DDO v WoW continued!

It’s impossible to underestimate the critical impact a games user interface (UI) can have on the players experience. A good UI facilitates and enhances the players experience. A poorly designed UI may ruin the game, compromising the players ability to interact with the game world. More than likely a bad UI will only frustrate the player… the end result being nerd rage and nasty forum flame wars. No one want’s either.

So having created my two Paladins – Angelarmor (WoW) and Augusteen (DDO) – I’m ready to enter their respective game worlds. My goal, to evaluate the following:

  • How the user interfaces of WoW and DDO  rate against each other
  • How the user interfaces impact the gaming experience

With these questions in mind, let us continue the Tale of the Two Paladins! Apologies if this post appears long – actually the word count is not that bad, it’s simply broken up into lots of small paragraphs.

What the UI should allow you to do?

The user interface should facilitate two things:

  • Allows the player to interact with the world
  • Reports back to the player events taking place in the world

Sounds obvious right? But how well the UI performs these two functions is crucial and can vary in different games. Most MMO interfaces posses the same standard features, and for good reason. So just how good is the systems developed by Turbine (DDO) and Blizzard (WoW)? Let’s see, but first a little about the evaluation methodology.

My really scientific method of evaluation

"Zis is how vee rate ze games ya?"

"Zis is how vee rate ze games ya?"

I could make this really simple and say the UI  “is great” or “it sucks!”, or even “meh.” But that won’t tell you anything: I assume your interested in a little more analysis. Instead I’ll borrow the evaluation methodology outlined in Jakob Nielson’s “Usability Engineering”. It’s a handy, quick way to assess the usability of any system based on some basic principles. Nielson’s methodology is widely recognised in amongst software engineers and designers, so I’ll borrow and tweak it ever so slightly in  make it relevant to MMO gaming. Now, I could make up my own system, but that’s too much hard work.

Anyhoo, I’ll base my evaluation on the following criteria:

  • Visibility and system status – tells the player what is happening in real time.
  • Match between system and real world – Put it this way, imagine if the language of the UI was in Queya.
  • User control and freedom – allows the users to modify and reverse any mistakes(i.e. modify or change the UI layout).
  • Error prevention – good design prevents the user from making in game mistakes (i.e. constantly using the wrong abilities in combat).
  • Recognition rather than recall – The system must allow the gamer to easily recognise objects, actions or options visible.
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use – the system can appeals to both the novice and experienced player.
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design – good design conveys information to the player as it is needed.
  • Help and Documentation – provides tips, guides or hints when playing or interacting with the world.

Note that I didn’t use “intuitive” as a specific criteria. The assumption is that if a UI rates highly in all the above criteria it is then, by default, intuitive.

Note: the same scoring system is used as in Part One (1-5)

Warcraft

Let’s begin with WoW’s famous, and now much imitated, interface.

I've seen this before...

 

Visibility and system status

WoW players are probably so used to the UI that they don’t even notice how well it presents data to them. Reading your health and mana bar is easy. Buffs, and their duration can be easily assessed by glancing at the same avatar portrait. Simply glance your portrait in the top left corner. You can easily track how much XP you have, and how far you need to go to “ding” the next level. Indeed, the player can quickly scan the entire UI and get a status on health, damage being dealt, damage taken, buffs, XP gained and their location by checking the mini-map

  • Score: 5/5

Match between system and real world

The language used to describe the UI features is simple, plain and in my mind makes sense. Let’s take one example: reviewing the talent tree. Opening the panel for your avatars talent tree is easy – click icon or hit the N key. The three tabs for the Paladin group the different classes of spell nicely (Holy, Retribution and Protection). Running your mouse of the various icons in the talent tree clearly indicates what the abilities are.

  • Score: 5/5

User control and freedom 

Even without add-ons, you can modify your UI set up somewhat: options are made accessible via the general menu. You can add or subtract the number of action bars, adjust their resolution and do a few other things. Not a wide selection, but you can easily change and modify it to your liking. Placing icons into the action bars is simply a case of clicking and dragging them from talent tree.

  • Score: 3/5

Error prevention

WoW alerts you to “errors” by displaying text in the centre of the screen. Some examples: trying to use a spell that has not finished it’s cool down (Spell is not ready); trying to hit a MOB when facing the wrong way (You are facing the wrong way). Simple, direct messages that alert you to mistakes you are making.

  • Score: 3/5

Recognition rather than recall

WoW does this exceptionally well. Players glancing the UI will easily recognise the mini-map, avatar portrait, icons for abilities in action bars and menu options.

  • Score: 5/5

Flexibility and efficiency of use

This is the great strength of WoW. It’s UI is easily accessible and understandable to both new players and experienced players. A newbie logging on for the very first time can easily assess the components of the UI and start to modify it.

  • Score: 5/5

Aesthetic and minimalist design

Again, WoW’s other great strength: the design and layout of the UI is simple and elegant. It does not crowd the screen, therefore does not ruin the players immersion in the game world. While some may complain it is a little primative, compared to many other interfaces, it’s pretty very easy to use.

  • Score: 4/5

Help and Documentation

Not bad, not brilliant either. The helpful “Tips” function when switched on is useful for brand new players, as it display messages in context (i.e. when you accept a quest for the first time it explains the basic mechanics).

  • Score: 3/5

Summary and average score

I will admit to being a fan of the WoW user interface. It’s simple, elegant and accessible. New and casual players will find the standard UI sufficient to meet their needs. Serious raiders may need to seriously modify their UI through add-ons such as Grid, Omen, Pally Power etc. However, for most players it will easily meet their needs and allow them to navigate the WoW universe with ease.

  • Average score: 4/5

Dungeons & Dragons Online

On the surface there’s not much difference? Right.

Hmmm, where to start...

Hmmm, where to start...

Well, unfortunatley the UI gets less friendly and intuitive the more you delve into it…

Things can get ugly real fast...

Things can get ugly real fast...

Visibility and system status

The best feature of DDO is the combined voice over acting and general messages displayed to the user when entering a new dungeon: “You enter the chamber looking for the key…”. One could argue that voice is not strictly a feature of the UI, but it helps gameplay and adds atmosphere.

  • Score: 3/5

Match between system and real world

I find the text of DDO UI uses a lot more language and descriptions derived from pen and paper D&D. As I have not played much D&D I found this a little confusing. Experienced D&D players no doubt feel at home, however for players new to the universe it’s a bit overwhelming.

  • Score: 2/5

User control and freedom 

To be honest I have not played around with modifying the UI too much: I’m still trying to come to grips with some it’s basics. That in itself is a good indication that it does not give the player much flexibility.

  • Score: 2/5

Error prevention

When trying to use abilities not ready, or attempting actions such as opening a door when a lack a specific key DDO did a reasonable job of warning me. No issues there, and compatible to WoW in this regards.

  • Score: 3/5

Recognition rather than recall

I’m sorry, but this this is DDO falls down. Yes, I can scan the UI and see the mini-map and other features. However opening additional panes and options and things become very ugly, with multiple panes crowding and overlapping each other. The text describing the the attributes of abilities or items is somewhat hard to read. It becomes a case of visual overload, and often my eye wanders across the screen, distracted or looking for information that will help me.

  • Score: 2/5

Flexibility and efficiency of use

I’ve played a lot of games, but damn the UI is challenging. For the novice MMO gamer, I’d think the would be overwhelming and may put them off playing the game further.

  • Score: 2/5

Aesthetic and minimalist design

The UI takes up far too much of the screen. I found it obtrusive, and thus had oftened ruined my immersion in the game. Action bars are somewhat hard to view, and the icons themselves not necessarily indicative of the abilities they represent. At the same time other parts of the UI – i.e. the chat box – are oversized and take up too much screen real estate. The text is small, cramped and hard to read. This is a fail Turbine…

  • Score: 1/5

Help and Documentation

The “Tips” are useful, and display within context. The map function is OK. However I simply can’t get past the other issues with the UI…

  • Score: 3/5

Summary

To be honest, this is the biggest turn off for me. I’ve palyed DDO a bit, and enjoy the game. Oh, and I lurv the character creation process. However, I suspect the UI would be a struggle for a number of players. I appreciate how difficult it would be to rebuild the games UI, but seriously an overhual would do much to increase the games accessibility.

  • Average Score: 2.1

So the winner is?

At least as far as user interface goes, WoW wins hands down. Yes, I’m open to claims of bias, but when playing a new MMO I need to feel I can easily navigate and interact with the world. In my opinion, the deficiencies of DDO’s UI may impact negatively on game play experience.

With some effort I’ve become much more used to DDO’s UI.

Going F2p with DDO was a brave move by the developers, and they should be applauded, But problems with the UI may act as a barrior for new players. After all the developers are trying to catch casual players, a segment of the market that has limited time and patience to learn overly complex systems.

However, this does not mean DDO is down and out: not by a long shot! It is possible to overlook the issues of the UI and enjoy the game.

Next up, the start zone experience and quests.

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