Immersion in the 3D World
As I was playing Star Wars the Old Republic and running around the world, a growing discontent had me thinking about two stories. In one story, my friend Bob described to me his World of Warcraft healing set up once he added all his add-ons for raiding. In his description he has add-ons that basically display his entire raid as a big grid on his screen, and he simply hovers over a raid member and presses an ability key to cast a curative or healing ability on that person. In contrast, just after that discussion my friend Jesse described to me his experiences with a later iteration of Fallout, where a lot of the interface short cuts are non-existent and the enemies have long fields of vision so he had to watch the 3D world screen very carefully and constantly scan for enemies and resources.
Both of these experiences involved the design of a game's interaction with the 3D world.
As I play more and more games, I am becoming an evangelist for 3D immersion. I want a game, its controls, and its interface elements to draw me into the 3D world and reward me for watching the actual 3D environment and its characters rather than shuffling information off into side panels, side interfaces, or even HUD read outs overlayed on top of the screen. As I examine the design of games I play I find more and more that the games that are most memorable not only have a rich color palette in its vistas and characters but they have a set of interfaces that draw my eyes into that vista rather than away from it.
This discussion came to a head when I was running through one of the SWTOR zones and my attention was taken away from the game because of a trifling real life matter like having to eat or a similar silliness. When I went back to the game I was struck by a completely unfamiliar landscape. As I blinked and looked at the screen I realized that since reaching this planet I had pretty much only watched the map overlay so I could run my speeder to the quest dots, and the minimap so I could see where crafting nodes were.
In Star Wars the Old Republic once you defeat a creature it sometimes has loot. The visual indicator for a creature with loot is a ground glow under the creature that extends as a beam of light straight up and out of sight. This glow effect has different colors for different types of loot. If you see the purple loot glow you immediately get this ping of excitement knowing that epic loot has dropped. (Hey it turned out to be a Diplomacy mission but you're still happy, right? Right?)
In contrast, instead of using this mechanic for crafting nodes these nodes instead have a subtle glow and appear on your mini-map as dots. This mechanic immediately draws your eyes away from the screen to fixate on the blue and black mini-map for a majority of your travel time. Not only does this interface force you to keep your eyes off the 3D world, but it completely takes away any reason to scan the environment or search the nooks and crannies of the landscape.
Imagine if SWTOR had used the loot indicator for available nodes instead of the mini-map. That one change would mean that people speeding through the outdoor areas would be constantly scanning their camera looking for the beams of light. This would not only draw the player back into 3D world but it would greatly increase the feel of searching for resources rather than the run to the dot and click exercise they have now. I think the element that makes this work is the fact that the glow extends way up into the sky; as I travel and scan I can see the position of nodes hidden behind trees and small objects by looking up to the sky for the tops of the light beams. Although this certainly makes gathering resources less efficient I believe this would add to game immersion and thus make the game areas more memorable.
Going back to Bob's healing set up, my dislike of the set up is not that healing is easier or more efficient. My problem with a game that allows or requires this set up is that its existence basically destroys the player's immersion in the 3D world. A player using a set up like this is no longer participating in the shared experience of the 3D environment. Instead they are performing in their private isolated mini-game, looking at the screen only long enough to get out of the fire.
(Edit: This is by no means a dig at Bob or players that use set ups like this. I have no issue with that playstyle nor do I in any way think less of the person using them. I am only using it as an example of something that interferes with immersion in the 3D environment.)
Compare this to the Tidy Plates tanking add-on. Tidy Plates essentially re-organizes the health plates above each enemy so they don't stack on top of each other and so health, cast bars, and threat appear in each bar. Since they don't constantly shuffle around it makes it much easier to click a target to regain threat with a Taunt or Shield Slam. The beauty of this add on (as compared to the healing set up) is that my eyes are drawn *into* the 3D world instead of away from it. Yes, the plates can get a little busy in situations where the screen is crowded with enemies but the plates exist in the 3D world instead of on a side panel. I don't have to take my eyes off the 3D world to "play tanking tetris" like I might if I was selecting enemies based on a threat meter on a side panel.
(I find it ironic that one of the few add-ons that World of Warcraft squashed was was a Boss mod that placed 3D elements into the world to show you where to go and what to do. The was one of the few useful add-ons that drew a player into the 3D world instead of onto side panels, and was one of the few add-ons that WoW explicitly killed off.)
More and more I am thinking about how to create interfaces that bring me back into the 3D world instead of away from it. Let's take the simple example of "whack a mole" abilities. I use this term to refer to "proc" abilities that light up when certain conditions are met, like Overpower for warriors. It's not an ability that lights up in response to something you do, but rather an ability that lights up based on something that happens externally. If your character gets multiple abilities like this your DPS task becomes rather like the "whack-a-mole" arcade game because you are hitting the buttons as they light up.
Anyway, the reason I don't like whack-a-mole abilities when I play is because they are by definition unpredictable, and therefore I have to take my eyes out of the 3D world and watch my ability bar for them to light up. World of Warcraft addresses this, as an option, by firing red floating text when an ability becomes available. This is an improvement, but it still takes my eyes out of the 3D world to focus on the flat text overlay, and reminds me that the game essentially exists on a 2D plane where the text scrolls by. A better solution for me is to either use an add on that fires off a distinctive noise when one of these abilities lights up, or make the indicator something that appears within the 3D world so I am rewarded for keeping my eye on the action. If an indicator appeared over my character's head within the 3D world, for example, that would draw my attention into the environment better than scrolling text. I would even go so far as to suggest a graphical particle effect on my character, but most of the MMOs I play are already too busy with various particle effects and the indicator would likely just get washed out.
One of the worse offenders of this phenomenon is the quest finder. Many modern MMOs throw quest dots or lit areas on your 2D world map to show you where to go to find a quest objective. Before you cut me let me say that I too love this addition when I am in a goal oriented frame of mind. The prospect of killing my experience gain because I spend 30 minutes wandering around trying to figure out where the questing happens is maddening to me as well. In looking to improve on this, however, I think I'd like to see interface set ups that pull this off the flat 2D map and put it into the world.
In City of Heroes when you select a quest a marker appears in the 3D world with a distance readout telling you how to get to the mission door. This works fairly well. I know where I need to go, but I don't take my eyes off the 3D world to get there. Sometimes I will reach a space close to the marker and I will have to explore to actually reach it. I feel this adds to the game, even though my XP efficiency is occasionally compromised by the search.
For World of Warcraft, I would much rather see something like this. Another option would be a "Go Arrow" interface where the arrow turned within the 3D world to lead me to the quest objective rather than throwing dots on the 2D map. I can also envision a system where the beam of light particle effect I described earlier (which is already used for festival quests to search for elders and get coins) appears in the 3D world at each quest area, so I can scan the sky and horizon and decide where to go by looking into the 3D world rather than popping open a 2D map and spending the majority of my travel time looking at that. This would work particularly well with WoW because a lot of your higher level travel is done with flying mounts so the beam of light particle would be very distinctive.
As server-client technology improves, I hear a lot of talk about FPSMMOs and how awesome they are. Although FPS is generally not my thing, I suspect that one reason these are so compelling is that they are extremely good (if they are designed well) and drawing the player into the 3D world rather than focusing on panels that live outside of it.