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

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. 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.

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. style="font-weight: bold;">




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?




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src="http://www.tentonhammer.com/image/view/77081/preview"
align="right">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?
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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?
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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?




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src="http://www.tentonhammer.com/image/view/77079/preview" align="left">
style="font-weight: bold;">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?




href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/77080"> style="border: 0px solid ; width: 250px; height: 140px;" alt=""
src="http://www.tentonhammer.com/image/view/77080/preview"
align="right">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?
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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?
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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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