scriptable interfaces.

    Just because the fans can do it is no excuse for the developer to make a half-baked interface.

    There’s plenty of people who buy games but never go to fan-sites who would walk away from the game with a bad impression.


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