Whether you agree with World of Warcraft’s approach to interface design or not, it’s hard to deny that it’s a fascinating case study. It’s a game that was released with a broken interface, one that was very decidedly not the optimal way to experience the game… with the expectation that players would develop a better one (which could then be pinched by the developers to improve the core experience).
This is pretty unusual now, and it was almost unheard of back in the day. But WildStar is going down the same road of having UI mods and addons in from day one, and it’s one of the places that I think taking lessons from World of Warcraft would not only be prudent but downright smart.
Including UI modding from launch means that WildStar will have the opportunity to tread down familiar paths. But some of those paths are familiarly awful, and so perhaps the developers could learn some lessons from those who have made these mistakes before. So let’s look at the good, the bad, and how we can perhaps get more of the former than the latter.
Making this space your own
Some of my friends think that I don’t like mods or addons, which is the exact opposite of the truth. The fact of the matter is that I love the idea that a game will let you play through the whole thing in any fashion you want. Everyone plays differently, and the fact that many games embrace the idea that everyone will want a different interface is a good thing in my eyes.
UI addons at the best of times allow you to fine-tune your interface to exactly what you need and nothing that you don’t. If you’re not interested in raiding, raiding elements are a disadvantage for you. If you’re not concerned with PvP, you don’t need PvP-specific elements. Find that you’re bad about managing cooldowns? Get something that shows them more prominently. The best addons don’t fix broken parts of the core system; they expand for additional functions that you feel are necessary even though other people might not care about them.
Even if you’re not as interested in using a lot of addons, you still benefit because addons show what the community considers important, which can be relevant further on down the line. The idea that games should have built-in threat gauges came because people made addons to manage just that. So even if you’re not interested in the hassle, everyone winds up with a better overall game.
…at the price of convenience
Here’s the main reason people think I’m not fond of addons: They’re entirely dependent upon the good will of the publisher, the talents of the creators, and occasionally just blind luck. That is to say, they’re annoying.
You know what makes modding a uniquely awesome experience? When a patch completely breaks the entire way you play the game without warning or reason. After you spent time tweaking things just right, the addons suddenly don’t work quite right, and all you can do is wait until a patch comes out for the mod so that everything is compatible again. Assuming, of course, that the patch ever comes, since these are unpaid fan projects and sometimes the people in charge just get bored.
Or then there are the times that a pair of addons won’t work nicely with one another, meaning you have to search for something that will play nicely with whichever mod is more of a requirement for your playstyle. And that’s not counting the irritation involved in hunting the things down in the first place, often requiring a slog through poorly organized databases and a lot of addons claiming to do the same thing or claiming to do something completely incomprehensible.
And that’s disregarding the addons that are actively toxic. Some mods promote an attitude that isn’t healthy or welcoming, which is bad. Others produce a strict gameplay advantage that forces developers to either alter the functionality to break a mod or forces them to design around that advantage. The problem is that these can easily slip in without warning, and before you know it your game has become a much smaller and less pleasant place.
This, then, is the trouble with addons. For all their benefits and potential awesomeness, there are a lot of mods that have left a bad taste in player mouths and a lot of associated problems. So what’s to be done?
Making a full-time effort
A lot of what happens with these additions is out of the hands of the developers, of course. They can’t be held responsible for what fans do with their own projects. But what they can do is provide some succor for the players, and they can start by having an active hand in the modding community.
I’m not suggesting that every addon for the game be fully vetted and approved by Carbine Studios, as that’s more or less impossible. What I am suggesting is that the developers could at least work with major third-party sites and developers to make sure that finding and updating addons is easy and manageable. Providing a guiding hand might be out of the question, but providing a gently steering hand is another story.
If Carbine wanted to get really novel, they could actually do the work necessary to provide players with some sort of backend support so that downloading and updated addons could be done easily through the client. Allowing player developers an easy way to update for patches would be great, and allowing players a chance to just download and go without logging back and forth would certainly make the process more convenient as a whole.
This does result in a lot of extra effort for the community team, but it also results in what I would hope is a stronger overall environment. I think that balances out.
Feedback is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I’m going to be chewing on reveals from SDCC on Friday, so I’m just earmarking for that.