World War UI

I don’t read game manuals.

I should qualify: I don’t read manuals for games first. After I’ve been using a program for a while, sure, I might look up a specific task in the manual. Or if I’m truly obsessed with the game, I might read it later, for recreation (really, everyone should keep a copy of the manual for Dominions 3 in their bathroom). But I never read a game manual before actually trying the game out.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this behavior. That leads me to a very simple conclusion: if I can’t figure out how to play your game without the manual, it is a bad game.

This topic comes up today because I have recently been playing two games in the same genre, by the same company, that offer two completely different user interface experiences. One of them was reasonably intuitive and self- documenting. The other was a whirling nightmare of incomprehensibility. Guess which one I liked?

The company in question is the Strategic Studies Group (SSG), and the games are Carriers at War and Battlefront, both published by Matrix Games.

SSG is an Australian wargame developer with a storied history. They made some of the most well-loved wargames for the Apple ][ and other 8-bit microcomputers. In other words, they’re a company with a history of making grognard games. As such, I have a tendency to want to give them a pass on UI issues. That tendency must be sought out and destroyed: I wouldn’t cut BMW any slack if they started manufacturing a horse- drawn buggy, either.

First, some definitions. “Good UI” doesn’t mean “has pretty graphics,” although those who don’t understand UI design often think it does. It simply means that the user can sit down in front of the UI and easily discover how to work the damn thing. The Infocom text adventures, for example, have a perfectly transparent UI, despite their lack of visual glitz.

Carriers at War has a good UI. Battlefront has an abysmal UI. Both are simulations of World War II-era warfare. Carriers at War is a task group level game focused primarily on aircraft carriers, locating a hidden enemy, and executing air strikes. Battlefront is a battalion level game focused on strategic manuevers, bombardment, and close combat.

Each games has a different turn system, but neither is real-time. How did these two games end up having such widely divergent user interfaces?

User interface is largely concerned with three questions:


Find the button!

I’ve long been an advocate for games that use standard UI elements (“UI element”, here, is a fancy way of saying “button”). I have learned to accept that I am in a tiny minority on this issue. Most people are perfectly happy to use decorative buttons, and in most cases it doesn’t really matter. Frequently, however, developers make games that prove my point; Battlefront is one. The main UI is an interface composed of innumerable controls and displays. I found it completely impossible to determine which elements were buttons from simply looking at them. The tooltips don’t help, because they don’t exist. The in-game manual doesn’t help, because it doesn’t exist. The in-game tutorial doesn’t help, because it doesn’t exist. Even if you know what buttons to press, you immediate run into the next problem, which is that the game does a terrible job of answering the “What the hell just happened?” question.

There’s a strain of thought that says that games with poor UIs are necessarily complex. They have so many buttons and controls, the theory goes, because they are intended for smart people, like me. You know. A guy with a huge brain and a gigantic penis. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s got nothing to do with the potency of one’s brain, or other body parts. It’s simply that the guy who has free time to spend on a game with a poor UI is the guy who has nothing better to do with his life.


CAW: Buttons!

I went into Carriers at War wth some trepidation, afraid I’d encounter the same sort of muddled design that Battlefront suffered from. That turned out not to be the case; CAW is fairly straightforward, and succeeds where Battlefront fails on multiple levels. There is an in-game tutorial, so right off the bat the game is already miles ahead of its sibling. Secondly, a little more thought went into the design. Buttons look like buttons, and readouts look like readouts. I haven’t found myself hopelessly clicking on something that turns out to not actually be a control in CAW.

The upshot of this is that Carriers of War has been a fairly engrossing experience for me. Instead of forcing me to focus on the vagaries of its user interface, the game invites you to think of things in strategic terms. Instead of thinking “How do I move this task group closer towards Wake Island?” I’m thinking “Where has Admiral Nagumo deployed his carriers? And has he found mine yet?” That’s what a good UI accomplishes. It allows you to focus on the things that matter, instead of the things that don’t. Good UI can help save an otherwise marginal game. Bad UI can annihilate an otherwise good game. Please, please, please, developers: make having a straightforward user interface one of your top priorities. Your customers – and your bottom line – will thank you.

Hornet gets torpedoed

Hornet torpedoed

UI isn’t only about control, but about feedback. Consider the way combat is resolved in our two games. In Battlefront, when you attack, you see a couple of dice roll, and a line in a little table is highlighted. What the various abbreviations on that line mean is not at all obvious. in Carriers at War, there is a brief animation of planes flying over some ships, dropping bombs or torpedoes. When a bomb or torpedo hits, there is an explosion. When a plane is shot down by chaff, it explodes. So Carriers at War actually makes the answer to the question “What the hell just happened?” fairly obvious.

One aspect of Carriers that it accomplishes grandly is playing the “What if?” game. The included scenarios – Pearl Harbor, Midway, Wake Island, Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz, and Phillipine Sea – cover the breadth of the war in the Pacific. A number of the scenarios also have variants (for example, a version of Pearl Harbor where the US was expecting the attack). The game drives home exactly to what extent warfare in this era was about information. It’s impossible to play as the Japanese in Midway, for example, and not be aware that there are three American carriers out there, somewhere, looking for you. Needless to say, this can lead to dramatically different outcomes than were seen historically.

My summary: if you like naval combat games – and let’s be clear, I do – then Carriers at War is a slam-dunk. It’s easy to get started, and provides enough depth to encourage many, many replays. In contrast, I’d have a hard time recommending Battlefront to even the most experienced wargamer. Its tragic interface is simply too intrusive. Where it should sit back and let you enjoy the game, it is instead interposing itself between you and fun.

Both games run under Microsoft Windows.

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