Wednesday, January 10, 2007

How Strunk and White #13 Applies to Guild Wars

The other day I mentioned in passing that although skill icons were beautiful art they were, in fact, rather poorly designed because they don't tell you what a skill does at a glance.

Let's look again at the icon of a skill I pointed out – the moan-inducing Avatar of Melandru (Sorry, still haven't found a highres version):

It's one of my favorites, at the moment - even though I just happened to pick it out at random. I could go on and on about the graphical beauty of the design there. How the use of placement forces the cooler elements into sharp relief while causing everything to glow with an inner light – an excellent use of the Dervish colors of bright orange and dark blue. And how the lines within the composition draw the eye past the beckoning, almost accusatory gaze of the figure in the foreground and towards the obscured, washed out figure in the background – almost seeming to shimmer away into nothingness yet still framed by the brilliant orange outline around it. In other words, pretty. It doesn't however, tell me what's going to happen when I use the skill. Not if I haven't seen it used before. If I have then I know the figure in the background looks like what my character will when I assume that different form – that's the Avatar of Melandru I'll become. I don't recognize the character dominating the left-most portion of the canvas, so to speak, but I'm going to guess it's some NPC that's a Dervish and would be recognizably so to someone more familiar with the lore or the concept art than I am (Which, you know, I pay attention to it but I don't go crazy about it or anything. Could possibly be a picture of the goddess Melandru but it doesn't look quite like the one's I've seen. Nor does it really look like any of the "name" Dervish NPCs. Judging from the other pictures I'd go with a representation of the goddess. Either way, same point really.). So, the image depicted is a rather subtle allusion to a Dervish transitioning into a godly incarnation. Doesn't tell me anything about being immune to Conditions or gaining extra health, though (Although there are clues to that, read on and see if you can't figure out what they are.), though. So although it's a very well done icon, I think it's getting too clever for its own good.

This is, I think, an example of what I like to call the "achievement effect". Basically, when you get a bunch of artistic designers together what they'll do is continually try and top each other. When one of them comes up with something brilliant that becomes the standard everyone else aspires to and they won't consider their own artwork an achievement until they pass that point. That becomes the new benchmark and so on. The quality of the product being churned out improves, certainly, but unfortunately artistic concerns aren't always design ones. And what makes something work as a piece of art don't necessarily mean it's going to fit into the larger work that is the modern video game production. There needs to be someone there to keep the creative types in check and on task. That's, I'd think, the game's producer or lead designer but, what, really do they know about visual design? Probably not a whole lot. But, then, what do the graphic designers who produce the art assets know about how people are actually going to play the game? Again, probably not a whole lot. Because a modern game, especially an MMO (Even an MMO-lite like Guild Wars that's basically a multiplayer CRPG like Diablo or Baldur's Gate.) is a very complex product with so many moving parts that no one person can hope to understand it all. So, unless care's taken you get stovepiping where the different parts that go into making a game turn out work that's meeting their own requirements but when assembled together doesn't quite meet the goal of having a game people will want to play.

Not that Guild Wars isn't a game I want to play or anything, I'm just theorizing. But what I'd think should happen in a game like Guild Wars where you have an ever-growing list of skills and special effects that now stands at over 1000 and will only grow with each expansion (By my count, there'll be 400 new skills, nearly a third of which will be elite skills, come the the next expansion - 75 for two new classes plus 25 for everyone before that. 450 for chapter 4. 500 for chapter 5. And so on. We'll be at 3k in no time that way.). That's 1000 things that players will need to recognize and respond to. So, it seems to me that a major goal of the design of everything about them would be easy recognition.

That's not quite so easy to do when you have 1000 different items, of course, because that means each one has to be distinctive enough to stand out from the pack. But each skill has a different icon and skills in the same line have similar casting effects and all the rest. So, at some level, the designers understand the importance of having players know what they're using and what's being used against them. I just don't think it goes far enough, for the most part.

Take, for counter-example, how Assassin skill names work. That was one of the nicer elements of the previous expansion, I thought. But, basically, there are certain words that, if they appear in the name of an Assassin's skill, you can figure out what that skill does. If it says "Black" it's dealing with hexes. "Golden" means enchanted. "Lotus" means you'll gain energy. So, knowing there was a "Golden Lotus Strike" last time around that would give you energy if you hit a target while enchanted it's easy for me to figure out that "Black Lotus Strike" will do something similar but only if the target is hexed.

Simple, efficient, and it communicates the purpose and mechanics of the skills in an elegant way. Might not provide the exact damage and duration or anything but the gist of things is there at a glance. You can go through the Assassin list and pick out a lot of these words and, from them, determine what the skills are doing (Except, don't bother because someone's already done it for you.).

Similar things happen with Warrior skills, especially the attacks. If you've got a "Chop" you know you're dealing with an axe skill. "Bash" and you've got a hammer. "Slash" and you're talking about a sword. If it says "Strike" you can't be certain what kind of weapon but you at least know it's a melee attack. Anything that says "Shot" and you know you're dealing with a bow attack and that's a different profession.

Contrast that with how the Monk skill list uses "Mend" or "Mending". It's either a way of providing regeneration or it takes care of conditions. It gets muddled, in other words, and lacks a distinctive, consistent meaning. So, coming back to the game when I see "Mending Touch" I have no idea what that skill does until I can actually look at the description. But if there'd been a little more discipline on the part of whoever decides the skill names that wouldn't be a problem.

My point would be that sometimes it's better to get a little clunky for the good of the game. Simpler, easier to read skill icons and names might not be very rewarding for the people who dream up such things and work hard to make them. But they'd provide a lot more benefit to the players and people who use them. Because they won't just look nice they'll work. And that efficiency has an elegance all its own.

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