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Cicaeda

An In-depth Critique of Skill UI

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Disclaimer: This post is critiquing a Crowfall UI design choice, not the current state of UI in Pre-Alpha.
In this post, I will argue that Crowfall’s monochromatic skill icons are creating a non-functional user interface. 

            ---- "Crowfall's skill icon design is the equivalent of using a binary search tree when you should be using a hash table"


There are 3 primary features the human brain looks for when trying to quickly identify and remember an icon. In order from fastest to slowest, they are: color, symbolism, and shape. 
 
Crowfall’s monochromatic flat icons are troubling for a number of reasons, which I will begin to describe. Firstly, it is worth reminding the reader that Crowfall is a real-time battle game, where time is of the essence, and information about the battle is the number one priority. Thus, it should follow that an icon’s purpose should be to convey as much battle-relevant information in as little time as possible. We should then ask ourselves what information about a skill is most valuable in the time of battle and attempt to portray that information in the artwork of the skill. So what is the most important information in the heat of a battle? The range, the mana cost, the duration of the skill’s animation, or perhaps the skill-creator’s favorite food for a Saturday brunch? The correct answer to that question, is, of course, the identity of the skill itself. Nothing is important than instantaneously knowing which icon is which skill. In the heat of the battle, if a Knight were to forget which new skill was where on his hotbar, having to take two seconds to mouse over the skill to identify it could make or break a situation. Also, it’s just really, REALLY annoying.
 
However, Crowfall has made the unfortunate choice of relegating icon color to information that is not useful in battle: Skill Category. Being able to identify that Song of Speed is a support skill in the middle of battle is not strategically valuable. Consequently, it makes it incredibly difficult to quickly identify skills in times of need. It also makes it exponentially harder to memorize the skills because color is so strongly tied to memory. 
 
        “Quick, Cicaeda! Songtwist your Requiem skill now or we’ll all be dead!”
        “Wait, which one is Requiem again?!”
        “It’s the orange Troubador skill. Just hurry up!
        “BUT THEY’RE ALL ORANGE.”

 
Furthermore, I would also like to argue that the varying shapes of the skill icons contributes negatively to identification of skills. You might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, Cicaeda. Didn’t you just say that shapes were GOOD for identifying icons?” To which I might say, “Yes, I did say that, however...” Indeed: However! In the case of combat skill icons, what a varying shape actually means is: A Transparent Background. A spiky-shaped icon is of the same effectiveness as a square shaped icon with a spiky object inside, but with no background. Evidently, this ends up harshly limiting design space for color. Although subtle, adding an artistic colored backdrop makes all the difference in creating a memorable icon. [Please refer to samples provided]
 
Side Note: Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 failed miserably, partially due to poor UI decisions. Fortunately, the game was remade successfully by a new producer. Now UI is one of its strongest selling points. It was such a comeback story, a documentary was even made about it. FF14 may be the polar opposite style of MMO to Crowfall, but I think one thing both games can agree upon is User Interface. It would be wise to take the lessons they learned into consideration for Crowfall’s future development.  You can hear the producer cite UI problems in the documentary here: Link
(It’s not very well translated at this part (Yes, I speak Japanese). What he actually said was: the Mouse/Keyboard UI was just so bad in 1.0 that you pretty much had to play it with the gamepad option instead. Figuratively had to play with gamepad. Not literally.

 
Lastly, I would like to state that I am of the opinion that it is imperative to fix the skill UI before Soft Launch. I worry that the tedious UI may drive away a large number of players without it being apparent that UI was the cause. My hope is that this post will urge ACE to address this problem sooner rather than later, despite the fact that it’s “only” a UI problem.

A good UI is the unsung hero of a successful MMO. 

Edited by Cicaeda
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so this is actually about the graphic design of power icons?

their shape and colours actually follow consistent patterns that convey information about the mechanics.

the art also is generally well done to consisently tell powers apart and see what they do.

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Edited by Tinnis

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finally:

i would directly argue that the non-monochromatic icons you use in your example are actually far far worse at conveying any meaningful information at a glance and result in a visual mess of colours

i can point to another game that over the course of its life changed from a simple clean monochromatic look to a colorful mess of icons and it was NOT an improvement either for readability or style...

DAOC

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Edited by Tinnis

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Quote

their shape and colours actually follow consistent patterns that convey information about the mechanics.

the art also is generally well done to consisently tell powers apart and see what they do.

I totally agree that the art is well done and consistent. It's very well thought-out. However, that doesn't mean it's functional. Presenting more information isn't always better, it's about when, where, and how the information is presented. UI needs to be designed with purpose in mind. If you are designing icons for a situation where you are intended to sit and think for 10 seconds to identify and extrapolate all of the meaning from an isolated icon, Crowfall's skill icons would be wonderful! However, combat game UI doesn't have the luxury of time. It's much more functional to have a memorable icon that is recognizable in an instant. It is unreasonable to expect players to look at 4 Troubador songs all colored the same shade of orange and mull over which one they wanted to Songtwist. Ultimately, excessive mental load to distinguish between elements in time-constrained situations is simply bad design and it should be recognized as such. 

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finally:

i would directly argue that the non-monochromatic icons you use in your example are actually far far worse at conveying any meaningful information

In support of my point, you are correct! My example icons don't convey as much information, but they do present the right information, and they do so more effectively. Each skill's details are already written in the description, so putting skill data in the icon is redundant. It increases mental load, and makes it take longer to identify the skill at the cost of design space.

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i can point to another game that over the course of its life changed from a simple clean monochromatic look to a colorful mess of icons and it was NOT an improvement either for readability or style...

DAOC

Again, I agree with you here. The new icons compared to the classic icons in Dark Age of Camelot are not an improvement, just like you say. Both the new and the old icons suffer from poor color management. The so-called upgrade amounted to nothing more than a shift in style than an functionality improvement. It's a very good point that new doesn't necessarily mean better. This is all the more reason that ACE should take the time to plan new icons that will actually be more functional, not just a superficial change in aesthetics. 

Edited by Cicaeda

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I believe another thing they were aiming for when they swapped over to the current design was readability at scale, and compared to the old icons, they are a lot easier to both read and identify.
Ultimately I think it boils down to really learning your class and their skills. You're not going to know off the bat what all your skills do until you read them, but Crowfall's design scheme aids in making that process quicker to begin with by giving you easy to read and identify skill icons.


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5 hours ago, Cicaeda said:

         “Quick, Cicaeda! Songtwist your Requiem skill now or we’ll all be dead!”
        “Wait, which one is Requiem again?!”
        “It’s the orange Troubador skill. Just hurry up!
        “BUT THEY’RE ALL ORANGE.”

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Isn't it a bit late to discuss icons' design ? I don't know if you're right or not (I mean, if I can just keep the cooldown and make all the icons invisible, I'll do it) but we discussed on the topic a while ago ( Like something around a year ) and pretty much everyone, both the dev team, and players agreed that it was better this way. And I don't think it will change back as we have know hundreds of skills and hundreds of icons.

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@Tinnis

You are completely missing my point. I never said they weren't meaningful. You just cannot reasonably expect a human being to look for details like that and make a snap realization of which icon is which. It takes some serious mental gymnastics to argue that four icons the same color are faster to identify than four that are not. Not to mention the details are so abstract, which deepens the processing time. Please, take a step back.

Edit: Actually, I'm facepalming at how much more functional the old icons were, particularly Knight and Champion. It's my first time seeing them, but just looking at them for 30 seconds, I can already recognize each skill faster than the current icons. It's so much easier that it's frustrating to think about.

Edited by Cicaeda
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Honestly, for me, the Icons are the least cumbersome thing of the whole UI. 

I actually spend very little time looking at them, i just subconsciously memorize what button i hit does what, and as i a switch icons with other powers just some minor muscle memory remapping and its fine.

Although, when i am adding them to the bar it does take some time figuring out which is which and have to re-read descriptions dozens of times. This is the only time that their 'simplistic' design is more of a annoyance then anything else.

I would argue that instead of throwing all these power types in the same box and expecting people to sort them based on some shape/color indication, actually have the game order/group them with a proper label based on type. 

But again, once they are on my bar, i could care less. 

Edited by Vectious

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1 hour ago, Cicaeda said:

You just cannot reasonably expect a human being to look

 

18 minutes ago, Vectious said:

I actually spend very little time looking at them, i just subconsciously memorize what button i hit does what

^ this

i play a dual bar character, often including a bard, and the frequency with which i even have to look at the power bar in a fight is very low


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I memorize hotkeys too, but there are two things you have to keep in mind.

1. The experience is still miserable for the first day as you get acclimated to the new skill list, constantly checking back on new skills. This issues is amplified by the existence of discipline swapping, which will make the tedious skill learning process something that happens on a regular basis, enough to drive a person insane.

2. Not everyone plays like we do, and not everyone is good at hotkey memorization in the first place. It will only be more miserable for other people.

 

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and have to re-read descriptions dozens of times. This is the only time that their 'simplistic' design is more of a annoyance then anything else.

But it's not a problem. Right guys?

Edited by Cicaeda

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they are well done for sure but theres too much information, they are way too detailed (and the shapes are hard on the eye)

another problem with the colours is that they are not representing a class in the slighest, making it difficult to distinguish again

 

ill throw in some warcraft abilitys for reference, almost all combat relevant abilitys are easily recognized by colour (representing a class) and different, "simple" icons

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they use some pictures for several classes but the colour always seperates it, and its really easy to get used to the different colours that are being used (mages for example have either red, blue or purple in their iconds, depending on spec, its obvious what colours the fire/frost/arcane mage has, right?)


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I actually like the old skill icons that Tinnis posted better.... but the only time an experienced gamer is going to have an issue with this is when the skills bug out after death. At that point, you have to drag them to your hotbar again. I recently messed up and put on some other skill instead of rallying banner because they looked so similar. Clearly that messed me up in a fight. After this skill removal death bug goes away, I can't see any veteran gamer having an issue with the current icons.

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5 hours ago, Cicaeda said:

@Tinnis

You are completely missing my point. I never said they weren't meaningful. You just cannot reasonably expect a human being to look for details like that and make a snap realization of which icon is which. It takes some serious mental gymnastics to argue that four icons the same color are easier to identify than four that are not. Not to mention the details are so abstract, which deepens the processing time. Please, take a step back.

Edit: Actually, I'm facepalming at how much more functional the old icons were, particularly Knight and Champion. It's my first time seeing them, but just looking at them for 30 seconds, I can already recognize each skill faster than the current icons. It's so much easier that it's frustrating to think about.

Realistically, once you have your favorite loadout that you have practiced with, you will not be looking at your icons in the middle of the a fight anyway.

The intent is that you won't be swapping these things around in the heat of battle.  If you don't know the details of the powers in your tray, you need some practice and muscle memory.

 

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1 hour ago, KrakkenSmacken said:

The intent is that you won't be swapping these things around in the heat of battle.  If you don't know the details of the powers in your tray, you need some practice and muscle memory.

 

they still feel blurry


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8 hours ago, Tinnis said:

for reference: some of the old icons they initially went with (stylized + colour)......

I remember those icons a lot better than the current design they have.  Personally I like the multi-colored approach to icons, and what they have now does not give me enough differentiation for quick looks.

Eventually muscle memory becomes part of playing and you don't need the icons at all; however for playing across multiple classes/races I believe it makes it easier to have unique multi-colored icons.  While ACE is trying to be very logical in their approach to icon design, I don't remember, or don't follow the design as intuitively as glancing at a multi-colored icon.

Now after having said that, I think it's a minor thing that they can work on after soft launch.  The current design is more than functional for this stage, and for soft launch; I wouldn't ask for a change on this issue just because of my preferences.


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