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Interfacing with Star Trek Online - A UI Discussion with Cryptic Studios

Posted Mon, Nov 23, 2009 by B. de la Durantaye

A fundamental key to making a good MMOG is its User Interface. A poorly fashioned interface will make it hard to enjoy a game, no matter what its other assets, and a good UI will be almost transparent as users start up the game for the first time and begin taking control, almost without thinking about it. We spoke this week to Amy Skopik, UI Designer for Star Trek Online and Craig Zinkievich, Executive Producer to unveil some of the challenges and innovation of STO's interface.


Ten Ton Hammer: Is the interface set up in a similar fashion to other games? Will players be able to jump right in and have a pretty good idea as to how things work from any previous MMO experience they may have?


Amy Skopik: We’ve tried to make people be able to leverage their experience playing a lot of other MMOs. Like it or not, games like WoW have set a standard in terms of basics and how you interact. We’ve tried to make that as comfortable as possible.

That being said, there are some things you can do that are rather unique to Star Trek. We’ve had to figure out a way to make the UI available and as intuitive as possible for those types of controls as well.

Ten Ton Hammer: So the sorts of commands players are used to are there? Such as “R” for reply, “B” or “I” for inventory?

Amy: Yes. We’ve tried to make the defaults as standard as possible. Of course, there’s always the ability to customize your keybinds as well. So if you’re more familiar with First Person Shooter controls, you can remap the keybinds to use those instead.

Craig Zinkievich: I think the only thing that is slightly different and kind of throws a wrench into it every now and then, is that there really is two control schemes. There’s ground, which is pretty straight forward. We have a really good feel for that. It’s a lot like the MMOs that we’ve done before. But then space is a little different. It is 3D so “W” and “S” end up pitching your ship as opposed to moving you forwards and backwards. So there are some things that we’ve changed up there as well, but we’ve got it refined by watching people play and see how they approach it, and added certain mouse controls that players expected when they sit down to the keyboard to try to make that a little easier.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will the community be able to mod or add on to the interface?

Amy: We have a way to rearrange HUD elements and resize some of them to make it fit your screen resolution and aspect ratio. At launch, we’re not going to have the ability to load in your own UI, no.

Craig: Our UI scripting language is proprietary and internal. It is really powerful and eventually we may release it to the players to allow them to play around with it but not at launch.

Ten Ton Hammer: Let’s talk a little about the Fleet Management tool. Can players assign different and custom ranks to fleet members?

Craig: For the most part our fleets have all the basic things that you would expect, like banks, being able to add ranks, do calendars. In addition to that you’ll be able to define your fleet uniforms. So for the different ranks you can assign different uniforms. You can define the fleet logo that shows up on your ship in addition to the normal guild features.

Ten Ton Hammer: Is there a field for comments and notes in the fleet tool?

Amy: In the current design, not for everyone right now, but if you are an officer you can put in news or a message of the day; things like that that your other fleet members will see.

Ten Ton Hammer: How do players start missions and episodes through the UI? Do they get a multiple choice when talking to NPCs?

Craig: We deliver you content in a bunch of different ways. You can always contact Starfleet through a button that’s always on your UI. Starfleet will always give you a list of things that you can do to make sure that you always have some sort of directive game play. You don’t ever run into a time when you won’t know what to do and just go kill mobs.

That being said, just travelling through the universe you’re going to get hails from Starfleet telling you that there’s a problem. You’re going to get distress calls. Maybe you’re going into a system for exploration content and you don’t actually get the mission until you’re in the system and you see what’s going on. So in terms of getting your missions and quests, they come to you in all sorts of different ways throughout the game.

Ten Ton Hammer: How do you switch between weapons in ground combat?

Amy: It’s hotkeyed. You have a primary and a secondary weapon that you can switch between with a single click or a single key press.

Ten Ton Hammer: What about the social tools in the UI? Is it easy to find and add friends; find specific players; look for a group?

Craig: I think with an MMO you’re constantly adding things in order to make that stuff easier. The friends list is really as in your face as we can get it – making sure that you can see their status, where they are, and what they’re doing. Adding people to that list is as easy as possible too.

Looking For Group - we’re constantly making improvements to. I think one of the things that we’ve done in the game that really helps that is that the game is heavily instanced, but it also feels very persistent. Internally we call it our “Open Instancing.” For example, the Federation may tell me that they’ve received a distress call from a ship and they are sending me there to help out. I end up going there; I’m helping that ship; I go into that system. This episode that I’ve entered is a five-man instanced episode, but I’m playing solo tonight. If someone else has that same mission and they enter the door right around the same time that I do and I haven’t advanced the episode at all yet; they end up in the same instance that I’m in. We end up teamed together. I’m going to run into people doing the same sort of content. So we really try to funnel grouping as often as possible.

You can turn Open Instancing off if you don’t like it, but for the most part, it works really well and it makes all of these small episodic instances feel like persistent locations.

Amy: For game play, it’s really like two ships have responded to the same distress call. You’ve both heard it and you’re both trying to help at the same time, so you see each other.

Ten Ton Hammer: Does the game have integrated voice communications?

Craig: That will end up being third-party. We have found, for the PC at least, that people use what they like. They’re going to use their vent server; they’re going to use the server that their guild has set up. A built in solution ends up serving a very small portion of the populace.

Ten Ton Hammer: What sort of challenges have you faced with designing the UI?

Amy: So far it’s just been the sheer number of controls. In space combat, for example, we’ve implemented sub-system targeting, where you can specifically target an enemy’s shields or engine, or auxiliary batteries. So keeping track of other people doing that to your ship, and the status of you doing that to other ships can get very dense, visually. Trying to keep that as simple as possible without losing any of the functionality has been a real challenge. As well, there’s power balances for four different categories that you have to balance to increase the effectiveness or your weapons and engines. Then each of your bridge officers has their own powers that they can bring to the table as well during combat, and that’s true of ground and space. So there’s a lot of management going on, and we try to design to make sure it’s at least playable on a 1024x768 screen. So getting all of that information and trying not to overwhelm people, and trying to have it so they don’t play the game through a tiny visible slit in the middle of the screen has been really interesting.

It’s a good exercise to remind us all to keep it as simple as possible. You could just throw everything on the screen. Of course, the more we play it, the more familiar we get with the controls and the easier it is to lose sight of the fact that most people aren’t going to have experience with the controls. We need to keep it accessible to people that have never played an MMO before, possibly; possibly never even played a computer game before.

Ten Ton Hammer: Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers about the UI?

Amy: We’ve really tried to balance the feel of the IP with the reality of making a game, and making an MMO in particular. It’s been a balancing act. Of course with the movies no one actually has to use the screen, but making them as a usable interface has been really fun. I think we’ve done a really good job. I hope everyone gives it a try.

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