I’ve recently made brief return forays into 3 games’ Free Trials: EQ1, EQ2 and WoW. WoW has certainly changed in ways I wouldn’t have expected – there is a little more substance to levelling up but the divides between expansions are jagged and harsh; at level 58 player lore is “dump every frickin’ quest you have and go to Outland (Burning Crusade), and then repeat at 68 when you can go to Northrend (Lich King)”. EverQuest 1 was unrecognizable to me while EQ2 just didn’t quite look the way I remembered it.
What surprised me was which game I chose to play, and my gut tells me it came down to one simple thing: Looks.
Warcraft has a bad rap amongst long-time MMOers as being “the cartoon game”. Yes, the olde Azeroth zones are cartoonish; but there’s a strategy there I think. The more closely you try to replicate perfection the more cues you give the human eye to detect the imperfections. WoWs art avoids straight lines and accurate depictions allowing your eye to generalize. EverQuest two uses more accurate details and as a result it can be easier to notice that curves aren’t curved but are a series of straight shapes. Where EQ2 tries to draw an arch with 16 angles that are mathematically precise, WoW clubs in 2 or 4 lines artistically and which when you don’t focus on the arch directly will perturb your perception less.
In the expansions, they’ve used more polys and past experience and while the styling is somewhat the same, the zones look better and better. In the Lich King zones the artwork is quite impressive and, I am surprised to say, out does EQ2 – instead of expending their polys on the details of individual items they have a great population which in turn softens the brains focus and gives – am I really saying this – a greater suspension of belief!
But that’s still not it.
My half hour in EQ1 left me asking one question: Has anyone from Sony tried this? The EQ1 free trial is awful. You log in to a screen full of windows. Pet windows, bard windows, caster windows, every single window that the UI has to offer is on-screen. I was left feeling lost and confused. The important stuff that would have guided me thru the tutorial was obscured by clutter; key windows were sized poorly so that details weren’t available (I could tell all kinds of things about my first quest except what it was because the quest journal window is sized so that you can see when the quest was arrived, when it was completed, what type of quest and other details, but the actual quest name itself was beyond the edge of the window).
And everything on screen looked like lazy coder art. There was no finesse to the UI. I concluded that you are expected to download a custom UI and that SOE has declared UI-artwork SEP (Someone Elses Problem).
I retreated in haste, not wanting my old memories of EQ1 tarnished.
So I played some more Warcraft. Clearly, Blizzard have learned from the addons people built and have implemented some of the more popular features themselves. I was surprised, however, to discover that Warcraft is now actually relatively “hardcore” when it comes to questing: you aren’t given a bullet-pointed list of quest steps or GPS co-ordinates for quest steps or anything. The mini-map will show you !s for quest givers and ?s for quest turn ins nearby but that’s all (why is it not ? for someone asking you to do a quest and ! for someone you have finished?)
But the default UI does at least have solid, pleasant artwork.
I seem to recall the EQ2 UI being of comparible ilk. I was quite shocked then to find it is a mundane, bland treatment. Simple yellow lines, blue backgrounds. It looks, yet again, like coder art – not quite so lazy. Unfortuantely for me, I also ran into a bug: when I logged in it presented me with several windows including one asking if I wanted to load an old characters UI settings. When I said yes, the UI refreshed but without the quest window I was being offered (a free trial quest: reach level 20 in 14 days). This quest window was now lost to me and as a result I couldn’t take any new quests until I relogged. Fortunate that I figure it might be that and relogged instead of just quitting.
EQ2 would have been easier to re-figure out if the tool-tips were more obvious or were explained to you. Piling them up several at a time would help too – especially since they did so out of order.
Is the UI treatment really important?
Think about this for a moment: The game is behind the UI. A sloppy or lackluster UI treatment sits infront of your game world and even once it retreats to your peripheral vision, it still affects how you focus on the game world beyond it. When I turned off the EQ2 UI and ran around for a while, the game world quickly started to sit better with my eye, but then I turned it back on again and it started to look more like one of those amateur, freebie MMOs that are floating around at the moment.
I was starting to figure that Sony just don’t have the ability… And then I tried Legends of Norath.
EQ2 UI (Left) vs Legends UI (middle) vs WoW’s default UI (someone elses screenshot):
Clearly Sony has some kick-ass UI artists. They just aren’t interested in tasking them with making EQ1 or EQ2 playable :( Or perhaps they’re just all working on the in-game trading card game engine instead.
I haven’t spent a great deal of time back in EQ2, but I’m finding it chafing a little:
– Bland, lackluster UI makes the game feel neglected,
– The fae characters we’re playing have no footfall/movement sounds leaving it a very disembodied experience,
– Click fest – I’ve forgotten all the handy shortcuts that are tucked away someplace like fast looting,
– Frame rates are down from last time I played, despite having stepped up my vid card by 2 generations, bumped my RAM from 1Gb DDR -> 4Gb->DDR2 1200, and gone from a 1.8Ghz single core to a 2.6Ghz dual core.
The in-game voice-chat though … very nice. Clearly someone enjoyed implementing that as it’s very nicely done.
“You can talk” and “Right, and Battleground Europe is the pinnacle of UI look and feel”: Yes, valid comments. I’m not writing this oblivious to the fact that BE is not sex-on-legs in terms of its UI. If you’re smarter than the average bear you’ll understand that and understand that. It’s a rare week when I don’t complain about the fact that our loading screen can’t manage to put the progress bar in the progress bar holder, or when I don’t remind someone that for some reason our texture loading system and our texture rendering system sometimes have problems sizing correctly so that you see stray pixels – which are actually the other edge of the texture being wrapped.