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Etherea: Dark Genesis
Chat bubbles coming to POTBS E-mail
Thursday, 24 January 2008
With his latest Dev Blog, Fraxl of FLS shares with us an interesting list of UI changes planned to be introduced with one of the next Pirates of the Burning Sea patches. And chat bubbles and society tools are just a couple of items from the list.




I am so excited to write this devlog. It’s been a long time since I introduced myself and explained what we do in the “Lab Within the Lab” and I’ve been itching to report back on the exciting things we’ve been working on since.

Building an MMO is not a simple task. It’s a lot more complicated than you think, even if you think it’s really complicated. At any given point in the development of the game, there are thousands of individual tasks of varying sizes to be completed. Deciding which tasks get done, when and by whom is not an easy job, to say the least. Up on the third floor, where designers and developers dwell, they have a way of discussing this sort of decision. I don’t think I’ll be letting out any proprietary secrets by passing it on here.

Basically, it’s like puppies. Puppies, like sexy new features, are something just about everybody loves. I mean, seriously:

But imagine now, that you have 100 puppies… and they’re running around, out of control. Maybe you can catch 10 puppies, but you definitely can’t grab all of them at once. Similarly, you might have 100 excellent ideas you could work on today, all of which would make the game better. There’s no way in the world that all 100 of those ideas can be implemented at once, so what to do?

For a while now, we’ve been so focused on launch that a lot of ideas had to be put off in favor of more life-and-death issues. We figured that you would all prefer to have a game client that rarely crashed rather than have chat bubbles at launch. Similarly, we thought server stability outweighed the importance of being able to make your avatar sit in a chair. We caught some rottweiler puppies and had to let some poodles escape, basically.

Luckily, unlike puppies, game features don’t run away. They keep pretty well, especially when we have our players reminding us about them all the time. We’re obviously still going to be interested in those life-and-death issues post-launch. Our focus on them has paid off so well, however, that now we can move some resources over to other great ideas. You’re going to see a lot of positive changes coming in the near future… some of which I get to tell you about now.

After reading countless forum posts and observing tons of playtests, one place we know needs some special attention is the user interface (or UI, for short). The UI includes all the buttons and boxes that let you control your ship and your avatar and all the things that let you communicate in game. Pretty much anything that lets you interact with the game world can be categorized as UI. It’s a system that has grown somewhat organically over the years as the other major game systems have been changed and improved. It’s still evolving, too.

To help the UI along, an elite “strike team” has been created. I’m on it, along with artist Kevin Loza, developer Mike Byron and Sharon Evans from QA. To enable us to work faster and be more responsive, we’ve actually moved all our desks to the same area in the office. This way, we can work out the details of the UI from start to finish without having to run up flights of stairs all the time. We even have a couch so FLS staff from other teams can jump in to help as they’re needed.

We have a big list of improvements to tackle in the long term posted on a corkboard above the couch, next to a chart of our progress so far. Topping that list is social tools, which we’re working on now. After that part is done, we’ll look at grouping controls and mission lists, maps, camera behavior, auction house/economy controls and UI customization.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – it’s too early to go into detail about those other areas just yet. Right now we’re working on social tools, which is a pretty broad label encompassing many different elements. Hashing out what changes need to be made and in what order is, again, a little like saving puppies. Player feedback from the forums and playtests, along with our own brilliant ideas, leave us with way more than 100 good ideas, but we have to make choices and prioritize. This is how we do it.

First, we create a list of really good ideas for improving the current “chunk” in focus. Those ideas are broken down into tasks that fulfill some player need. The tasks are written out on cards (or sticky notes) and tacked up on a wall where everybody can see them. Eventually, once all the cards are up, the amount of work it’ll take to complete the new/better feature is estimated and added to the cards.

Once that’s done we look at how much time we actually have before our next patch is scheduled for release. We pull the cards that are the highest priority and stick them up somewhere else until we have tasks that fill up all the time we have. This is what the wall looks like after all those high-priority tasks are moved away:

Actually, that’s only part of the wall. There are a lot of cards… and they’re not as cute as puppies. These leftover cards won’t languish forever (or escape, for that matter) – they just have to wait to be included in a future patch.

So, I bet you’re wondering what cards made it into the “do it now” stack this time. I’m reluctant to share too many details because there’s always some uncertainty involved in a project like this… but here are some highlights:

  • Chat bubbles (and the option to turn them off)
  • Floating player names (also toggle-able)
  • Re-organization of chat channels and tabs to reduce spam
  • Streamlined chat input and output
  • New chat box and tab art
  • Improved LFG system
  • Improved society and friends list controls

As this stuff is being worked on, I’ll be gathering more feedback from all of you about the stuff we’ll be tackling next. One way I’ll do this is by asking questions in the fancy new Playability Lab forum. I may post prototypes of new features up there too, for you to give very early feedback. And of course, I’ll continue to invite local players to test out these UI improvements, as well as other new parts of the game (like “Bey’s Retreat,” the repeatable epic group mission, which is so exciting that it might require another devlog).

It would be awesome if these changes were received with unanimous approval, but I’m sure some of you will disagree with the choices we’ve made and the priorities we’ve set. By shedding a little light on the process we go through to make improvements, I hope you’ll see that we really do try to design with your feedback in mind. There’s more to come, too, so if we didn’t address your biggest gripe in this round, there’s still hope! Keep playing and keep the comments coming.

PS- Yes, that is my puppy up there. Like a feature that has been fully implemented, here he is, all grown up.


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