Don’t Make Me Fight Your Interface

Like all forms of media, from oil paintings to rock music, video games been through a variety of periods. We saw the platformer period in the late 80s, when Mario took the stage. We saw the boom of 3D adventure games in the late 90s, as developers explored that extra dimension. We’ve been riding a surge of open-world games since the mid-2000s. And in the past few years we’ve seen a new format appear: Online Multiplayer Survival.

We can talk about whether it makes sense to have mammoths and utaraptors in the same world. We can talk about whether or not your character’s dingledang really needs to be sculpted in that much detail. But what makes or breaks your survival game isn't the lush fauna or high-poly peens. It's the interface.

The core consideration when developing an inventory interface for a multiplayer survival game is usability. Speed is the key. How quickly can players learn to use the interface? How quickly can they find what they’re looking for, and transfer the item into the right box? You can't pause multiplayer. While looking into their rucksack, your players are unable to pay attention to the game world. The unspoken culture within these games is one of hostility: it’s better to wipe out the competition early. If one player sees another in a vulnerable spot, there will be blood. 

Ark: Survival Evolved is a game about taming dinosaurs. You get berries, punch a dino ‘til it passes out, feed it until it forgives you, and then you have a lifelong friend! It’s a neato system for a neato game. But for the longest time the interface has been downright awful. It was updated last week, and things are looking up. But the old one has been burned into my mind, and before it fades I want to discuss it. There's a lot that we can learn from it.

The first issue was just how much there was to see. Press ‘I’ on the keyboard, and you saw a screen crammed with information. There were your inventory items, your quick item slots, your equipped clothing, your personal stats, a bunch of environmental information, and a lot of links to other screens, like the tribe manager.

I appreciated the intention - it was a screen where a massive amount of information could be reviewed immediately. The issue is that players rarely need immediate access to all of this stuff. When depositing or withdrawing items from a storage box, for instance, players only need to know:

  1. What they’re carrying.

  2. What’s in the storage box.

  3. How much more weight they can carry.

Filling the screen to the brim with unnecessary information limited the amount of space available for individual elements, and compromises had to be made. The most troublesome of these compromises was that the Inventory Items section had a scrollbar in it. Don’t put scrollbars in your inventory. When a sabre-toothed motherfucker is trying to break down the front door, and players are looking for a weapon, they need to be able to see their entire inventory at a glance. Making them scroll results in them losing valuable time. Their chances of survival (in your survival game) are being reduced because they’re battling the flaws of your interface. Keep it simple. Strip it down. Hide the bits players don’t need access to right now, and prioritise the bits they do. No scroll bars allowed.

Another issue with the old interface was the sheer amount of text. Humans have been using icons for millenia. A cave-painting of a deer doesn’t really look like a deer. It’s just a splodge with antlers on it. But it represents a deer, and we get that. In the context of a game interface, a tiny picture of a chicken drumstick with a number beside it means ‘hunger.’ The majority of people who see this will understand it, and those who don’t will figure it out after a few minute’s gameplay. People are good at figuring things out.

And here lies the core fault of the old Ark interface: players weren’t trusted to be smart. Everything was over-explained. Too much text was crammed into an already bloated screen, to the point where it was genuinely difficult to read. Let’s look at the Inventory Items section again.

Boxes represented items. There was a picture that could have done a great job of representing the item - it wasn’t obscured by text. The weight is listed in big text, as is the icon’s type. If the object name was too long, it actually overlapped other text, making it impossible to decipher in a hurry. 

The core question when developing an interface is: ‘do players need to see this information right now?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ then put the information somewhere else. Another good question is ‘can I use an icon instead of text?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ then do it! The more stuff you can put in a box that only appears when players right-click or hover their mouse over the menu element, the better.

The sign of a good survival game interface is how much time players spend not using it. As a developer you have to give it attention. Polish it. Tailor it to your game. Make it simple and easy to use. You owe it to your players (and your product) to make the entire experience a joy. 

Ark's recent interface update addressed some of the issues above. Other issues… not so much. Join me next week for an in-depth look at some of the changes as I discuss how the new interface compares with those of other big-name survival games. Between now and then, let me know: what’s the worst interface you’ve ever seen? What’s the best? Extra points if you mention Giants: Citizen Kabuto.