Posts Tagged ‘UI design’

Why do a job once when you can do it eight times in only eight times the time?


[Posted to the Gaslamp Games blog]

Quiet? Only outwardly. Our Dear Leader saw fit to allow ye players to select your own resolution rather than be limited to a proper and traditional 800×600 screen. Oh, we have such things in store. You will be able to descend far deeper into the Dungeons of Dredmor than ever imagined previously!

Now come with me and perform a cheap analogue of descending into the dungeon by scrolling down past this large image which is a crop of the title screen painting, showing how I’m expanding it to fit higher resolutions!

By deeper I’m referring only to the resolution of the game, of course. We’re not radically changing the actual number of levels, though one could say that the depth of the gameplay you will find in said levels will be much greater than before. I won’t get into it much, but the thought process is to focus gameplay more on what you see in the game (eg. the items, the skills, the tactics involved in using the grid of the dungeon layout, finding crazy stuff) than on what you don’t see in the game (eg. percentile bonuses to hidden stats).

Back to the art aspect, as the official Gaslamp art janitor, I get to clean up the messes that other people make as they change the fundamental requirements of the game. Bitter? Never! Well, only most of the time! — at Gaslamp I expect, nay, demand pain. Please sir, may I have another artistic beating? (Actually this turn of phrase reminds me of a certain performance art piece from back in art school, but I digress.) In short, redrawing the entire UI really does get easier when you’ve done it seven times before.

Worse yet, the clever new pixel scaling algorithm which Nicholas is employing works much better with low-color art than with the high-color art style which I used to draw everything. Pixel art formalism, which I’ve railed against before, has struck back at me, and I have surrendered to it. And I’m finding that I like it.

You’ll never find me drawing a dither gradient though, unless it’s very intentionally for texture. I may be a videogame artist, but I do have some pride left. Here, check out new items:

Feel free to speculate wildly about the significance of fruit, a top hat, and ingots of various metals.

The vagaries of the internet’s attention: More Dwarf Fortress design/dev commentary


I checked my blog stats one morning a few weeks ago and saw this:

Apparently my post on Dwarf Fortress and Goblin Camp got reddited by someone and things kinda took off.

It is a strange thing to suddenly get a whole lot of attention when I’ve mostly just been shooting my mouth off about random things for the sake of itself. I saw people who read my post commenting on points I raised, and I saw people who misread my post comment on points I didn’t even make. Others commented on points I somewhat unintentionally made due to lazy and unclear writing. Others picked up on an exaggerated sense of urgency and conflict between Dwarf Fortress and Goblin Camp that I put into the writing to make it more interesting (presumably, mostly to myself and a couple readers of this blog).

It’s all a bit overwhelming, and it’s always upsetting when it looks to me like someone is wrong on the internet. No wonder writers can get frustrated with their words being mis/re/interpreted!

Right, so there are a few points raised in various comments that I’d like to specifically address now that time has made mild all heated feelings. I’ll uncharitably paraphrase a comment or criticism then address it.

1. “Learn to use the interface/keyboard commands/job manager, noob!”

I assure ya’all that I am familiar with the job manager and that I’ve learned the keyboard commands of DF inside and out. I am indeed not just some noob who can’t be bothered to learn the system and who should go back to playing Farmville or Bejeweled. In my post I left out detailed explanation and critique of the particulars of DF’s user interface for the sake of brevity. It still stands that the systems are esoteric, unwieldy, and – the real kicker – may interact very poorly with the game systems (eg. “Job cancelled by Urist McUrist. Need this or that material!” x1000). Results of supply chain breakdowns are occasionally disastrous, which may or may not be as fun as advertised, depending on your attitude. This last point is where Goblin Camp’s “pull” job orders work very nicely (if things still work as they were described) compared to Dwarf Fortresses “push” job orders.

Let me explain: To make high-level things in DF, a slew of materials need to be processed through various steps, and I need to give the order for each step either by-hand or through the job manager of them. To make a steel item I would need to designate the mining of coal, an iron ore, and a flux material, then order the smelting of the ore into pig iron, order the processing of pig iron with flux into steel, then order a steel goblet to be crafted. I have to push each material and process from the bottom up. Consider an alternative: What if I could just order a steel goblet from the workshop and the workshop sent an order for steel to the smelter which would, in turn, send out an order for iron ore, flux, and coal to be mined from active veins of each? This is “pull” versus “push”. It’s one action from me vs. a whole list of actions.

In the end, it’s about whether the decisions the player has to make are meaningful or meaningless; I don’t want a game to treat me as a mindless automaton. It is largely irrelevant if I mine iron ore square 1 vs. iron ore square 2 (unless square 2 opens on to a cavern full of giant cave spiders, but them’s the breaks). As I was saying, there is a difference between meaningless micromanagement (eg. hand-designating every square to mine out in DF) and meaningful micromanagement (eg. unit ability control in StarCraft).

If I am micromanaging actions that can be handled just as meaningfully by the computer, if it is a problem that has only one reasonable solution that I have to provide over and over, then I feel like I’m wasting my time, and that is the core of my objection to the intense micro of DF.

A couple quick counter-counter arguments:

  • Yes, the “more is more” design philosophy of Dwarf Fortress is indeed its particular charm and I love finding diorite, gabbro, rhyolite and so on even if they could all be summed up as “rock”. However, this quality of excessive detail in DF  is not mutually exclusive with non-tedious micromanagement or a transparent UI/game interaction scheme.
  • Yes, Tarn is ‘working on it’. I certainly respect the problems he is dealing with and I respect him as a game creator — this does not mean it is illegitimate to critique his creation. Which brings me to my second point…

2. “Dwarf Fortress is still in alpha, you can’t expect too much from it.”

Well, yes and no.

It is an alpha in the sense of not being done, but it isn’t in the sense that tons of people are playing it right now as a game. This is not an “alpha” in the usual sense of a linear software development process with an alpha, beta, and final release (and then some followup patches and expansions). Dwarf Fortress has an ongoing, responsive, and open-ended donation-driven development model which is quite unlike the thinking surrounding a traditional commercial game. The effect of this is that DF is a process, not a product.

I contend that it is quite legitimate to comment on the process of DF’s creation as it is ongoing.

There were probably more comments that I should address, but that’ll have to wait for another time. (I will say that I do find all the interest and discussion around Dwarf Fortress completely fascinating.)

I’ve got one final point for this post:

Based off everything Tarn has said in interviews and his dev log, I am struck by the thought that what he wants Dwarf Fortress to be is not the same as the game that most people are playing. Tarn is making Slaves to Armok 2; Most fans are playing Dwarf Fortress. Tarn is making a fantasy world simulator that is focused more on creating a Roguelike/RPG experience than on the Dwarf-themed city-builder which everyone else cares much more about. This is reflected in what development has been focused on: extreme detail for creatures and combat versus streamlining the interface and usability of the city-building game.

And I think that’s really the answer: Tarn is not (deeply and ultimately) in it for fortress mode. Other people, other projects – like Goblin Camp – are in it primarily for fortress mode, for the fantasy city-building simulation game. [To clarify, I wouldn’t say that Tarn is not interested in fortress mode, just that it is not the primary objective of the whole project of creating a fantasy world simulation to serve as a medium for genre narratives. In other words, it’s not his goal to make the best fantasy city-sim it could be, so it is somewhat nonsensical to expect it. With that observed, all this nattering about the design and development of DF is purely academic. I can live with that because it’s fun to write about what DF is, isn’t, could be, and should be. ]

ps: “If you think you’re so smart, why don’t you make your own game?”

Sure! I’ll, uh, keep you posted on how that works out. [More: I really want to do this. I did have a number of months free a few years ago, but I didn’t get as far as creating an actual playable game. It was, however, an intense learning experience. I’d love to do the game-auteur thing again when I’m in a financial position to do so.]

Pop-up icons are awful!


This might seem negative, but I found that I have a visceral reaction against the subject of this post and upon being confronted to explain myself I believe that there are good justifications for my feelings. So let’s hear ’em!

(I’ll even apply this to UI design in Dungeons of Dredmor at the end.)

While redesigning the Gaslamp Games blog, our web dev’r found a plugin for WordPress to give a viewer the ability to share a post on social media sites (which is the cool thing that The Kids do these days, I hear). This plugin is SexyBookmarks. Here it is on the Gaslamp site; my mouse cursor was over the icon:

You get a row of social media icons that pop-up on mouseover. Yes, it’s cute. But I hate it.

The point of an icon is to be a sign for what it represents which is identifiable at a glance. It is the symbol of the thing condensed and simplified as much as possible. This plugin cuts the icon in half, hiding much of the visible space, making it less identifiable. This defeats the purpose of having a full icon.

Is it about saving space? It doesn’t: In the half-hidden mode, the icon is shifted down 10 pixels and upon mouseover the icon is shifted up 10 pixels. These 10 pixels for the icon to move into are left blank anyway, so no space is saved. Why not just use fully visible but slightly smaller icons so that they are more readily identified at a glance, so that they use the full visible area given to them as the designers of the icons intended?

If this is not about saving space then the purpose that remains is using a hidden/unhidden visual cue to designate the mouseover state. Though as said, this conflicts with the design of the icons in the first place because it obscures their quick identification.

In the end it is a gimmick because its outstanding feature interferes with its function. Yes, it’s a cute trick, but it does not make a useful plugin.

… also the web2.0-looking shadow effect doesn’t fit at all with the Gaslamp webpage’s aesthetic.

How does this apply to Dredmor?

A long, long time ago we tooled around with having the quick-slot item bar be hidden slightly behind the UI to give the main game area more viewable space. It would pop-up the item bar to show the full item icons when the mouse go closer to the bottom of the screen, where the items lived. We decided against this design in the end because you couldn’t really tell at a glance what items you had unless you went to mouseover them, which defeats the purpose of having an easily accessible row of icons on the main screen. And it didn’t even save very much space, maybe 16 pixels in all. And it was annoying.

Moral: If you use icons, show the icons. The only information which should be hidden should be information that is not needed at a glance.

The Insane Vortex of UI Redesign


[Posted to the Gaslamp Games blog.]

This wouldn’t be Gaslamp if we didn’t completely redo a major game system once a week.
And this wouldn’t be the ongoing Dungeons of Dredmor beta if we didn’t completely redo between three and five major game systems every week!

Let’s talk about UI redesign.

Here’s the main game UI in Dredmor 0.4:

(Click on any of these images to view at full size.)

Not so bad, right? Rather archaic and clunky, perhaps. But the clunky UI has what we might call character.

I think that the defining feature of Dredmor is not elegant gameplay, great graphics, or cutting-edge technology — it is character: zaniness, a weird ‘take’ on everything. We reference Doom, Diablo, and Ultima with the UI, and I imagine people who understand Dredmor are people who have nostalgia for those old games. And this old thing is finally getting to a useful place with the auto-loading of starting skills and the keyboard hotkey number implemented.

Still, the UI has been problematic and it does look old. I’m quite torn on the issue of revising it, but we’ve had some ideas kicking around and after arguing with Daniel which ended with me coming around to possibly trying a new model for the UI, we started in on The Madness. They key idea is to improve skills interactivity, to make them easy and intuitive to use by having skills act more like items and, at the same time, to have items act a little more rationally. (For example, if you’re standing back and merrily shooting a cluster of enemies with a crossbow and you fail to notice that you’ve run out of bolts, your next click on an enemy will cause you to walk over into the group of enemies … which is exactly where you don’t want to be, presumably because you were off with a crossbow doing crossbow things because you’ve wanted to avoid melee combat.)

A lot of that is about the coded interactivity of the objects. Weird things are happening in the next patch; it takes some getting used to the new metaphor for interacting with skills, objects, and the new, combined quick-use bar, but I think it’s working. And I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to the visuals: How could we redo the UI to be sleek and efficient, to use the new skills-as-items model? I drew some quick sketches.

I must admit, I actually drew these in reverse order, from 5 to 1, and 1 is based on a very rough sketch that Daniel sent me (by taking a picture of a drawing on paper, of all things). I rather like the top one with the Diablo-style health and mana orbs because it retains the character portrait box and goes with the rather radical move of making major UI elements like the quests, inventory, and skills accessible only through items (which we’d make very, very sure the player could not lose.)

As either a conservative or intermediate step, who knows, I quickly adapted the old UI to the one quickbar model, based on a charming sketch by our dashing lead programmer, Nicholas. [He’ll probably hate me for showing the world his drawing, but I thought it was so adorable that I had to save it … with multiple backups.]

I quite like how the statue on the left has grown a beard in his interpretation.

Here, then, is a mockup of the new minimalistic game UI and then a first draft’s implementation which is in the working code and will likely be released in some form or another with beta version 0.6. This is just the visuals; Interaction is changing a lot as well, but implementation of that is more Daniel’s domain.

It’s quite a change, and it does lose something of the character of the old UI — and the portrait is cut entirely out, but then I didn’t look forward to drawing 28 of those. Hopefully we make up for this loss with some very interesting gains in other areas of the game … which is a subject that shall have to wait to be discussion until another day.

The Interaction Problem


[Originally posted to the Gaslamp Games blog.]

Oh playtesting, how you tear down my illusions, besiege the fortress of my ego then poison its well and set fire to its stores of grain.

Fig. 1: The good part of Dredmor’s interactivity.

It is shocking just how surely a player will ignore tutorial text. The help button is effectively invisible, ignored, the text left sad and unread. Whatever it is, the “go away” button is clicked via Skinnerian response to years of training at ignoring inane popups. Yes, Nicholas passed me a link (or possibly a newer one) to Jeff Atwood writing on the subject when this issue of the tutorials being completely ignored came up, and it got me thinking.

Fig 2. The bad. Don’t ask why it says “Axe” on that lightbulb.

We’ve got issues

1: We need some kind of hook to get people to notice the tutorials, some way of breaking them out of the usual ignore-tutorials behaviour. I’m thinking of replacing the starting text dialog pop-up with an informative one-panel mini-comic which points to the tutorial button and the skill bar, which should be what people absolutely pay attention to. Everyone love comics, right? Or maybe it’s that people really hate lightbulbs.

2. We need to make our interface more intuitive, or at least cover the intuitive expectations a player makes of our UI; A player should not really need to read the tutorial if they’re familiar with common UI schemes of games in and around this genre.

3. Absolutely no one has understood using the skill tome and skill bar without being explicitly told how to do so. You have to open the skill tome with the skill button at the bottom of the screen, then drag appropriate skill icon to the skill bar at the lower right of the screen. Then you must left click to select a skill in the bar, and with a skill selected right click to use the skill. Possibly on an appropriate target.

Fig 3. The ugly.

Actually, that whole process of readying skills to use sounds confusing when I write it out. I don’t think we noticed lots of things like this because we’ve been trapped in a bubble staring at our work for over a year. (So this is how MOO3 happened! That and a pushy publisher, which is a problem we’re lucky enough not to have. Ahem.)

On the other hand, there are interactivity schemes I’ve noticed people take to almost immediately. Pointing and clicking to move around and use things is something everyone seems to know. The first thing players do is start walking around and clicking on vases to break them, on enemies to attack them, then on items to get them – and when the item is attached to the cursor, it is intuitively dropped into a slot in the inventory bar.

Let’s look at Fig.1 again:

I notice now that we’ve been mixing metaphors with game object interaction: Why do skills not work like items? Everyone understands how items work in Dredmor with little trouble, can we not let a player ‘pick up’ and use skill icon instances the same way we let them use items? This demands baseless conjecture and rash experimentation. I have notified the relevant authorities.


Fig 4. The weird.

No one at all has asked me about this little section of the interface and I don’t really know why; From all I can tell no one has even noticed it exists.

UI design boggles the mind.

Dredmor : UI art tweaking


I should probably write an intro to what-is-Dredmor for this blog, but … it is what it is. But okay: it’s a somewhat roguelike game that I’ve been working on with a couple guys from Victoria for way too long. We’re called Gaslamp Games. We hope to get the game finished ASAP. I have no idea if it is something anyone is going to be interested in paying actual money for, but I’m hoping that it is weird enough to make an impression with whoever it is one is meant to make impressions on.

I’m doing the art for the game (being that I’m an artist), though — to make it more interesting? — I came to this project last October with the art direction mostly set and the animated sprites already complete. I’ve redone all the tilesets, item sprites, and UI, making what difference I can. These screenshots are some UI finalization and polishing, along with a new feature or two; I’ll discuss what’s going on in each.

On this screen the player chooses seven skills to make their character. (The skill pictures are cute aren’t they? I had fun.) Little changed here but for the UI receiving some polish to replace rough layout-boxes with in-theme parchment and stone. And, if you like, here are some earlier shots of the same screen:

Then you choose your name. This screen could use Back and Done buttons and the text could be centered, but it’s looking to be almost there. And here particularly you can see the background painting I had a lot of fun drawing. It’s typical me painting: strong colors and thick, dark blacks.

Finally our hero appears in-game! A comparison to some posts I made on my GameDev journal will show how far things have come.

A note on the life/mana bars: I had quantized the life and mana as hearts and stars, respectively, so that the player could keep easy track of how they were faring. Problem is, the game does not count life in units from one to nine — it’s really some crazy number that changes based on your level and other factors, so what the bar shows is what percent of your total hitpoints you have. It’s more appropriate as a continuous meter than a line of icons.

There’s also a Doom-style animated portrait in the bottom-center (which needs to have its art finalized). I always thought that character’s face in Doom was charming when he gave that big grin after finding the shotgun and I felt all icky when he was hurt and dripping blood everywhere. So my thought was that we could make the character come to life a bit more, connect more with the player of the game, if he had a little emotive face that could react to the gameplay.

I don’t know when Dredmor is going to come out, but I’ll definitely be shilling for it more with nice pictures before release.